Recently, I had the distinct privilege of teaching our church’s Parents of Teens Sunday school class. I taught a three week series which gave me a good amount of interaction time with the parents. During the first week, I spent the class teaching about the distinctions of this generation and some of the trends that sociologists are observing. I asked them to write down anonymous questions that they would like to ask their youth minister, and promised to address the questions the following week. I have been a youth minister at my church for nine years and had a good relationship with the group, so they trusted me with their questions.
I got general questions that of course were actually really personal, like:
“How should teenagers ‘be with’ kids who are straying without shunning them? How do we guide them to ‘love’ them without getting themselves into trouble?”
And personal questions that were best addressed generally like:
“Our daughter is leaving for college soon and has not had a boyfriend. She’s only been on a couple of dates. Is this normal?”
I ended up with 25 questions that I could narrow down to six primary issues. I think there are more questions parents want to ask than these, but this is where my parents were and these will probably resound with some of your parents, so I thought it would be good to share them. The top three question areas were around friends, boundaries, and college.
“At 16 should we restrict ‘friend’ time? How much time (outside of dinners) should a 16-year-old who works and gets good grades spend with family per week?”
“How do we address sensitive areas like kids getting arrested, etc?”
“How do we as parents help our teens so that they don’t make bad choices like drinking?”
“How do we deal with kids who are challenging us on going to church?”
“How do you encourage your son or daughter who is heading off to college to stay involved in church/campus ministries?”
“Do or should the rules change after they go to college?”
“How do we continue to instill that our word is more important than the latest text message?”
“What is the best way to get teenagers to talk about the things that are troubling them?”
When I was a young youth minister, I thought I knew how to parent and really wondered about parents who did not have it together. If you are that young youth director, STOP! You may know a lot about teenagers, their needs, and how to help them grow in their faith. You may call them “your kids” and think your role with them varies from being a brother to a surrogate parent. But you cannot understand what being a parent truly is all about until you are one.
Three things stood out in these questions for me. First, parents want the best for their kids. You can hear the pain in the parents’ question about their daughter dating, “Is this normal?” They love their daughter and pray they have done the right things to help her be normal. These parents prayed when she was born that she would have 10 fingers and 10 toes. The desire for their kid to be “normal” comes from that same fear of having 11 toes.
The second observation is related to the first: because they love their children, they have fears that they, the world, or others may hurt their teenager. We all know that adolescence is a weird dance as a teenager and a parent struggle to let go and embrace each other at the same time.
Finally, they are still growing in God’s grace too. Youth ministers are far too often hard on parents who do not have it all together. Parents need to be growing on their spiritual journey while they are guiding their children. Some of our parents had terrible examples set for them in how to parent. Often their fears for their children create stumbling blocks for their child’s growth. They sometimes have bad theology because their only concern is their child. When parents come into your office and says that they need your help because their child is not connecting to the youth ministry, not getting anything out of it, etc., your first instinct is to say, “Well 25, 50, or 100 other kids are,” and become defensive. You must learn to let that go. Those parents do not care about the other 25 kids; all they care about is their son or daughter who is feeling left out.
My favorite question is, “If you could give parents one piece of advice what would it be?”
I tell parents that the most important thing they can possible do is to help their child know that they are loved. They must hear it but more importantly see it. They also need to understand that they are the largest influence on their child’s faith and that they must share with them their own faith experiences. They need to do this if they have a strong faith or whether they are just beginning the journey of faith. Going to church must never become, “We are the Kirks; it’s what we do,” but instead always be “God and Jesus transformed my life and we go to worship.” Youth need to see that going to church is not an obligation but a response. I also encourage parents to put their family’s faith into action through service together. Tony Campolo always quotes someone who says, “The family that prays together stays together, whether there is a God or not.” I believe the family that serves together learns to love each other and the world more deeply as they encounter Christ, and those common experiences provide families with opportunities to share their faith with each other.
I know that it is extraordinarily hard to lead youth group, Bible study, small groups, and go to football games. Please remember to make time to minister to “your kids'” parents. They need encouragement. They need to hear from other parents that parenting is hard. They need to know you so that you can be there for them.
When you make time to be with them, a great resource especially for young youth ministers is There’s a Teenager in My House by Wayne Rice. It addresses the majority of questions parents ask with good recommendations.
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