Being youth and children’s workers is hard. We are supposed to help children and young people find their way through their tricky and ambiguous growing years, but meanwhile youth and children’s work itself is tricky and ambiguous. We aren’t quite authority figures like teachers or parents, but we can’t just be friends with our young people either. If we are going to help them navigate the ambiguity in their lives, then we need help in navigating our ambiguity too!

I’ve been thinking about this recently, and have found some resources in a psychological theory called ‘transactional analysis’. This is a framework that was developed in the 60s and 70s by a psychiatrist called Eric Berne, and which came into the mainstream through a book called I’m OK, you’re OK. (You might feel sceptical about what can be learned from psychology that was invented when your dad was still cool, but stick with it. Some things from the 70s are worth bringing back - just look at Star wars.)

The key part of the theory goes like this: all of us have three parts to our personalities - the parent, adult and child (this is about our personality, not about being actual parents, adults or children). Whenever we interact with others, we will always be behaving in one of these three roles. All of them are equally valuable, and each has a place in living a full life. The key is in knowing which one is appropriate for which situation.

The parent

We learned how to act like parents from the people who parented us. We internalise their tone, their affection and their way of disciplining us. Because of this, everyone has the capacity to act like a parent, whether or not they have their own children.

Parents intervene to keep their children safe, by laying out boundaries and enforcing consequences. My wife and I give our two young children boundaries such as: “Don’t hit people,” “Don’t take your sister’s toys,” and (true story) “Don’t bite the dog.” They need these rules because they’re not fully aware of the consequences of their actions. One day they will realise that hitting, stealing and biting hurts others, and that hurting others will leave them feeling lonely and friendless, therefore they won’t do these things. Until then, we give them clear boundaries and negative consequences for crossing those boundaries, to help them learn what good behaviour looks like.

Similarly, it’s entirely appropriate for us to tap into our inner parent to prevent harm coming to our children and young people. We need to give clear boundaries like: “Don’t bring knives or drugs to youth club,” “Don’t use racist language” and “Don’t touch people if they don’t want to be touched.” If people don’t want to stick to these boundaries, then we need to consistently enforce consequences to make sure that they do.

Of course, as youth and children’s workers it is often our mission to work with those with behavioural difficulties. Frequently they have been ill-treated by those who should have taken care of them. Perhaps the Church is the only place where they find acceptance. However, our children’s and youth groups become unsafe spaces if we think following Jesus means being kind and gentle all of the time. Being compassionate means having clear, firm boundaries. Sometimes love requires fierce confrontation. In Matthew 23 there’s a section often called the ‘seven woes’. If you read this to yourself, you’ve got to get out of your head the voice of the pleasant lady with good pronunciation who politely does the Bible reading in the service like she’s doing story time at the library. Instead you have to imagine Jesus at an underground rap battle, spitting bars in the Pharisees’ faces and dropping the mic at the end. He is outraged at the Pharisees’ hypocrisy and furious at the way they oppress people. He calls them hypocrites, snakes and murderers. He tells them they’re going to hell if they don’t change. This should not be read in church, it should be screamed along to a Rage Against the Machine song. If people think being Christ-like means not challenging people, they need to reread the Gospels.

I am not saying that we should shout at people - Jesus’ proclamations here were public speech (like a rap battle, or a sermon), not personal rebuke. I am saying that Jesus challenged people, so we should challenge people. The best approach is nearly always to stay calm, but to follow through with total consistency on the consequences that we give.

There are a lot of reasons to be patient and gracious with children and young people when they mess up. But we can’t use Jesus as an excuse for our own fear of conflict. When young people are in danger of harm then we need to let out our inner parent and step in to protect them. Can you step into the parent role when the situation requires it? When situations arise where young people need protecting, are you firm enough? Do you challenge people appropriately, or do you want to keep people happy and stay on good terms with everyone? Are you under the mistaken impression that grace means being constantly nice to people?

If all this doesn’t come very naturally to you, get people in your team to help you. Find the people who do this well, get them to do it, and watch and learn so you can put it into practice yourself.

It is important to play just because it is great to be alive and this world is full of wonder

The adult

The adult is the mature part of our personality, which does the job of taking in information, weighing it up and making good decisions. Acting in the parent role is vital in situations where young people are at risk of harm, but I believe the adult is where we should act from most of the time. Spending too much time acting as a parent can undermine the whole goal of our ministries - to help our children and young people grow into the people God has made them to be.

When we in act in the parent role, it encourages others to act like a child. When we act in the adult role, it encourages others to adopt an adult role too. Adults don’t enforce rules, they offer suggestions. They don’t demand obedience, they allow freedom. A parent says: “This is how to do it.” An adult says: “Let me help you find out how you will do it.” We want our young people to become mature. This will happen by treating them with the maturity to make decisions for themselves. Sometimes we even need to push them to do this, by refusing to make decisions or take action for them.

Say a young person comes to you and says: “Church is so boring - all of the songs we sing are dead.” A parent’s response is to take responsibility: to feed back to the worship leader that the young people want them to do more upbeat songs; or if you’re the worship leader, to search for EDM worship on Spotify; or to tell the young person: “Look, I’ve been trying to change the worship at this church for ages - it’s never going to happen.” Success when we act in the parent mode looks like: ‘have I met the need that the young person has approached me with?’

In contrast, acting in an adult mode means pushing responsibility back onto the young person: arranging a meeting where the young person, not you, can tell the worship leader their concerns; asking the young person for examples of the songs they want to sing; training them up to play in the band or lead worship - anything which involves them in the process of changing the music at church. Success in the adult realm isn’t ‘have I met a need?’ but ‘has this young person gained experience about how to be the answer to their own problem?’ It doesn’t guarantee a big change in the worship; it does mean a much bigger change in the young person.

