On one of the first outings with Mowtown, my current expression of youth ministry innovation, I had a great episode with one of our teenagers. We had started work at one house and I had sent the student around the back of the house to get started weed whacking the backyard. As I continued to prep equipment for the job and ponder just what sorts of things I needed to be teaching the students in this project I was startled to see the student coming back across the lawn toward me. He had been gone for all of two minutes and was already back.
When he came up, I asked him what was the matter. His response, "I can't get the gate open." Now the back gate on this house was pretty high and quite difficult to unlatch even for me at 6 feet tall. But, as I walked around the rear of the house with the student I noticed that not 3 feet from him was a set of paint buckets that he easily could have used to solve the problem simply by standing on them to either look over the fence, jump the fence, or get some leverage to manipulate the latch. He had spent a minute and most trying to work the problem and then decided that he couldn't solve it and would need me.
I explained to him that when presented with a problem on a job site, big or small, I didn't want him to rely on the adults around him to solve it. That he needed to hang with it for a little while and see what he could do on his own. Not 20 minutes later he did just that! Part of the weed whacker we were using broke and the student, rather than coming to find me, spent 15 minutes figuring out how to fix it himself. This story is small, but illustrative of an issue I encounter with many of my teenagers and the solution that he discovered is exactly what I want to see happen in teenagers. Most of this I learned from my Dad who is a U.S. Marine.
As a child I constantly helped my Dad work on projects around our house. He had taught himself how to work on many different things over the years having grown up with a father who never fixed anything in their wealthy suburb of Washington D.C. Whenever I would encounter a problem that seemed unsolvable or watch him solve an issue in a pinch without the right tools, I would hear my Dad repeat over and over again his Marine Corps mantra "Improvise, Adapt, Persevere, and Overcome." As I got older, my Dad would simply say this and then walk away to allow me the space and time I needed to solve a problem.
Traditionally, the United States Marines have always considered themselves to be the small and underfunded branch of the U.S. military. They are a numerically small branch of the U.S. military. They constantly, in their view, have to figure out how to do more with less. So, they have prided themselves on finding solutions in a pinch over the years. I watched my Dad solve more problems around our house with the weirdest stuff as a child. He was like his own sort of MacGyver when it came to working on household projects. His main line of thinking was that we had to solve the problem and that if we kept at it long enough, a solution would present itself. This relates directly to working with teenagers.
Many teenagers in my experience struggle with problem solving. Some of it comes down to self confidence. Some of this struggle is attributable to the fact that they don't want to fail. And sometimes they have just been over parented to death. Often when they are given a free and open ended problem to solve, they simply don't know what to do because they have never been left on their own to figure things out. Or they have been told that if they fail, their life is over and the world is going to come apart. It's kind of a tragedy.
One of the things that drives me nuts about youth ministry in the United States is that our entire model is geared toward providing a safe, fun, and structured environment. It doesn't really offer our students any kind of ownership over their community or a stake in the success or failure of each venture/project/outing in their youth groups. As a result, we often end up with communities that perpetuate just the sort of dependency that crushes students when they head out in a more autonomous phase of life.
So, lately as I have been working with Mowtown, we have been trying to work with them on problem solving. I have even been using the principle of "Improvise, Adapt, Persevere, and Overcome." The goal is really get them to face a problem and recognize that it has to be solved (often quickly) and that they have the ability or can develop the ability to solve it if they simply keep at it. In some cases, that might mean working around a problem if it is just to immovable. We are trying to teach them the first 5-10 failures are all a part of the solution presenting itself. I am boiling this down to a few key ideas with them.
1. Overcome-Tell yourself, "This problem needs to be solved and I can do it."
2. Persevere- Failure IS an option! Keep at it and usually you will figure out a solution. Often the failures are part of the process of learning a new skill.
3. Adapt and Improvise-Think about ways you can work around the problem or solve the problem with something/someone around you in a creative way (Think duct tape or zip ties!)
4. Grace- No matter what happens remember that no problem or failure to solve it diminishes your value as a human being and as a child of God. Failure cannot take that away.
Now, if I can only incorporate all of this into my life!