I’ve had the opportunity of working professionally with children for almost 6 years. I started as a volunteer tutor for the organization I’m with and in almost 6 years I’ve served many children from Pre-K to high school. Every child I’ve worked with is unique in their own way. I’ve also had the opportunity for several years to work with our youth choir at my church, teach Sunday school and bible study. This year has convinced me further of God’s calling for my life and it has largely happened within the context of serving youth. Over these years I’ve learned several things as it relates to being a youth worker and I’d like to share them with you.
- Everything rises and falls on building relationships. As we see in the sports world, you really cannot discipline a child properly if you haven’t built a relationship with them. Building a relationship with a child is about getting to know them on a personal level. We build relationships by hanging out, finding out their likes/dislikes and just taking a general interest in their lives. I’ve learned that I can be harder on the children that I’ve developed a connection and relationship with. This year I’ve done a better job of initiating conversations with young people in the organizations I’m a part of. I’ve even initiated conversations with children who may come off as having an attitude. In the past I’ve been more inclined to avoid those who look like they have an attitude. However, this year I’ve initiated more conversations with them and realized that that is a part of getting to know the young person. I’m all for being tough on our children and disciplining them, but I believe that discipline is useless when we’re not effectively getting to know them. If every conversation we have with a child is about an issue they have (more on this a little later), that child is going to act even more defiant against the adult always talking about an issue with them. I believe in a balanced approach in terms of relationship building and discipline. 50-75% of my talk with children should be in the relationship building mode, while the rest should be disciplining them. I am convinced that when we have a culture of relationship building in place, it creates more harmony and unity. To be effective youth workers we must be willing to get to know the child on a personal level. The child will remember you for your discipline, but they’ll also remember those times that you took interest in something they like. Never underestimate the power of relationship building when it comes to working with you.
- Focus more on the assets of the child instead of their liabilities. As I just heard someone say, as human beings we’re more bent to the negative in things than the positive. This bent is very destructive when working with children. Especially with teenagers, they already know that they have certain issues and problems. The last thing they need for us to do is remind them of their problems. I am not justifying this idea of sweeping problems under the rug (that causes more damage). What I am saying is that we should focus on the assets (strengths, talents, etc) of our children and develop them based on those identifiable assets. This will help them as they get older and move into adulthood. Too many of us adults do not have an accurate view of ourselves because we were reminded so much in childhood of what was wrong with us. As a result, we tend to focus way more on what’s wrong with us than what’s right. We must continue to help our children cultivate the greatness that is on the inside of them. We want to be responsible for developing children into confident adults. A part of helping a child develop confidence is allowing them to focus on their strengths and talents. Too much hangs on the balance for us to not help our children develop the confidence they need as they move forward in life.
- Children need and look for consistency from adults. Children are about fairness. From my experience, children hate when things are one way one day and another way a different day. Children appreciate things flowing the way it needs to flow on a consistent basis. I’ve learned this especially in disciplining children. As a youth worker, you lower your credibility when you discipline a child one way and another child a different way for the exact same infraction. Here’s the reality based on my experience: many children are already struggling with trusting others. We cannot make it worse by being inconsistent with them. I believe children appreciate it more when they can be a part of something and know how it’s going to flow. Inconsistency hurts your credibility as a youth worker, which is the last thing you want.
- Do not make any promises you can’t keep. This is one of the toughest lessons I’ve learned in my years of working with youth. As I just said, many children grow up struggling to trust others. When we make a promise and do not keep it, all we’re doing is giving our children yet another reason to have a cynical/distrusting attitude as they get older. I’ve learned that if we know we’re not able to fulfill a promise, it’s better to just be honest instead of breaking the promise and having to put out a bunch of excuses for lying. Many children have already been promised many things that their parents or others weren’t able to bring forth. We should not want to add more fuel to their fire. Children who have trust issues become adults who’s trust issues get worse as they get older. I say that because as I’ve learned becoming an adult, the world is based on broken promises. An attitude of distrust can lead to children not developing good relationships when they get older or developing relationships with the wrong person. At the end of the day, before making a promise, we have to make sure that we can keep it. Children are very hopeful and the last thing you want to do is kill their hopeful attitude. I say that because if you kill their hopeful attitude too much in childhood, it will be harder to develop it as an adult.
