I spent today with a youth who I know has lots of thoughts and opinions, but rarely expresses them. You can see her brain working but rarely do words come out beyond "That's fine", "It's okay", "Whatever you want", "I can do that", etc. Around the half way point of the day, she finally says this: "I don't say much because I'm afraid I'll say something wrong and disappoint someone or embarrass myself."
I was told recently how impressed people were with how "mature" my kids are. Well, I wanted then to tell that parent then that I wish my kids knew more about what being a kid is like. These are kids who are expected to take care of younger siblings, take care of grieving parents, and take care of each other due to loss in the community. They are kids who live structured lives run by coaches and directors, kids so talented that they seem to always be placed in leadership roles wherever they go. This seems to have been the case for most of them since they got to middle school.
How hard do we push our kids to grow up? Why do we push them in certain ways? It seems to me that we far to often view kids as our legacy, and thus try to give them a leg up in being "the best they can be." Youth are the future of the church, our kids "shouldn't go through what we had to," we want them to have "happy lives." All of these ideas have major issues. We set up kids to shut down because they're afraid of failing us, and thus failing themselves and God by extension. We make kids feel like what they do is attached to who we are and our emotions. We set them up to think if people aren't happy then things have been a failure.
We shouldn't focus on happiness of any individual or group when talking about what it means to be adult or to be Christian. Rather we need to use a language that encourages finding "meaning" and acting on that "meaning." Kids know they want more than to be happy, but we've been telling them for so long that "we just want you to be happy" or "I'm not upset at you, I'm just not happy right now" that they don't even know what it is they're seeking.
So since they know there's more to life than being happy, but it seems the only other options are pleasing "adults" who seem to want to be happy at their core. This sets up the fear of disappointing others or self that my youth today spoke of. They want to make sure they're saying, doing the right thing. They don't want to feel bad about a wrong choice, so why even bother choosing anything when "someone will tell me what to do."
So what type of place do we need to create within the church for our young people? A place where they know they can't disapoint us? A place where they can seek meaning? A place where they're encouraged to speak what is on their mind freely, just so they can get it out there? Probably a little of all of these things, but it's not easy because both the culture and the church is full of this legacy thinking, full of people afraid to be wrong, afraid to risk their "good name," afraid they may find themselves uncomfortable while searching for meaning instead of happiness. We can't ask our youth to be in the present, to be the change they want to be, if we're not willing to join them. They are not the future, they are the present, and their questions, their struggles are our struggles. But we're the adults, we should provide real opportunities to journey through these things, not provide a place where youth are afraid to journey as individuals and within the community.