Spiritual & Natural Development
Twelve to Eighteen, Part 2
Humans develop in stages. Not exactly big news – everything that develops does it in stages. But did you know that for each stage of human development, there is a corresponding stage of spiritual growth too? And the most important of these comes first! Order the sixth of the series Spiritual Growth and Human Development and learn about the sixth stage of human development, from 12-18 years of age, and the corresponding spiritual piece.
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Last time we covered the developmental information about adolescence – or early adolescence – that’s twelve to eighteen. Today we’re going to talk about the application of what we learned last week to our life in the congregation. So let’s begin by turning to a scripture. Let’s turn to Psalms 127, verses 4 through 5. It says:
Psa. 127:4-5 – Like arrows in the hands of a warrior, so are the children of one’s youth. Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them. They shall not be ashamed, but shall speak with their enemies in the gates. Have you ever wondered what that means? What’s he talking about? Why are children like arrows?
These days we don’t put on a quiver and take a bow and go out and practice archery everyday, like the ancient mighty men of David. We don’t hunt for food with a bow and arrow any more. We don’t have to fight to protect our families with a bow and arrow. We do it with lawyers. Perhaps the significance of this scripture is lost on us as modern people. So let’s hold this question in our mind today as we move through this second presentation on teenage.
It seems clear to me that as a faith community, we have really not been able to pass on our faith to our children very well. We have some young children in our church, but not that many. As I travel around I see a lot of gray hair wherever I go. And these young children that we do have with us…they pose a moral challenge for us. Will we do as God instructs and pass on the faith, or will we continue on as we have in the past – disconnected from their needs and from them?
A number of years ago, I moved to a fairly large congregation. I was told by some of the long-time members there that this congregation had lost over half its young people over the years. And when I started attending there, there were forty teenagers. And I could see them around the edges of the room, talking among themselves. The adults never talked to them, and they never talked to the adults. We were all too busy doing adult things – important things. And because they were not considered part of the congregation, they didn’t feel a part of it. So that was our problem. We had failed to make them feel a part. And I wrestled with this problem. I wondered what to do about it. The conventional pastoral solution would have been to start preaching at the adults: “It’s your fault. Do something.” But I took a different road. I determined to never let a teenager walk by me without, in some way, acknowledging their presence. Two years later, after services one day, an elderly widow approached me, and she said, “Mr. Jacobs, I just think it’s so wonderful that these children love you so much and that you love them.” And then there was this slightest pause, and she said, “Can I have a hug, too?” And that’s when I realized that these kids were suddenly visible to at least some of the adults in the congregation.
What happened? I thought about it a lot. What I learned from that experience I want to tell you today. One of the things I learned was that faith is not passed by youth programs, youth services or youth lessons. It’s passed from person to person – from heart to heart. Now don’t get me wrong. Programs, services and lessons are all good. But without the heart underneath all that, then all of those things don’t really work. And since faith is passed from heart to heart, the skills needed to transmit faith are relational skills. So that’s what we’re really going to talk about today – relationship skills.
Let’s first define the relationship that is necessary. Now, if you’ll remember, we started out with children very young. We emphasized what parents need to do, because parents are the greatest influence. And all the way up until people are twenty-five years old, parents have more influence on them than anything else. But as kids get older, other people start to have an impact on them. So we’re starting to shift our focus from what parents can do, more to what other people can do. We’ll talk about what parents can do another time.
The relationship that needs to take place in a congregation between young and adults – what’s it like. Well, when a teen walks through the door of a congregation, we want to be one of a number of adults that that teen knows well, is used to talking to and likes. They feel comfortable approaching us socially and frequently do that. And if they have a problem, they would feel comfortable talking to us about it. But mostly, they just like to do fun things with us. And they realize that our behavior generally matches what we believe. When they think about us, they think of somebody who sets a good example of what the church teaches.
Now, their main focus is not on us. It’s going to be on their friends. We learned last week that that’s what they are hard-wired to think about. And they also realize that we like to spend time with them, but we also have adult friends whose company we enjoy as well.
And then finally, without a doubt, they know that we love them. Now, that’s all it takes for faith transmission on the part of adults in a congregation – believe it or not. Now, there’s a lot more to it than that, but we’re talking about what we have to exhibit and our behavior towards other people’s children.
So how do you build a relationship like that with people in your congregation – younger people? Well, I started simply. Most adults might look at a group of teenagers talking together…. I can go in my mind back to that church, seeing a group of them standing there, talking to them. And I didn’t know who they were and I didn’t know their names. And as I considered walking up to them, I realized that I would be committing social suicide. And I think most adults feel that same way. Most of the time that would be true, because in an unhealthy congregation, kids feel disconnected from the adults. Most teens are not used to adults walking up and talking to them. They’re used to being ignored. And it puts them in a place where they don’t know what to do when that happens. And so they tend to shut down. And things can get painfully awkward very quickly when that happens. As you try to converse with them in that situation, you sense that they would like it if you would just go away, because you’re causing a lot of anxiety. So the sense of disconnect, when we think of doing something like that, heightens, which is just the opposite of what we want to happen.
