I truly do believe non-parents can be amazing children's ministry leaders. But if I could go back and give advice to myself as a kidmin leader in my pre-parent days, here are a few things I would tell myself . . .
1. Don’t make judgements – about crying babies, or kids who throw tantrums, or parents’ decisions. It's easy to see a child throwing a tantrum in the nursery and think "Gosh, that parent must never leave their kid. Maybe if they came to church more regularly, their baby wouldn't cry like that," or see a three year old disobeying and think "Maybe if they disciplined more, their three year old wouldn't do that." Or see a parent ignore a behavior you think should be disciplined. As a parent, I know my ten month old who comes to church every week could go into the nursery happily one week, and crying the next, or my three year old could have a meltdown because he's tired, or I could choose to "pick my battles." Parents already feel guilt and anxiety over many things. We don't need judgements-- we need empathy, understanding and support.
2. Take safety and security as seriously as possible (and bend the other rules a little more). The number one thing parents want from a children's ministry is to know their kids are safe. They want the volunteers to ask for the pick-up sticker at pick-up time, to always enforce bathroom safety policies, to not allow random adults in the room with the kids, and to background check every volunteer.
But some of the "non-safety" related policies can slide a little, and that's ok. If a children's ministry doesn't allow toys from home in the classroom, and my three year old is having one of those days when he'll have a meltdown if he has to be without his Lightning McQueen car, I want a kidmin leader who will say "That's ok, bring it in with you!" There were times in the past when I held so tightly to non-essential policies and refused to make exceptions, when a little flexibility would have been totally fine. The only policies you shouldn't ever bend on are the safety ones; all the others can be a little flexible if needed.
3. Give grace to parents. Give grace to the parents who walk in 25 minutes late to the service. Welcome them and don't make them feel it's an inconvenience that they're late or that you're judging them. I've learned that even if you're ready to leave the house on time, you could have a diaper blowout, or a meltdown as you're getting your toddler dressed, or a lost shoe, or any number of things out of your control as a parent. Give grace to parents who forget to label the sippy cup or send a change of clothes for a potty accident. Go the extra mile and be prepared with extra labels and extra clothes so the parents don't have to feel bad if they forget something. I've been that parent whose sippy cup wasn't labeled or whose child had a potty accident with no change of clothes. Give them grace, and not grief.
I've had circumstances as a non-parent children's pastor where I felt like parents overreacted or became irrational about issues relating to their kids, and I've also been the irrational parent who overreacted about an issue with my kid. There's an internal "mama bear" protective instinct that causes us to overreact sometimes. Don't judge; just show patience and grace.
4. Don't make life harder than it needs to be. Getting to church with two young kids is hard enough. As a parent, I appreciate when a church's parking lot and drop-off is easy to navigate, when I don't have to look hard to find answers to my questions or figure out where my kids go, when the check-in and check-out process is easy and seamless. Requiring too much of parents is a big mistake. One time I handed out pieces of paper to all the elementary parents and asked them to keep track of something with their kids every day for a month, and bring it back in at the end of the month. No one did it. You know why? That's too much for parents; there are too many other things to keep track of and think about. Don't ask them to be at too many events or place too many expectations on parents. Families are busy. Children's ministry shouldn't make life harder.
5. Teach the volunteers how to communicate with parents. No parent wants to hear "Your kid was bad today" when they pick their kid up from church. Communicating about behavior issues is a sensitive topic, and should be done with gentleness and encouragement. This will take a lot of training and reminding for some volunteers, but it's very important. It's also important to remind volunteers to tell parents good things about the kids. Every parent loves hearing how awesome their kid is: even better if it's something specific, such as an example of how their kid was kind or how passionate their kid was in worship. Parents love people who love their kids.
6. Every single child is the most important thing in the world to their parents: treat all the kids that way.
There's nothing more important in a parent's life than their child, and they want to know their child will be comforted, given attention and love, and treated fairly. Every kid (even the annoying one) is valuable and special because they are made by God and loved by Him.
I don't think having two young kids of my own has made me a better children's ministry leader, but it has made me more aware of some things. If you're leading a children's ministry and you're not a parent, I believe it is absolutely possible to be an awesome minister, shepherd, spiritual leader, and advisor to kids and parents. Parents can learn a lot from non-parent kidmin leaders, and kidmin leaders can learn from parents. We're partners, and we're working together to help kids grow in their faith and know Christ.