TED Talks for Parents

For several years St. Andrew Presbyterian Church in Suffolk, Virginia has offered a parenting class as part of its mid-week evening of learning opportunities and activities for all ages.  Known as Who Moved the Owner’s Manual?, this class has looked at church-y books, secular books, and dvd-based how-to studies.  Through it all, the main rules have been: 1) keep it real, and 2) don’t expect us to read anything ahead of time.

This fall we’re trying something entirely new for us: we’re using TED Talks as our curriculum, and we’re looking at these videos through the bifocal lenses of parenting and faith.

TED (Technology, Entertainment, and Design) is a non-profit secular organization committed to spreading interesting ideas through short (usually 18 minutes or less) talks by fascinating speakers on every subject imaginable.  TED Talks are available free online  and can be searched by subject or by speaker.  Our eleven-week series will include talks by a professor of social work, a science journalist, a psychologist, and an author, among others.

Here’s an example of the way one recent class went as we looked at neuroscientist Sarah-Jane Blakemore’s TED Talk entitled The Mysterious Workings of the Adolescent Brain .

  • Scripture: We usually begin our time together with a brief scripture passage, which allows us to start to connect what we will hear with who we are as people of faith.  This evening’s passage was from Philippians 4: 8-9, in which Paul encourages his readers to focus their thoughts on “whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable” as they strive to live a life honoring God.
  • Film: Using a model of the human brain, Blakemore shares her research on how the growth and development of the brain through teenage and early adulthood affect the adolescent’s social development as well. Of particular interest is the section of Blakemore’s talk on adolescence as a time when neurological connections that are not being used are pruned away, allowing those connections which are being used to grow stronger.
  • Discussion: This is the time of the evening when we try to tie what we have heard and seen with our lives as Christian parents.  Here are a few of the questions we pondered after Blakemore’s talk:
    • Blakemore speaks about synaptic pruning. Do you see that this period and the time leading up to it would be a particularly critical time in parenting?  Why or why not?
    • Think back to the scripture with which we started this discussion. How would Paul’s words to the Philippians apply here?  What sorts of “excellent or praiseworthy” things would we want our kids to be involved with at this time, especially if they are going to help lay down those synapses that will be most used?
    • There are obviously a lot of perils associated with this time in a child’s development. What about opportunities? How could we help guide our kids in these areas and actually embrace this time of particular openness to newness?  Encourage mentor relationships?  Send them on mission experiences?  How does the church fit into this time of growth?

Annie Murphy Paul, a science journalist who specializes in research about how humans learn, recorded a TED Talk on the relatively new science of fetal origins in 2011.  In this talk, What We Learn Before We’re Born , Murphy Paul speaks of research which shows that newborn babies come into the world with a preference for their mothers’ voices, the food that their mothers ate while the babies were in utero, and even evidence of PTSD when their mothers had been through trauma while pregnant.

Murphy Paul’s TED lecture is completely secular, cast in the language of biology.  For people of faith, however, scripture is an easy conversation partner to bring into the discussion. We looked first at Psalm 100: 3: “Know that the Lord is God.  It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.”  After the film, here are some of the questions we talked about:

  • If a child can develop taste preferences merely from swallowing amniotic fluid flavored with carrot juice, and can develop biological markers for PTSD because his/her mother experienced a traumatic experience while pregnant, what does that say to you about what they must learn during the first few months/years after birth?
  • A theological question: Annie Murphy Paul talks about newborn babies preferring their mothers’ voices over any other ones they hear, because they’ve been listening to it since before they were born. St. Augustine said, “Thou hast created us for Thyself, and our heart is not quiet until it rests in Thee.”  Do you think that, given a chance, we respond to the One whose voice we have known from before birth?  Are we always looking for the God whose voice we know?
  • This is stretching the discipline of fetal origins, I’m sure, but if you look at your family as a womb, or even at the church as a womb, from which we are “born” into the larger world, what are the messages we should be giving to our children and youth? Are they messages of abundance or of scarcity?

As a final example of the TED Talks we are using in our parenting class this fall, we turn to Brené Brown’s phenomenally popular talk, The Power of Vulnerability. Brown, a professor of social work, has spent over a decade studying the effects of shame on connectedness in human life.  To her own surprise, she discovered that a sense of vulnerability is both the core of shame and fear and also the birthplace of joy, love, and connectedness.

Our scriptural starting points for Brown’s talk were an interesting duo: Psalm 139, “O Lord, you have searched me and known me.  You know when I sit down and when I rise up …” and the story of Jesus calling Zacchaeus from Luke 19:1-10.  We spent some time talking about God’s recognition of who we are at our core and unconditional love for that person, no matter what we look like or act like on the outside, before listening to Brown’s narrative of her own “street fight” with vulnerability.

Again, here are some of the questions we pondered:

The four marks of wholehearted people that Brown lists are courage (to be imperfect), compassion (willingness to be kind to themselves and to others), connection (as a result of a willingness to let go of who they thought they should be and be who they are), and vulnerability (willingness to do things where there are no guarantees). Can you imagine living this way?  What would it look like?

  1. Brown says that this notion of shame infects our parenting, too. Instead of concentrating on loving our children for who they are, we are intent on holding onto a sense that they are perfect.  Does saying “you are worthy of love” necessarily mean that you overlook mistakes or give up on discipline?  Think back on the scripture for today.  God says, “I made you.  I love you.”  Does that necessarily mean that God is not saddened by our sins?
  2. Brown also says that we’ve gone from a belief in faith and mystery in religion to a belief in certainty: “This is Truth. I’m right and you’re wrong.”  This, too, is a way of masking our vulnerability in the face of Mystery.  Thoughts?

We post links to the films in follow-up emails to the class members, so that anyone who has to miss a class (or anyone who just wants to watch the film again) has access to the material.  Film links could also be posted to a CE website or to the church’s website with questions included, turning this class into a distance learning opportunity for those who cannot attend in person.

Adult learners are especially interested in making connections between the world outside themselves and their own lives and families.  With short films, excellent content, and brilliant speakers, TED Talks seem tailor-made to serve as curriculum for faith formation in the church.

Beth Lyon-Suhring, Director of Christian Education at St. Andrew Presbyterian Church in Suffolk, VA, created these sessions for parents in her church and we asked her to share some of them with you here. Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Picture courtesy of Lawrence Wang and shared under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.