How does an older person, who’s not known to the teens in a congregation, begin to build a relationship that’s fit for the transmission of values – or faith. Well, there is a way to do it. You just start simply. You pick out one or two who are friends, and you keep saying, “Hi,” to them until they start saying, “Hi,” back. It’s not hard. Just letting them know that you see them is a gigantic step forward, and you should never underestimate that. And we also need to understand how hard it is for them to say, “Hi,” back.
I used to live in one of the power centers of a large Sabbatarian church. I was one of the administrators there. And I got to know one teenager in that church right after I moved there. She was very young – I believe thirteen or fourteen. Her mother introduced her to me. And at services the next week she introduced me to two of her friends. And they were probably thirteen years old. I remember these two very thin girls. And they were kind of like they were entwined like a couple of little monkeys with their legs wrapped around each other and they stood there with these two heads looking at me. They didn’t smile. They just didn’t know what to do with an adult talking to them. After a while I learned their names and they learned mine and pretty soon we were having a great time together. But it is hard for them. And the younger they are the more that’s true.
So you learn their names and you start using their names when you say, “Hi.” And at some point, then, what we need to do is, we need to find a way to start doing things with them that are interesting and important or fun. One of things I think about is asking them to help me with the work I had to do at services – something you can do side by side. Smart congregational planners will engineer this kind of activity into the fabric of the congregation.
Why do we want to do that? Well, because when people are side by side, it takes the pressure off the relationship by focusing attention on an external focus. We’re both thinking about something else we’re doing together, but we’re still in proximity. And so that’s a way to start getting comfortable with each other without having all of that eye contact. So it’s not that complicated. It just has to have some thought go into it – there’s the friend.
Let’s talk about the kind of friend that we want to be. What do most teenagers think that most adults do all the time? Well, it’s boss them around. And that is what happens. They get told what to do. They get given a lot of advice. They’re preached to a lot. They get directed. They get bossed around. And all the adults they know think that they know more than the teen knows. So that is pretty much their experience with adults. And this is a problem, because…. You know, when you’re twelve or eleven or ten, that’s not a problem, because kids that age want to know how to do things. They want to be told what to do. But suddenly a switch flips in us when we’re about twelve or thirteen, and we want to start deciding for ourselves what to do. And if we don’t get to do that some, it’s really bad for us. When you have a child that’s like that, you’ve got somebody that is impaired. And kids know this. They know, even if we don’t, that they need to start making some decisions on their own.
So, here’s what happens if you’re the kind of adult who offers no advice, no direction, no moralizing, no sermonizing. And I have to confess to you that when I was in this congregation, I really didn’t know this point yet. I didn’t learn this until I became a psychotherapist. But all the results I got were in spite of the fact that I still did way too much directing, advising, sermonizing and all of that. And I’ll explain why it stilled worked. But if you can understand that principle – that, if you are the kind of adult who offers no advice, no directions, no sermonizing, then you suddenly become a very different kind of adult to that young person. You just stand out from the crowd!
Teens need parents who love them enough to set and hold boundaries. They don’t feel safe if they don’t have them. But they only need one set of parents. They don’t need a whole congregation full of them. And since we’re not their parent, we don’t have to do that. We don’t have to hold the boundaries. We get to play a different role.
So we get to play a different role. We get to treat them like an adult. And we get to do fun things with them. And we get to listen to them. And we get to be a friend to them. And we get to respect them. And we get to ask for their imput. And you know what happens when there’s that kind of a relationship? Well, that’s the kind of relationship where feelings can be explored, insights can be gained and growth can take place. It’s sort of like inviting them into the adult world in sort of a microcosmic way. And since teenagers are hard-wired to grow, and to make their own choices about things, when we provide the relational space for them to do that, it feels like love and respect to them.
So all we have to do is be friends, mentors, sounding boards, listeners – no bossing, no sermonizing, no advising. For a lot of us, we don’t have any way to communicate if you take those three things away. But there are other ways to talk to people without that.
Okay. When we talk about connecting with other people, what we’re really talking about is love. So we have the five languages here. It’s kind of like that song says, “I see friends shaking hands, saying, ‘How do you do?’ They’re really saying, ‘I love you.’” You remember that old song? Okay. So you don’t. I do. But think about expressing Godly love to children. It’s important to realize that love is communicated differently to children than it is to adults – and that includes teenagers.
Now think about the man who’s gone away on a business trip. He calls home every night and he talks to his wife and his four-year-old son. His wife knows that her husband is busy, that he’s out-of-town out of necessity – not because he wants to be gone. She knows he’s there earning a living so that he can support her and their son. And she’s so appreciative of his attentiveness to call and his thoughtfulness. And she looks forward to every evening talking to him. And she feels loved. But the little boy – the four-year-old – he won’t feel loved unless daddy comes home, gives him a great big hug and kiss, pulls him up in his lap, looks lovingly into his son’s eyes and patiently listens to an endless story of what happened while his daddy was gone. Got that picture? It’s my experience that teens feel loved more like the little boy than they do like the mother. And it’s because of that brain-wiring thing we talked about last week.
I’ve hosted hundreds of youth activities across regions of the country. And most of the kids in my congregations never perceive that as love. But if I acknowledge their presence, if I make eye contact when I engage them, if I call them by name, if I listen to their concerns, if I make an effort to be near them, if I spend some time with them, most of them will understand, at a feeling level that I care about them. And that helps them to care about me. And what’s so important about that? Well, what’s important about that is when they care about me, then they also care about what I believe. See where it’s going? Think about it. Passing the faith on to the next generation. How do we do that? You can’t pour it in an ear. That doesn’t work.
