Reclaiming Our Prodigal Sons and Daughters:
A Practical Approach for Connecting With Youth In Conflict
By Scott Larson – Larry Brendtro
My entrance into the field of youth work started 15 years ago as I volunteered my time to lead a group of middle school kids at my local church. I quickly realized that needed help in my approach to be effective. Now years later as a paid “professional” youth worker I still search for ways to be better at doing my job by connecting and understanding young people.
When I picked up this book entitled: Reclaiming our Prodigal Sons and Daughters: A Practical Approach for Connecting With Youth in Conflict, I must admit I did not have high expectations. Most books of this type are either overly scientific and dry, or have an agenda that is misaligned from the practical aspects of working with young people in a secular environment on a daily basis.
I couldn’t have been more inaccurate. This book provided me with encouragement on things I didn’t know what I was doing right and some insights on some more useful approaches.
The book begins with a history of youth work. This may not seem all that exciting, but the better understand how our jobs came to be in existence and the lessons that were learned in the past. The better we understand the past – the more effective we can be in the future.
The core of this book is spent on unique challenges in working with teens that come from difficult backgrounds. There is a strange tension within the Christian community that recognizes the problems but has historically had difficulty in connecting with this demographic. The authors, Scott Larson and Larry Brendtro, cite this example:
When we tried to place a youth from a foster home in a volunteer position at a Bible camp, the director rejected the application, saying, “if he’s an at-risk child, I don’t want him around here!” Although churches understand that delinquency is a spiritual and moral crisis, faith communities generally have not been on the front lines reaching out to prevent delinquency or to reclaim troubled children. (24)
This revelation is quite troubling and motivating all at the same time. Even if faith communities are not widely understood or valued in the communities like they used to be, there are still a great many ways that churches and other religious groups can make a positive impact upon “at-risk” teens, besides the obvious spiritual components. The primary way is just providing a place of belonging and acceptance which is very much a gaping void in the life of many teens. This lack of care in their life stems into deeper issues into their future. This book points out that,
Children deprived of caring become children who do not care. The most damaging effect of attachment problems is the failure of the conscience to develop properly. (25)
Conscience is developed through mentoring and care on an individualistic basis; or in other words, through parenting. Most churches understand that youth work is connected with family work and not merely isolated on just the troubled children and teens. There is also a hope for change among most faith groups that goes beyond reason. That can be a great place to start.
Larson and Brendtro continue to talk about the power of positive adult relationships and the rebuilding of the family. However the culture in which we live is much more fragmented than it was historically which is having some adverse effects upon the youth in our communities. As they point out,
Contemporary society is faced with scores of underparented kids. Most neighbors no longer become involved, contending that these youth are someone else’s problem or a job for professionals. Many educators and youth workers try to keep a “professional” distance” but an unbounded child will never be reclaimed by an uninvolved adult. (99)
Frustrations such as what the un-named camp director arise when things get messier than we were anticipating. We often think that when we present helpful and hopeful things that change should naturally happen. When it doesn’t happen then we quickly move toward establishing rules and the teen leaves. We call it rebellion. They call us hypocrites. When the next kid roles around we apply the same rule to them as a starting point, and while we have excellent intentions, generally this approach is not perceived as care, but as something else. I like how the authors put it when they say,
Rules minus relationship equals rebellion (60)
This is really where I felt affirmed as a youth worker. We make it our business to build relationships with young people. In my own experience there are a ton of kids that simply fall between the cracks of society and go unnoticed until they do something so bad that the only solution is punishment from the very society that has so long ignored them. We may have lots of complex reasons as to why kids turn out this way, but it may be more simplistic than many of us realize,
Albert E. Trieschman (1931-1984) was on of the first to recognize that the core problem of many troubled children is profound sadness. Some children have suffered so many losses that they are “cried out” unwilling or unable to handle any more sadness. Some losses may be obvious, such as the death of a friend or family member. Many are small losses that accumulate and overwhelm the a child. These children desperately need adults who can help them develop the courage to master loss and sadness in the circumstances of their daily lives. (67)
This is the kicker of it for me. “These children desperately need adults who can help them develop the courage to master loss and sadness in the circumstances of their DAILY lives”. This is difficult for many church based workers as they are often stuck in their offices preparing for a weekly youth meeting, while they could be on the street and volunteering in the schools nurturing relationship on a day to day basis. If kids have to wait a week for a chance to interact with you, they will find someone else. Illogical as it may seem often youth will associate a lack of presence with rejection,
In most cases where youth are ignored or rejected by caregivers, they find substitute relationships of belonging, perhaps with a relative, teacher, neighbor, or with siblings or peers. But if no substitute attachments are found, the child may rage or become increasingly empty and devoid of affection (27)
It seems like a small thing but just showing up at the corner store after school every day and buying slushies’ can make a huge difference for a youth worker to establish trusting relationships with troubled teens. At first it is just about the free food, but in time it is about consistency.
I also tremendously respected the authors of this book for making bold statements aobut the spiritual needs of modern teenagers. It is often a social faux pas to bring up the topic of spirituality in secular environments. And yet they say this,
Modern youth are suffering from a deep spiritual hunger. Yet most schools are so narrowly preoccupied with academic achievement and superficial behavior that they fail to meet the most basic emotional and spiritual needs of their children. Likewise, many courts are no longer committed to meeting the needs of our most difficult children. Even professional counselors may not know how to speak to the hearts of the youth they serve. (173)
This is a longer post than I am accustomed to writing, and there is still so much I could write about. The benefits of this book to anyone that presently is, or is hoping to work with at risk kids is indefinable. Get it. Read it.
Reclaiming Our Prodigal Sons and Daughters: A Practical Approach for Connecting with Youth in ConflictChildren's Runaways Books)