Do You Speak Kid?

The importance of nonverbal communication

Teaching Techniques / The Basics //

There have been times I wish the education children’s ministry workers received included the course KID COM 101. The course description would be something like this.

KID COM 101: Fundamentals of communicating with kids. Students will relearn the skills required to effectively communicate with children through classroom lecture and work group interactive study. The goal is to allow adults to effectively communicate the love of Christ to kids of all ages.

I’ve been involved with children’s and youth ministry for over 35 years. During that time, I always wondered why some workers were so good with children and why some were just …well … terrible. It took many years of prayer, observation and the study of child development before God revealed to me this bit of wisdom.

Please remember there is a huge difference between knowledge and wisdom. Knowledge is what you get for yourself, for example by going to school. Wisdom comes only from God. “For the LORD gives wisdom; from His mouth come knowledge and understanding” (Proverbs 2:6). “But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him” (James 1:5).

With the difference between knowledge and wisdom in mind, the knowledge you gain from education is just a tool. You need the wisdom from God to use that tool. We gain the knowledge, and the Spirit shows us how to use that knowledge.

Here is the wisdom God allowed me to see and understand. Children are nonverbal communicators. We all know that on an intuitive level, but we choose to ignore this fact. Let’s start with a newborn baby. It’s a universal truth that all adults understand how to communicate with a baby. Watch the toughest man you know when he talks to a baby. First, he will position himself face to face with the baby. Next is the smile … not a fake weak smile but a big genuine smile. Then, you’ll see the head movements; he’ll turn his head side to side and up and down in various combinations followed by the “baby talk.” The tone and the pitch of his voice go up and the volume is moderate. What’s all that? It’s nonverbal (not lingual) communication.

What is he saying to that baby? I love you. You’re safe. You are valuable. You are accepted. Is the baby understanding the words being said? No! The baby can only understand the nonverbal parts of this interaction. Is the baby receiving this communication? To know the answer to that just watch the baby. How did the baby respond? Was there laughter, baby talk, cooing? Were arms and legs moving? All nonverbal responses. If you know what to look for you’ll know if the message was received.

On some intuitive level we all seem to know that children are nonverbal communicators, so why do we as adults always fall into full verbal communication when teaching, disciplining or leading children? The reason is simple. We have grown up and put away childish things. 1 Corinthians 13:11 is God’s perfect description of the problem, “When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things.”

We all did away with childish things and now that you and I are in children’s ministry, we need to get back to some of those childish things. We seem to think that just because a child can speak that they understand what we’re saying on an adult level. Even into the junior and senior high ages, children do not understand most of what is being said to them. They need the nonverbal message to match the verbal message. The younger the age group, the more important this verbal to nonverbal message consistency becomes.

Our job in children’s ministry is to help children meet Christ. If we don’t speak their language, we’re not giving them the good news of the gospel. We need to remember only ten percent of our verbal message is getting through. It’s like having a conversation on a cell phone with a bad connection. You sound like the teacher from Charlie Brown’s class: “Wha wha wha wha wha whaa Jesus. Wha whaaa wha wa wha God!”

Only some of what you want to say is getting through. So, are you really proclaiming God’s Word like He led you to or are you talking to yourself and the children hear this message that makes no sense to them? So, where does this leave us? As adults, we must learn what we once knew—how to be a nonverbal communicator. This is just like learning a foreign language, but because we once knew the language, it should come much easier to us.

You have to be genuine. If you enjoy working in children’s ministry, it will show in your nonverbal communication and the children will react positively. The same holds true that if you do not enjoy children’s ministry, your nonverbal communications will say this loud and clear to the children. You’ll send a mixed message and most of the children will “listen” to your nonverbal, negative message.

Presently, I am working with about sixty-five 1st – 4th grade children. As I stated earlier, the key to know if the baby is getting the message you are trying to communicate is to watch the baby and read the responses. The key to knowing if you are sending mixed messages to the children in your ministry is to watch the children and read their responses. Adults tend to do the things they like, instead of thinking about what the kids like and respond to. One of our workers wanted all the children to have scripture cards and recite scriptures as a group along with taking the cards home for memorization. The idea sounds good, but there were mixed messages sent by this individual and the children reacted to the nonverbal. There was very little class participation, but the adults doing this part of the lesson thought it was great. They were not reading the class correctly.

Now let’s discuss some practical ways you can improve and coordinate your nonverbal communication skills. First, think of how you communicate with a baby. The ideas are the same with infants, toddlers, elementary, and teens. Smile, and make it a real smile. I know you have a world of responsibilities, issues and work on your mind, but you have to push that all aside for the children. There are major phone sales and service companies that train their employees to smile BEFORE they answer the phone. The fact here is that your feelings will follow your actions. There is a difference in the employee’s voice if they smile before they answer the phone. A genuine smile not only sends a positive message to a child, but it will help you feel and act more positively.

The second is to get face to face. I’m tall, so there are many times when I get down on one knee to talk to children. When you get face to face, they sense that they have all of your attention. There have been times when I was speaking with a child and our senior pastor came into the children’s church. I was aware, but he had to wait until the child was finished communicating with me. Because I didn’t walk away from the child before the conversation was over in order to address the pastor, that child knew they were important and that I valued them.

The tone of your voice is important. If you are carrying your cares around with you, it will come through in the tone of your voice. I can’t stress this enough. You have to leave your problems and issues at the door or these will come out in your nonverbal message. Before I speak to any of the kids, I think how much God loves them and how privileged I am to be allowed to communicate Christ’s love. That thought changes the whole way I sound and act. Just like the employees who have to talk to customers on the phone are trained to smile, I think of the responsibility God has given me; my issues aren’t as important and I don’t want them to come out in the tone of my voice.

The last thing is touch. Only appropriate touch! We do not promote hugs or picking up children when they are older than the nursery or toddler departments. Some of our workers have developed their own special way to communicate by touch. A man on the team pulls ponytails … well, not really … he just lightly holds the tail and gives it a wiggle so the girl knows he has touched her head. The girls will line up for him to “pull” their tails. This is a great form of affirmation that does not require a single word. A woman working with our 5th and 6th grade children has developed secret handshakes for each of the grades. This is a girls-only thing and consists of hand slaps, fist bumps, hair flips, hand waves and hip bumps in assorted combinations. Nonverbal touch that affirms each child in an appropriate way is very important.

The best thing to do is practice, practice, and then practice some more. Work on improving your nonverbal communication skills and you’ll see a difference in your effectiveness in children’s ministry.






About the Author

Larry Fink has been working in children's ministry for over 35 years with teens down to toddlers … just long enough to know that he doesn’t know enough.