- In many situations, bad behavior is a symptom of a bigger issue going on in life. Let me start this by saying that just because a child doesn’t misbehave doesn’t mean that everything in their life is going fine. Let me also add that just because a child is misbehaving doesn’t mean that everything in their life is horrible. What I’ve learned as a youth worker is that when children misbehave, a lot of times (not all the time) it is rooted in something going on that we do not know about unless that child shares it with us. And let me say that if a child trust you with personal information, DO NOT take that for granted. Keep that information to yourself unless you know that it could harm the child in some way. Back to my point, when a child has told me about something going on at home, or something going on at school, it has allowed me to see more into the roots of their behavior. Some children act out because they want attention. How will you handle that situation? Will you use it as a moment to further shame the child for their misbehavior, or will you give that child some positive attention? Studies continue to show a connection between a child’s misbehavior at school and challenges in the home. These challenges include but is not limited to poverty, homelessness, conflict with parents, home instability (moving a lot), etc. When a child is misbehaving, if it doesn’t get better after talking with them, encouraging them and if necessary disciplining them, I think it’s smart to have a parent conference to discuss the behavior of the child. In a parent’s meeting, we may find out more about the issues taking place at home. This doesn’t mean that we tolerate misbehavior, but what it does mean is that we’re more aware of the deeper issues taking place.
- Boundaries is a huge must probably more now than ever. Thanks to sex offenders, pedophiles and those who do harm to our children, we must protect ourselves when working with children more now than ever. All it takes in a career working with youth is one negative incident involving you and a child to brutalize your reputation in the career of serving youth. There are many people who worked with youth years ago, made a mistake and now cannot be hired. I think our society is taking more seriously in this day and age infractions against children because of the long-term effects it can have. This is my advice to you who work with children or are considering a career in this work: if you have to ask if it’s a bad situation to be in, most likely it is. Protect yourself in every way possible. Your reputation when working with youth is too valuable to put it on the line doing something stupid.
- Every chance you get, remind the kids you serve how valuable they are. As I said earlier, children especially teens are bombarded every day with reasons to believe they’re not good enough. Children/teens continue to compare themselves with their peers and those on TV. Many children are victims of bullying (a way to devalue the child) because they don’t fit in to what is “normal.” Many children who are not in “normal” situations struggle to see how valuable they are because they’re not like the others. As youth workers and adults, I’ve learned that we have to speak life to our children. We have to remind them that they are a unique individual with so much to offer the world. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: if children aren’t reminded daily of their value to the world, they will have a hard time seeing themselves as valuable when they become adults. Don’t compare a child you work with to another child. Let that child be who they are individually. Cultivate those gifts and talents (as we talked about earlier). Give your children ample opportunities to express the God-given talents they have. Every child wants to feel special and validated. Let that validation come from the right source. If it doesn’t come from the right source when they’re a child, that validation could come from a bad source, which could lead to further damage. Be that positive source for them.
My overall life goal is to make a difference in this world. As I’ve discovered this year, my life purpose and mission is to lead broken people to wholeness. Many children that I currently serve and have served over the years are experiencing brokenness on some level. I hope that my service to them will get them one step closer to wholeness. I am absolutely thankful for God blessing me with many opportunities to serve the youth of our community. I have made mistakes over the years in serving youth, but I’ve also learned a lot that will help me be a better youth worker as the years go on. To God be the glory!
Are you a youth worker? Let me hear from you. Share with me some lessons you’ve learned as a youth worker so that we can all grow together. Stay encouraged in your calling. A part of being a youth worker is working with the reality that the change you hope to see may not happen overnight. It may even take some years to happen, but keep planting the seeds. Those seeds will produce something great down the line. Keep serving and keep working!