Parenting and Pastoring “That Kid”
In youth ministry, we often use the phrase “that” kid, to describe the one that frustrates us the most, or completely exasperates us. Sometimes it’s the child on the spectrum, or the one who can’t sit still and just listen for 5 minutes. Or it’s the sullen too-cool-for-school kid that sets the tone for the rest of the group, or the know-it-all who has an answer for e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g. Often it’s the one who just doesn’t fit the mold of what we’ve decided kids should be like, and so they become “that” kid in our minds.
Well, I parent that kid. He’s highly intelligent, speaks sarcasm like it’s his second language (can’t imagine who he got that from), and is a total nerd. To quote him, he is “so far past nerd.” I asked him what is so far past nerd and he said, without missing a beat, “2,000 light years past nerd” and promptly stuck his earbuds back in to finish his Dr. Who episode.
AJ is 12, and in the 6th grade, which means he is now old enough for youth group and we have to navigate what it means to both be parents of “that kid” and youth ministers to that same kid. He loves computers, Minecraft, and his arsenal of dart guns. He could follow the lego building instructions around the age of 5, currently reads at about a high school level, and is rapidly working his way through The Maze Runner trilogy because he knows he won’t be allowed to see the movies until he’s read the book.
He didn’t suddenly become who he is: We are products of our environment. My parents took school seriously, so I had high standards. I value language and vocabulary, so AJ could use the word attribute in a sentence properly by age 4. His father encouraged his love of technology by letting him take things apart and try to put them back together, and by taking him to HAM Radio events and Near Space Balloon chases. We are a mildly (read incredibly) sarcastic family, so we have to keep our anger in check when we hear our own phrases being thrown back at us.
Sometimes I think we need to remember that whoever your “that” kid is, there are a million external and internal forces that got him to this point. So here are some tips, from the perspective of a mom and a youth pastor, on how to be in ministry with your “that kid.”
1. Talk to his parents
Sometimes a student who is causing problems in your ministry is dealing with things you don’t know about yet. Maybe they have a developmental delay or are adopted and not transitioning well. My family has its own history and so does your students’ family. Seek to learn more about what makes your student who they are, find out about their interests in an effort to connect with him, and just make an effort to let his parents know you are here for both them and their child.
2. Embrace his personality fully
Sometimes it’s hard for me to understand why he would want to sit in front of the computer for hours watching youtube gaming tutorials, but he does. That same thirst for knowledge drives him to learn about aerospace, computer programming, and history. I can’t make him into a different kid, nor should I try. His personality doesn’t hurt anyone, even if his countercultural tendencies set him up for being the target of teasing.
In fact, God gave him awesome gifts that deserve to be embraced, like that of connecting with other people. AJ loves deeply, he doesn’t always show it well, but he has had the gift of connecting with kids with special needs since he was small. He goes to children’s church even thought he’s too old so he can help the 3-year-old with his cut and paste work. He is a normal big brother who wishes we would sell his little bro to passing bedouins, but then buys him a Minecraft lego set with his own money because he doesn’t want him to feel left out of AJ’s birthday celebrations. The same quirks that make him different are the same gifts that make him awesome.
3. Don’t try to change him
I used to try to get AJ to like sports. I really like baseball, and so does my husband, and for about 3 years I tried to get AJ to like baseball. He will tell you now that he only goes to baseball games for the food. He has little interest in sports, and where we live currently sports are huge. It feels like everyone plays sports, especially boys. So I tried to get him to play on a team, and he resisted. He decided he was not into sports and probably wasn’t ever going to be. This doesn’t mean he is un-athletic, he can swim like a fish and has a yellow senior belt in Tae-Kwon-Do. He is becoming proficient with a basketball because his step-dad likes to play (yet again external forces), but has no desire to play on a team, and that’s ok.
In a previous YS blog post about Multiple Intelligences, I detail how everyone is smart in a different way, and AJ falls into the category of Intrapersonal Intelligence (works best alone), and naturalist. He is never going to be the interpersonal, bodily kinesthetic kid who likes team sports, that’s not the kid he was created to be. I have no business changing that. I have the really cool responsibility of nurturing his gifts and helping him become who he was created to be, even if that is the benevolent King of the Nerds.
We as youth ministers get to do the same thing. We get to walk alongside all of our kids as they become “that” kid that God created them to be. Whole creatures desperately in need of God’s love, and ours as well.
So look for all of those beautiful qualities in your very own “that” kid. I’ll bet you’ll find that the things that exasperate you, are the very same things that, seen through the lens of a loving parent, make them amazing.
SARA GALYON is the Episcopal Youth Community Director for St Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Madison, AL. She has been working with youth in some capacity for 15 years, and has an MA in Youth Ministry from Memphis Theological Seminary. She is a wife to a fellow youth minister, mom to two boys and two dogs, and underfunded world traveler.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.