How I Cured My Parent-Noia
By Paul Borthwick Posted on October 03 2009
To find out what most youth workers feel about the parents of the teenagers in their ministries takes some observation and probing. If we could enter the minds of many youth workers, we would often find negative feelings toward parents. I know. I have some of these feelings myself, and I see them in other youth leaders I know.
The negative attitudes, however, are not always obvious. Sometimes they surface through our jokes or our sarcastic remarks about parent. Other times our negative feelings arise out of a genuine hurt caused by a parent's painful criticism. In general, though, the negative feelings do come in certain distinguishable categories:
1. Fear. On a Sunday morning after our "All-Nighter," if I see a father of a kid coming toward me after church, I feel fear: fear that his daughter has contracted mononucleosis; fear that his son sneaked out during the night without my knowing it.
Fear of the parents of our youth group members comes from a variety of sources. It could be a result of our own youthfulness. It could be caused by negative experiences in the past—either the attack of a parent or a blunder on our part. Whatever the cause, we grow fearful of that parental call or letter or confrontation because we feel that every encounter questions our personal worth and puts our jobs at stake.
2. Criticism. Perhaps it is just a knee jerk reaction to our fears, or perhaps it is caused by your observations of some parents' failure with their own children. Whatever the cause, we in youth group leadership sometimes engage in strident criticism of parents. It might emerge directly in a challenge to our youth (by exhorting them not to be hypocrites like their parents), or it might manifest itself indirectly through defensiveness whenever a parent approaches us.
3. Pride. Perhaps we are negative toward the parents of youth group members because those parents are willing to question us. They ask if an all-nighter is really wise the night before final exams. They remind us of the shortcomings of our ministries, and we want to fight back.
The basic reason why we want to fight back is our self-protecting pride. When they question us as young men and women in leadership, they question our worth, our accomplishments, our training, and our very being—or so we think. My resistance to parents continued until the day I recognized that I was an imperfect youth minister (whom God loved anyway) who had a lot to learn.
4. Apathy. Perhaps the most dangerous negative attitude we can hold toward parents is apathy. When we develop a "they are so out of touch with youth culture that they could not offer anything worth hearing" attitude, we are on dangerous ground. To stop caring about parents and to think them unrelated to work with kids is a big mistake!
All of these negative attitudes were (and periodically still are) mine. I knew how to defend myself and my ministry before parents, but I did not know (or care about) how to minister to or listen to parents. But over the past few years, through the help of veteran youth workers and patient parents, I have been able to change.
Change My Mind-Please!
Growing out of these negative attitudes has taken time and some disciplined thinking, but it has begun. It has happened through changing and enlarging my perspectives on parents and my youth ministry. Five perspectives have particularly helped me: 1. The realistic perspective. This perspective might not have occurred had I not stayed at the same church for ten years. Over time I had the opportunity to see kids grow up, graduate, go to college, start careers, and get married. I saw clearly that many of my youth—over the course of these life changes—turned out just like their parents. For good or for ill, their values, beliefs, attitudes, and commitments were remarkably similar to their parents'.
This observation caused me to rethink my youth ministry. I began to get the realistic picture: If I am going to have a substantial, long-term effect on the youth, I have got to try to affect the parents as well.
In practice this has meant that I must challenge parents to spiritual commitment and to deeper personal faith—even as I challenge the youth. If I want my kids to be generous, I must be willing to encourage the parents to be the same. Youth ministry without attention to the long-term parental effect can only yield short-term, shallow results. If we desire long-term effectiveness, we must take into account the values being communicated at home so that we can build on the good ones and challenge the wrongs ones.
2. The biblical perspective. The Pauline directive to parents and children in Ephesians 6 is, with respect to kids, not often applied by churches, parents, and youth workers. While there must be supportive and complimentary ministry offered by churches and youth organizations, the biblical mandate is clear: Parents hold the ultimate responsibility for raising their children, including their teenagers.
With this biblical perspective in mind, the place of the youth ministry changes. No longer do we need to hold ourselves responsible or guilty for each rebellious teenager in the church. Rather we can see ourselves as assistants to the parents as they do their ministry. As one youth leader put it, "I am now going to parents and asking them, 'How can I assist you in your ministry with your children?'" While the strategic importance of youth ministry does not diminish, the placement on it of the ultimate responsibility for the kids does.
