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You are here: Home » Relationships » Meet the parents

Meet the parents

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FamiliesThey say that when you get married, you're marrying the family as well as the person. What they don't tell you is that it's pretty much the same when you become a church youth leader.

Or, to put it another way, if you think of your youth work only in terms of the young people themselves you're missing something important: their family, and especially their parents/ guardians. In the words of one youth worker: ‘If you don’t figure out that you have to work with the parents of your young people, you haven't figured out how to work with young people.’

For some of you, this focus on parents will already seem an obvious part of your role as a youth worker. In fact, in the US, some churches have started appointing a ‘Pastor to Families with Teenagers’ in place of a youth worker. I suspect others of you will take a little more convincing.

If the truth be known, many youth workers suffer from a negative view of parents, or what American writer Paul Borthwick calls 'parent-noia'.

Tony, a youth worker in from North-West England, put it this way: ‘Thinking about it, I've always been quick to criticise parents. Sometimes it's to get in with the kids, if you agree with them when they make some comment about their mum or dad, you tend to win their approval. I think it's also because so often we imagine we could do a better job. We become judge and jury over their parenting skills, normally based on hearing one side of the story from a youngster in our group.’

Tony's negative view isn't that uncommon. We too easily write off parents as being out of touch, blinkered or uncaring, and imagine ourselves as the solution. Instead of trying to work with parents to help them overcome some of these issues (recognising that they are true some of the time), we put ourselves up as the answer and believe we can step into their parenting shoes. And that, as John discovered, is a dangerous move.

I sat in McDonalds with John, a youth worker in a growing church with over 40 young people, and his drawn grey face told its own story.

‘It seemed obvious when I started. Everyone knows that parents are completely out of touch with their kids. Most teenagers are doing things their parents haven't got a clue about. And parents are too busy to stop and hang out with their kids and really get to know them. I felt like it was up to me to do what the parents weren't, especially where the marriage had broken up and one parent was bringing up the children on their own.’

‘A surrogate parent?’

‘Yes, that's exactly how I saw myself. It seems crazy now, but I really thought that’s what I should be doing. I spent my all my time rushing around solving their crisis, making sure they were doing their school work, sometimes even going with them to interviews and things like that.’

‘Did it work?’

‘I was certainly popular with both the kids and the parents. The kids used to tell me how much more understanding and cool I was compared to their parents. And the parents used to think it was great when I did so much. One even used to ring me up and ask me to talk to their child about keeping their room clean. But it's hard enough to bring up one or two of your own kids, let alone 40. It wasn't long before it all began to fall apart and I started to resent the way parents were leaving so much to me.’

John had fallen into the trap of believing he was there to be a parent to the young people in his youth group. However tempting it may be, especially when a youngster's parents really do fall short of what is needed, it's not what being a youth worker is about. John's reflection, some two years on, summed it up:

‘You’ve got to remember a couple of things. One is that the chances are, you won’t be around for those kids forever. Most salaried youth workers stay around for three, maybe four, years at the most. Then you're gone. Even volunteer youth workers may move on. What are the young people supposed to do then, if you've taken on the role of parenting them? You become just as destructive as a parent who leaves when a marriage breaks down. And, of course, in the meantime you're own marriage will probably do the same, given the amount of time you spend with your kids.’

Enabling, not doing

The challenge is that, as youth workers – both salaried and volunteer, we need to think more about enabling parents to do what they are there to do, instead of taking on that role ourselves. And, although there are going to be situations where that is impossible, there are plenty of other families where, with a little focus on supporting and helping parents, a lot more could be achieved.

It comes down to understanding what youth workers are there to do and what parents are there to do. The Biblical mandate from Ephesians is clear: parents hold the ultimate responsibility for raising their children, including their teenagers. With this Biblical perspective in mind, the place of youth ministry changes. Instead of feeling responsible, and guilty, for every rebellious teenager in the church, we should see ourselves as assistants to parents as they carry out their role.

That doesn't mean youth ministry is redundant, far from it. Youth workers salaried and volunteer - can get alongside young people in a way that sometimes parents just can't. We can be far more neutral about issues young people face, we hopefully understand youth culture better than parents, and we can sometimes say things to young people that parents can't. What is needed though, is for youth leaders to begin to see what they do in the bigger context of families and the responsibilities of parents.

Of course, many families are no longer together and things can get a great deal more complicated when you have to deal with a mum and dad living separately. And it's going to get worse. Family in the next century is going to be more and more fragmented and the days of the simple nuclear family of two parents and two children are long gone (if they ever existed). While this throws up all kinds of issues, the challenge of working with parents remains. You may be able to relate closely to both parents when they are separated, or with just one. They may be working together to bring up their children, or fighting over every issue. And there may be some parents who you'd love to work with, but who just don't want to know.

But where it's possible, what does working in conjunction with parents and guardians look like? I'd like to suggest some practical things that you can do to make your relationships with parents more productive.

