I remember my first day of high school like it was yesterday. I remember the chill in the air as I stood at the bus stop, waiting in silence with three or four other kids. I remember feeling lost as I stepped into a building that would occupy my days for the next four years. I remember the first words spoken to me, as I stepped hesitantly into what I thought was the classroom I belonged in:
“Who are you?”
I remember the first huddle of fellow students I approached.
Who are you?
I remember the questioning glances and puzzled expressions.
Who are you?
I remember a single thought, bouncing around in my head and seeming to constrict my heart with its existential urgency.
Who are you?
Sometimes, we forget what it’s like to wonder about our own identity. After all, we have jobs. We have families. We have responsibilities and rhythms and routines that provide a framework for our lives, and often keep those existential questions at bay.
The middle- and high-school students of our communities and churches are faced with the implications of this question every day of their lives.
The media that teenagers consume is trying to paint a picture of what it means to be ‘you.’ The teachers with whom teenagers interact every day are asking them to discover who they are in terms of their academic success. The coaches and other adult figures in their lives are asking them to discover who they are in terms of their abilities and skills. The peers with whom teenagers interact are asking them to discover who they are in terms of their social chemistry.
But to whom do teenagers primarily look for the answer to that critical question?
They begin by looking to their parents. How do my parents view me? What are the words my parents use to describe me? Am I loved by my parents based on my accomplishments or based on my identity as their child? In a very real sense, teenagers don’t know who they are; and they are looking to their parents’ responses to their actions to determine the most fundamental aspect of their identity. Parents who are more interested in grades, goals, recitals, and behavior than in interests, passions, talents, and conversations are communicating that their child’s identity is found in what they bring to the table rather than in their status as a child. The first place teenagers look for their identity is in how their parents view them.
Theologically, we know that this desire to understand oneself through the lens of the important figures in our lives stems from our human status as creatures of the Divine Creator. We are the clay defined by the hands of the Potter. We are the sheep defined by our closeness to the Shepherd. Popular culture tells teenagers that they need to figure out who they are for themselves, but the truth and hope of the Gospel is that teenagers can find hope and rest in their status as a son or daughter of the King.
Too often, well-meaning adults (even parents) in the Church look at our teenagers and delineate everything about them that needs to change. Their clothing. Their choice of words. Their friends. Their music. Their shows. Their attitude.
When God looks at our teenagers, he sees a precious child. God is the Creator and Father of each teenager in our midst, and he knows them. He knows who they are.
They are His. Within that simple possessive pronoun is packed an explosion of life-giving theological truth. Our teenagers will always struggle with their identity. They will struggle to figure out what gives them life and meaning and purpose. They will struggle when it seems like no one understands them and maybe they even don’t understand themselves.
In the midst of that struggle, rather than affirming the voice of our culture that tells our teenagers to figure out who they are, what if, in one unified voice, we said: You are His. You are His, just like we are His. And because we are all His, we can know each other as sons and daughters of the King.
Stay tuned for more on what it looks like for adults to know teenagers, but for now, here are some thoughts on how we can affirm teenagers as children of the King:
- Ask questions as an encourager, not an accuser. Teenagers are used to being accused of things. They can sense the finest hints of accusation in a question. “Why are you listening to that?” communicates disapproval. “What are you listening to?” communicates openness to knowing them as they are.
- View teenagers as a vital part of your community. How would anyone feel if they were always being shoved out of the room to be herded somewhere else? When we push teenagers out of our worship, out of our conversations, out of our community, we communicate that they have nothing to offer. When we communicate that, we are not knowing them as His, who says that they have inherent value.
- Harness teenagers’ energy and put them to work. Teenagers don’t like to be ordered around. But they do like to be seen as someone who can contribute and who is valued. We communicate that to them when we give them legitimate responsibilities and opportunities to serve that harness their skills and talents.