The most recent round of gas price increases has brought renewed attention to hybrid cars. Hybrids combine a traditional gas-powered engine with an electric motor. Teenagers are hybrids, too. Each one is a traditional child who is beginning to exhibit more adult behavior. Some days, they’re more like a traditional adult who reverts to childish patterns.

Working with teenagers can be thrilling when they get it and pull through in wonderful ways. It also can be infuriating when they let you down.

So how should we deal with these hybrids? Do we treat them as kids or adults? It is my contention that we should do our best to treat students as we would adults until they force us to treat them otherwise. I’d rather have higher expectations that sometimes get dashed than lower expectations that don’t challenge students to step up.

Let me give you a practical example. In our church, we are blessed with a children’s ministry that not only allows students to serve, but couldn’t operate without them.

One Sunday, a couple of students didn’t show up for their Sunday morning responsibility, leaving a group of first-grade boys without a leader for the morning. Our children’s director came to me very disappointed, wondering what she should do. Her first instinct was to send them a stern email saying: “You really let us down by not following through on your commitment.” In essence, she was going to treat them as children.

I asker her one question: “What would you do if an adult dropped the ball and didn’t show up?” “Oh,” she said, “I’d just email and say: ‘What happened? Is everything OK?'” So she did, and they responded very apologetically (there was a miscommunication between the two students, and they said it never would happen again).

In that situation, the students learned the lesson they needed to learn—to do a better job of following through on commitments—and they learned it by being shown the kind of respect we regularly show adults.

Adults Disappoint, Too
While teenagers are often more flaky than adults, adults sometimes let us down, too. We don’t immediately jump in and speak sternly to them. We ask what happened and let them explain. We should do the same with our students: Show them the same respect we show adults. They will respect us more for it, and they deserve it.

Retreats are another area in which I try to employ this philosophy. I don’t spend lots of time giving rule after rule. I review the basics (i.e., be on time) and then tell them directly: I want to treat you with the same respect I would show an adult; so please make good choices, and don’t give me any reason to treat you otherwise. I’m not foolish or naïve about how teenagers can push the boundaries during retreats; so I prepare my leaders for the worst, but I also have hopes for the best.

Granted, younger teenagers tend more toward the child end of the spectrum and may require more structure; but I’ve been surprised by how well even a younger teenager responds when expectations are raised.

There’s a reason Paul said to Timothy: “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young” (1 Timothy 4:12). It’s because it’s human nature to expect less of a young person because of their youth. Yes, it’s up to students to set the example, to not give older people a reason to look down on them. That’s their part. Our part is to expect more.

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About The Author

Syler Thomas is a native Texan who has worked as a pastor at Christ Church Lake Forest in Illinois since 1998. He writes a column for Youthworker Journal, has had articles published in Leadership Journal and the Chicago Tribune, and enjoys acting in the occasional play. He believes with all of his heart that the Cubs will one day win the World Series, and he and his wife Heidi have four kids.

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