Faith is something that each one of us – whether we’re an adult or a child or a teenager – something that we have to embrace on our own. It’s what we are. So, following the metaphor, I’ve found that when they feel close enough to embrace me, the chances that they can embrace what I believe goes way up. And when a teen is part of a faith community, where first their parents, and then their friends, and then their pastor, and then their parents’ friends are all close, and all believe the same thing, then the chances of them embracing the faith goes way up. That makes sense, doesn’t it?
There is one complicating factor though. And that has to do with the difficulty of relationships. Different things are taken as love by different people. There’s a book on the market called The Five Love Languages . I think the fellow’s name is Campbell. And it’s a book written to married people, but it really applies to all humans. And he points out that the first love language is service . Some people realize they are loved when they are served.
I recall a group backpacking trip, where one of our youngest girls – I’ll call her Mary – got the flu. And one of the older girls came and said, “Mary’s sick and she’s in her tent crying.” So I went to her tent and asked if I could come in. And she said, “Yes.” And I crawled in and sat by her. She was all bundled up in her sleeping bag. And I put my hand on her forehead…yes, she did have a fever. And I said, “If your parents were here, they would want me to anoint you. So I’m going to do that right now.” And I anointed her. She cried all the way through the prayer silently. I could feel her shaking. So anointing was good, but the big concerns hadn’t been addressed yet. So I said, “Mary, you feel terrible. You’re worried that you won’t be able to walk out tomorrow when it’s time to go home. You don’t know what’s going to happen. You just wish you were home in your own bed where your mother could take care of you.” And she looked up at me – her eyes were streaming – with this look that said, “How do you know?” And I said, “Mary, we’re going to give you lots of hot soup today and lots of water. And the girls are going to make sure that you’re all covered up and warm tonight. I’m going to move my tent over here so that if you get worse, or need anything, all you have to do is tell me. And I’ll give you my sleeping bag if yours isn’t enough. And if you’re still feeling bad in the morning, we’re going to give you a dose of something to make you feel better, and we’re going to pack up your stuff. The boys are already talking about who gets to carry what. They all want to help you. And we’ll walk out. And we’ll go really slow and take lots of rests. And if you can’t make it, you just let me know, and we’ll send somebody to get a horse. We won’t leave you behind. And tomorrow is not going to be your most fun day, but tomorrow night – no matter what – you’re going to be snug as a bug in your own bed.” And as I painted this picture for her, she gradually stopped crying.
Now Mary had always been a bit reserved with me. But that opportunity to serve her when she felt isolated and afraid changed our relationship. Crises are not problems. They are opportunities to serve when service is most needed. I got a wedding invitation from her about five years ago, I think it was…. She married one of the boys I’m going to talk about today.
The next of these love languages is gifts . Some kids can get into this one, but again, only if the gift is personally significant. The gifts that I’ve given that seem to mean the most to children usually are some personalized expression of myself. At least that’s the way it seemed to me.
I had just begun working with a girl who was just barely fourteen – very serious family issues – parental abdication of the worst sort. She literally had no one to advocate for her and no one to turn to, except for Elaine and me. Oh boy. That was a tough one. I just felt so bad for her. It was very hard for her to talk about what had happened, and yet she desperately needed to talk. So I was kind of in this conundrum about what to do. And one night I just couldn’t sleep. I was just so agitated over her plight and my own inability to connect with her. And I wrote something about how much I wanted to help her – mostly to process my own feelings so I could get to sleep. And later that week I took a really big chance, and I gave it to her. And as I gave it to her, she looked at it, but she didn’t read it, and it just quickly went out of sight. And I thought, “Uh oh, I blew it.” But the next week I was at services in the kitchen, peering at a table full of announcements, and this little girl slipped up beside me. And she put her arm around my waist, and gently laid her head on my shoulder for a few seconds, and then she left. Without a word she’d told me that she got the message. And the relationship was in place and the counseling moved forward after that. That’s the only kind of presents I’ve ever given to kids I thought really helped them to understand.
The next one is affirmation . Some people know that they’re loved when other people affirm them. And here again I’ve noticed that the times that seems to help teenagers know they’re loved is when the affirmation touches a very deep need.
Robin was from a family that was well off. And she lived in a big house in a wealthy area. She had lots of things, but what she needed most was completely out of her reach. Her father would have nothing to do with her. And nobody in the family had any clue why. And his withdrawal had left a jagged wound in that girl’s heart. One day she came up to me at church, and she asked me if I had time to talk to her. And so I conferred with mom, and later that week I went to see her. And I was sitting across the table from her, looking into her eyes, as she told me her painful story. It wasn’t until years later, as a counselor, that I learned that young girls get their permission to be whole women from their fathers. It’s that amazing multifunctional male-female thing that God has designed into all of us. But by taking walks with her, by watching her volleyball games, by spending some time with her, she felt affirmed as a girl. What the literature says is that as she saw her own reflection in my eyes, she saw a girl that was worth loving by a man. It’s interesting, but while I was preparing this presentation, I received an email from her. While I was sitting at my computer pounding out the notes, I received an email from her. I haven’t seen her in fifteen years. She told me that she was happily married and had a new baby boy who was the light of her life. I think that might be the occasion of the email. And she said that she remembered fondly all the fun things we used to do as a group, but mostly she wanted me know – to use her words – “you helped me when I needed it most.” And you see, I think the help was an affirmation of her as a female. In fact, I know it was.
