Bob turned to me in the Christian Education meeting several years ago. He was retired and had many years of faithful service in the church. It was to his credit that he, a retired man, was serving on the Christian Education committee—a group usually comprised of younger women.
Bob asked, "Wouldn’t it be nice if we could have a room for teenagers to come and hang out in? But we can’t because they’d damage the property."
I asked Bob what he meant, and he said, "Well, in my day we could have done that, but today’s kids are more disrespectful."
There was no anger in Bob’s voice, no accusation, just sadness at the unfortunate way things are.
So I responded. "I don’t know that today’s kids are more or less disrespectful than when you were that age…or when I was that age for that matter. And I seriously doubt today’s kids would be more likely to damage property than any other generation of kids."
Bob rolled his eyes with a look that said: "Oh, come on. Give me a break." It was ridiculous that I would even suggest anything so obviously untrue. He was convinced that today’s teenagers are the worst ever. For me to say any different was so incredulous he couldn’t believe I’d even said it. I might as well have challenged him about the sky not being blue.
And Bob isn’t alone.
A few years ago, sociologist and researcher on adolescents Mike Males wrote an editorial for the Los Angeles Times entitled "Today’s Youth Are Always the Worst." (I found it at www.oblivion.net, check out specifically www.oblivion.net/oblivion/10/youth.php).
Males goes through history and quotes writings of how young people in every generation were bemoaned as the worst, most despicable, most deplorable, and hopeless group of people that ever graced the face of the earth. For example, while Tom Brokaw’s book lauds the GI Generation as "The Greatest Generation" who beat the Depression and won World War II, an article in Harpers Monthly in 1936 wrote about those then-teenagers this way: "(A) generation, numbering in the millions, has gone so far in decay that it acts without thought of social responsibility."
Males quotes other writings of the day that said similar damning things about how terrible that generation of youth was. Further, he e-mailed me some quotes of writers in other generations who complained about how terrible the youth were. "(There is) no hope for the future of our people if they are to be dependent upon the frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words, exceeding ‘wise’ and impatient of restraint," wrote the Greek poet Hesiod…in 700 B.C.E.
Mr. Males writes a column for "Youth Today," a publication for social workers who work with adolescents, and in his latest column, "The Youth ‘Mental Health Crisis’ Hoax," he points out how supposed experts complained about the terrible issues of mental health of today’s college-aged and younger youth in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings.
Quoting statistics from the FBI, Males points out that youth are far safer at school in America than are their counterparts in schools in Denmark…and also safer than their parents are in the workplace. (Source: Youth Today, June 2007.) The blaring fears of pundits after the shootings would have you think our young people are living in a terrible cesspool of violence and hysteria.
No wonder people like Bob couldn’t believe what I said when I challenged him about today’s teens not being as respectful as he and his friends were when he was their age. It seems everywhere you turn, teens are getting a horrible rap.
Like they have been for centuries.
In Millenials Rising: The Next Great Generation (Vintage Books, 2000), generational authors Neil Howe and William Strauss point out how many negative factors of teenagers (like pregnancy, alcohol use, drug use, and crime) have been trending downward for years. At the same time, positive factors of teenagers (such as involvement in service organizations) are trending upward.
You and I work with kids…and we know how amazing they are. If you’ve been doing ministry with kids as long as I have (18 years), you’ve seen how kids have gotten easier to work with and more respectful over the years. I see it when it comes to things like lights out times at camp or retreats.
This isn’t to say there aren’t teens who do awful things. It’s to say that teens as a whole are doing a lot better than many adults think they are. What you’re hearing in the news about how awful kids are doesn’t seem representative of the overall facts.
You’ll see it in your mission trip this year. Thousands and thousands of teenagers will be serving on Christian mission trips this summer. At Group Workcamps Foundation we’ll see some 20,000 teenagers serving with adult sponsors at our mission camps.
And time after time we see residents whose homes are painted, repaired, or weatherized by our crews in near disbelief at how wonderful the youth are. In our reports from these residents we see them commenting about how surprised and amazed they were at how great it was to have the kids were. It’s common to hear residents—especially elderly residents—saying things like, "Even if I could afford to hire someone to do this work, I’d much rather have you kids come do it for me." They just love having young people around.
In fact, at our camps we have twice as many serious incidents with adults than we do with young people.
So as you head out to serve with your teens this summer…look around you. You just might be working with the greatest generation we’ve ever seen. I know I certainly believe so.
Doc Newcomb is a pastor, youth pastor, and Program Manager for Group Workcamps Foundation, a non-profit organization that provides a variety of short-term mission opportunities for church youth groups. www.groupworkcamps.com. Contact Doc at email@example.com.