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When Church Kids Go Bad
How to Work with and Love Rude, Obnoxious, and Apathetic Students
By Les Christie
Copyright © 2008
All right reserved.
Chapter One Why Do Kids Act That Way?
It's not easy being an adult youth leader or a parent today. You've heard that tune before, right? Parenting and youth ministry are tough jobs-and it's been that way for a long time. As rough as it is for today's parents and youth workers, we are just taking part in a long tradition passed down through the ages. Consider these not-so-modern examples:
An angry father asks his teenage son, "Where did you go?" The boy, as he is trying to sneak home late at night says, "Nowhere." "Grow up," his father chides him. "Stop hanging around the public square and wandering up and down the street. Go to school. Night and day you torture me. Night and day you waste your time having fun." (Translated from 4,000-year-old Sumerian clay tablets)
I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on the frivolous youth of today. For certainly all youth are reckless beyond words. When I was a boy we were taught to be discreet and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly wild and impatient. (Ancient Greek poet Hesiod) Youth today love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority, no respect for older people, and talk nonsense when they should work. Young people do not stand up any longer when adults enter the room. They contradict their parents, talk too much in company, guzzle their food, lay their legs on the table, and tyrannize their elders. (Socrates)
The world is passing through troublous times. The young people of today think of nothing but themselves. They have no reverence for parents or old age. They are impatient of all restraint. They talk as if they knew everything, and what passes for wisdom with us is foolishness with them. As for the girls, they are forward and immodest, and unwomanly in speech, behavior, and dress. (Peter the Hermit, 1274)
Our earth is degenerate-children no longer obey their parents. (Carved on stone 6,000 years ago by an Egyptian priest)
From there Elisha went up to Bethel. As he was walking along the road, some boys came out of the town and jeered at him. "Get out of here, baldy!" they said. "Get out of here, baldy!" (2 Kings 2:23, 9th century BC)
Since the beginning of time, every generation of adults has said the present generation of young people is so much worse than their own generation. We adults have a tendency to idealize the past.
Now, you may be thinking, "Well, maybe those adults in the distant past might have idealized their teenage years-but I really was a much kinder, gentler, more compassionate, and better-behaved teen than most kids today." I know that feeling. I felt that way until a couple of years ago when I watched a rerun of an old Dragnet episode from the 1960s-back when I was a teenager. Dragnet was one of the first cop series on television. In this episode called "The Grenade," the two stars of the program, police officers Joe Friday and Bill Gannon, were talking in their squad car about the teenagers of my generation. I had to laugh as I listened to them repeating the same kind of comments I so often hear in reference to today's young people: "Kids have too much to say these days," "Kids today have lost any semblance of respect," "Why can't kids just be kids?" "It was never like this when we were kids."
I have a sign in my office that reads, "The older I get, the better I was." As adults we repress the memories of our early adolescent feelings and experiences. We forget what it was really like to be a 14-year-old. I think this faulty memory is a gift from God. He puts a software program in our brains that engages when we turn 20, and it erases our memories of all the stupid things we said, did, and thought during adolescence. This may be a pleasant place to be emotionally, but it's not an accurate view of how it really was "back when we were kids." The best parents and youth leaders are those who have an accurate memory of their own teen years.
The Struggle to Fit In
The next time you gather with some close friends for dinner, try playing the "Remember When?" game. Ask your friends to remember when they were adolescents. Do they remember someone making a remark about their appearance (the shape of his head, the size of her nose)? How did such remarks affect them? You will be amazed at the vivid memories most adults have of feeling criticized or rejected as teenagers. It's an important reminder of how sensitive teenagers are to criticism and rejection. They want to be accepted and liked, just as you did.
Not long ago, I played the "Remember When?" game with a few friends. Sitting back in a comfortable easy chair, Sharon remembered a name she was called in junior high. She has a bright-red birthmark on her upper lip, and the other kids called her "dog face" and would yell things like, "Here doggy, here doggy." She found it extremely difficult to cope-so difficult she had contemplated suicide. Mark talked about how shy he was in his teen years, remembering how his mother used to answer any questions directed at him before he could get an answer out. John remembered feeling insecure about his body and never wanting to take a shower in the school's public shower stalls after physical education class during junior high. He recalled how most of the students would just run through the showers and grab a towel.