In doing this, we follow the example of Jesus, who entrusted his disciples and the Church with enormous freedom, responsibility, and decision-making power. In Matthew 28:18 he clearly says: “All authority on heaven and on Earth has been given to me.” When he says all authority, he means all authority. God has given to Jesus the authority over all: every square centimetre of soil, every second of time, every single human decision. Because he endured the cross, Jesus is now the grand-high-supreme-arch-lord-king-president-boss of everything. Everywhere. For all time. For-ev-er.

So what does Jesus use his authority to do… judge the nations? End famine? Stop wars? Actually, no - not yet, anyway. Instead he tells his disciples: “You go and disciple people of all nations, baptising them in the name of the father, the son and the Holy Spirit.” Jesus had the authority, but he let his disciples make the decisions. It’s not Jesus doing stuff, it’s the disciples doing stuff. That means giving them the freedom to make mistakes. What he does promise is: “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Jesus’ example is a good model for our ministry. We are better than our young people at most things. If we want everything to run smoothly we should do it all ourselves: the preaching; the social action projects - hey, it probably makes sense for us to follow our young people with little camera-drones so we can see when they’re going to make a stupid mistake and yell at them not to. However, what we can’t do is to take responsibility for everything and still expect them to become mature Christians. Instead of us taking responsibility, we need to be like Jesus, leave as much of the decision-making as possible to them, but stick with them, all the time - particularly when things go wrong.

Can you step into the adult role when the situation requires it (which is probably the majority of the time)? Do you empower and equip your young people? Do you force them to find solutions to their own problems, or have they learned that they don’t have to think for themselves - that you will always sort things out for them? Do you give them enough space to learn and grow - and especially to make mistakes?

If this doesn’t come very naturally to you, get people in your team to help you. Find the people who do this well and get them to do it, and watch and learn so you can put it into practice yourself.

Jesus had the authority, but he let his disciples make the decisions

The child

This is the part of us that loves to be free and to play. It is unencumbered by rules and expectations, and is creative and interested in life for its own sake. Some people live out of this mode most of the time, while others have forgotten what it’s like. If we are to do effective youth and children’s work, we need to learn to allow our inner child to come to the fore sometimes.

My own children are really good at being into whatever they are doing at that moment. Whether it is watching a TV show, colouring in or squeezing honey onto the carpet, they do it wholeheartedly. And they don’t worry about why they are doing something, and they certainly don’t worry about how what they are doing will affect their social status. We all need to spend time just existing in the world because the world is awesome and being alive is amazing. If we are going to teach our children and young people this, we need to model it.

At the beginning of Matthew 18, the disciples are arguing about who is the greatest. In answer, Jesus gets a child to stand in the middle of them and says: “You need to change and become like a child or you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” When Jesus tells his disciples to change and become like children, he knows what he is talking about. He himself became a child. In some ways that was unnecessary - God could have entered the world as a fully formed adult human being. However, the Christian God came to Earth as a baby - he grew up like everyone else. Imagine God, whose word called light into being, learning to speak, discovering how to form vowels and consonants. Imagine God who knitted DNA together, feeding crumbs to birds or stroking a horse. Imagine God, who made all good things, and gave us the capacity to enjoy them, tasting bread and butter, or playing in the mud with his friends. This world is amazing. Children haven’t learned to forget that yet. God became a child and appreciated this world from a child’s perspective. We should copy his example.

Some of our young people come from pressurised households, where the importance of achievement is put on them from a young age. They might feel the pressure to succeed in their exams years before they are due to sit them. They might be given lots of opportunities - dance, drama, music, sport - but often these activities are all purposeful - they are all about achievement, so they aren’t true opportunities to play. These young people need to know the joy of play for its own sake, with no purpose or agenda.

Other young people that we work with might have skewed perceptions of what safe play looks like. Perhaps they have experiences of being victimised, and so in their minds play always involves making someone look stupid or shaming them. Their understanding of play might involve taking dangerous risks. These young people need to know the innocence of play - games that release endorphins in safe ways, that don’t risk harming themselves or others.

How do you teach this? By engaging in play, by doing things that are fun just for their own sake: not to get better grades, to put something on a UCAS form, to solve people’s problems or even to help people to become Christians: it is important just to play because it is great to be alive and this world is full of wonder.

One of our young people was telling me recently that a group of 15-17-year-olds from church had been hanging out at her house. She said that they spent all afternoon competing over who could do the best tricks on the trampoline and drinking apple juice. That is exactly what being a teenager should be about: jumping on the trampoline and drinking apple juice. Not spending all summer doing homework; not drinking cider in the park at midnight. Trampolines and apple juice. Let’s start a movement around that.

Can you step into the child role when the situation requires it? Do you often laugh with your young people? Have they ever seen you be silly, or do something just for the pure, sheer joy of being alive? Do you see your role purely as supervisor or coach, and not as someone who can just be really fun to be around? Do you take joy in the world and in the sheer, marvellous fact that we are all breathing in and out?

If this doesn’t come very naturally to you, get people in your team to help you. Find the people who do this well and get them to do it, and watch and learn so you can put it into practice yourself.

Parent, adult, child

Whether we find it most natural to act from the parent, the adult or the child parts of our personalities, all of them are good, and there is a place for each of them in our ministry. The tricky bit is to work out when each one is appropriate. But getting it right is worth the effort. When we know what each situation requires of us, it’s then we’ll have something really valuable to pass on to our children and young people.