This series is co-written by Linda Ranson Jacobs and Wayne Stocks.
Choice and the Child of Divorce
For the child of divorce, it is important to allow them to make choices. Choices empower a child who feels like everything is out of their control. Most of us, as parents and children’s ministry leaders, agree that kids shouldn’t make major decisions about their lives. However, for the child of divorce, whose very life has been interrupted by the crisis of divorce, it is different than for a child who has a loving mother and father in the home. Children of divorce feel powerless and vulnerable during and after their parents have separated.
For many children of divorce not only have they lost the comfort of a loving home and family, they may have lost both parents to the divorce war. While having distracted parents may be temporary until the divorce battle has been waged and settled, it is none-the-less very disturbing to the child. Children need adults they can trust to help them navigate through a crisis and the very adults they need are the ones that have caused the crisis.
Choices are different than making a decision because a decision is something that one chooses or makes up his or her mind about after they consider all of the choices. For children of divorce, the adults in their lives have already made the decisions about their life and to the child there doesn’t seem to be any choices left.
Decisions that have been made for the child of divorce might include:
Who I get to live with.
How much time I get to spend at the other parent’s home. I really miss my other parent and I want to spend more time with them.
Moving to a new neighborhood without my other parent being a part of my life.
Moving to a new school and having to leave all my old friends behind.
The fact that I don’t get to see my other grandparents and cousins as much as before the divorce.
Having to drop all after school activities.
Having to face the long afternoon by myself after school.
Since the list above can be endless for the child of divorce, you can understand why they would feel helpless in most areas of their lives. Giving them choices, and permission to have some control over their lives, allows them hope during the time of crisis. Keep in mind that for many children the disruption of their family and adjusting to divorce will go on for many years.
How We Incorporated Choices into Divorce Care for Kids
In DC4K, DivorceCare for Kids, we accommodate the need to make choices in several ways. First of all, I encourage the leaders to be aware of the need to make choices. Every child that enters the class has made a choice to attend. They may not have made it willingly, but they have made a choice. Simply by calling attention to the fact the child came through the door goes a long way. Saying something like, “Hey Suzi, you made the choice to come to DC4K today. Wa-Hoo you did it!” is a great way to acknowledge that choice as you move them into choosing how they want to be greeted.
We also encourage all leaders to develop a way to let the kids choose how they want to be greeted. In one of my DC4K groups we had a chart with five choices on how the kids wanted to be greeted along with how to indicate their choice. The choices included Handshake, High Five, Fist Bump, Hug and I Don’t Want To Be Touched.
After the greeting, and upon entering the group, one of the first choices is to look at the Herby’s Feeling Chart and post a note with their name on it on the feeling face that most represents how they feel. The freedom to really express their true feelings to a trusting adult is very empowering for many children. Some kids will go and move their post it note as their feelings change during the session. Others will remove their post it note at the end of the session before their parent arrives.
Stations (more on the station concept in future posts)
Since divorced parents are emotionally overwrought, and some are barely surviving, the kids will “drift” into DC4K. In other words, rarely do the kids all enter the room at the same time. Some will be early because their parent can’t wait to get to DivorceCare to talk and socialize about their week. Others will run horribly late as they try to maneuver jobs, baby sitters, traffic and life in general.
Stations, or small areas of activities, are set up to allow the child who has been rushed through several environments from early morning and throughout the day until they arrive at DC4K. Some of these kids will have gotten up at home as early as 5:00 a.m. taken to a relative or friends home until before school care opens. From before school care they go to school and after school back to child care or a different after school care club and then possibly picked up by the other parent, friend or relative and brought to DC4K.
Some kids will want to get right into activities while others will need an opportunity to socialize at the snack station. Some kids will want to express themselves through the arts or crafts. Others might want to connect at the Activity Book station while others will want to be alone and just sit back, relax and journal their feelings. By allowing children to enter and choose a small station children don’t feel embarrassed by being late yet again.
In the middle of the session there is a second station or small group time. New arts, crafts, snacks and other activities are set up. Even choosing how many stations one wants to do is a choice. Some children will only make it through a couple of stations while other children will choose to take part in all of the stations set up.
Children who contribute to their environment feel more connected. In DC4K every child is encouraged sign up for a job. Job descriptions are posted so the child is fully aware of what they are expected to do.