I remember the fear that gripped me during a youth meeting following my junior year of high school, right after I had become a Christian. Our church youth group had a prayer circle in which everyone held hands and prayed aloud. I had never prayed in public, and as it got closer to my turn, I was so nervous I started to perspire and shake. When it came my turn, I said something quickly (I have no idea what I prayed) and the prayer time moved on to the next person. To this day I remember my intense fear of being embarrassed in front of my peers.
It's easy to forget or minimize the intense trials and tribulations many young people go through during junior high and high school. I recently read a newspaper story about a boy in a small high school whom other students made fun of because he was overweight. They called him "blimp" and "fatso" and "lard," and made him the butt of every joke. He was a nice kid who never gave his teachers any trouble-but one day he finally broke. He brought a gun to school and shot several students, and finally turned the gun on himself. His suicide note explained he could no longer endure the ridicule.
The Teenage Emotional and Physical Roller Coaster
Emotionally, young people are on a roller coaster. It's either Death Valley or Mount Everest. You've probably experienced this as a youth leader. One week, your youth group meeting is fantastic-students are well behaved, listening intently, and asking terrific questions. You go out of the meeting riding on a cloud-life is tremendous, your ministry is a great success, and you love kids. But the next week it's a disaster. You wonder if they went home the previous week and called one another, saying, "Hey, we were too nice tonight. Let's be sure and make some trouble next week." During those times, we may feel like all our teaching just goes in one ear and out the other. It can be horribly frustrating.
Adolescence is a period of transition, a period of change-and a prevailing characteristic of change is instability. We see this in the fast, intense, and ever-changing emotional world of many teens. Even a relatively small stimulus will sometimes trigger a more intense reaction. Dr. G. Keith Olson describes the variety of intense emotions a teenage girl might experience over a brief period one morning :
6:30: Jennifer wakes up reluctantly, dreading this day that she is absolutely positive will be awful.
6:50: Jen is elated because she can still fit into her favorite pair of pants.
7:00: She is upset because her hair will not do what she wants it to do. She knows she will feel humiliated when other kids see her.
7:30: She is both thrilled and apprehensive because Jeff called, asking to drive her to school that day.
7:50: Jen has a feeling of pride, even arrogance, as her friends see her driving into the school parking lot, snuggled close to Jeff.
7:55: She feels indignant and angry when a friend walks off to class ahead of her after making a snippy remark about her special transportation.
Over the course of just 90 minutes Jennifer has experienced intense feelings of reluctance, dread, elation, humiliation, thrill, apprehension, pride, arrogance, indignation, and anger. And while cultural and social influence may cause girls to be more expressive than boys about experiencing these intense feelings, we can be sure that guys go through many of the same ups and downs.
Romantic problems are often a big part of the roller coaster many teens are riding. The girl whose boyfriend dumped her or the boy who was turned down one too many times by the girl of his dreams is likely to be moody and depressed, show no interest in church or youth group, and be obsessed with thoughts of lost opportunities for romance.
The differences we experience from week to week with our students' behavior also have a lot to do with the tremendous physical changes adolescents are experiencing. Adolescents are always worrying about something:
Teens worry they are growing too rapidly, too slowly, or too unevenly.
Teens worry they are developing too much, too little, or in the wrong places.
Teens worry about their height, their weight, and the condition of their skin.
Teens worry that during a long kiss they'll have to breathe through their nose and their nose will be stopped up.
Teens worry that there is a right way to kiss and they don't know it.
Teens worry that their dates will able to tell they don't know.
Teen girls worry that their breasts are too round or point in different directions.
Teen boys worry that they will get breasts.
Teen boys worry that they will never be able to grow a mustache.
Teen girls worry that they will grow a mustache.
Adolescents sometimes feel their bodies are conspiring against them. But the big physical changes happening in adolescence aren't just the ones that involve those pesky hormones, hair, and pimples. In recent years, neuroscientists like Dr. Jay Giedd at the National Institutes of Health have found that the adolescent brain undergoes a massive remodeling of its basic structure, in areas that affect everything from logic and language to impulses and intuition. (The Primal Teen by Barbara Strauch, p. 13.) We now know the brain continues to change and is not completely formed until the mid-20s. (My wife often jokes that the process seems to take an additional 20 years for most men!) The point is that God is not finished with these adolescent brains.