Gaining this biblical perspective has helped me, on the one hand, to relax and feel more comfortable as an assistant to parents (rather than as a miracle worker). On the other hand, the biblical perspective has helped me to empathize with parents and to be more supportive of them.
3. The professional perspective. Like the comedian Henny Youngman—who supposedly claimed, "I never heard a good joke that I didn't steal" —I have never heard a good youth ministry idea that I have not stolen for use with my youth. With such a desire to glean the best ideas from others in youth ministry, I started early asking questions of veteran youth workers: "What has worked for you? How are you discipling youth? What's your program like?"
The more questions I asked, and the more veterans I listened to, the more I was hearing one theme that I found hard to swallow. Over and over youth leaders were stating how they were building ministry to parents into their youth ministry. Some were counseling; others were producing resource newsletters for parents; still others were becoming the parents of teenagers themselves, and this experience was changing their outlook on the youth ministry.
I found the ministry to parents emphasis in these other youth ministries hard to swallow because of my fears and other negative attitudes. But the more the idea was reinforced, the more I realized that I had better pay attention to it.
As I have observed other effective youth ministries across the country, I have found that almost without exception they have a commitment to care for parents. Some are doing it through grand programs of preteen preparation for parents and ongoing parent support groups. Others are just recommending resource book to parents. But most of the youth groups that are serious about a long-term impact on the lives of youth are ministering to parents as well.
4. The parental perspective. In the course of having my attitude changed toward parents, the realistic perspective appealed to my practical nature ("It's necessary"), the biblical perspective appealed to my theology ("This is the way that God wants it"), and the professional perspective appealed to my desire to be current ("Everyone else seems to be going this way"). The parental perspective, however, appealed to my compassion.
Reading books like Parents in Pain by John White (InterVarsity Press) andThe Hurting Parent by Margie Lewis (Zondervan), seeing parents in my office who were heartbroken over the bad decisions of their youth, and watching the pain that many kids caused their parents, I began to see the parents of our youth as those who needed support, who wanted whatever help I could offer, and who desperately wanted to do the right thing with their children. I came to realize that more often than not, their criticisms or harsh remarks toward me were a cry for help and a projection of their own feelings of failure. (The irony in all this was that I could see the misbehavior of a junior higher as a cry for attention, but I was not so perceptive with respect to the cries of their parents.)
There are the obvious exceptions to this picture—the parent who does not care or the one who is maliciously out to get us—but most parents desire and appreciate any help that is offered. I needed to be reminded that many parents are deeply concerned about their youth and very interested in knowing about the teenage world, the pressures their youth face, and the resources available through the youth group. Seeing things from the parents' perspective helped me to see them as allies in the youth ministry rather than as adversaries.
5. The practical perspective. The utilitarian attitude of "If it works, do it" can be dangerous, but this pragmatic approach has helped change my negative attitudes toward parents. Put simply, I have found that working cooperatively with parents works. Parents are more supportive when I communicate to them what I am trying to do. They are ready to share (and be appreciative!) when they realize that I care about the growth of their young people and not just the success of the youth group.
In the course of changes thinking about parents, I have had the privilege of working with parents on my volunteer staff. At first this threatened me, but now I see it as a great asset. They bring the wisdom and compassion of parenthood to our youth team. They become my best resources for counseling the troubled parent, and they provide excellent role models for the kids with no healthy parental models at home.
Practically speaking, a growing concern for the parents of youth has changed me. Rather than being negative or defensive, I now see parents as co-laborers from whom I can learn and with whom I can serve to bring their kids to greater maturity.
Parents—I Love 'Em
From the negative attitudes of my earliest years in youth ministry, I have changed my thinking. Parents can be a great source of fear, criticism, and even hurt—especially for the young leader—but if we allow our perspectives to be broadened, we will see the need to include parents in our thinking and planning about the youth ministry. If we see them as co-workers in our ministries, and ourselves as co-workers in theirs, the overall ministry of reaching and discipling youth will be broadened, and our effectiveness will be increased.