What do you do with the kid who’s different? The boy who wears eye makeup and has black fingernails, the girl who goes through five shades of hair color every two weeks, the bookworm amidst athletic kids, the student who makes offbeat comments that leave everyone scratching their heads… the list can get long in a hurry. Conformity is king in any group of students, and many of the young teens with whom I work can be rather brutal toward the one who doesn’t fit the mold.
My personal mission as a youth leader is to welcome, nurture, and disciple every student who walks through our doors, with a laser focus on new students and 6th grade boys. That means that any kid who is noticeably, or perhaps quietly, different from the mainstream of our group deserves special care and attention. A recent midweek program was a prime example. One boy made a riotously funny comment during the message, which wasn’t unusual for him. He simply doesn’t have a “quiet” setting. Either he’s silent or you can hear him everywhere in the room, appropriate or not. Another student had come for only the second time and participated fully in a rather physical crowdbreaker despite being thoroughly nonathletic and not quite understanding all the rules of the game. I picked up strongly on a less-than-approving attitude among some of the other boys, communicated nonverbally at the least.
How have you made the “different” ones in your group feel like they belong? Here are some things that came to mind as I processed later that evening.
- Respect – It was a beautiful providence that this was exactly our topic that night. We drew from 1 Peter 2:17 and Romans 12:10 and 13:1-5 and focused most of our conversation on respect for authorities like parents, teachers, youth leaders, etc. But the foundation of respect is honoring all others as well as yourself, because each of us has been created in the image of God. That holds true whether someone is your best friend or you can’t stand them. Youth groups in general, and small groups in particular, MUST be safe places for students to be exactly who God created them to be.
- Affirm – Since every kid is unique, find something specific to affirm about each one as often as possible. When Katie Edwards came to train our volunteers a few weeks ago, she was armed with a great resource book called Make Their Day. I’m excited to use some of these ideas to make every kid hear just how special they are, to God and to me.
- Enlist- Have them do something to contribute in a way that other students will value. It may be a quiet kid reading a Scripture passage, a kid with developing social skills being charged with distributing a treat, or allowing students with unusual talents to show them off. I still remember three years ago in the basement of a cabin at Fall Retreat when my group of 8th grade boys (the last group I journeyed with past 6th grade – I now do 6th grade every year) gathered around just such a kid, who regaled them with several illusions, including levitation and string that hovered and danced around.
- Pair Up – So often the kid who is separate from the group only lacks a friend to connect with. My heart breaks when a kid walks past a group of kids his age and sits by himself. Yet it soars when I see another kid spontaneously reach outside his comfort zone to include someone who needs a friend. When this doesn’t happen on its own, I sometimes have to step in. This can be very informal or it can involve some effort outside of programming. One Saturday I arranged to have shy “Billy” meet me at “Kendall’s” basketball game (not their real names). We then introduced Billy to the wonderment of Five Guys Burgers & Fries for lunch. At times I feared Kendall would overwhelm Billy with his bubbly personality, but he did a great job finding out Billy’s interests and encouraging him to be more involved in youth group activities. I affirmed Kendall after we dropped Billy off – I told him that there were several guys I could have asked to do this, but I knew he would not “drop” Billy when his other friends are around.
I wasn’t bullied hard-core as a kid, but I know all too well the pain of not really fitting in. I rose above it and kind of transcended the groups by the time I finished high school, but in middle school I really struggled to belong. I wish I’d had a youth leader like us back then.