A parent shares an unlikely secret to raising great teens

Studio Portrait Of Five Teenage Friends Standing In Line

Snark MeterrealMID.003

Do you have kids in those really enjoyable third through sixth grade years? If so, you are probably a bit nervous about the teen years you know are looming around the corner.

I am the parent of two teens…at least until my daughter turns twenty next month. For the most part, our kids thrived through high school. And without arresting beauty, stellar brains, or athletic prowess, our kids were both voted president of their classes all through their high school years and were pursued by quality universities…including my son being invited to the Naval Academy’s summer program. Our parenting secret? While my friends pushed their kids to learn second languages, play on club teams, and take etiquette courses, we charted another parenting course. We involved our kids in an innovative program for youth. A program that data told us is linked to:

  • Dramatically reduced rebelliousness and risk of committing a crime
  • Increased participation in high school
  • Lowered rate of premarital sex
  • Reduction in binge drinking in high school and college
  • Improved academic performance in high school and college
  • Improved odds of saying they have a “very happy life” as an adult
  • And is even linked to an 8 year increase in life expectancy!

What is the activity that gives parents these outcomes we want for our kids?

The answer may surprise you. It is active participation in a local church. No, I’m not kidding. The data comes from sources such as the Center from Disease Control, Indiana, Michigan and Duke Universities, and the Barna Research Group. The caveat, the student has to be “deeply involved” in the church. According to the National Survey of Youth and Religion, “occasional attendees” have virtually no behavioral difference from non-attenders. Research indicates that regular church participation is associated with a decrease in every risky behavior that parents want their children to avoid and an increase in the behaviors that parents want to encourage.

Sometimes it is an issue of not seeing the forest for the trees. What we really want for our kids isn’t to be a great soccer player or to have a specific friend group. What we really want for our children is to have a great life. We see those other things as means to the end of becoming great human beings; self-sufficient and making a contribution to the world we leave them. The church is your number one support in your deepest yearnings for your kids.

Which brings us back to my kids: Although I am a picky parent, I genuinely like and respect the people my kids have become. I am proud of the decisions they make and the motives behind them. I am proud of how they carry themselves, a strong young woman and young man who stick up for underdogs, refuse to push others around or allow others to push them around. They are kind. They work hard. They serve others. They have stuck to their sexual purity guns. They are deep and fun. They, especially my daughter, are admirably resilient. They are viewed as leaders by their peers.

Why does it work?

To a great degree the people they have become is the result of a deeply committed walk with God. And a deeply committed faith is almost always the fruit of deep commitment to a local faith community. Regardless of what you personally think of Christian commitment, a deeply committed faith is a gift that, unlike participation in a club team, will keep giving to your child over the arc of their life.

What is the secret sauce?

Deep immersion in a church almost always includes a relationship with an older Christian mentor, aka, a youth worker. Youth workers reinforce parent’s messages from home. They do this as an influential voice a step or two older and wiser than their peers. Youth workers are role models and visible pictures of what positive choices gain one in life. They are a gift to parents that cannot be under-estimated.

As a parent, you and I have more to do with our teen’s success than anything or anyone in their lives. One of the best things we did to leverage that parental influence was to involve them in the church. At church, great young adults who love God, loved my kids. These young people, both church workers and Young Life leaders, helped my kids have a bigger vision for their lives. They helped my kids see their gifts, gave them opportunities for leadership and encouraged them to develop those gifts. Malcolm Gladwell in his book “Outliers” tells us that highly successful people are the first ones to 10,000 hours in an activity. In a good church, leaders will spend a great amount of time teaching your child to serve others, speak in public, develop and articulate deeply held beliefs, discover musical gifts they didn’t know they have, and develop social skills that will bless them the rest of their lives. They will be busier, without a doubt, but they will develop new capacities, and the life skills that they need most for future life-success. And our kids are not unique in this. The kids in our small mission church’s youth program are a virtual Who’s Who of the student leaders in the four neighborhood high schools they attend.

So parents, take your kids to church. Get involved. Get your kids involved. In the end, it will do far more for them than the soccer league you miss on Sunday mornings. I promise.

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Parent Privilege: The youth worker/parent relationship

Joel Joa and family at his baptism

Joel Joa and family at his baptism

Snark MeterrealMID.003The one thing I wish someone had helped me with when I was young in youth ministry: Relationships with parents. Like many young adults, I was a bit intimidated by parents. After all they had 10 to 20 years on me. In truth, I didn’t think about parents very often-mostly when one was upset because we didn’t return from an event on time. If someone had asked, I might have described the youth ministry as a sort of stand-alone program. But mostly no one did ask, as the rest of the church saw us as a stand-alone program as well. Our calendar was full and parents and their concerns were not really part of the classic youth ministry model. The disconnection from parents is even more pronounced if you are working in a parachurch organization, or if the student rather than the parent is the connecting point to the church.

Becoming a parent caused me to see through new eyes, though. For the first time I took seriously the scriptural call to the family to be the front line in the spiritual formation of children (Deut. 6, Ps. 78). It is parents who are tasked with the responsibility to “train up a child in the way he should go” (Prov. 22:6). The Scriptures are supposed to be taught to our children in the home (Deut. 6) in order “that generations to come might know…and put their confidence in God” (Ps. 78:5-7). Youth ministry does NOT exist to replace parents. Or be smarter, cooler or more spiritual than them either. Youth ministry exists to come alongside of parents in their God-given role in the spiritual formation of children. This is true whether the parent is a follower of Christ or not.

Here are four things I wish someone had told me to do:

1. Pray for parents: Learn parent’s names. Keep a list and pray for them weekly.

2. Connect with parents: Meet a parent a week for coffee. Let them know that you support them. There are three things that I would love to hear from my kid’s youth leader: 1. “Your children are the most important thing in the world to you, and I want you to know that I take this responsibility and your trust seriously.” 2. “You have a great kid! I really appreciate______ about them.”  3. “It must be fantastic to be a parent on a good day and nearly impossible on a bad one. How can I pray for you?”

3. Resource parents: This one might take a bit of budget and involve other folks on the church staff-which is a good thing.

  • Ask your parents what sort of help would be “helpful” help.
  • See if there is a seminar or class they are interested in that your church could host.
  • Let them know what you are teaching and doing in the youth program. A monthly email might be a good way to do this.
  • Read a couple of parenting magazines and include “tips from experts” in your email. (But make sure the “tips” are not manipulatively aimed at something a particular parent is doing that you are frustrated with.)

4. Support parents: Adolescence is a time when kids are distancing themselves from their ‘rents. This is a developmental necessity. However, if a teen’s only alternative sources of relationships and information are their peers and the media, our young people will be in real trouble. That is why one core task of a youthworker is to be the trusted Christian adult who will say what the parents say but simply not be the parent when they say it. When you earn the right to be heard, use part of that capital to help kids understand where their parents are coming from. Our job is to not to replace parents, but to point their kids to Christ and be a dependable adult Christian leader in their life.

Someday you will most likely have kids. Be the leader you would want someone to be for your children. You can choose to see parents as a pain. Or you can choose to see them as a privilege. Parents are neither a curse nor a necessary evil: They are God’s means to bless their kids…and you too, if you cultivate your relationship with them.

Blessings to you, fellow youth workers, as you seek to impact not just students but partner with their entire family for the extension of God’s Kingdom.

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