I don’t remember much from my middle school years, but I do remember one song we shared in our spring choir concert that has stuck with me throughout my life. With summer close on the horizon, a group of pre-teens belted out a rendition of “Greatest Love of All”, Whitney Houston’s appeal to trust children and let them help lead the way into the future. It was a song that expressed trust in the capability of the youth to accomplish great things. At the time, I wasn’t cognizant of how great a gift being trusted to be capable really is. I finished the school year and headed out on my bike into the summer, taking that gift for granted. That was more than thirty years ago.
Parental Involvement in Emotional Infantilism
We now find ourselves in the waning days of the Long Summer. With the end of summer comes a return to school. Perhaps this year, more than most, families are shopping for schools to serve their children in these uncertain times. During this “school shopping” phase in a normal (non-COVID) school year, I’m blessed to meet with families as they tour our facilities. After introductions I engage a potential student in conversation to learn about him. I’ll ask simple questions, like “What do you like to do with your time when you’re not in school?” or similar questions a teen should be able to answer. Except he can’t. He never gets the chance. He might be thinking, “I like to ride bikes”, but he never gets the word out. My question no sooner penetrates the air and suddenly the blades start whirling and his answer is drowned out by the chuff-chuff-chuff sounds of the helicopter parent. If you listen closely, it doesn’t matter what answer the parent gives—it always sounds like “You’re not capable to speak for yourself.”
Perhaps that image brings a smile to your face because you’ve seen it happen. Perhaps the image prompts a bit of indignation because it hits too close to home. Regardless, my purpose for sharing such a scenario is to pull back the veil on the idea that our society sees young people as frail and in need of protection. Somehow a sound idea like cushioning our little ones in safety seats has morphed into cocooning them in emotional bubble wrap. We’ve embraced some strange plausibility structure that because the children are the future, they are not capable in the here and now.
Legitimate Dangers and Impeding Maturity
What mother wouldn’t be scared as she lathers her children up with hand sanitizer and double-checks for extra face masks before sending them off into those scary post-COVID classrooms? We have reasons to be afraid. The risks can be very real. But at some point, the risks must be faced. We must draw the distinction between protecting our youth from legitimate dangers and impeding their maturity by refusing to let them navigate life. Thirty years ago, as I pedaled off into summer vacation my grandmother insisted I wear a helmet; however no one stopped me from exploring the world on my Schwinn. Wearing the helmet protected me from serious head injury and is advice I heed as an adult; preventing the bike rides would have stunted my confidence of my place in the world.
Set an Example in Speech
I sometimes wonder how confusing it must be to have one’s parent answer questions about your hobbies and then step into a classroom with a bright poster proclaiming, “Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.” (1 Timothy 4:12).
Set an example in speech? How can our young people do that when so many have their voices drowned by well-meaning protectors? We’ve been so focused on preserving their childhood that we easily lose focus of their future and then we complain when they’re not ready to embrace adulthood. I frequently encounter the sentiment that the children are not the church of the future, they are the church now. How true! Even the youngest children in our church have been washed in the baptismal waters and claimed by the Holy Spirit. Our middle-schoolers have professed their faith in Christ and vowed before the altar of God “to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from it.” If we are quick to overshadow an answer to the question, “What do you like to do?” how will they ever learn to answer a question like, “Who is Jesus?”
Youth are His Disciples
Jesus is the one who chided his disciples, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 19:14). He is also the one who received a simple lunch from a boy and used that gift to feed thousands (John 6). Jesus is God-man whose singular death and subsequent resurrection opened the way to the future. He is the one who left the apostles with a command to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28). Ask our young people—they will be able to tell you this because they are His disciples from among the nations.
Because they are His disciples, we must not only allow them to speak. We must encourage it. It is incumbent that we create space for our youth to set examples with their words and their lives and their love and their faith and their purity. This isn’t just a duty that St. Paul passed onto his young charge. It is the vocation that belongs to even the youngest of Jesus’ disciples.
Give Freedom to Serve
Allowing our youth to speak for themselves is merely the beginning of encouraging them to speak for Christ and to be confident in Him. Look around for ways to allow our youth to bring their gifts to bear in the church. Invite them to lead Sunday School for younger students. Let them serve as ushers and A/V board operators. (If we can trust our students to walk down the halls of their schools and use their cell phones, why don’t we trust them to collect offering and operate the sound system?) In so far as legal regulations permit, have them serve on committees and take on leadership roles. Get rid of titles that begin with the abbreviation “Jr.” and embrace them as co-equal heirs of the kingdom capable of exploring their Holy Spirit-endowed gifts. Recruit them to be a vital part of budget planning and call committees.
It’s scary because they might make mistakes—just like their older siblings in the Kingdom. But if the gates of Hell won’t prevail against the church, I think we’re safe with well-meaning missteps of inexperience. Rather than embracing such fear, point our young charges to the fact that the boy who gave up his loaves and fish certainly made mistakes—but none of those is recorded in God’s word. Giving our young people the freedom to serve is intimidating because when we give them the reigns, there are real-life consequences that will follow. Some of those consequences may not be pleasant. So be it. We are a people formed by the unpleasant consequence of the cross and left with a promise that God works all things together for good for those who are called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28). If we protect our children from the potentially unpleasant consequences of their service, we actually place ourselves in the position of hindering God’s working all things for the good of our youngsters (if such hindrance is possible).
No one ever learned how to ride a bike while their father’s hand was still holding onto the seat. The loving parent eventually lets go and knows that those first wobbly rides are likely to result in some scratches, scrapes and spills. Hidden in those breath-holding moments of letting go is also a surge in confidence necessary for the child to mature and begin to take her own place in the world and find her own direction as she begins to pedal into the future. There is no sweeter sound than the victorious voice crying out, “Look at me! I can do it, Daddy!” There is no reason for a simple bike ride to be the last time our Heavenly Father’s children cry out in similar praise. It’s time to let go of the bike and embrace the future.
Show youth they can answer the question of "who am I?" in a six-session Bible study.