Last week in Part 1 I shared about how my experiences being disciplined as a youth sat with me for years and formed what I do as a youth leader. I addressed what I consider the primary challenge in healthy discipline, setting boundaries and expectations. As youth workers we often times miss this step. I can tell you that if you feel like you can’t tell a youth they are wrong, then you probably haven’t clarified expectations. However, once you clarify boundaries and expectations it moves you on to the issue of what to do when a youth has violated expectations. Let’s look at another story to help with this.
Three years into ministry I had allowed a youth to from the parish I had interned at to attend one of our retreats as a leader. He was dating one of the youth in my program, and was friends with all of the leadership team members. He was a great kid. We talked about expectations and I was assured that he would be fine with all of them. He was not. Once on site at the event he showed a distinct inability to engage in activities with the youth he was leading (openness), lied about where he was when caught out of bounds (honesty), and tried to start a bit of a prank war (respect). When called out on these things he tried to deflect pretty hard, but since our expectations were clearly established he eventually acknowledged that he was in the wrong. This left me with the responsibility of consequence.
For most of us, the only consequence we can think of is telling kids they can’t come. For most youth ministers this is the laaast thing we want to do. So we often feel like we don’t have any active choice in what can be done. I find that typically calling a kid out is effective, but here are three techniques that I use in an escalating fashion when I have to go beyond just talking about it.
#1 Time Out | I know. I know a timeout sounds like this is a juvenile punishment that you would use with a 2 year old, but it works. When tempers get high, or someone is struggling, just have them take a break and put an adult with them who can empathize. This is more effective with Middle School youth, but it does work.
#2 Bring in the Parents | If you have continually addressed behavior and don’t see a change, or if something over the top happens, it’s time to get mom and dad involved. If it’s something small I typically just let mom of dad know at pick up. If it is a big deal I give the kids a time limit before I will call the parents and let them know what happened. I have never had a parent be upset with me about involving them. I once had a youth minister brag to me that in 30 years of youth ministry they have never had to contact a parent. To me that was horrific. 30 years of never letting parents know when their kids were out of line. 30 years of not letting parents be the primary discipline force in their lives. We are called to be a partner for our parents, not to replace them. Let the parents know.
#3 Taking a Break | From time to time I have had a kid that just could not accept the expectations we had or an extreme circumstance (fist fights, theft, etc). In these situations I have never hesitated to loop mom and dad in, and then clarify that they young person needed to take a break from the ministry for a period of time. I always establish what that time is, check in with the youth and parent during the break, and make sure to invite them back afterward. This let’s them know that there are lines that can’t be crossed, but keeps the relationship open and engaged.
In my 15 years of ministry I have put hundreds of kids in time out, contacted scores of parents, and asked 7 youth to take a break for a couple of weeks. All of them came back. All of them improved their behavior. These first two posts were some of the nuts and bolts of expectations and discipline. Next week I want to take a couple hundred words to talk about what frames my personal mindset around disciplining youth.