Okay. The next one I want to talk about is touch . There was a study done a number of years ago. It was a sweeping study conducted in coffee houses around the world. Researchers counted the number of casual socially appropriate touches they saw in one hour. This wasn’t just male-female. It was touches, period – one human touching another one. Rio de Janeiro – 63. Paris, France – 57. Athens, Greece – 62. A host of cities across America – 2 to 4. We don’t know how to connect in this country. Compared to the rest of the world, we are a cold, aloof, non-expressive people. It’s too bad, because touch, as far as I can see seems to be a universal love language for kids. Most of them are starved for it.
At one of the schools I worked at, we had a world-class special-ed teacher. He worked with emotionally disturbed children. Now he was always getting bit – had to go take the shots. He got spit on regularly, kicked. It wasn’t uncommon to walk into his classroom and see him on the floor holding a boy from behind in restraint position. I asked him what that was like. And he said it was heartbreaking. I said, “What?” He said one of his boys told him that it felt good, because no one ever wanted to hug him. He was starved for it. I don’t think I’ve ever worked with a boy or girl that didn’t appreciate being touched and need to be touched – as long as it was in a socially, personally, and relationally appropriate context. And that would include some of the most disturbed kids I’ve seen in public school and private practice.
Sports is a really great way to touch others in a socially appropriate way. A lot of people think girls are really more touchy than boys, but that just isn’t true. In this congregation I was in, the boys were just as quick as the girls to insist on a hug. And they just loved to hammer me in those youth league basketball scrimmages. I’d get pushed all over the place – heavy hand-checking, holding, shoving, hacking. Of course, I always tried to give as good as I got, but we just had a lot of fun. And we got close in that guy kind of way.
One of the biggest evidences of the value of touch for teens to me is that most kids will find ways to touch you, if they know that you care about them. After a basketball practice one day, I was talking to an adult. One of the biggest boys on the team came over and listened to us talk for awhile – couldn’t get a word in edgewise, because we were doing that adult thing – and he was polite enough not to interrupt. After awhile he just started leaning on me. Now I’m almost 5’8”, and back then I weighed 165, and he was 6’2” and probably weighed 200 pounds. And his mother told me later, “It was a comic and touching scene all at the same time.” I mean, the kid almost knocked me down.
I remember one time I went backpacking with some of the kids from our church group. We went in the winter time out in the California Ventana wilderness. And it was damp and rainy at that time of year. One evening we had a great big fire built up to ward off the night air, and there was this log by the fire. Tracy came up and sat down at one end of the log, and she patted beside the log, and said, “Mr. J, come sit by me.” I loved to talk to Tracy. She was a real sweetie. So I sat by her, and she took me by the arm, and she said, “I’m cold!” And almost immediately Donna came up and sat down on the other side of me, and she took me by the arm, and I said, “I suppose you’re cold, too.” And she said, “Yes, brrr!” And then Paul came up. He was Tracy’s big brother. Paul was a big boy. I used to watch him mow ‘em down when he pitched baseball for his high school. So he sat on his sister’s lap, and said, “I’ll help keep you warm.” And Donna said, “Paul, my legs are cold. Would you put your legs over mine?” So while he was doing that he wormed his way off his sister’s lap onto mine. And so you’ve got the picture – he’s sitting on my lap with his legs over Donna, and he’s got me around the neck. And these two girls, who are not little girls, both have me by the arm. My arms are pinned at my sides. There’s 170 pounds on top of me. My legs are way out in front of me. There’s no way I can stand up. I’m completely wrapped up. I can’t move a muscle. And these kids know that I’m deathly ticklish. The only thing that saved me was I was bundled up in multiple thick layers and they just couldn’t get through it all. Finally, we were all laughing so hard we fell off the log in a jumbled heap, and I was able to make a dignified escape. That’s one of my favorite all time memories. I just felt so loved. They were my teachers. Some kids just instinctually know how to wordlessly communicate their desire to be touched.
A number of times I’ve been talking to adults at church, and someone would come up and wrap their arm around me, or silently place their hand in the crook of my arm. You know, “I know you’re busy, but I’m here and I want to be close to you.” Once they know you and they trust you, some kids will just march right up and demand it. And then there are the “touch me nots.” And they’re not used to it, or there’s some other something going on there – or it’s just that they’re not used to it.
But what I saw in that church was that in the context of a youth group, these kids would stand around, and they’d watch the more affectionate ones get their affirmation and hugs. And pretty soon they wanted to be included, and so they’d find a way to do that. And there were some few that didn’t ever want to be touched at all. And that was completely 100% okay, too. With all these things, as we talk about something that’s as personal as physical touch, we have to keep in mind the differences between people and respect those differences, because we all have a level of comfort with touch. Some people are just naturally more affectionate than others. And I’ve just found that it works best to let the kid decide what that level is going to be in the relationship. If they’re not comfortable with any aspect of the relationship, then that’s a hindrance rather than a help. So I just let them take the lead. I don’t cause kids to adapt to me. I try to adapt to them.
