A couple of weeks ago I had the distinct joy of spending a week with my eldest son, Grey, on a motorcycle. Grey is 9, and fairly new to riding (passenger, of course). I think before we left he’d done maybe 50 miles, career.
So I shouldn’t have been surprised that he ultimately was over the trip before it ended. We went from Chattanooga to Memphis by way of Huntsville, then returned from Memphis to Chattanooga by way of Gadsen using only state highways so that when grandmama eventually finds out about the trip she’ll only murder me once. It was somewhere between 800-900 miles in all. We had mostly good weather, and at the end mom & brother came down to Gadsen to spare Grey the final 120 miles that were spent in at least a continual drizzle, mostly rain, and the occasional downpour. We probably still wouldn’t be home if she hadn’t.
The alleged main purpose of the trip was that for my birthday this year I wanted to take a road trip with Grey. He’s got a great music teacher, Dr. Lane, that has turned him on to the The Beatles & Elvis; so, deciding it would be easier to ride to Graceland than Liverpool, we made our plans.
The real reason I wanted to go was that I wanted to head off something I see in most of my youth as they enter our program. In a great majority of kids, I see a huge gulf in communication between them and their parents. Somewhere way back they realized that certain subjects that they were curious about or just beginning to learn about their parents very distinctly weren’t talking about – sex, bad words, whatever. On the other hand, they were also realizing that their friends were totally willing to talk about those things. So in an odd misalignment of “honor your parents,” they subconsciously agreed to not talk about those things with mom & dad. Mostly ever.
I don’t want that gulf between me and my boys.
After talking with my wife and many age-level professionals, I felt cleared for the following idea: on our trip, we were going to talk about all of the bad words. Just get them all out there on the table and talk about them. Rank them. Make a chart. Talk about how words don’t have meaning until we give them meaning and that most times it’s how you use the words that gets you in trouble. We talked about how James May (“Captain Slow” from Top Gear UK) says, “oh, cock,” all the time and how weird it is that the word is nearly charming in England but a quick, free ride to the principal’s office here.
I hadn’t necessarily intended to talk about sex just yet, but somewhere near the top of the chart realized that if you’re going to explain that word you kinda have to. Soon we had little cartoon people drawn with a handful of words ranging from medical to vulgar assigned to various parts of the body (cue James May).
Fortunately, the conversation started naturally; he asked why “sexy” was sometimes a bad word but also why everyone keeps saying it. That opened the door for the revelation that there really aren’t any “bad words,” there are just at times offensive words, and that when we use words that are offensive, there are consequences. Through the whole conversation he’d occasionally facepalm and shake his head saying, “I keep feeling guilty and that I’m about to get in trouble.” But then he’d laugh, and there was obvious relief in his tone.
Which was exactly what I wanted. All I wanted from the week was for him to realize that there’s no subject that he can’t come to me and talk about. That there is no “bad” conversation. That there is no thing that mom & dad aren’t willing to talk out with him. And I made it crystal clear that as he gets older I don’t expect us to have to agree on every subject. We talked about how he’s going to have to make his own decisions about things in life and faith and that I always want to talk with him about everything, even and almost especially if we don’t agree.
I think he got it. In case you’re wondering if I corrupted him, I didn’t. He already knew all the words. He actually made the list without my help. He just didn’t know what most of them meant. And it really felt at the end of the week that him knowing what they mean will curtail him feeling like he needs to say any of them to fit in. He seemed to realize that there was an implied trust in having the conversation and that I wasn’t simply arming him to go back and ruin/inform his little brother or become the Font of Swearing Knowledge at school. He realized that his friends don’t understand what they’re saying, they’re mostly just saying bad words for the sake of saying bad words. He knows that his friends don’t understand how hateful their speech is when they throw around racial slurs or derogatory epithets. And in our last conversation on the trip, we got to talk about the real power of words, which is where we get to choose how our words will affect someone. How a kind word or a forgiving word has equal or usually even greater power to impact another than any curse or insult.
So what does that have to do with youth ministry? Your youth ministry and your church is the parent. Your youth have things that they want to talk about that they’ve realized that the church isn’t comfortable talking about, so they’re honoring that. They’ll talk about it with their friends for a while, and probably eventually head out on their own for a bit to figure those things out for themselves. They might come back when they’re older; we really do seem to understand our parents more when we grow up a little. We forgive them their faults, treasure their goodness, and build a new relationship.
But what if we started talking with them about those things now, in a way that isn’t trying to “fix” them? What aren’t you talking about? Doubt? Sex? Death? Are you letting them question God and scripture?
Do your kids feel guilty or relieved when they come and talk to you?