We’ve spent the last three days painting, or rather staining, our house trim & deck railings. The division of labour is pretty clear – Paul paints up high and I paint down low. Sasha holds the ladder for Paul and fetches things. Finn tries his best not to work. (He did put in his time staining both the picnic table and himself.) Jude watches. He is the only child who really wants to help, but as he is five, we needed to explain why it isn’t really a good idea. Nevertheless he has some suspicious “Redwood” splotches on his hands and feet…
The first time I painted anything I was twelve, like Finn. My mom and dad built a fence in our backyard, and I was invited (or told, I’m not sure) to help stain it. The situation was probably quite similar to the past few days around here – convincing the oldest child that their assistance is crucial, (words like “responsibility,” “privilege,” and “allowance” might be thrown around); finding odd jobs to make the middle child feel useful; and consoling the littlest one who is devastated at not being involved. I don’t remember the actual work, but I remember my pants.
Of course when you paint, you can expect to get drips and spills on your clothes. That’s why we send our kids to school with paint smocks or one of Dad’s old shirts. We dig through our closets and find clothes that are worn out or that we just don’t like anymore, that we are willing to designate as painting clothes. I chose a pair of grey sweatpants – the kind with an elastic waistband and tight leg cuffs circa 1986. By the end of the fence project, they were splattered and speckled and smeared with brown wood stain.
Normally we relegate these painting clothes to a basement closet until they are needed again, or they might even end up in the garbage. But I wanted to wear my painting pants. And I wanted to wear them to school. In those days most girls, me included, were pretty concerned about wearing either stirrup pants or Levis, certainly not sweats. But I was determined to wear these ratty old pants to school. My mom was horrified that I would even consider going to school dressed like that, and told me in no uncertain terms that I was not to wear those pants out in public.
Why on earth did I want to wear those grubby old pants? Looking back, I think they were like a badge of honour. They were a symbol that I had done a grown-up job, meaningful work, physical labour. Of course my parents knew that, and presumably thanked me for it, even if they had to do a few touch-ups. But I wanted other people to know, to see the evidence of my usefulness and perhaps even skill. It was becoming more and more important to me what those in the category of people-who-are-not-my-parents thought of me. Knowing that my parents loved me, and thought I was good and nice was, well, good and nice. But as a pre-teen I wanted to be noticed and admired and liked by an increasingly wider audience. I knew I was admired for certain things… I was the smart girl. Everybody knew that. That label was firmly fixed and becoming cliché. I wanted out of the box. Or I at least wanted some paint on my box.
It is a normal phase of life as teenagers seek validation from the world beyond their families. I’m sure most of can remember that sometimes overwhelming desire to be noticed by someone, or that craving for attention or approval or admiration. But it can become so all-consuming that if that validation is not found in healthy and supportive relationships, teens (and adults for that matter) can so easily turn to not-so safe people and situations. Negative attention is still attention. And even if young people are getting positive attention, like I was, sometimes they are seeking different attention. “Good” labels are still labels. “Nice” boxes are still boxes.
At a workshop attended recently, the speaker was impassioned that we understand that all teenagers are hurting, if not for any other reason than the roller-coaster ride that is puberty. Now throw in school, parents, jobs, media, pop culture, bullying, facebook, self-image, sex and climate change. Now stick it all in a box and put a label on it. Hurting? You bet. And what does God want us to do for hurting people? Love them. “So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other.” John 13:34 NLT
God ‘s love is unconditional. He does not love us “because” or “when” or “if.” God loves us so much He died for us. All of us – me, you, young people. Moody teenagers and musical teenagers. Smart kids and smart alec kids. Compulsive texters and compulsive liars. Kids on skateboards and kids on drugs. Your neighbour's kids. The kind of kid you were. Kids in every kind of box with any kind of label. God loves them all and tells us to love them too. Love them like He does. We need to let them know that they are profoundly loved and valued, imperfectly by us, perfectly by God. You are loved. Period. Not you are loved because you are nice or smart or pretty. Not you are loved when you take your hat off in church or get good grades or paint a fence.
I think it’s safe to say that if you started walking up to all the teenagers in your neighbourhood and telling them you love them you might get some weird looks, or worse. So how do you show the young people in your life that you love them? “Dear children, let’s not merely say that we love each other; let us show the truth by our actions.” I John 3:18. Spend time with them. Listen to them. Support them. Pray with them. Be real with them. Get messy with them. Learn from them.
And if you're young: seek God, stay out of the box and paint with every colour you can :)
“Don’t let anyone think less of you because you are young. Be an example to all believers in what you say, in the way you live, in your love, your faith, and your purity.” I Tim 4:12 NLT