When I talk about all this touchy- feely stuff – these love topics and all that – it just makes some people so uncomfortable. Amazingly what happens is, they think that touching kids is all I ever do, and they blow it all out of proportion in their mind. You have to remember, I’m condensing into one hour interactions that happened over seven years. So while all these things were occurring, I was also visiting widows and sick people. Kids were 10% of that congregation, so most of my time was spent with adults.
Okay, let’s go to quality time next. Now, if touch is the silver coin of expression of love to children, then quality time is the gold coin. What is quality time to a teenager? Well, it’s focused attention. It’s eye contact. It’s listening and supporting. It’s unconditional acceptance. And that automatically cuts out preaching, advising, moralizing, sermonizing and all of that stuff. Gone! Right? And then we never must forget that fun is a very large part of quality time for teenagers. And if an adult is smart, it’ll be a large part of quality time for them, too.
A number of the best days of my life involved doing fun things with teens from that church that I was a part of. After we moved away from that congregation, quite a number of them traveled to southern Cal to visit us. One girl – her name was Jan – she was one of these relationship geniuses. You know, you’ve heard about Gardner and the different intelligences that some people have. Some people have a high IQ. They can learn out of books quickly. Other people are artistic. And then there are some people that are just relationally gifted. This child was like that. She taught me so much. Everybody loved this kid. I’ve talked to a lot of adults about this kid. And all of us, when we’d look into her eyes, it was like a deep pool of goodness. She was just such a wonderful person.
Well, she came down, and we really wanted to make this a special time for her, and I said, “What would you like to do?” And she wanted to know what I wanted to do. It was just how she was. And I said, “No, this is your weekend. You get to pick.” She wanted to go to Magic Mountain. And I said, “Okay,” but a wave of anxiety just shuttered through me as she said that. I was afraid that my deepest, darkest secret would be uncovered – my greatest weakness is going to be exposed. But she wanted to go to Magic Mountain, so we did.
I was worried about what was going to happen when we got there, and I didn’t have to worry long, because immediately, once we got in the front gate, she said, “You want to ride the roller coaster?” There it was. I was now completely exposed. The spotlight of this wonderful girl’s attention focused right on my biggest weakness. I was vulnerable under her gaze.
Now when I was fifteen I went on a rickety old roller coaster in Santa Cruz, California. After I got off I kissed the ground, and said, “I’m never getting on one of these things again.” And until that very day, I never had. So I said, “I’ll watch you.” And she said, “Mr. J, you don’t like roller coasters?” “Not really.” And she said, “Okay.” Gracious as always, she was way too considerate of my feelings to ride by herself. So we rode the kiddy rides for awhile – you know, those things that go around and around until you want to throw up? It was terrible. She’d come all the way down to L.A. to visit us. I wanted to make it a special fun day for her and here we are sitting in this ridiculous spinning teacup! And she was being so kind about it. After an hour we wound up – I’m not quite sure how – I have a suspicion, but – in front of this little roller coaster. And she said, “Mr. J, this roller coaster really isn’t that big. What do you think?” Just the tone of her voice and the look on her face said, “It would just mean so much to me if you’d try this with me.” I looked at her. She smiled at me. “Okay.” I knew I was done for. I was putty in her hands. She took me by the arm and led me to the slaughter. We rode it. We got off. Not too bad! Not as scary as I remembered Santa Cruz when I was fifteen.
Now she so happy! I had made her day! The fact that she was pleased made mine. Things were looking better. So we rode some more rides, and somehow we found ourselves by a bigger roller coaster. She said, “What do you think about this one?” “Only for you, Jan.” “All right, Mr. J!” So we rode that one. My knuckles got white a few times, but I actually kind of liked it – pretty good rush. I was surprised. Maybe there was hope for me after all.
But by this time she knew she had me. So we got off of that and we went straight to the Viper. The Viper was the baddest roller coaster on the West Coast at that time – I mean, the mother of all roller coasters. People came to Magic Mountain from all over just to ride the Viper. You know how roller coasters have these loops that go upside down? This thing had spikes. So when you get to the top and start coming over, it would just yank you straight down. And they were so high you could see them all the way to San Fernando. I mean, it looked like…whew!! So we did the Viper. We did the Viper. And I can honestly say I loved it. It was like doing 150, but still legal. After we got off, I said, “That was awesome Jan. Want to do it again?” And she said, “I was hoping you’d say that! I’ve never heard a minister scream before!” And then she started laughing. And I laughed.
I didn’t see her again for a year after that. She went to college in Texas. I went down there to work on a project, and I remember eating dinner with her in the student dining hall one evening. She was 18, away from home for the first time. I think she was a bit homesick, and she was really happy to see me, and I was really happy to see her. After we finished dinner she looked across the table at me with this very earnest look, and she said, “Mr. J, will you do something for me?” And for a moment my mind went back to Magic Mountain, but I knew it wasn’t going to be like that, so I said, “Sure.” And she said, “Would you play basketball with me like we used to at home.” And so we did. We played one-on-one basketball in the college gym – Jan and I – like we used to at home when I was her coach and she was she was just a young girl. And when we finished it was though we’d never been separated at all. She knew better than I did what quality time was. She was my teacher.
