“Your mom said that? Seems like she doesn’t get you at all!”
“We all know parents just don’t understand, right?”
“Your dad isn’t really supporting that choice. I really wish he would!”
“The adults in your life can be so frustrating!”
“When I was in middle school, my parents were really annoying, too.”
“The adults I lived with in high school were super strict! They never let me have any fun—kind of like the adults in your life now!”
How often have you said something like this to your students?
Real talk: We all have done it at least a time or two!
Because we’re trying to relate.
We want them to know we understand.
Because we’re on their team.
And sometimes, that’s how we really feel.
Because we remember what it felt like to be a student, too.
The well-intentioned list could go on and on. When we’re trying to relate to and build trust with students, it can be easy to talk about their parent or adults in the home in a way that students will agree with and understand. But whether we realize it or not—whether we mean to or not—with each statement like this, we’re drawing a line in the sand.
On one side – the student. And on the other side – the parents or adults in their lives.
Making the parent the enemy in the story or the butt of the joke may be one of the quickest ways to relate to students in what they’re feeling or experiencing. But it’s also one of the most damaging things we can say. As the biggest and most important influence in a student’s life, we have a responsibility to respect the parent/student relationship. And the best place to start? With our words!
Help Bridge the Gap Between Parents and Students
As students crave more independence and more freedom, the space between them and their parent is increasing. This is especially true of middle schoolers! They are beginning to question their parents’ actions, beliefs, and rules in a way they may not have done before. This phase is a time when a kid and a parent begin to naturally experience tension in their relationship.
As communicators and leaders, we don’t win if our words make the gap between a student and their parent even wider. Making the parent or adult the villain in the eyes of a kid will only cause the parent to lose trust in us. We only win when we help bridge the gap between a middle schooler and the parent.
We win when we choose our words about parents wisely.
4 Ways to Choose Words Wisely
So how do we do that? Well, here are four places to start.
1. Ask more questions.
When a student is venting about their parents or the guardian in their life, don’t participate in the pile on! Instead of agreeing or adding your own thoughts, take a different approach. Ask questions that will help you understand what’s happening in the relationship. It will also help students process what they’re feeling.
- Why does the student feel this way?
- What do they wish their parent would say or do instead?
- Have they tried talking to their parent about this issue?
- What could they do to make the situation better?
Asking intentional questions is a great way to guide the conversation to a new, healthier, more productive place.
2. Be inclusive with your word choice.
The vocabulary we use when we talk about family matters a lot. Especially for the kid experiencing a non-traditional family dynamic. It can be easy to default to using examples that acknowledge the kid with a mom and dad who are married. But statistically, this is not the case for many students in our ministry anymore. Specifically, when we are giving examples and talking about parents, it’s important to keep in mind the kid . . .
with both parents who are married
with divorced parents
with the single mom
with the single dad
with two moms, and two step-moms
with two dads
whose legal guardians are their grandparents or other family members
whose legal guardian is another caring adult in their life
who lives with a foster parent
with adoptive parents
who has a strained relationship with one or both parents
who has no relationship with one or both parents
whose parents have passed away
By giving examples that acknowledge a variety of family and parental dynamics in a way that honors the parent, the kid, and the family, you are letting a kid know you see them in their unique situation. You are letting the parent or caregiver know you see them, too.
4. Partner with the parents or adults.
A great way to change the way you talk about parents and adults in your students’ lives is to actually get to know them yourself! Do what you can to partner with parents and adults in your ministry. Invite them to serve, have a meal or share a phone call, offer them resources to use at home, pray for and encourage them. Do what’s in your power and schedule to make parents a part of your ministry to their student, rather than an outsider in the process. The more you get to know parents in a positive light, the easier it will be to shift your language about them in conversation with your students.
Another way to partner with the parents and adults in your students’ lives is choosing to believe the best about them, just like you’d want them to do for you as the ministry leader, too. And while this might be difficult to do sometimes, remember that you probably don’t know the whole story or every detail. It’s easy for all of us to make quick assumptions or draw conclusions about a parent based on what students share. By choosing to believe the best, you are ultimately building trust with the parent that leads to a stronger partnership.
While we never want to speak negatively about an adult in the life of a student, we do want to be safe spaces to get help when it’s needed. So, if a student shares something with you about a parent or adult that is putting them in harm or danger, speak up. You can choose your words wisely to do so in love, of course. But one of the best ways to support parents is to speak up when they need help, too.
We win as communicators and ministry leaders when we champion the relationship of a middle schooler and their parent. The words we use with students when talking about their parent have the potential to help us do that, or widen the existing gap between them even more. Let’s win by choosing our words about parents wisely.
Our words matter so much when speaking to middle schoolers, and if you want to learn how to learn more about how to make your words matter more check out Communicating to Middle Schoolers: A Guide to Developing and Delivering Messages that Stick.