“Mom, did you know that one time Ms. Sandra had a real live moose in her house?”
“Hey mom, Miss Amy and Mr. Adam told me we are going to make snow globes when they come over next! Real snow globes!”
“Mom, isn’t it so funny when Miss Jenilee always shouts ‘Holla!’ when she is excited? What does that even mean?”
These are some of the conversations I have with my children about their friendships with adults outside of our family. They are fun little stories and tid-bits that reflect real relationship and investment into their lives.
We are one of the few families in our area that is blessed to have extended family living nearby. It is a rarity in Washington DC where most people are transplants. Our kids have aunties and uncles and teenage cousins that treat them like royalty and slip them candy whenever we aren’t looking. But we also have this rich community of non-family members that have made connections with our kids. My husband and I often comment at the depth of our gratitude for the adults that have taken an interest in our kids. It is a great source of encouragement, as a parent, to have other people come to know and love our children and speak life into them. We value the investment and look for opportunities to cultivate it.
We have Mr. Adam and Ms. Amy, a sweet married couple excited to start a family of their own. In the meantime, they pour all sorts of love onto our kids, taking them on adventures to the zoo and the park and out to pizza. We had Ms. Sandra who moved to DC on temporary assignment with her husband and was missing her grandkids so badly that she adopted ours as her own. Many of the Bible stories that our kids know come from the skits she created with them or the pop-up art projects they did together. The younger staff and volunteers that we work with at our church ask our kids to jump in and serve alongside them on Sundays, invite themselves over to play Legos or Barbies, and show up at their school performances. They are like big sisters and brothers, and their biggest fans.
A couple of years ago, we hosted Chap Clark, co-author of the book Sticky Faith, to speak to parents at our church. As a long-time researcher of youth and family ministry, Chap shared that for years, youth ministers have used the 5:1 ratio as a goal in youth ministry—one adult for every five kids. But, he proposed, what if we flipped that and aimed to have five adults for every one child? He explained that 40-50% of church-going young people are stepping away from their faith because they haven’t had the opportunity to see an authentic faith lived out in the life of adults they trust and admire.
So, Chap encouraged parents to invite adults with shared values to invest in the lives of their kids. I am often asked by other parents how to do this. Parents are eager to encourage these relationships but don’t know how to begin. Here are my best recommendations for how to get started.
Make an invitation already! Just start somewhere! Invite a college student to dinner. Share with that grandma from church that your daughter has been wanting to learn to sew, and ask if she might come over and teach her a few things. When you plan your son’s birthday party, ask a couple of teens or singles if they would come and help run games. Ask a newly married couple to take your kids to the movies, offering to cover the cost of tickets. Just start somewhere and see what happens!
Recognize it is not luck. My husband and I often hear that we are “lucky” to have these folks in our lives. We would never disregard that all of our rich relationships are a gift. But we were purposeful in allowing these friends to have space in our lives. It takes effort and intentionality to invite others into the life of your family. Make a plan and take intentional steps to help your kids make a connection.
Say yes when others take a step to engage. You might not realize it, but you may have passed up opportunities for relationship without intending to. When someone offers to babysit so you can get a night out, don’t hesitate to take them up on the offer. If someone expresses an interest in something that interests your child, consider that a clue to an area in which they could connect. Remember that some people might have an interest in connecting with your family and might be dropping hints because they don’t know where to begin either.
Embrace the awkward. Yes, it will feel a bit funny at first. You are likely at different life stages than this person you are inviting in, so hunt a little for ways to connect. I sometimes feel lame inviting a young person over for movie night because surely they have better things to do on a Friday night. It can also be awkward or embarrassing to allow someone into your home and see the dirty dishes and the laundry piling up. Commit to pushing through the awkward stage to get to the fruit of real relationship.
Realize that relationship is a two way street. Parents have this bad habit of feeling sheepish if anyone extends help in our parenting journey. But, remember, you have something to share too. Family life offers a great comfort to someone who is single or an empty nester. Invite someone to share in your home-cooked meal. Be available to lend a listening ear about a job change or hurdles in a young marriage. Remember that you have something to give as well.
Be an investor yourself. Just because you are a parent yourself does not mean you are off the hook to be an influencer in the life of young people outside of your family. I attend plenty of musicals and sporting events to be a “super fan” for some young people in my life. Though it can feel like my hands are full with my own kids, I don’t want to miss the opportunity to make a connection with a young person who might share my interest in playing water sports, making silly videos, or decorating cookies.
Taking steps to invite healthy influencers into the lives of your children will ensure support and investment you trust. You will give them an opportunity to see an authentic faith lived out in the lives of someone they admire. And, as a bonus, you will show your kids that you believe they are worth knowing.