Considering these five love languages, it’s interesting to know that we all tend to express love to others using the one or two of these that are most meaningful to us. So that’s a huge clue, isn’t it, about how to show love to any given child. The expressions they’re giving to you is the kind of expression that they would like to see coming back to them. So how do you find out what they are? Well, I generally try to express love to young people in all these ways, and the ones that come back are the ones that I try to follow up on.
Moving right along. The five love languages. And the next principle that I learned from them is called side by side and face to face . I once heard about a study – I never read it – I don’t even know how to find it – but the gist of it was that male relationships can be characterized as side by side, and female relationships can be characterized as face to face. And when I understood this, and applied it to teens, then my ability to relate to them, I think, improved quite a bit. Now Elaine and I have girls. And I got the face to face part, but I was always perplexed about how to connect with boys. Girls would talk to me about everything. Boys – nothing – just hammer me on the basketball court. But this study said that boys draw close to people by doing things with them. They found eye contact intimidating. And being side by side, doing something together, helps create a sense of closeness. It’s kind of like camaraderie – side by side. And this study also said that boys didn’t have to talk to get close – to get the same benefit as girls did. So that was the piece I was missing.
And I remember Mike. He was fourteen. He loved to bike. He knew more about it than I did, so he was my teacher. And every now and then, after he’d get out of school, I’d go to his house and we’d hit the mountain trails near his place. And I remember one, after an awesome ride, we were up on top of a plateau looking out over the city – side by side, right? And just to make conversation, I said, “How’s life, Mike?” And amazingly he actually said something. He said, “Not so good.” And I waited. And he said, “You know, it’s really bad when you’re in the same Japanese class as your sister. She tells me to shut up so I won’t embarrass her.” I said something really profound like, “Hmmm.” And he said, “She can run faster than I can. She beats me at arm wrestling. And she can play basketball better than me.” He just looked so humiliated. My heart melted for him. I knew exactly what he felt. And I broke my own rule and started giving him some information. And I said, “Well Mike, you know Amber is going to turn sixteen here in a couple of months. And things are going to change. She’s going to start wearing makeup, fixing her hair and checking out the guys. She’s not going to have to work out like she’s doing now.” And he just looked at me with this totally despairing look, and he said, “Not Amber.”
Well, I was wrong. It took her until she was seventeen. But it wasn’t lost on me that this huge concern was divulged while we were doing something fun together side by side. Even if he didn’t talk about it, just having someone to ride with who was older was helpful to him. He always wanted to go and do things with me.
Girls may start out doing things with you. That’s a good way to start doing things. And once again, you have to remember that every time I make a generalization like this, it isn’t always true. But before they’ll ever feel close, most of them will want to go face to face, because that’s how they get close. They’ll want to talk about something that’s bothering them, or something like that. That’s how they feel close.
When I learned the differences between the wiring between boys and girls, I was able to do a lot better with them – especially with the boys. But there’s still not much material to talk about, because they’re not prone to talk as much as girls are.
All the same and all special. We’ve talked about how all these kids are so different. Is it possible to love a whole group of kids all equally?
One day, while I was talking to Donna – she was about seventeen, I think – maybe eighteen – she said, “Mr. J, how do you do it?” I said, “What?” She said, “Well, you love us all the same and yet you make us all feel special.” Hmmm. How did I do that? And I started thinking about that, and I think I learned two things about the kind of love that I was extending to those kids. There is no love tank that goes empty after loving X number of children. Love is not a commodity that we run out of. It’s an attitude that we carry with us, and it’s endless. It comes from God actually, I believe. And the second thing is that any time that two people love each other, it’s unique and special because both of those people are unique and different. So every relationship is different. Did I like some of those kids more than others? Well, I had more in common with some of them than others, and some were easier to connect to because they were expressive or relational geniuses – you know, I just sat at their feet and learned. But it’s kind of interesting. The ones who were in real trouble melted my heart. And actually some of the ones that were the most prickly – or the most inward – they were the real challenges – they were sometimes even the most fun. I don’t know. But did I care about some of them more than others? Well, no. And they just all knew that. That was understood. What I tried to do was look for the strengths in each child and the things about them that were endearing to me. I focused on those aspects of each one of them. Each one was special, but I loved them all.
Donna knew that I loved all the other kids just like I loved her, but she didn’t feel jealous about it, because when she was with me, there was no doubt in her mind that she was special to me. Let’s go to Psalms 17, verse 8.
Psa. 17:8 – David said, Keep me – talking to God here – keep me as the apple of your eye. Hide me under the shadow of your ways. So here King David is expressing that human longing to be special to God. And when children are special to us, it touches one of their deepest needs and longings. And it helps them to understand that they’re also special to God – especially if the people that feel that way about them are a part of their church. When they look into our eyes, it’s like we’re a mirror, and they can see the specialness in themselves. When this loving relationship develops, and they look into our eyes and feel the love, we’re contributing to their sense of self very much. When they look into the eyes of somebody who prizes them, and who is a spiritual mentor, they also understand how God feels about them.
And that specialness, by God’s design, begins at birth through the attachment to mother, then progresses through the various stages of development until we arrive at teenage when it becomes important to be special to some of our peers, and to other adults, and our church and our school communities.