So much of the hurt and pain in young people between ages 12 and 20 stems from a hopelessness that comes from believing they are inferior. It's that awful feeling that nobody likes them; that they're not as good as others; that they're failures, losers, or personal disasters; that they're ugly, or unintelligent, or don't have as much ability as someone else. It's that depressing feeling of worthlessness. Teenage boys especially tend to strike out physically at others when they feel powerless to get their way by other means. These young people often lack verbal skills and believe in a distorted version of the actions-speak-louder-than-words model of living. Understanding the physical and emotional changes teenagers are going through will help you understand their behavior and extreme mood swings.
How Things Have Changed
As I've said, I don't think kids today are all that different from those of previous generations. Since the beginning of civilization, kids have needed the same things-to feel loved, wanted, secure, safe, and cared for. The changes in body and brain functioning, the huge emotional ups and downs, and the deep desire to fit in-these challenges of adolescence are anything but unique to this generation of young people.
On the other hand, I think the world that kids are growing up in today is dramatically different than the one faced by previous generations. One of the biggest changes is the way violence (and the threat of violence) shapes the lives of so many young people.
A third-grade girl in New Orleans recently took a .357 Magnum to school to protect her from a boy who was allegedly harassing her. Margaret Ensley's 17-year-old son Michael caught a bullet in the hallway of his high school in Reseda, California. (She says a teen shot her son because he thought Michael gave him a funny look.) On the streets of many cities, girls carry small guns in their purses and razor blades in their mouths in case they need to protect themselves, or find a victim ripe for the taking. Law enforcement and public health officials describe a virtual epidemic of youth violence in recent years. "We're talking about younger and younger kids committing more and more serious crimes," says Indianapolis prosecuting attorney Jeff Modsett. "Violence is becoming a way of life."
Between 1987 and 1994, the number of teenagers arrested for murder around the country increased by an astounding 85 percent, according to the Department of Justice. The good news is that by 2003, the percentage had dropped to the 1987 level. However, children from the ages of 10 to 17 now account for 17 percent of all violent crime arrests. Teenagers are not just the perpetrators-they are also the victims. A 2005 survey done by the Uhlich Children's Advantage Network (UCAN), a multiservice agency for at-risk children and their families in Chicago, concluded that 39 percent of teens fear being shot sometime in their life. An estimated 100,000 students carry a gun to school, according to the National Education Association. The Justice Department estimates that each year, nearly one million young people between the ages of 12 and 19 are raped, robbed, or assaulted-often by their peers.
John Taylor Gatto, who was the New York State Teacher of the Year in 1991, offers this sad commentary on the world young people are struggling to fit into: "I've come slowly to understand what it is I really teach: a curriculum of confusion, class position, arbitrary justice, vulgarity, rudeness, and disrespect for privacy. I teach how to fit into a world I don't want to live in."
The Information Age
Young people once learned how to live by being mentored by their elders. I can remember stories of my great-great-grandfather over in England who at the age of 14 went to live with a master carpenter's family until age 21. During those years he learned the trade of carpentry. It was the only way to learn it.
Changes in technology have dramatically transformed the way information is passed from generation to generation. It began with the development and later popularization of the printing press, which eventually made books and the printed page a primary source for the transfer of knowledge.
With the invention of the television, information technology was further transformed, as televised images became available to the masses and changed the values and lifestyles of teens all around the world. TV commercials teach kids that material goods are what make life worthwhile and that every problem can be solved in 30 seconds. Television also does not always show a fair and or accurate portrayal of life and especially elders-often portraying parents and church leaders as idiots who are out of touch with the world. Just compare the attitude toward parenting and families in TV series from the 1960s like Leave It to Beaver or Father Knows Best with the depictions in more recent shows such as The Simpsons, Two and a Half Men, or The Osbournes.
The personal computer and the Internet have caused an even more dramatic change in how knowledge is passed on. Teenagers pick up computer skills quite easily but many older people find it much harder. Don Tapscott in his book Growing Up Digital, asks:
What makes this generation different from all others before it? It is the first to grow up surrounded by digital media ... Today's kids are so bathed in bits that they think it's all part of the natural landscape. To them, the digital technology is no more intimidating than a toaster. For the first time in history, children are more comfortable, knowledgeable, and literate than their parents about an innovation central to society.
Excerpted from When Church Kids Go Bad by Les Christie
Copyright © 2008 by Les Christie. Excerpted by permission.
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