What I've Learned from Kids

Editor’s Note: Tom Combes, the author, served at Windy Gap, a Young Life camp in North Carolina last June. As the head leader of the camp, Combes interacted regularly with leaders and campers. He has also taught a course on youth culture at Young Life’s New Staff Training.
On the first night of camp, as we were sending kids out on the obstacle course, I noticed a camper heading toward his cabin. I followed him and asked him if he was OK.
“Yeah, but I’m not into all this stuff. I want to go home.”

“Well, why don’t you come back down and just hang with me,” I said.

“Why, am I in trouble or something?”

“No, it’s just that when someone says they want to go home on the first night of camp, I figure there’s a story behind that,” I said to him. “I’d like to hear more.”
To my surprise, he agreed to come with me. We sat near the club room, and we talked. 
Virtual community
Among other things, Cory* told me his on-again, off-again girlfriend cheated on him recently. After professing her undying love to him, she went to a movie that night with one of his friends. And they kissed! Then he shared something quite revealing: “We’re Internet people,” he said, “and my friends and I have online journals. The thing that really makes me mad is that they both put stuff in their journals about what a great time they had together and that they kissed. It’s one thing to go behind my back, but it’s another thing to put it out there for everyone to read.”
Kids have always needed to belong and have safe places to tell their stories, but today the Internet has reshaped notions and assumptions about community through the availability of online journals, particularly among young people. Online diaries, Web journals and blogs (Web logs) at online communities such as Xanga.com, MySpace.com, Blurty.com and LiveJournal.com have become popular among young people in the past two years. It’s been estimated that more than 51 percent of all blogs and Web journals are created by 13- to 19-year-olds.
What’s appealing about these online journals? Here are a few suggestions:
  1. Most kids have an online journal because they want a place to vent.They can share emotions and get things out in the “open.”

  2. Because not all kids use Web journals, there is a sense of exclusivity. For kids who feel they’re left out at school or home, the Web journal community offers a sense of belonging. For some, even virtual belonging through anonymous online connection feels good enough.

  3. Web journals allow others to post responses or replies, so they create a potential place for young people to be heard and valued. One 19-year-old said, “When someone reads my journal and makes a comment either way, it lets me know that I have thoughts that are worthwhile.”

  4. They offer some kids a glimmer of control in a world that may seem out of control. Behind the anonymity of Web journals, kids can create personas to make up for their own insecurities and shortcomings.
Most online journal sites allow visitors to browse and read other’s journal. Read with caution and wisdom because not everything is true. But these diaries may open doors for some unique ministry opportunities, like communicating to some otherwise isolated kids.

Just ask
The growing popularity of online journals and Web diaries remind us that many kids today are still quietly longing for a place to be heard and someone to listen.
That night at Windy Gap, Cory was ready to go home, worried that he didn’t fit in with this crowd, and I was nearly a stranger listening to his story. He told me about his school (he had gone to a new high school this year), his music (he used to like rap, now he is in to Motown), that he was learning to play guitar (he already knew “Light the Fire,” which is often sung at club), and he shared about his family (his parents are divorced, his dad had beat him).
I was amazed at his openness, so I asked him if kids in his cabin knew all these things. “No, they haven’t asked me.” He paused, looked at me and said the most revealing thing, “I told you because you asked.”
Sometimes asking and listening matter more than we know. Young Life staff and leaders are trained and encouraged to listen to kids. Sometimes what kids are really trying to say isn’t evident at first. But we can ask more questions to understand them better.
The rest of that week, I watched Cory’s countenance gradually change from guarded and fearful to open and vibrant as the program team, the speaker, the leaders, the friends in his cabin and the Holy Spirit went to work. On the last night of camp, I was in the back of the club room, and I watched him stand up and say, “My name is Cory, from Texas, and this week I gave my life to Jesus.”    
* an alias