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Listen for the Messages
Rhonda Hughes, Youth Director 1999

Fifteen years of working with youths in groups has taught me to look for and listen to a variety of messages they transmit. Experience has taught me that the one message I need to pay special attention to is: “I know what you are doing. You want this one small segment of time to make a difference in my life. You can forget it. Lots of people have tried. What makes you think you stand a chance?” The tricky part is knowing which kid is throwing that message out. That is why this little piece of time has to make a difference.

As the session begins, fifteen of us are sitting in a circle. One adult leader, me, and fourteen teenagers. My brain is filled with a million resources that could connect us all together. I just need to quickly settle on the few ideas I need. At times like these my heart takes over and it is my hope that I can find a common thread that will baste us all together for this short period of time. Earlier in the evening we planned a trip, a Super Bowl party, and what to do at our next meeting. We have eaten, played, and had a break. Now it is time for the difficult but fulfilling part. Basting!

Teenagers--you gotta love em. The kids in this circle are from every background imaginable. I glance around the group and find a few of them are doing some analyzing of their own. We all do a quick mental assessment of each other. I look around this circle of gray chairs with various shapes, sizes, and colors of arms and legs slumped, curled, and stretched on top of them. Expectant, reluctant, and, yes, fed up faces look back at me. I sense indifference and arrogance mingled with yet a little bit of need. What a diverse group of kids.

There’s Melanie--the preacher’s daughter. She is a tall, blonde, blue-eyed, fifteen-year-old full of too much life. She happens to be between boyfriends right now so she is making eyes at all the guys. Next to her my son, affectionately known as “Bigfoot,” is slouched in his chair with legs stretched out in front of him and size thirteen feet pointing skyward. (Cute kid.) Two of the other kids are from different families but share a household because their parents fell in love and married. They are just like real brothers and sisters. They can’t stand each other. Mary, our face of different color, is focused on a new boy sitting on the other side of her. She is the rich kid, she is one of us. The new kid she is batting her eyes at looks like he could slide right out of his chair and pants at the same time. He pulls a black cap low on his forehead, allowing the coal color of his eyes to peek out from underneath the brim. He’s a nice looking kid. Something causes me to glance his way again. How can a sixteen-year-old look so solemn? I have seen that look before. I have only met him for the first time tonight, but already I know he is waiting for me to judge. He is anticipating hearing the same words he has heard from those who are supposed to love him the most. He is mentally daring me: “Go ahead, tell me I’m bad. Tell me I’m stupid, that I won’t amount to anything.” He is waiting for me to judge, but I spare him what his loved ones have not. Someone coaxes this kid into showing his tattoos. I join with the kids as we moan our approval and soon, finally, he smiles and finds a place in our circle.

If my intuition is correct this lesson will have to move at a quick pace, somewhat like the video games my son plays. You have to always be thinking about your next move and you need to make it before they do. I begin reeling them in. I threaten, cajole, raise my voice, and look just menacing enough. Amazingly, I receive attention from all of the kids. Can they sense that my motives are sincere?

Criticism! That’s what we will attempt to discuss today. All of us are guilty of it--giving unwanted criticism. I don’t know anyone who welcomes un-requested criticism. It scares us to death that someone might think negatively of us. Teenagers are especially sensitive to this. Already, just by being a teenager, they collectively feel unaccepted. Unsolicited criticism, delivered in an unproductive setting, only adds to the pervasive feeling that they are unacceptable.

Adults are especially guilty of giving teens negative criticism. We (adults) want our teens to be good students, upstanding citizens, moral persons, and courageous souls brave enough to “just say no.” We want them to behave in front of our friends and peers, say the right things to our boss, and tell us everything. We want them to be honest and open, to come to us with their most intimate concerns. But when they don’t live up to our expectations they are berated for their impudent behavior. When they are honest and open they are sometimes made to feel guilty for having normal thoughts, urges, and emotions. When they come to us with their most intimate thoughts and feelings we respond with shock, forgetting that we ourselves once stood in their shoes. We refuse to see that the world they are trying to survive in is not the same world that we felt safe in. While their generation was changing and they were adapting to it, our generation got stuck. We firmly cemented ourselves to the ground so that we would not be shaken by changes we could not understand. And we ignorantly closed a door between us that can only be opened, and then only cautiously, by true loving acceptance.

We go around the circle. All but a few kids have a comment about criticism. They know the subject well. they have first hand knowledge. Melanie says, “No one has the right to criticize, it is too much like judging.” One of the new guys says, “Sometimes you know someone is headed for trouble, but if you tell them it is interpreted as criticism.” Someone else shares, “I don’t even try to communicate with my parents anymore. They constantly criticize my clothes, my hair, my attitude. They don’t see that I am just trying to fit in. I’m not a bad kid, I just want to fit.” He has conveyed, without knowing it, the helplessness his parents feel and he has given us a glimpse of the wall he has erected. Just a wall, no door.

So how do we do it? How do we step into their world and try to understand? Will a balance of talking; listening, and unconditional love make a difference? Maybe not, but I am unwilling to forego the chance. How much damage will we do if we don’t take the step? Just imagine that wall-without-a-door standing firmly in place indefinitely. Left alone there’s not way in, no way out. Can we stand by and let them jump off a bridge into a river of drugs, alcohol, and sex? Do we stand by and watch as they do as they please without thinking of the dangers they face? No! Will we drive them and ourselves utterly insane trying to figure it all out? Absolutely! However, as an adult I feel the responsibility to keep on trying. I have to be able to put away my own insecurities, prejudices, and ancient ground rules in order to begin chiseling that wall away, somehow replacing the broken pieces with love and acceptance. Somewhere between our world and theirs is a way to communicate, a way that will not leave adults feeling exasperated and teenagers feeling violated.

I leave the group with this thought: “You can only receive criticism if you allow it and you can give criticism only if the other person allows it.” They all look at me like I’m crazy. We save the discussion for next time. We have had a good meeting. We have laughed, played, planned, and discussed serious issues. But the nagging question persists: Has this one small segment of time made a difference?

The meeting is officially adjourned. I lock the front door and find I am left with three kids to shuttle home. As fate would have it the last one delivered is the new kid. As soon as we’re alone he has a question for me. “Why is it a sin for white people and black people to date?” By the time my lips have pursed to begin an answer a couple dozen thoughts had already rushed through my brain. This kid was not wearing his heart on his sleeve. He didn’t stand ready to be defensive if he didn’t like my answer. He was not criticizing and clearly he was not asking to be criticized. This kid had not spoken more than five words all night, yet here he was asking me to step into his world if only for a moment. Without really understanding he had been enabled to feel comfortable enough to breech the adult-teenage chasm. We simultaneously invite each other in. Permission is granted, and here we are. So, this one small segment of time did make a difference. Knowing how few times as an adult I am given this chance, my brain rushes forward and warns, “Don’t blow it.” Our communication is brief. My hope is that he is reassured; that he has no feelings of being criticized, and that he takes with him the remembrance of an adult opening a door for him to fleetingly step through.