Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Why Working with Teenagers Makes Me a Better Parent (I Hope)

One of the benefits of being a pastor in the same place for so long (ten years this winter) is that I have watched several groups of children and then teenagers grow up and move on to be adults, get married and even have children of their own.

While many folks get burned out on youth ministry after a few years, I have found that sticking it out just a few more makes all the difference, as you have the privilege of watching and being a part of a child’s/youth’s entire process of growing up.

Considering that I started working with youth when I was 26 and am now 36, I sometimes feel as though I have grown up with them. I especially feel lucky (on the days when they are not making me crazy) to have been given a unique window into the life of the modern teenager We often talk about inter-generational youth ministry as a chance for youth to connect with older/retired members of the church, but I see even more benefits for myself as a thirty-something, and I continue to believe that working with youth in the church helps me to be a better parent to my own young son.

Here are some of the reasons why:

Even though you have been teaching them about God and the Bible their whole young life, when they are teenagers they still don't quite have it down.

I like to pat myself on the back when I hear my seven-year-old make an incredibly insightful theological comment – but then I remember that by the time he is a teenager he probably will have forgotten all of his childlike wonder and instead answer most theological questions with "um... I don't know."

I have been teaching the same children/teenagers for years and am always taken aback when something I know I have taught them appears to be a whole new concept for them. I have to believe that the knowledge is still in there buried deep under hormones and a variety of other distractions. Typically it does resurface once the fog of the teenage brain has lifted.

It is a great opportunity for me to hear the kinds of questions that teenagers have, not just about faith but life as well.

We are a medium-size congregation, so I have never had a youth group, either middle school or high school, of more than 20 kids. While some folks choose to worry about always making their youth groups bigger, I really enjoy having a smaller group of youth who can become very comfortable with me and with each other.

While familiarity often breeds contempt, it also allows them to open up with some fascinating questions about life, relationships, the Bible, politics and the world around them. I think I have developed a pretty good poker face for when they ask me their questions – questions that can sadden me, shock me, or make me wish I was not the one who was about to shatter their beautiful image of the world.

I don’t know what questions my own son will have, but by the time he is a teenager I may have heard almost all of them. I also think that I will take the opportunity to ask my own questions of him, knowing the kinds of interesting and new thoughts that will most likely be rattling around in his teenage brain. My only challenge will be convincing him that I am smart enough to know the answers.

I believe that every teenager goes through their own liminal period somewhere between the ages of 13 and 17, and it is powerful to watch each of them move through the valley and into adulthood like biological clockwork.

Lovely and charming children suddenly turn odd and awkward. Their bodies don’t always listen to their brains, and I sometimes think their brains have stopped working altogether. This use to freak me out, and sometimes even annoy me. Children who once looked at me with awe and respect all of a sudden became teenagers who were rude and difficult. Children who were once sweet, brave and generous all of a sudden turned into teenagers who were mute, self-preoccupied and hesitant.

And then, right around 17 or 18, they turn into amazing, articulate and helpful young adults – people I actually want to be with… and then they leave.

I am sure that I will struggle with my own son’s awkward teenage years, but having seen the cycle over and over again will give me patience, and hope for the young man he will eventually turn out to be.

Finally, working with youth helps me understand how much I need to value the adult mentors in my own son's life.

Each time a teenager starts a conversation with the phrase “my parents don’t know…” I say a silent prayer that my own son will have another adult in his life with whom he can share his secrets and who I know will advocate for him and look out for him. As a pastor to teenagers, it is a privilege to be given the chance to listen to and guide them as they seek to navigate through a strange world. My influence by no means trumps the influence of their parents. Many of them are actually pretty slow to catch on to the fact that I am their parents’ confidante as well.
I know how important it will be for me as a parent of a teenager to have another adult who knows my child, who cares about my child not because he does well in school or because he excels at a sport, but simply because he is a child of God.

My only hope is that I won’t wind up being like my own teenage self, who always told my mother that I would never behave as badly as my older teenage brother did – that I would learn from the mistakes he made. Turns out I made my own mistakes and took obnoxious to a new level.
I hope that I will be able to remember the wisdom that I have gained from these teenagers and their parents so that I may be able to raise one of my own as best I can, having a vision of what lies on the other side.

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