The award-winning PBS documentary program Frontline tackles the really tough issues—the Iraq war, sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, AIDS and homosexuality, the meth epidemic, and the toughest one of all…the teenage brain. On the must-watch list for youth leaders, Frontline’s "Inside the World of the Teenage Brain" should be a double-must.1 It’s a smart, well-researched, and fascinating roller-coaster ride through the wicked synapses of a teenager’s command-and-control center.
One expert interviewed for the documentary is Ellen Galinsky, president and co-founder of the Families and Work Institute based in New York. Galinsky’s research with children and teenagers targets what we think we know about kids, but really don’t. She did extensive surveys with more than 1,000 young people ages 8 through 18—what she discovered deeply impacts your relationship with your kids’ parents. So here’s a quick overview:
"My ‘one wish’ for changing the way my parents’ work life impacts me." Most parents think their kids secretly wish their jobs weren’t so demanding so they could spend more time together. But Galinsky discovered that kids simply wish their parents were less stressed and tired.
“I want more ‘hang time’ with my parents.” Many more teenagers than children told Galinsky that they want more time with their parents. Today’s parents spend lots of time with their kids, but it’s often dominated by rushing from one event or commitment to another. Galinsky says: “Not only is the amount of time the parents spend with their kids important, but what happens in that time is also important…And particularly important to young people is that there’s time to hang around together. It’s not always planned; it’s not always scheduled…But there’s just time to be together.”
“I know I push you away, but please come back!” Sure, it’s kids’ “developmental task” to separate from their parents to find their own identities. But Galinsky says most teenagers are clamoring to loop back to their parents while simultaneously pushing them away. “The message from young people…is ‘Hang in there,’ “says Galinsky. “Even if they push us away, they want to be with us…If they pushed their parents away and their parents hung in there, they really appreciated it because they knew they were being difficult. We…thought of development as kind of a straight line toward independence. But all through development, there’s separation and connection…they go hand in hand.”
“You don’t know what it’s like.” The worst score parents received from their kids was on “knowing what’s really going on in my life.” Only a third of kids believe their parents are engaged in their lives enough to pursue them well. One teenager told Galinsky, "I want my parents to ask me about my day and care about what I answer.” Kids also scored their parents low on "controlling their tempers.”
“What I remember most about growing up.” When Galinsky asked parents to guess what their kids would say when asked what they were going to remember most from their growing-up years, parents repeatedly mentioned "big events” such as vacations, family reunions, and so on. Instead, she says, “kids talked about the small, everyday rituals and traditions that say to them, ‘We’re a family.’ " One girl said she’ll always remember her dad saying “You go, tiger, you go get them” when she was headed out the door to school. Another teenager said he’d always remember his mom’s wake-up song.
When group asked more than 10,000 teenagers to name the top reasons they stay committed to their church, #1 was: “A welcoming environment where I can be myself.” Most kids simply want to be pursued passionately and seen well by adults who don’t have to love them but do anyway.
Today I was listening to an NPR story on Los Angeles’ chronic gang problem, and how community leaders and police are cracking down on gang leaders. Embedded in the report was a story about the death of longtime "gang interventionist" Lilly Rodriguez. She’s a former kickboxing champion who gave her life, literally, to helping extract teenagers from "la vida loca"—the crazy gang lifestyle. At her funeral, an NPR reporter talked to Gilbert Alvarado, one among thousands who showed up to honor Rodriguez.
“I met her about 10 years ago, when I was a little kid running around in the streets,” Alvarado said. “She just changed my life. She really did. Man, she helped a lot of guys like me in gangs. She’d teach them boxing as a way out of the gangs. ‘C’mon,’ she said, ‘I’ll show you how to fight.’ To her last day, she was trying to help me out. ‘Gilbert,’ she said, ‘I believe in you, mi’jo.’ I never had nobody show me that affection, that love.” Alvarado wept as he spoke these words.
And that reminded me of a piercing truth about youth ministry—patient, unconditional love is the most powerful force on earth because it’s the very nature of the most powerful person who ever lived, Jesus Christ. And—glorious truth—as we yield to him we’re connected to him like a branch to a vine.