Synchro-Mesh Ministry: The Parent-Youth Worker Connection

Tony Toth
October 4th, 2009

I have been a youth worker for 25 years. For 21 of those years I was convinced that youth workers had a lot of great insights for parents of high school kids. There were many times when I wanted to throttle some parents who, I was convinced, were making terrible mistakes with their children. If only they would listen to me, I thought, I know exactly what they should do.

For the last four years, at least one of my two boys has been in high school. Now I am not so sure those parents should have listened to me. Frankly, I am embarrassed that I thought parenting was so simple and clear cut. I am embarrassed that I entertained the notion that I could do a better job of parenting than most of the parents I was working with.

After all, I knew high school kids! I talked to thousands of them every year. I counseled them. They listened to me. I just assumed that my own kids would do the same when they became teenagers. As I have discovered, it wasn’t and isn’t that simple.

You Have To Have Been There

Unless we have parented a child of our own through high school, we haven’t a clue about what goes on between high school kids and their parents. I can remember numerous times when I would want one of the kids in my high school group to attend a conference or program that I thought would benefit them spiritually and then be told, “My parents won’t let me go.” I wondered what was wrong with parents whose priorities were so messed up. It never occurred to me that teaching a kid to do his or her chores or to help with other family responsibilities could be equally important spiritual priorities.

Now that I am a parent, I will admit to a parental bias. Because I still am a youth worker, I must also admit to a youth worker bias. Many of the problems between youth workers and parents are caused by the conflict between these biases. Rather than those biases being a source of conflict, however, I believe they can be complimentary. Let me put it another way. There are certain things we youth workers do particularly well; there are other things parents do particularly well. We in youth work must recognize what we do well, and than do it. We must also see what we don’t do very well, and get out of the way. We need to see our skills as a resource for ministry and our weaknesses as an opportunity for parents.

What We Do Well

We can talk to kids

The fact is that most parents do not talk to their kids (an average of 14 minutes per week, according to most studies). In his book All Grown Up and No Place To Go, David Elkind suggests that high school students need opportunities for casual, freewheeling conversation with us because often kids are not sure what is bothering them. It is through the process of talking itself, Elkind contends, that kids often discover things about themselves. A youth worker friend of mine invited a bunch of high school guys to help him move. By the end of the day he was able to ride with each of them separately in the U-Haul truck. The casual talk that went on in that truck turned into some of the most meaningful conversations he had ever had since directing the youth group. Kids need and want to talk…just talk. We parents don’t ever seem to have the time, and when we do talk to our kids we find it difficult not to interrupt, become impatient, or cut them off. It is during “casual” talks with kids that significant ministry can happen.

We can be neutral

My son, Mark, came home a few weeks ago with his friend, Kirk. Kirk said to me, “Hi, Mr. Yaconelli, I just flunked my French test.” I laughed. “French? That is a difficult course. I had a hard time with French myself.” Later, Kirk told my son, “Your dad is a great guy. He really understands.” A week later Mark walked in and announced, “Hi Dad. I just flunked my English test.” I responded immediately, “You’re on restriction for a week!” My son was incredulous. “What do you mean, I’m on restriction for a week? How come you were so understanding with Kirk?” I replied, “I don’t care if Kirk’s an idiot!”

I didn’t mean that literally, but it illustrates how difficult it is for parents to be neutral with their own children. Parents have too much at stake. They love their children too much to react objectively. High school kids need the wisdom and experience of adult friends who are a step further removed. There are only three places where kids can find adult friends and models today: school, home, and the church.

We understand youth culture

By the time most kids are in high school, their parents are in their forties or fifties. Most forty-year old parents are not aware of the latest teenage cultural nuances (and don’t particularly care to be). That’s not true of youth workers. Knowing youth culture is part of our job description. It is important for us to know who Cyndi Lauper is; staying “current” contributes to our relationship with kids. Usually, youth culture is a real point of tension with parents (e.g., dress, hairstyles, music). We can diffuse that tension by being comfortable with the kids’ culture and therefore be able to discern between harmless cultural fads and trends that really affect kids’ spirituality.

We are not immobilized by fear

I often tell high school kids, when they face a crisis with their parents, to try and understand what their parents are afraid of. Parents spend a great deal of time worrying whether their child will take drugs, get involved with the wrong crowd, drink, get in an automobile accident, get an abortion, get raped, or worse. As a result, parents often make irrational decisions (or at least very conservative decisions) about their children because they are afraid. We youth workers, on the other hand, are detached enough to let the young people in our youth groups take positive risks without the baggage of irrational parental fears.

We can say what parents can’t

The above statement is a little misleading. Actually, parents can say a lot of things…it’s just that their kids don’t often listen. But when a young person hears us say the same thing their parents have been saying, it can carry a lot more weight. Much of our work is reinforcing the values that, hopefully, our young people are receiving at home.

