You Are Not Their Parent by Leneita Fix
For years youth leaders have been saying something that makes me cringe. It made my skin crawl even before I lived with actual teens, but now that my own children have entered youth group, it makes me want to scream. It goes something like this:
“I may not have children at home, but I’m like a parent to 50 kids in my youth ministry.”
The trouble with statements like this is that they misinterpret our role in our students’ lives. There’s no question that we guide them, teach them life skills, and comfort them when they’re upset. All too often, we are stepping into the lives of hurting students, offering a listening ear or spiritual direction. We pick up after them, remind them what an “inside voice” sounds like, and explain appropriate times to share their bodily functions—all things that go way beyond what’s listed on our job descriptions. Still, that does not make us their parent. Why?
- We are not solely responsible for feeding, clothing, or housing any of these students.
- We aren’t responsible for doing whatever it takes to keep them on track in school.
- We do not get up in the middle of the night with them to deal with the stomach flu, ear infections, or coughs. We have not sat vigil beside their beds trying to get a fever under control. And we aren’t responsible for any of their medical expenses.
- We’ve known our students for a few short years. Parents raised their kids from infancy. We didn’t teach them to walk, talk, and we definitely didn’t change their diapers.
There are obviously exceptions to some of these points. I’m certainly not saying that all parents fill all of these roles perfectly (far from it). But no matter how much time we spend with our students, at some point they leave our functions and go home to live with other people who are responsible for them in ways that we simply aren’t.
There are two major reasons we should stop pretending to be our students’ parents:
1) It takes away from their relationship with their actual parents.
Our students have a deep, heart-felt desire for the parents they live with to step up and parent them. They are longing for their home to be whole. When we take over the role of parent, the actual parents get pushed aside. We become a wedge in their relationship. The student spends more time wishing they were “out of the house” than praying for their parents or talking to them about Christ.
Of course some students have parents who don’t care about or care for them. Those are tricky situations. Earthly parents fail their children in so many ways, and that can lead to serious, long-term damage. But I have to break something to you: you aren’t the solution to those broken relationships. God is. He’s the perfect parent we all need, and you have the opportunity to point students with broken parental relationships to him.
In extreme circumstances—in cases of neglect—it becomes our responsibility to call a state agency to step in and ensure the students are taken care of. This does happen on occasion, but let’s be honest—most of our students do not fall into this category. More often, we perceive a brokenness in our students, blame the parents, and step in to save the day. Before you do that, take a second to hang up your superhero cape. You won’t need it if your primary goal is to direct students and parents into God’s healing presence.
2) It takes away from the role you should have with students.
Do your students need you to be family to them? Absolutely. They need big brothers and sisters, aunts, uncles, and grandparents. But what they really need you to be is their pastor. That means a lot of things: you’re a leader, a mentor, a friend, a confidant. But it’s not the same as being a parent.
Just think of all the amazing opportunities you get as their youth leader instead of their parent. Many teens see their parents as corny and out of touch, or worse, as authoritarians, but you get to be a discipleship model they actually want to listen to and imitate. Students trust you with secrets and confessions that their parents may never hear. You get to lead them in a community that’s larger and more diverse than most at-home families. And your role gives you a special perspective to help strengthen the many relationships in a student’s life, especially with their actual parents.
The parents at home may not know the Lord or how to guide their children in spiritual growth. We should help with that. Parents are still the primary faith influencers of their students. When was the last time you went out of your way to get to know the parents? When was the last time you asked about their difficulties? When was the last time a parent came to you struggling to understand their teen, and you brushed them off or rolled your eyes at their incompetence? That may be the response of someone hoping to become a surrogate parent, but it’s not very pastoral.
From a parent’s perspective
Putting on my parent hat for a second, can I tell you a secret? It offends me deeply when you say, “I am just like their parent.” It makes me feel like you don’t see how hard I am trying to raise my kids and get it right.
So today, stop saying you are just like their mom or dad. You are an important part of their life. Sometimes you do parent them. Yet can we all agree that, at the end of the day, God made someone else their parent? Many parents need some encouragement to keep trying. They need to know that they don’t need to be replaced. They need to hear that their kids still need and want them.
Do we have to be in a competition? Can’t we help support our students together, each from our unique perspective? My child needs your voice and presence in their life—in addition to, not instead of, mine.