I learned how helpful it is for a group of kids – all of the same faith – to know that they are all together loved by their pastor. I remember once I gave a sermon in that church on four ways to communicate love to children. The four ways I talked about came from Ross Campbell’s book, How to Really Love Your Teenager . And his four points were (1) focused attention, (2) unconditional acceptance, (3) touch and (4) eye contact. And so, Myra was sitting in the front row. I could see her brow furrowed, intently listening, as she took in the information. Now, Myra…. You know how Jesus said that Nathaniel was an Israelite in whom was no guile? Well, that was Myra. She was just an open, loving heart. She’s sitting there, taking in all this mechanical material about love. If there was ever anybody that didn’t need to know about the mechanics of relationships, it was that child. So after the sermon, she came up to me, and she said, “Mr. J, you know those four things you talked about today?” And I said, “Yes.” And she said, with a great big grin on her face, “They work!” And she just jumped on me, and giggled and gave this joyous, exuberant happy hug. It just said, “Isn’t it just the best thing that we can love each other like this!”
Some people have asked me why I talk about things like techniques that put some people off. But you know, people in the West are becoming increasingly ignorant of the components of relationship. We spend too much time isolated from other people. We might get really excited, or even emotional, playing a computer game, or watching a movie, or reading a book. We’re very reserved with our feelings for each other. We don’t know how to express love. So it’s helpful to study the components of human connection. Of course, if we do those four things as techniques without love behind it, then it’s only manipulation, isn’t it. But if there is sacrificial love present, then those things become potent tools to express the love of God shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit.
Two words. Do you know how hard it is for somebody my age to conduct a close relationship with somebody who’s forty years younger? It’s hard! I mean, I have no clue – no clue – about their music. I don’t know what their life is like at school. I don’t know what their world is like. It’s hard to find things to talk about. I forget what they’re sensitive about sometimes. Things that aren’t any big deal to me are hugely embarrassing to them sometimes. I’ve made some of the most ridiculous social blunders in dealing with younger people, but you know, I’ve learned an amazing thing. There are these two words: I’m sorry. I’ve said that so many times to so many kids. And there’s never been an exception. Every time I’ve said that, it’s instantly as though my faux pas never happened. It was just forgiven. It’s forgotten . Maybe that’s why Jesus said we should all be like children. The kids I’ve been talking about had to extend great patience and forgiveness towards me and my bumbling efforts to learn how to relate to them. The fact that they would forgive me encouraged me to keep trying, even when I thought completely ill-equipped to reach out into their world that was so different from the world I grew up in.
One piece of the puzzle. Adults ask me a lot, “When you love kids this much, doesn’t it really hurt when bad things happen?” Well, did it hurt God when Jesus died? And did that mean that He should have backed off? Of course it hurts. It always hurts. Love hurts. That’s life. One of the things that has helped me to deal with it – the vagaries of life – is to realize that – and I know this will come as a complete shock to everyone! – I am not Jesus Christ. I’m only a part of any child’s life. And I’m not the one that’s going to save them. And no one person can connect with every other person either. So that has got to be okay, too. What I know is that God has granted me the ability with some few children to make a contribution in their life. And the rest of that is up to them. It’s up to their parents. It’s up to other adults. It’s up to God. And it’s up to a thousand other influences. If people want to help children this way, they have to stop trying to control and simply love them. That’s all you have to do.
I went back to church, where I’d been pastoring many year ago, recently, and I met two women there who were once teenagers in my congregation. And they had both stopped attending while I was their pastor. But now God has led them back. And what do you know? He didn’t need me to do that. What a relief that is. All we have to do is what we can do. That’s all we have to do. It’s all about them.
I’ve heard a lot of complaints over the years about teenagers from adults. One of the things that adults love to say about teenagers is that they don’t know how to work. They’re lazy. My experience taught me that there are very, very few lazy teenagers. But they do need two things before they’ll feel comfortable helping. One is direction. And two is encouragement. I think those things are true, because, number one, they don’t have much life experience. They’re not sure how to do it, and they don’t know if you want them to do it, and they don’t know what to do. So if you can provide those two things, from my experience, they’ll just jump right in there.
Another thing that adults say about kids all the time is, “They expect you to pay for everything.” No, it’s not that they expect you pay for it. It’s that they don’t even think about it. For them, it’s completely normal to go to a restaurant and have an adult pay for it. That’s all that’s ever happened to them in their whole lives. They’re used to their parents paying for the things that they have. Most of them don’t have a lot of money of their own. The way I have always resolved those issues is to, one, pay for it myself, or, if I couldn’t afford to do that – didn’t think it would be the right thing to do at that time – I found that good communication directly with the parent usually solved the problem.
Another thing that adults say is, “Teenagers are unappreciative. They never say, ‘Thank you.’” This drives parents wild. Despite the parents’ best efforts to teach kids to be appreciative, most kids just don’t understand adult effort on their behalf. The thing I think about that is that one of the most frustrating, unappreciative, manipulative, troublesome teens I’ve ever worked with turned out to be one of the most loving, gracious, appreciative adults I’ve ever met in my whole life. All that stuff just went away all by itself with maturity. So I let parents work with them on that stuff, and all I have to do is just think about how special they are and have fun with them. It’s great!