Activities that do not give children a choice
While the children have many choices in DC4K, there are some things that are not choices. However, even within these activities, there are still choices that the child can make.
Sitting in circle time is required but how you participate can be a choice.
Listening to the story is not a choice but how you position yourself is a choice. In my group you can sit, grab a blanket or a pillow, not both and only one kid to a blanket is allowed. You can lean up against a wall, lean on a teacher, or recline back on a pillow.
Participating during the music or movement is not a choice but singing or not singing is a choice; moving, stretching or standing still are choices.
Every DC4K group is different. In one church I was in, our DC4K class used the adult choir room. After each session everything had to be put away. All items on the wall had to be filed. Tables had to be taken down, stored and adult chairs lined up; music stand set up and the piano uncovered. The kids in our group had a choice of how or if they wanted to help the leaders after DC4K. Most kids wanted to stay and participate in “setting up the choir room”.
Suggestions for Allowing for Choices in a Traditional Children’s Ministry Setting
Many traditional children’s ministry classes are larger than a DC4K class, it may seem almost impossible to ensure that children are given choices. However, if you are intentional about building choices into your normal routine, you can accommodate these children of divorce. And, frankly, choices aren’t a bad thing for any child, they are just absolutely essential for children of divorce.
Let’s think about a typical large group/small group format (which many churches are using these days). If your church uses a different format, you can likely adapt these suggestions to your format as well. Here are some ideas for allowing choices:
1. Greeting Time: In our ministry, we start about 5 minutes after “adult church,” and kids usually start to show up about 20 minutes before. That is their free time. We do have some basic safety rules (kids aren’t allowed to run or leave the room), but other than those they are free to choose to do what they want. Some kids want to chat with their friends, some want to interact with their leaders, and most want to grab something out of the game cabinet and play. Even within the game cabinet, we have choices. There are games, things to build with, things to be creative with. There are things to do with other children and solo activities. There are games which require some intelligence and some games which do not. There are physical activities (like Twister) and less physical activities (like checkers). For those 5 or 25 minutes, the kids are in control (within reason) and get to choose what they want to do.
2. Prayer Time: As leaders in the children’s ministry, we gather before the service to pray for our time together for the day’s lesson. If a child wants to, they are welcome to choose to be part of that prayer circle.
3. Large Group Time: This tends to be one of those times where it seems unlikely, or unwise, to give kids any choices, but you still can. Let kids pick who they want to sit with. This doesn’t mean you can’t separate those two kids who seem to “feed off” one another and cause problems, but give them the initial choice. In terms of children of divorce, this also helps with siblings who might feel like they need to be near their older or younger sibling.
4. Small Group Time: Small Group should be a time ripe with discipleship and relationship building. As such, the opportunity to afford children choices should come naturally. If you have multiple small groups, you might give the child a choice about which group they want to be a part of. I would discourage bouncing them from one group to another and this will mimic the bouncing around that they do in their family life. Within small groups, give children a choice of activities. Assign them jobs within your small group. For example, one child can be in charge of passing our crayons, another can keep track of prayer requests, another can be in charge of collecting offering and so on and so on.
5. Leaving Time: Like Greeting Time, Leaving Time can be a chance for the children in your ministry to make some more choices. Would they like some more small group time? Would they like some time to interact with one another and chat? Don’t feel like you have to structure every second of the time they are in your ministry. That is, of course, valuable time, but sometimes the most value can be found in those unstructured moments that kids choose.
6. Jobs: In addition to small group jobs, there are all other types of jobs in your ministry that children can do to feel like they have power over something. Let one child assist in running the check in system. Have a group of children who help set up the large group teaching. Get kids involved in the large group presentation. Have a child who is in charge of making sure all small groups get the supplies and materials they need. Have one child who helps take attendance. Let some kids assist in the sound booth. Have children be score keepers for any games. The opportunities to give kids choices about how they will contribute to your ministry are limited only by your imagination.
7. Special Ministry Opportunities: In addition to normal weekly opportunities, you can create other special opportunities for these kids to serve. For example, my church has a kids’ worship team that helps with worship music during the large group. They meet once every other week to go over songs and motions and, as far as I can tell, have a really good time. Keep in mind though as you plan these events that many children of divorce may not be able to attend due to custody arrangements, etc. Nonetheless, they do represent an additional choice for the child of divorce.