They want responsibility. They want to be heard. And above all, they don’t want to be treated like children.

Of course, the reason kids crave adults’ respect is simple—they don’t feel they’re getting it now. Why not? Well, sometimes kids’ behavior doesn’t warrant respect, as a recent letter from a Christian camp director in Pennsylvania points out:

“Our camp is geared for youth groups. So we see many teenagers here—both junior and senior highers. Some have salaried youth leaders, some don’t. Some are organized, some aren’t. Some are loud, some are quiet. But one thing we’ve noticed with many of them is a disrespectful attitude for the camp, its facilities, and the staff who work here.

“We do realize that groups often bring unchurched kids with them in hopes of reaching them for Christ. But those aren’t always the kids we have problems with. Many times it’s the ones who claim Christ as their Savior….We often wonder whether some of these groups are really Christian groups. I’ve dealt with Scouting groups in the past that are not necessarily Christian, but they build into their programs respect for property and adults. I wonder why this isn’t being taught in our youth groups. It seems Christians should be taking the lead.”

Now, if this guy’s letter ended here, we’d be plowing old ground about kids and their sometimes-rotten behavior. We’d be wagging our fingers at kids and telling them (as a few youth leaders once told our five-member teen panel at Group’s national youth ministry convention), “If you want our respect, you have to learn to respect us first.” But the letter-writer heads down a surprising path. Read on…

“I’ve come to realize that problem groups have problem leaders. These leaders usually don’t supervise their kids. In fact, we’ll often find them relaxing instead of out making the most of the little time they have to impact the lives of these kids. When we approach these leaders about the damage their kids are creating, they often respond, ‘That’s your problem.’ They tell us that their main priority is to reach these kids for Christ. And if things get broken or people get hurt, well, ‘that’s life.’

“I certainly don’t want youth groups to feel they shouldn’t come to camp. We want to make things go well for them so they can have effective retreats. But we’d like youth leaders to understand our concerns and realize that we’re a ministry too.”

Now that my letter-writer has made the leap from kids’ behavior to their leaders’ behavior, I’ll jump even further….Around the time the New Testament letters were written, the Gnostic cults were taking root. Gnostics believed that “matter” was evil and spirit was good. In essence, the material world—world of everyday human behavior—was of little importance.

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In our quest to challenge and nurture spiritual growth in kids, is it possible we’re just like the early Gnostics? Do we scorn the importance of teaching them life skills such as respecting others’ property or cleaning up after themselves because these are not “spiritual” disciplines? Sure, parents are primarily responsible for teaching their kids what used to be called “manners.” But we’re often the most powerful adult influence in our kids’ lives, and if we don’t model honor and respect for other people and things, we teach them “Christian” and “jerk” are not mutually exclusive descriptions. What’s more, they’ll likely never learn the meaning of the word they crave so much.

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