Uncle Sam, I’ve got to tell you something, we were offended tonight at small group. I was so disappointed at how they treated us, it was nothing like last week.
That’s what my niece said to me as she and her friend climbed into the backseat of my car (as if I was their chauffeur or something). I was there to pick them up from youth group at our local church, and my niece had invited her friend along to check it out. Admittedly it was a risky move. She herself had only been to the youth group once before so she was still relatively new and didn’t fully know what to expect. In addition, being new to Atlanta, she’s still in the process of building friendships in that all important age of teenage peer pressure. Therefore, it was kind of critical that taking the risk to invite a friend to church went well. Unfortunately it didn’t, and there was an important life lesson in it for all of us. What do you do when someone or something doesn’t meet your expectations?
On the ride home I listened to both of their stories of how slight infractions (someone looking at them the wrong way, few people speaking to them, feeling like they were being asked to proselytize to their friends) led them to feeling that overall the youth group failed to create a welcoming environment. I asked them both a relevant question (it was really the elephant in the room), what was the racial make-up of the groups? And there it was. Silence. For some reason my niece, who is bi-racial (Mexican and Black), and her friend who is black, both felt uncomfortable naming the fact that they felt like oddballs in a sea of mostly white kids. Their outsider status as one of the few kids of color in the room probably contributed to their noticing many of the real or perceived social infractions from their peers. For my niece’s friend, it was likely her first experience in such a setting growing up in almost all black neighborhoods and all black schools in Atlanta. For my niece, while she is used to being around more white kids (where they still don’t necessarily talk explicitly about race) it is just the beginning of what we plan to expose her to when it comes to diversity of experiences.
At the end of our first school week as parents of a teenager (in addition to our 3 biological children) my wife and I are realizing a few new truths about parenting. First, all of the preparation that we’re doing with our 3 young daughters now at the ages of 6, 4, and almost 1 year old, matter. It’s creating an incredible foundation of values, confidence, and world-views that will serve them well later in life. It’s hard to see this when you’re in the midst of telling a 4 year old for the umpteenth time to think about their choices, but I’ve come to realize that you start this early enough and often enough and you’ll produce a teenager that thinking about their choices comes naturally. Little things like creating time management habits, values around sharing, proper communication, all of these things are learned behaviors that kids pick up from what you expose them to, and we have been intentional about exposure.
Second, it’s never too late to start somewhere. We’ve decided to start with her personal mission, and building her own capacity to lead her life (that’s a reoccurring theme in this household). Over the past few months we’ve had several deep conversations about everything from social media to sex to organization. Everything starts with, how is this decision helping you to become a better leader? Being the learner that I am, I’m currently reading Parenting Teens with Love and Logic, Strengths Based Parenting, and Five Love Languages for Teens. I’m even paying my niece to read Do Hard Things, written by two teens. She’s also taking her own strengths exam from the strengths based parenting book, and we reference her strength themes often (just yesterday as we met to plan our weeks, we talked about the activities she should try out for based on her strength themes). It’s actually given us a good glimpse into how some of our theories about parenting would work on a teenager.
Finally, we’ve realized that there’s a huge amount of grace that parents need to extend themselves. It’s pretty difficult to mess up a kid (honestly, I think we all come pre-wired as messed up anyways), life is about embracing that resilience and making something better out of the messes we find ourselves in. To her credit, my niece has taken on a very mature approach (might have something to do with her responsibility strength) to this whole experience. Which brings me back to her experience at youth group. As they sat in the backseat complaining, I didn’t really respond much. I just sat there listening. At the end, I only offered one piece of advice to my niece: maybe they (the folks who lead the youth group) don’t know what you know. Maybe you should speak up and do something about it (pulling on her command and responsibility strength themes!). We’ll see if she does or not, what ends up happening in this matter is kind of beside the point. It’s the expectation that she can always do something about a problem that I want to plant in her mind.
It’s been a bit more exhausting these days with an additional person to parent, but in many ways there’s also more reward in it when I see her get it right. She already has gotten so much right thus far, even having the courage to invite a friend to church, that’s kind of a big deal. Kids seem to rise to your level of expectation about them, so I’m expecting big things from this one.