What I Learned From Teenagers This Week

I got a little less afraid of the teenaged years this week...a little.

This was the week I found myself saying, “Thank God for teenagers!”

Someday it might come back to haunt me that I put that in print.

During the past week I worked alongside several hundred volunteers—mostly teenagers—at annual Vacation Bible School.

I knew going in that this particular VBS program is a big production—over 400 kids and 300 volunteers attended this year.

Since it was my 5 year-old son’s first time at a VBS program, and he’s not a big fan of large and loud crowds, I signed up to volunteer and experience it alongside him (read: avert potential disaster if he hated it.).

On the volunteer form where it asked where I wanted to work, I marked: “wherever needed.” (At this point the veteran parents reading are chuckling at my rookie move.)

I landed in the role of a Team Co-Leader for the Kindergarten group, “in charge” of nearly 70 soon-to-be Kindergartners and 36 mostly teenaged small-group leaders. (Now the veterans are outright laughing.) 

I have a lot of group management experience, including teams with teenagers, but still I admit the thought of making sure that all those little kids got where they needed to go—safely, without losing any of them—were fed, and had fun learning each day gave me a few butterflies. 

It turned out I didn’t need to worry; my job was hardly the hardest. While I was a rookie, most of these kids and the parent mentors among them were not.

The “K-crew,” as I called them, made it so that I was little more than chief dispenser of wet-wipes, humored goof-ball cheerleader, and occasional (annoying) whistle blower. I also came in handy to help wrangle an errant and energetic camper (sometimes my own son), give some hugs and high-fives (my favorite part), or give “The Mom Look” when needed. Otherwise, they did the work.

Admittedly these teens were well chosen for the challenge, but I couldn’t help but think that it did deliver a blow to the litany of complaints I have heard over the years that begin with “teenagers these days.”

Some of the things I learned from and about teenagers this week that I’ll be tucking away for future reference during my own sons’ teen years:

1.    They cared about doing a good job, and worked hard to rise to the challenge.

My son can be what we parents of especially energetic children like to call “a handful.” The two young women who were his leaders had to be “game-on” from the get-go. They quickly learned to run interference between this kid and sugar (aka “survival skills”), and tried hard to never have to call on his mom to take him in hand. They were quick, persistent, creative, and had buckets of patience. They actually looked like they were having fun when they set off in hot pursuit when he decided it was time for a game of chase (again). 

2.    They were capable, but they still appreciated backup when they needed it.

One of the best things I did when I met my young leaders was to ask them how much experience they had with a VBS program. Once I learned that most of them had years of experience, I knew my role wouldn’t be to manage them, but to mentor them when they needed it, but above all just be aware and available when they needed me. I tried to be “around,” and especially when my mom “spidey-sense” started going off that trouble was brewing. Otherwise, I gave them space to do their thing, their way.

3.    They all have individual talents, and shine when you help them find their niche.

Kim Cory, who led the science activities for the week said of her young volunteers, “They are incredibly talented, each in his/her own way.” She shared how humbled and proud she was to watch a quiet young volunteer not only solve a problem the groups were encountering, but excel at teaching up front when she invited him to. I had many similar experiences watching the young leaders around me in action.

4.    You have to let them be silly too.

Sometimes I think adults don’t remember what it was like to be in that time of life between being a kid and becoming an adult, and consequently have unrealistic expectations. Precisely what made the teens so great with little kids was their capacity to both be responsible when needed, but still be in touch with what it’s like to be a child. As a result, they understood the need to bend the rules to allow for silliness.

Speaking about her crew of youth outdoor recreation volunteers, Lydia Carlino summed it up by borrowing from a well known Bible verse: “Where two or more are gathered in my name, they will squirt each other with water.”

5.    They like to know you notice their work and accomplishments, even though they will act like they don’t care.

As my fellow mom friend and volunteer observed, surrounded by teens we became very aware of just how un-cool we were. I got my fair share of humoring me looks that clearly said, “She’s such a dork.” Thankfully not one of them rolled their eyes at me—to my face. But, I spotted several barely discernable smiles when I told them about positive things I noticed them doing as well.


This week I enjoyed being merely a helping hand, and left the real leading to the very capable teens all around me. Hopefully when my boys reach their teens I’ll remember what I learned when I went to Vacation Bible School.

P. Sutton June 30, 2012 at 04:17 PM
I think that adults tend to disregard teenagers, and the fact is that they are our future, and we definitely need to put time in to understand them and communicate with them. I have a 16 year old, and I find him and his friends to be deep, intellectual, and spiritual. They have a rough road ahead of them, but we can make it smoother by talking to them as peers and developing a mutual respect so that we can share our life experience.
Kirsten Branch June 30, 2012 at 05:54 PM
I agree. We parents like to tell our kids, "LISTEN TO ME," but we could do with a bit of walking that talk better, don't you think?
Cindy Bonagura July 02, 2012 at 07:28 PM
Those of us who teach high school could have told you those things about teenagers, but it is wonderful to hear someone else make the statements that you did about the teenagers growing up in the San Ramon Valley. I teach/coordinate two "teenage" internship program at California High School (Careers in Teaching and iQuest). The first thing I do each school year is work to earn the respect of my students, when I do, they in turn work to earn my respect. Teenagers want to have responsibility, want to do good work, want to succeed on their own, want to be silly and look forward to the chapter of their lives called adulthood. I fortunately am able to have a career that puts me right in the middle of their lives; they are funny, silly, responsibility, insightful, intelligent and add to our communities. As adults we owe it to them to work to earn their respect, when we do, they will want to earn ours.


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