On its good nights, the small group resembled an engaging extended family party—ten couples of varying ages filling the church with animated discussion, laughter, friendly debates, prayer, and the exuberant sound of children of all ages playing together. On its not so good nights, the small group resembled a reform school filled with overworked, overly stressed parents whose bickering offspring had run amuck through multiple children's classrooms, leaving a trail of tears and toys in their wake.
For Little Village, as this group became known, the issue of discipline threatened to break up the happy "family" whose full intergenerational roster numbered almost 50 members.
Respect is the number one issue for intergenerational small groups to address when it comes to discipline, and it starts with the small-group leaders. Leaders need to take the bull by the horns and be upfront and honest with their group members from the very beginning, facilitating a conversation among parents about how and when discipline will take place.
Common ground. Scott Smith, MA/LCPC of Chicago Christian Counseling Center, has some good advice: "Have the adults talk about it first. What is acceptable behavior? How much discipline can another parent (or a babysitter) have over someone else's child? What are acceptable boundaries? Verbal or physical reprimands? Time outs? Being asked to leave the group? You need to establish the ground rules."
"Your group needs to have shared standards for big issues that may arise," adds veteran Christian educator Karen Maurer. "Those would probably include things like damage to the house or church, bullying of other children, and mistreatment of animals (if meeting in someone's home). Kids respond to authority. If they don't know where the limits are, they'll keep going."
These limits, boundaries and ground rules can be formally established in the small-group covenant that is discussed and/or signed by all group members at the initial meeting. For any new members who come along later, the leaders should be sure to make them aware of the discipline guidelines that the group has agreed to follow.
Talk it up. Once the parents in the group decide on boundaries and limits, they need to share that information with their children. If possible, this sharing should be done in a group setting with all parents and children present so it is obvious that all households are on the same page. In addition, parents should remind children before each meeting what behavior is okay and what is not.
"You can't over-communicate enough," says Smith, who is the elder overseeing small-group ministry at his church. "Group members need to make it clear to their children: 'This is who is in charge. These are the rules. This is what's acceptable.'"
Kristi Laney, small-group leader at Village Christian Church in Minooka, IL, says: "I know in my home, I've had to remind other kids of the rules, ask them to share, help clean up, or ask them to stop doing something. But if the behavior is to a certain level, I will direct them to the parent. I think in certain situations it can be difficult because you don't want to offend the other parent if their child is doing something wrong, and you don't want it to affect a relationship."
We Are Family
Which brings up a very good point. Small groups often begin to feel like family, especially intergenerational small groups where parents and children are mixing and mingling with other households. This relationship building is a blessing, yet the road is paved with potential pot holes because people are—well, people. And oftentimes the informality that develops in family-like friendships can lead to not following formal procedures very closely, which means the leaders need to watch for (and try to prevent) accidents waiting to happen.