Another thing that adults say is, “Kids are users.” I’ve heard that a lot. If a teenager buddies up to me so I will invite him or her to do something fun, that would be a problem if my goal was to eliminate manipulation. But that’s not my goal. My goal is to build a relationship with the kids in my congregation. Most kids are not like that anyway, but the few that are – a bit of manipulation is fine with me. I’ve noticed that once they know that I love them, then they’re more attracted to me than they are to the activities anyway. So when that happens, I’ve won.
So this gets us to the point of why do we do what we do for children? When I hear about adults complaining about these things, I just can’t help but think of them as immature. It just sounds like selfishness to me. I mean, who’s the adult and who’s the child? Do we really appreciate the sacrificial love of Jesus Christ? And are we willing to spread that around to others? Or are we just posturing?
When I was sixteen I was having a really tough time. I had gone out for the cross-country team. What that meant to me was, it was my way to try to fit into a peer group at school. I knew I wasn’t going to fit in to the academic group. I didn’t want to fit into the thug group. So I thought maybe I could be an athlete. I’d gone out for the cross-country team, and I was really doing poorly. There were ten guys on our varsity team, and then there were thirty guys on our junior varsity team, and I was running twenty-seventh on the junior varsity team as a junior. I was outrun by sophomores. I was third from the last. It was humiliating. I was really discouraged.
One Friday after school, my Spanish teacher, Victor Camacho, came in the study hall. He and I were the only two people in there. He said, “What are you doing, Jacobs?” Now he hadn’t come up on my radar yet, but I learned right then that I had come up on his. I was really surprised. Most adults couldn’t even see me. So I said, “Trig.” And he said, “Does it come easy for you?” And I remember a wave of sarcasm passing through my mind. “Easy for me? Does anything come easy for me?” And so I said, “No.” And he said, “Me neither. I guess you and I are the kind of people that have to work for everything we get.” And I, in my own mind, said, “Well, you look like you pretty much got the world by the tail, but I’m having a terrible time. I’m discouraged. I’m humiliated. My hopes of fitting in somewhere are melting away before my eyes.” So I said, “Yeah.” Notice my expressive, sixteen-year-old male vocabulary? I really knew how to engage adults in expressive conversation. I was an open book, and because of my expressiveness, adults flocked to me daily to engage me in lively conversation. Most adults, having a conversation with a kid like that would run away, but he said, “I’ve noticed that running doesn’t come easy for you either.” And I thought to myself, “No kidding. The understatement of the century!” So I said, “No.” And he still didn’t give up. He said, “I’ve been watching you at practice, Jacobs. You’re making a few simple mistakes and I think I can help. See me Monday at the track if you want to.” One week later, on a Friday, that very day, about that same time of the day, I shaved forty-seven seconds off my two-mile time. I won a race with 300 boys in it. I moved up to fifth on one of the top varsity cross-country teams in America.
On one Friday I was a joke. A week later I was a celebrity. This dynamic, young, Hispanic man transformed my life in a week. And my life, to this day, has been better because of the lessons that I learned from him. I’m giving this talk, in part, because of him. But you know, I never said, “Thank you.” It never crossed my mind. I was a teenager. And the other reason I never said, “Thank you,” was because I couldn’t. Thank and you are two words in a row. I could only say one word at a time when talking to adults. I did know for a fact, however, that he walked on water. Four years later, in the summertime, when I was twenty, after two years in college and some additional brain wiring., I looked him up and I stopped by his house. And I thanked him then. And I’m glad I did. He died of cancer the next winter. He was thirty-two years old.
I think I like to help children because I know from personal experience that adults, by playing even a narrow role, can sometimes make a real difference for some of them. It reminds me of what Paul said: I have become all things to all people that by all means I might save some. And that’s good enough.
Don’t we all want to make a difference? The one at a time method is what God has provided for us. If we’re going to help young people, then helping them needs to be about them and not about what comes back to us. Doesn’t everybody know that about kids? Helping children is one of the purest forms of sacrificial love. And while that’s important – an important attitude actually – that, in itself, is not a complete picture either.
The archer, the arrows and the target. Here we are back at the beginning, aren’t we. David said that the children are like the arrows in the hands of an archer. Just before I moved away from that congregation, where I had all these wonderful relationships, I gave a little speech to the teens I loved so much. I knew to keep it short. I told them that I was leaving to teach others what I’d learned from them. And I told them about the archer and the arrows. And I told them that each one of them was a sharp arrow that I was going to shoot into the hearts of other adults. And they loved that. They loved that. They came up and hugged me and talked to me. They felt so honored by that. Well, the years have passed. All those kids have grown up now. Some of them have masters’ degrees. I think one’s an attorney, one’s a therapist or counselor. Some have mates and children. Some of them are married to each other. And they’re not children anymore. They’re adults. The only place that they’re still children is in my heart where I hold them close. They pierced my heart with their love long ago. And in the end I learned that I wasn’t the archer. I was the target. In trying to help them, they changed me. So in one way, it is right to say that loving children is sacrificial love, but I know for a fact that I got a lot more back from them than I ever gave to any of them. In trying to discover how to provide for their spiritual needs, I got a change of heart.