Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it. Proverbs 22:6
Like pretty much everyone I know, have heard, or read, I am heartsick, furious, discouraged, dismayed, and dumbfounded by the senseless killing rampage committed against nine innocent people who had gathered at church to pray. The evil is all the more heinous as the group of black people had welcomed the young white man who sat with them an hour before he then slaughtered them in a racist rampage.
This one hit very close to home. Two of the pastors studied at one of our ELCA seminaries; the young man’s family are members of another ELCA congregation. The ELCA has had as one of its primary goals from its inception back in 1987 to have our denomination look more like the current United States. Anti-racial workshops and training materials abound. Every three years we host a National Youth Gathering that is attended by over 30,000 youth, plus assorted sponsors and facilitators. Several of the speakers over the years have been well-known global black leaders. I weep at the horror of it all.
However, rather than try to make sense of that which does not make sense, I will focus on some things that can help us deter other young men (the vast majority of these horrific shootings are done by young males). Back when I was younger and more involved in youth ministry I learned about the excellent research done by Search Institute (www.search-institute.org).
A group of creative people decided to quit studying what leads young people to get into serious trouble and focus instead factors that steer young people away from trouble. Their research identified 40 assets – or factors that contribute to raising emotionally mature and healthy young adults who manage to dodge risky behavior. The more assets a young person has, the better the young person functions. The reverse is also true – fewer assets results in higher likelihood of getting into trouble.
A complete list of those assets can be found on the Search website. They fall into eight categories:
Support – Who’s pulling for the youth? It cannot all be left to the parents. I have often worked with very capable, dedicated, motivated parents whose teenager none-the-less gets involved in high risk negative behaviors. Parents need people backing them up.
Empowerment – does the youth feel safe, needed, and valued for who they are today; not just who they might become in the future?
Boundaries and Expectations – does anyone know and care enough to do anything about where a young person is hanging out and what he or she is doing there?
Constructive use of time – a chilling common denominator in many serial shooting sprees is unlimited access to toxic information. Youth have energy which they will invest in something. It’s up to adults to provide something worthwhile to absorb that energy.
Commitment to learn – who’s teaching and demonstrating that knowledge is a critical part of the path to success?
Positive values – again – parents cannot do this alone. The entire community – schools, church, neighbors, extended family, coaches, and other community citizens need to work together to instill a culture of positive values.
Social competencies – children are not born knowing how to appropriately interact with people; but there are skills they can and must be taught from early childhood forward.
Positive identity – what makes a young person hopeful for the future? People who feel hopeless often do desperate – and dangerous things.
We as a nation have much work to do to raise our children to be the kind of people we want leading our families and communities. This requires a community effort. Not all are called to work directly with youth. However, we can all support those who are. Let’s start by helping and encouraging those who are raising the next generation. Enough finger pointing about what they’re doing wrong. Let’s help them focus on what’s going right and expand that.
We are never too old to make a positive contribution to the well-being of our children and youth.
Individually and collectively we need to invest time, money, and resources in our young people as if our lives depended on it. Because, they do.