1. Establish a relationship with parents

You won't get far without some kind of positive relationship between you and the parents of your young people. Test yourself using the quiz 'How parent-wise are you' and then think about some of the ways you could build a relationship with them, including: 

  • A Parent's Night. Sounds crazy, but why not have one evening in your youth programme when parents are positively encouraged to come along. You could decide to run a regular meeting with the parents observing, to get some idea of what you do, or put on something special, where the youth group do something specifically for the parents watching. One church ran a parents/children challenge where teams of parents and young people had to work together to complete different physical and mental challenges. 
  • Letters. Don't just send your youth programme to your young people, send it to their parents as well, along with a letter introducing yourself and the other youth leaders. Don't assume that little Charlie tells his parents everything. Like most teenagers, communication between parent and teenager may take the form of primeval grunts! By communicating more like this you'll make the parents feel more involved and supportive of what you're doing. 
  • Casual Chats. Use moments after church services or when you are dropping youngsters off home, to stay and chat for a few moments. It's not the time to get drawn into a long discussion on the various complaints about their youngster. In fact, you may not talk about young people at all. How about seeing them as individuals in their own right and talking about their lives, not just their children.
2. Provide Resources
 Being the parent of a teenager can be a pretty scary experience. How about offering a programme to support them? Ideas for this could include:
  • Buy parenting books and tapes to lend to parents. There are plenty of resources, both secular and Christian, that parents might find really helpful. Why not put together a library and display it somewhere accessible.
  • Keep in touch with parents about other resources. How about writing to the parents of your youth group and letting them know when and where TV programmes about parenting and/or young people are on, plus making recordings yourself for anyone who misses it.
  • Link new parents with older more experienced ones. As youngsters approach their teenage years, why not offer their parents some help and advice from other parents who have already been through the teenage phase with their own children. Parents are unlikely to seek out this help themselves, but might take up this kind of offer. Alternatively, set up a meeting and have a panel of older parents ready to answer questions. And remember, it's not just about finding parenting experts who can answer particular questions, sometimes just knowing that others have faced the same issues and challenges can be enough. 
3. Teach your young people to be better children

Think about ways you can help your young people explore what it means to be a good son or daughter. How about including some of the following in your programme: 

  • Share some of your own experiences as a son or daughter. Let your youth group learn from some of the mistakes you made and the issues you faced. Talk openly about the kinds of feelings you had as a teenager and, if it's relevant, as a parent.
  • Get your group to do practical things for their parents. You may think that making Mother's Day or Father's Day cards is for the children's groups in church, but they don't need to be crayon drawings of stick people. Get cool and creative, and get your group making cards that will really make an impact.
  • Be sensitive to parents. If your youth group are like most teenagers, they won't give much thought to their parents' finances; they just tend to make demands on it. Make sure you don't do the same. Avoid planning expensive weekends away too close to Christmas or in close succession and give parents plenty of warning when there are events coming up that will cost money.
  • Many young people will need support where their families are no longer living together. As their youth worker, you can help them deal with some of the bitterness, anger and hurt some young people may be feeling. Helping a youngster through a period of total hatred of their dad who had left home, to a point where they could appreciate they were not all bad, was one of the most rewarding things I have done in the past year.
4. Let parents do what they are there to do

Being a youth worker isn't the same as being a parent, so give your parents space to do what they do best. 

  • Remember that, for the most part, parents know their children better than you do. They can pretty much tell when they're lying or when there's something fishy going on. Make sure you always hear both sides of the story before you believe a young person about how terrible and unreasonable their parents are.
  • It's worth reminding yourself too, that most parents love their children more than you do, as youth leader. Even if we disagree with the way they do it, they most often have the interest of their children at heart. Sometimes it pays to give them the benefit of the doubt.

The family perspective

Most people who've been working as a youth leader will tell you that ‘family' is by far the biggest area of need and hurt for young people. In all the hours I've sat and talked with teenagers, issues around the family far exceed those around school, relationships, drugs or just about anything else. Whether we like it not, family must play a central role in our work as youth leaders if we are going to really help youngsters where they're hurting. The key is understanding that helping a teenager may involve working with the parents as much as the youngsters themselves. True there are going to be parents where this just isn't possible, but there are plenty of others where it is. You may not have the official title of 'Pastor working with Families of Teenagers' but it may be worth having the approach of one.

How 'parent-wise' are you?

1. Do you know the first names of the parents/ guardians of your youth group members? 

2. Do they know yours? 

3. Would the parents of your youth group know what subjects or issues you covered in the last three months? 

4. How many times have you chatted to parents of your youth group on the phone in the last two weeks? 

5. Do the parents of your youth group have your telephone number or would they have to ring someone in the church to find it? 

6. How many parents would you be able recognise on the phone by their voice before they gave you their name? 

7. If a young person in your youth group had a serious crisis, would their parents ring the minister first or you? 

8. How many meetings have you held for parents in the last year? 

9. Have you ever talked to parents about what they see as priorities for your youth work?

10. How many books and resources for parents do you have ready to lend out?


Chris Curtis is the Director of the Luton Churches Education Trust, UK