R-E-S-P-E-C-T The Teenagers

I met up with some 9th graders at a diner this week. They arrived before I did, and when I slid into the booth one of them told me under her breath that the waitress had given them the stink eye when they came in. There were six of them.

“No she didn’t.”

“Yes she did.” We dropped it.

But then one of them didn’t get the iced tea she ordered. She told me she hadn’t got it, and I said, “So tell the waitress, not me” (one of my hidden agendas in meeting youth at a diner is to join them in a space where they have to interact with adults–as adults). So she raised her hand. Like a 9th grader.

After several minutes of hand raising, she complained to me that the waitress kept looking at her but not coming over. I said I’m sure the waitress hadn’t seen her yet, but I started watching. A few more minutes and no response. Finally, I decided to get involved, and I raised my own hand. The waitress came right over.

Now, there are much bigger problems one can face than being ignored at a diner, and there are very good reasons for restaurant staff to feel intense irritation with teenagers in their place of work. They’re loud. They don’t spend much money. They sure as Hell don’t tip. As an 11th grader explained to me the next day, “I’m ordering french fries, and I’m sitting here for 45 minutes. But I have a girlfriend, so you can’t make me leave!”

Still, it’s an ugly experience for young people in adult society, glared at or simply ignored.

I would love for my church to be a manifestation of adult society that welcomes teenagers, that sees them and validates them. Teens–all teens: not just the ones we’ve baptized and taught in Sunday school–should get the message from us that they’re wanted and important for no other reason than that they’re there and they’re them. You know, the way we try to treat adults.

We’re good about this in some ways and less good in others. Clearly the kids who drop by the church after school feel welcomed, and they know there’s at least one adult there who likes them for them.

But we also have this sign on the property that says, “Thou Shalt Not Skateboard.” It’s an insurance thing, I know. But I hate it. We’re supposed to chase off skateboarders whenever we see them, but I’ve been completely non-compliant with that expectation for seven years. Once, I approached a skateboarder on our campus just to introduce myself, but the moment I said “Hello” he grabbed his board and fled, clearly assuming the worst about my intentions. The sign had done its work. Kind of.

Let’s look for ways to welcome our community’s teenagers and treat them like important grown ups.

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