The 3 Worlds of a Teenager
It is hard to believe but I already have fellow classmates e-mailing me to see what we are going to do for our 20 year high school reunion! I did have a lot of fun throughout high school. As I look back I can remember all of the things that I used to get involved with: sports, theatre, youth group, student council, summer jobs, and I still had plenty of time to go on retreats, mission trips, youth group activities and family events. That was 20 years ago when "extra-curricular" activities were "extra". There were many things I got involved with because they only involved a season. The Fall always included Cross-Country and the Fall Play. The Winter always included Wrestling and the Winter Play. The Spring involved getting ready for the mission trip that the youth group was preparing for. The Summer included mission trips and part-time jobs. I had a lot of fun getting involved in many things with my school and church. Unfortunately, 20 years later, I am starting to see some unhealthy trends in the youth culture that are threatening the family and making the church completely irrelevant in the eyes of teens.
Throughout history there have been 3 primary institutions that have helped to shape each one of us: 1) the church, 2) the family and 3) the workplace. As I have observed families in many churches, it has become apparent to me that the healthiest families are the one's who can maintain a healthy balance between these three worlds. In order for teenagers to thrive they need to spend time in all three areas. But it appears that the trends lately are for teens to give a majority of their time in their "workplace" (school / sports / work) as the influence of the family and the church fade away into existence. It seems that any commitment that is expected of our teens is no longer merely for a season, but instead it is demanding of every moment of their time all year around. More and more parents feel disengaged from their teens. Churches everywhere want a ministry for their students but when the ministry is established students don't come out because they are already over-committed in so many other areas. Sundays used to be considered a sacred day for the family to practice their faith together and spend time together before the work week kicked off again. This being a command from God Himself! But instead I see and hear more and more parents and students running off to sporting events that are interfering with the faith and family times. The disturbing thing is that we are accepting this as normal.
Diagram 1 below illustrates the tensions that I observe with many parents and youth leaders. We all seem to be competing for time with our teens and it is easy to feel stressed and frustrated by how our commitments seem to keep us so busy that we do not have much time for the things that are just as important, if not more important: our relationship with God and our family. Thomas Hine points out in his excellent book The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager that:
"For most families, long work hours and parental absence from the home are not an option but a necessity - at least if the family is to maintain a high material standard. The work is, in fact, often justified in terms of providing young people with the best opportunities for schooling and later life. Still, there must be some connection between the sense of disengagement that adults bemoan in contemporary teenagers and young people's complaints that their elders don't simply misunderstand them but really can't be bothered with them.
There's no doubt that peers are influential in key areas of young people's lives, no matter what parents do. In a society like ours, where change is rapid and teenagers spend most of their time with others exactly their age, the young have more authority than adults have. Still, there is evidence that if parents to take a lively, though not defensive, interest in their children's lives, their teens are less likely to commit crimes, use drugs, or become pregnant prematurely. For example, teenagers who have dinner with their families most nights are far less likely to get into trouble than those who do not. Yet, the pressures on both parents and teenagers are in the other direction: toward immersion in work to support the overhead, not the essence, of family life."
One of my greatest fears is what we teach the next generation by making our work and their work of primary importance, willingly giving away the time that would be spent with family and church to these seemingly important causes. Should teens do well in school, go out for extra-curricular activities and work hard. Absolutely! But the greatest influence in any teenagers life is his or her parents. And if parents willingly allow other "good" things to impose and steal time away from the truly "greater" things I am afraid that we might be raising generation after generation who are disengaged from their families and church. In the book A Tribe Apart, Patricia Hersch states that in her observations of teens:
"What kids need from adults is not just rides, pizza, chaperones, and discipline. They need the telling of stories, the close ongoing contact so that they can learn and be accepted. If nobody is there to talk to, it is difficult to get the lessons of your own life so that you are adequately prepared to do the next thing. Without a link across generations , kids will only hear from their peers."
I want to encourage you as parents to take back control of your own schedule and your teens. Spend time together. When was the last time that your family just had some down time together? Take back Sundays! Say no to the coaches that seem to be taking every minute of your teens life. If enough parents speak out they will adjust their schedules to keep the parents happy. The greatest influence that anyone will ever have on a teenager is their parents. You are their parent, teacher and youth pastor all in one. You raise the bar in each of those areas. My job is merely to support you teens' spiritual development to the level of importance that you have modeled within your household.
Diagram 2 illustrates what a balanced life looks like between the three worlds. When all three worlds are balanced well there is going to be overlap. A youth leader has the time to make it to one of the teens' sporting events. A parent has the time to volunteer for a youth group activity. A teacher or coach has time to support other areas of their teens' life. This may seem impossible, but I have seen it done. I was a Fellowship of Christian Athletes speaker for a football team at McDowell High School in Erie, PA. I saw the head coach raise the bar high for his players not only on the football field but also in all other areas of their lives. I was able to speak to the team on a weekly basis helping them to process the lessons they learn on the field and how it relates to the game of life. And when a teammate accidentally died in the Winter of 2005 the coach called the FCA team to help coordinate a student-led memorial service for their teammate. It was awesome to observe a coach who not only cared about his players physical life, but also made the extra effort to support their family lives and their spiritual lives. As a result, the team consistently had winning seasons and went far into the playoff season.
Make the extra effort to create time for your family and also to stay connected and involved in church. If anyone is guilty of "stealing" too much time away from you and your teen don't be afraid to be jealous of that time and speak out. Extremes are never a good thing for anybody but when a parent can help a teen to stay balanced in these three worlds - school, church and family - your teen will grow up strong in their faith, their commitment to their family and their responsibility to their work. What more could you ask for?