Engaging parents in youth work

25 March 2011 — 4 Comments

I was reading Brian Berry’s post on a recent parent summit they did at their church in San Diego. It was a training day to help explain the vision of the work, look at their values, and evaluate the impact of what they are doing (visit his blog for more info and ideas). Here in Littlehampton we recently held our very first “Parents Evening” to start to get feedback on how things are going amongst our children’s and youth work. It was a good start, but it’s clear we need to get better at communicating with parents and other ‘stakeholders’ about what we’re doing and get some more support!

That experience made me realise that youth workers don’t do much to engage with parents. Of course there is always a bit of contact with parents, but it is normally just to get forms signed, to explain an upcoming trip, or possibly when their kid’s behaviour has been awful! In church settings there may be slightly more crossover because the worker (or team) will see the families in another context (perhaps the Sunday service). Overall though, youth workers don’t have much to do with parents.

On one level, I understand it. The workers are often highly skilled people, specialists in dealing with and relating to teens. To develop links with the wider families could compromise the trusting relationship with a young person. “Will the worker talk to mum about that?” might be a valid concern for some young people. It’s also likely that the workers really don’t have the time to invest in the rest of the family.

However, the more I think about it, the more I believe that workers should engage with parents far more in both church and community settings. The benefits far outweigh the difficulties. Through years of running activities in a community setting, I found talking with parents was an incredibly useful exercise; I would get feedback and comments on the group, I would hear about wider issues affecting the family that informed the work I was doing with the young person, and our project and team became far more known and trusted as a result.

There are a number of ways to get more involved with parents. How about getting parent representatives on a management committee, or volunteering? Why not do like Brian has done above and host regular opportunities for parents to feedback and learn about the work? Perhaps you could even do home visits to families every so often!

So what about you? Do you do much work with parents and families? What form does it take and how does it work? Let us know in the comments!

Jon

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I am a qualified youth worker, writer and consultant based in Littlehampton, UK. I've worked in the voluntary youth sector for over 12 years, am married to Kirsty and we have two daughters named Hope and Eloise. Check out 'Journeying Together: Growing Youth Work and Youth Workers in Local Communities' and read my opening chapter.

4 responses to Engaging parents in youth work

  1. It’s not easy, as you’ve identified. Engaging churched parents is a bit easier in my opinion than general culture families. Here are a couple of simple examples:

    After Easter, we are beginning a term-long study on Biblical sexuality. Because this is slightly controversial, I sent e-mails to all the parents letting them know what we were doing. I invited them to preview a copy of the study guide we are using and asked them to make an appointment with me if they had any questions, issues, etc. So far, no one has objected to the study and I’ve gotten some helpful feedback about the youth program in general.

    I’ve also asked parents of our open youth groups (non-religious) to help with volunteering occasionally, to write short testimonials for fundraising efforts, etc.

    Probably the best example is a parent who is not religious. She claims she was “brain-washed” (her term) with anti-religion bias as she grew up in her parents’ household. As a result, she is open with her daughter attending Bible studies. About a year ago, her daughter came to faith in Jesus. The mom has since attempted the Alpha course and has also agreed to be on our management committee for the youth centre. She has not come to faith, but is very open and sees the changes that faith has made in the life of her daughter.

    Conclusions for me–it’s not possible to engage all the parents (some won’t allow you to do so), but whatever efforts we can make are a step in the right direction.

    • Thanks Loyd,

      I like what you did with sending out the previews of the study to the parents. We did something similar for our latest study series. I gave an outline of each session, including bible verses, conclusion and weekly challenges, and encouraged parents to follow up with their teens at home. The response was really positive from the parents, so we’re planning to do it more often.

      I also agree that it might not be possible to engage all parents, but we need to make the effort.

  2. Hi Jon,

    In relation to compromising a trust relationship between young people and youth workers if their parents are involved, the youth work I was previously youth pastor at created a policy that parents could only be involved with their child’s permission. This alleviated any awkward situations for everyone involved – particularly when it came to events such as Soul Survivor, where we were away for longish periods of time (longer than the standard 2 hour session!) and more bodies were required to make the event happen.

    Similarly to Loyd, I had an experience where a parent asked to be involved by helping in the kitchen at one of our weekly events, – not knowing at the time it was because she was suspicious because of what we were doing. To cut a long story short, through her involvement at the youth work she became a Christian, as did her husband, and her parents-in-law…

    The relationship between parents and youth workers can be one of tension. I’ve been in a couple of situations where I am supporting a teenager in making the next steps in life to prepare them for adulthood, where the parents are doing the exact opposite – protecting their children from growing up. Youth workers require sensitivity here; at times I’ve found it very difficult to hold my tongue and let parents be parents… even if I don’t agree with their influence or decisions… But by seeking relationship and involving parents I’m confident some of these potential issues could be turned on their heads, for effective partnerships in raising healthy young adults.

    I agree it’s not possible or appropriate to include all parents, but a handful that volunteered for projects I was involved with were pretty much the most valuable resource we had. As long as their motive is OK – i.e. to serve, and not use the time to check up on what their children are doing, then parents can absolutely be an asset to youth work.

    • Hi Ali, thanks for taking the time to comment.

      I like the idea of a simple opt-in policy for parents helping based on the child’s preferences. It makes sense and is very easy to implement. We have a number of parents who help out, and it’s generally OK, but that would help solve any issues (unless the parents pressure the kids into it!).

      My general experience of involving parents has also been good, although some parents have used the youth workers to try and get extra leverage against their child doing/saying/thinking particular things. Often tho parents have sought advice and counsel from the workers on how to deal with adolescence.

      Working in a community setting, there were times when we deliberately didn’t engage certain parents (or feedback to them), as it would have detrimental to the young person. One parent in particular was very negative about her daughter, and when we tried to praise the daughter and say how well she’d done we got a load of abuse! Those situations are the exception though.

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