Nurturing children of all ages

Elsa Marshall


If there’s one thing teachers and their church family can agree on, it’s that everyone wants the children to thrive.

Positive teaching/mentoring may sound like “a nice idea,” but it is also grounded in the scientific study of healthy development. In order for kids to thrive and succeed, research suggests a three-pronged approach: a focus on each child, a focus on mentoring, and a focus on church family strengths.

What Research Tells Us about Positive, Quality Teaching/Mentoring

Research on mentoring/teaching styles offers three major categories: authoritarian (which focuses on rules and strictness), permissive (which may be either neglectful or rich in love, but lax in rules), and authoritative (which is both loving and firm). Teachers/Mentors are most effective when they adopt the loving, firm authoritative style.

There are many ways for each mentor/teacher to create a firm and loving balance within a classroom. Search Institute researchers have found that kids who experience high levels of foundational assets (which include involvement in a faith community and spending time with their peers from their church) are more likely to have:

  • higher self-esteem;
  • more social skills;
  • more friends;
  • higher achievement in school
  • fewer problems with alcohol, smoking and teenage sexual activity

While teachers/mentors have a role in their child’s development, so do parents, child-care centers, neighbors, before- and after-school activities, congregations, and communities. Being an authoritative teacher/mentor doesn’t mean you have to figure everything out all by yourself. In fact, connecting with other caring mentors/teachers will make your skills stronger.  As a teacher/mentor, you can help their child discover their spark, and watch this unique characteristic develop over time. 

One way to put your children and youth on the path toward thriving is to help them discover their spark – that thing that makes them light up from inside.  Jesus said we are to shine our light and not hide it under a bushel.  

Some Tips...

  • Find opportunities to comment on activities a child/ren seem to really enjoy. After noting that they seemed particularly happy or engaged by the activity, tell them you are interested in finding out what they most enjoyed about it. Then listen.  Finish with a brief prayer thanking God for this special activity and the child/children’s fun in it.
  • Spend some time reflecting on the activities that gave you joy when you were the age of your children. Share some stories about those activities with them. Finish with a brief prayer thanking God for being able to share your joys.
  • Make it a priority to spend some classroom time every few weeks talking about how you have engaged with your spark – or spend some time exploring possible spark areas together. Finish with a brief prayer thanking God for this special time together.  
  • Encourage other adults and members of your church family to share stories about their own sparks and how they discovered them. Comment on how some of these people have sparks similar to yours, while others have sparks that are quite different than your own. Share how that enriches your life.  Finish with a brief prayer thanking God for sparks and friends.
  • Ask your child/ren to share about their friends sparks. Show your interest in their responses. Discuss and encourage activities that help your child/ren and his or her friends develop their sparks.
  • Finish with a brief prayer thanking God for the activity and the children who shared their friend’s sparks.

Parents with children ages birth to 5

  • Create a safe but interesting environment for them to explore. Do they have opportunities for physical activity and movement? Blocks they can stack and assemble? Crayons, finger paints and paper? Music ? Picture books on a wide variety of topics? Playing with your child gives you a great opportunity to revisit some of these activities for yourself as well. Did you have more fun than you expected with the finger painting or the blocks? Make a mental note of what you enjoyed.
  • Watch what activities your kids gravitate toward. You can pick up some early clues about possible sparks. Some children will enjoy sampling lots of activities. Others may find comfort in repeating familiar ones. That can be another clue to their preferences.
  • Encourage role playing and conversations about what they want to be when they grow up. Today they might want to play school with you and be the teacher. Tomorrow they might want to line all their stuffed toys up to have their shots as they play doctor. Encourage them to talk to you about what they are doing.

For parents with children ages 6–9

  • At school, your child will have classmates who share common interests and classmates with very different interests. Note whether she selects friends that are mostly interested in the same activity, or has friends with many different sparks. Be aware that sometimes friendships shift as interests shift –or that your child might drop an interest and adopt the same interest as someone new that they admire. What sparks do your friends have?
  • If your child struggles with reading or does not read for pleasure, use his emerging spark as a way to help him select reading materials that will keep him engaged. Remember that pleasure reading can include magazines, cook books, books on crafts and other materials that help him explore his deepest interests. Model reading a variety of materials tied to your own sparks.
  • Children this age enjoy stories about themselves when they were younger. Remind her of activities she loved when she was “little”, noting whether you see her interested in something similar or different now that she is “older.”

For parents with children ages 10–15

  • Sometimes your child will show an interest in some activity, almost to the exclusion of all others. While focused attention can lead to mastery over time, you can also talk with him about finding a balance between the one activity he most wants to do, and the other responsibilities he has at school and at home.
  • As your child goes through these years, it is easy to think that now, while she is engaged in her activities, you can have some time for yourself. While finding time for yourself is important, make time to show up for games, performances and other events is a tangible way to show her you love her. Do you happen to have the same spark as your child? Find ways to engage in it together.
  • If your child begins to develop skills in a particular activity, it is easy to become invested in his continued interest and success. If his interests shift, you may have to make a conscious effort not to be overly invested in the activity he leaves behind. At the same time, not quitting mid-season and fulfilling commitments to teammates is another important lesson. Learning how and when to make graceful transitions between activities and friendships is a part of learning and growing.

For parents with children ages 16–18

  • Your teenager will be thinking and making decisions about choices after high school. It can be easy to tell her that her love of art isn’t practical or that few high school athletes make the transition to professional athlete. For too many young people, this feels like a message to drop their spark completely, even if the intent is to protect them from some future disappointment. Use questions more than statements. Ask them what they would love to do in the future. Help them find information about how to pursue their strongest interests. Find adults in their chosen career field who can offer strategic advice. Use school guidance counselors and other resources to help with these conversations.
  • Our advice to our teenagers at this stage can be colored by our own experiences. Reflect on the messages adults gave you about pursuing your spark, and the choices you have made over the years. Think about which of your experiences you are willing to share with your teen.
  • Teens can be stressed by all the demands on their time. While school work and other commitments need to be a priority, help your teen make time to enjoy their spark. Model this by finding time to pursue your spark as well.
  • If your child has opportunities to find and engage in something they absolutely love to do, then, whether that spark changes over time or remains the same, they will know what it feels like to be deeply engaged and can aim toward that deep level of engagement as they move forward. This is the path toward thriving.


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