At the beginning of every school year we have a meeting for parents of 11th grade students.  In our community, we find that 11th grade is the linchpin year in the lives of our students.  In other words, 11th grade has become a year that is filled with so much pressure (college prep, varsity sports, AP courses, driving, working and maintaining relationships in a social media driven world) that good students are making a lot of dumb choices.

During this parent meeting we work through an infographic that I created that generically describes development and potential red flags for our parents to be aware of as their student gets older. One of the main points of this time is first to remind parents that they are the most important people in their child’s life and secondly to challenge them to make sure there is space for that relationship in their life and in their student’s life.  That may mean parents are going to have to make tough choices, give up some overtime and spend more quality time with their student. That may mean that their student doesn’t take four AP courses or play three varsity sports. Parents and students have to make the commitment to spend time together because parents are only given 18 years. It will be during this quality time that parents will remind their student who they are.
It is my belief that one of the struggles our teenagers are dealing with is discovering who they are.  Much of their time during this period of their life is responding to who people need them to be.  Think…who does my coach need me to be? Who does my teacher need me to be? Who does my friend want me to be? Who does my girlfriend/boyfriend want me to be? Teens spend so much time responding to be who others want them to be that they kind of forget who they really are. So we see good kids making dumb choices.  We see kind kids bullying others on social media.  We see respectful teens being really disrespectful.  They have forgotten who they are in a attempt to be who society tells them they should be.

So what is our response as youth leaders?  I believe our role is to partner with families in reminding students who they really are. Let’s not focus on who the student is not, instead let’s pour hope and love into who the student really is.  That means reminding a student that they are loving, kind, generous, patient, wise, influential, a leader, a learner, a beautiful beloved child of God.  We must join with families in naming them and renaming them with these positive traits.  What if we took a stand in the church and did not let negative behavior define a student? What if when a student made a negative choice the church, the parents and the community rallied to their side, not to condemn but to hold up, show love and grace? What if our students felt like their youth ministry was more like a hospital than a convent?  That they didn’t have to have it all together to get in, but were most welcomed, most nurtured, most wanted when they were the most broken.
What if our youth ministries weren’t just places that needed from our students, but were places that our students knew that they needed?

If you don’t know enough about a student to help a parent remind them who they are, then I encourage you to talk to the parent and just ask two questions, “What do you love about your child?” and “Tell me some of your favorite things about your son or daughter”.  Then just sit back and listen as they tell you and remind themselves who their child really is.

Thanks for loving students!

David Thompson is a youth pastor in the UMC from Alabama and a DYM Author.