We can tell young people of their responsibilities to their parents

It does not violate the special relationship we have with our kids to point out to them that their families do not center around them. They need to constantly be reminded that they must carry their weight in their families. We can play a strategic role in influencing our kids to give something to their families and not just take.

We can inform parents about adolescence

Every one of us should be experts on adolescence. As we come across articles, books, surveys, and information on adolescence, we can pass that information along to parents. We can accomplish this by holding periodic meetings for parents, or by distributing a monthly newsletter to parents. I favor the newsletter because I believe more parents will read a newsletter than will go to a seminar. It’s important to remember that our role isinformational rather than sensational. Our job is not to shock parents with statistics; we want to inform parents so that they can be better informed about the world their kids live in.

There is a lot we can do to support and strengthen the family. But if we are to have a ministry that does support the family, we need to also understand two critically important things parents can do that we can’t.

What Parents Do Well

Parents know their kids better than we do

Most parents know their kids inside and out. They know their positive and negative attributes. They know when their child is only giving one side of a story. Parents are able to hold their children accountable and not let them get away with irresponsible descriptions of reality.

I worked with one youth group where a girl in the group was a constant source of trouble. As I began to counsel with her, I learned that her home was a nightmare of horrible fights between her mother and father. I immediately decided that this girl needed protection from her family. It simply never occurred to me that I might want to investigate her story, to talk with her parents and get their side. I’ll never forget our last counseling time together. This girl had just poured out her guts about another incident with her parents. She then paused, looked at me and started laughing hysterically. She said, “I can’t believe how stupid you are, Mike. I haven’t told you a true statement since we met. I have been around professional psychiatrists for a long time and I can fool them. You were easy. My folks are just fine; it’s me that’s screwed up.” I was humiliated, but I learned a valuable lesson. There is a lot we know about the kids in our groups, but most parents know their kids a lot better than we do.

Parents love their kids more than we do

It’s easy for us to spiritualize our love of kids. Because we are concerned about their spiritual well-being, we’re not always sure about some parents’ concern. We can begin to believe that we love the kids more than their parents do. That simply isn’t true. Most parents love their children. Most parents want what’s best for their children, even if what they think is best is different than what we think. We must learn to give parents the benefit of the doubt. It will make a great difference in how we treat parents if we assume that they love their children.

So Where Do We Go from Here?

All my verbiage so far means simply this: We in youth work should use our gifts to inform, edify, and help parents to develop better relationships with their children. The question is, of course, how do we begin to do this—especially if we haven’t been doing it previously? A couple of basic shifts in our structure and our style can get us a long way toward our goal.

  1. Structure our youth programs for better parenting.

    Rather than putting on “parents’ seminars” where we tell parents what they need to do, we can be more effective by building activities into our programs that give parents the chance to do what they, as parents, need to do. For example, encouraging kids to write letters of appreciation to their parents can help parents to recognize their need to affirm their kids. Planning a family retreat or special event gives parents and children the chance to spend time with each other. Having the kids serve the food at an adult banquet allows the kids to see their parents letting their hair down and having a good time.

    Our youth group went on a Polaroid scavenger hunt a few years back. Many of the parents were drivers. Even though we tried to make sure kids didn’t go in the same car with their parents, it happened. After the event one of the kids came up to me and said, “Wow, we really had a great time. I never knew my dad could be so much fun!” We can structure into our programs all sorts of activities and meetings that allow parents and their children to dialogue, to talk, and to see each other in new ways.

  2. Provide encouragement rather than advice.

    Most parents have no idea that the problems they face with their children are the same problems other parents face as well. Because we parents don’t want to admit that we have problems with our children, we don’t talk much about them with other parents. What we can do to help parents with this area is to verbalize what parents have a difficult time verbalizing.

    We have all had the experience of reading or hearing something that caused us to respond,

    “That’s it! That’s exactly how I feel!” We suddenly realize that someone else has felt the same way we have, that we are not alone, and that maybe we are normal. For example, almost all parents get into the rut of communicating only negative statements to their children (“Is your room clean?” “Did you take out the trash?” “Did you brush your teeth?” “Did you finish your homework?”)

    The result is that many kids never hear a positive or affirming statement from their parents. By informing parents of this common complaint from kids—without any advice or moralism—the parent realizes not only that negativism is a problem, but that it is acommon problem. Result: The parent is encouraged by understanding that they are normal and is motivated to be more affirming because they are now more aware of what they are doing.

We’re All in This Together

Parents do recognize that they need our help with their kids. They don’tneed simplistic advice, formulas, or moralizing. They do need our support, encouragement, insight into the youth culture, and (most of all) understanding. They need us to be a friend and a model to their child. They recognize that we love their kids, but they want us to recognize that they love their kid, too. They want us to have an impact on their child. By all means, let’s do that…as long as it’s not at the parents’ expense.

Tony Toth

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.