“I love you, but…”
We’ve all said it. We had the best of intentions! We need to have a difficult conversation with a student, a volunteer, or a loved one, and we want to soften the blow. Maybe it’s something as simple as “I love you, but I wish you wouldn’t do this or that,” or maybe it’s as difficult as “First of all, I want you to know that I love you, but I have some bad news…”
It’s so easy to fall into the trap! We truly love our students; we laugh with them, cry with them, pray for them, teach them, learn from them, text them constantly, like their Instagram posts, go to camp with them, and some of us take our love for students to the extreme (I’m talking laying down your life, John 15:13 love here…) and agree to chaperone lock-in’s for them! Our logic is sound. We want to provide meaningful encouragement before the impending discipline and remind our students how much we care before having a difficult conversation; but when we say “but”, we counteract our intended encouragement and instead open up a box of doubt in the minds of our kids.
I used to fall victim to the “but” trap ALL. THE. TIME. Until I had an eye-opening experience with a middle school student in my ministry’s worship band.
A LESSON FROM JAMES
I was in college and interning in the student ministry at the church I grew up in. Most of my responsibilities were focused on working with our student musicians and coordinating student worship teams. Now, we all know how difficult it can be getting middle school students to do anything requiring focus and care (something about herding cats comes to mind…) and getting this group of kids to make music together was no exception. Who am I kidding… I would have been happy if I could get them all playing the same song, let alone make music! And amidst the out of tune guitars, clumsy keyboard clanks, and off key sopranos, there was a 7th-grade menace. We’ll call him James.
James was not your average jr. high tyrant. He was his own special breed. The kind of kid that keeps youth pastors like us up at night… wondering what he’ll do next, and how many phone calls we’ll have to make to parents, pastors, and law enforcement to sort it all out.
James was being especially mischievous on this particular Wednesday afternoon, and being the expert 19-year-old youth worker I was at the time, I had, of course, learned about the PCP method of disciplining students. If you’re unfamiliar with the PCP method, it stands for praise, criticism, praise, and it’s a useful tool in correcting students while finding ways to encourage them. My favorite intro to the PCP sandwich (as I sometimes call it) was, at that time, to say “I love you, but…”. Because I loved my students! What could possibly be a better way to start the conversation than that!
So. It was time to confront James on his worship band shenanigans. I had my PCP sandwich locked and loaded. I got James in my cross-hairs, and I fired out this gem: “James. I love you, but you really need to get yourself under control. I like your energy, just tone it down a bit!”
I was convinced that I had won. I had vanquished my twelve-year-old enemy, and would be feasting in the hall of expert youth pastors that night; eating a hot and ready pizza, seated on a throne made of thrift store couches, underneath a framed picture of Duffy Robbins.
I was wrong.
James turned to me and said, “you don’t mean that,” and immediately carried on with his antics. I was taken totally by surprise… completely flustered, actually! I calmly stammered through some unintelligible mumbling and carried on with rehearsal.
After our program that night, I pulled James aside and asked him what he meant when he told me that I didn’t mean what I had said to him that afternoon. James, of course, had no idea what I was talking about. So after I completely replayed the circumstances of my shameful defeat, James calmly said the following, life altering words to me:
“If you really love someone, it’s the end of the sentence.”
In that moment, I was reminded of so many things:
- Working with teenagers can sometimes feel like a slow descent into insanity; but they are also passionate, intelligent, image bearers of the Most High King, and they will remind you of that in heart wrecking ways when you least expect it.
- The love of Jesus is the end all and be all. The resurrected Christ doesn’t look on me and my brokenness and offer hollow platitudes with a “terms and conditions may apply” section attached; He binds up my wounds, He draws near to my broken heart, He rejoices with me when I rejoice and He sees me in my suffering, He redeems my soul, and He calls me child.
- If “I love you” means to offer my students anything less than my most sincere attempt to emulate the kind of love that Christ demonstrates to me, then it’s an empty shell that I should keep to myself.
Because of the lesson I learned from James that day, I’ve forever changed the ingredients of my PCP sandwich. I always say “ I love you. So… but, I love you.”
“I love you. So I’m not going to be ok with you treating others that way… but I love you!”
“I love you. So I’m going to have to call your parents and tell them about this… but I love you!”
“I love you. So what I have to say is going to be really difficult.…but I love you.”
I also learned that day that telling students you love them, shouldn’t be reserved for these poignant, intense moments. I love my students! I shouldn’t wait around for the right occasion to let them know it!
So this week: find a kid (maybe a kid like James), tell them you love them, and let that be the end of the sentence.