Over the whole arc of our life, scientists tell us there are two times when we experience rapid, explosive brain growth—one happens when we’re toddlers and the other happens during junior high.
Toddlers and teenagers share this characteristic—both are missing the “mental traffic cop” that helps most adults sort and compare information before reacting to something. That means knee-jerk reactions drive most teenagers and toddlers. And they often incorrectly label others’ emotions. Until 15 years ago, neuroscientists thought the human brain was fully developed by puberty. Using magnetic resonance imaging technology, they now know that’s not true. “The teenage brain is a work in progress,” says neuroscientist Sandra Witelson. Surprise, surprise.
But here’s why this is important. Many of the parenting strategies that fuel great results with toddlers are perfect for youth leaders. When our first daughter was a toddler, my wife and I enrolled in a class called “Parenting With Love and Logic”—we re-enrolled in that class three more times, because it was like learning Japanese for us, and because we saw such powerful fruit growing from our experience. It’s a strategy developed by Foster Cline, a psychiatrist, and Jim Fay, a former educator and school principal. Now that we have teenagers in our house, we’ve seen how the truths and practices of “love and logic” not only have profoundly altered our girls’ trajectory in life, but have reminded us of how Jesus forms us into maturity. A few examples:
1. Natural consequences for good and bad decisions are the best teachers. Jim Fay tells the story of Sylvia, the mother of eight kids. Sylvia gives her little children small loans that they must repay according to a bank-like schedule or risk having a favorite toy “repossessed.” She told Fay about the time she had to repossess her 10-year-old son’s $29 tape recorder. Fay thought that must have been sad for the little boy. Sylvia responded: “Not really. That’s a gift to him because now my son… knows all about the responsibility of paying back his loans…The neighbor kid learned the same lesson when the bank came and repossessed his $4,900 Camaro. He’s 26, but his parents protected him when he was young. My son has a 16-year head start on the guy.”
Translated for youth ministry: The best learning experiences you can give your kids stem from giving them significant responsibilities, then not shielding them from the consequences of their decisions (unless life or limb is at stake). The cost of their learning is the cheapest it’ll ever be, right now. And if you look back at your own story of transformation, I’m positive you can spot Jesus molding you through “natural consequences.”
2. Mistakes offer the biggest opportunities for growth. Fay and Cline call the natural consequences that result from bad decisions “significant learning opportunities.” In fact, they often joke that they prayed for their kids to make mistakes so they’d have more opportunities to learn.
Translated for youth ministry: Kids can’t make mistakes, and therefore are shielded from learning, when they’re expected to be passive consumers of your ministry instead of active planners and participants. Jesus could’ve advanced His mission and vision on His own, but instead He came up with the craziest strategy ever—it’s called the Body of Christ. He lives and breathes and moves in the world through us. Talk about a non-passive strategy—Jesus wants owners, not renters, of the work He’s doing in the world.
3. We build self-esteem when we give kids responsibility, not when we pound away at them with sweet affirmations. Fay writes: “The most responsible kids I ever encountered in my three decades in education were the kids at an inner city school where I served as an assistant principal… Those kids woke up in the morning without an alarm clock and got to school in time for breakfast without any assistance from their parents. They knew if they got there, they got breakfast; if they didn’t, they missed it… Responsible behavior has a direct correlation to the number of decisions [kids] are forced to make.”
Translated for youth ministry: Take a hard look at the number and kind of decisions you’re making in your ministry, then brainstorm how you can give half of them away to your teenagers. Think of the number of decisions Jesus “gives away” to you every day—His level of trust is staggering. But He does not “use” us to carry out His “master plan.” That’s a description of a dictator, not a friend or a lover. Jesus said: “No longer do I call you slaves, for the slave does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard from My Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15). When we give away responsibility, we mirror the determined heart of Jesus.
Rick (firstname.lastname@example.org and @RickSkip on Twitter) has been editor of GROUP Magazine for 26 years. He’s author of the just-released book Jesus-Centered Youth Ministry (simplyyouthministry.com). He wrote the books Sifted (www.siftedbook.com) and Shrewd (www.shrewdbook.com) and the upcoming Skin In the Game (2015) as an excuse to immerse himself in the presence of Jesus.
4 thoughts on “Youth Ministry and the Exploding Brain”
Thank you, Rick! This is a great article!
Thanks Jacob—really appreciate you taking the time to read and enjoy…
This was a great article and I enjoyed how you showed us how to apply it into our own youth ministry. It is hard for many to relate to teens and this shows us why, but letting them learn and grow in their faith by giving them the responsibility and just being the direction not the shelter.
Bethany, thanks so much for taking the time to add your “amen” to this…