One of the privileges I’ve had as a speaker on over 40 college campuses in the past few years is to really get to know my “audience.” Spending 100’s of hours in conversations with college students of both genders and all ages, from all parts of the United States and from every type of institution (private, state, religious, and junior college campuses) has convinced me that you and I—no matter our age or marital status—can and should take seriously the call to become surrogate parents to this young generation of 21st century students, both men and women.
Getting to know these students—whether it has been over an extended amount of time or in brief, chance encounters—has absolutely convinced me that this young generation unequivocally wants (and desperately needs) sound advice from caring adults in their lives and usually (even often) it is better if you’re not their parent! I’ve also found that students are more open to counsel when it is neither overly emotional nor demeaning. The combination of truth without anger allows students to feel a healthy dose of pain or embarrassment in disappointing someone who cares about them without feeling shamed by that person. (I’ve also found that students are usually quite humiliated by their self-destructive behavior, as well as the circumstances they find themselves in, so by the time they confide in me, heaping more humiliation upon them is not necessary!)
I want to encourage you to join my Spiritual Parent's Club--to get involved in a student or young adult’s life as an encourager, mentor or spiritual parent whether you are the parent (or family member) of a student, their co-worker, neighbor, a mere acquaintance, or even a stranger. Here a few simple ways…
First, I have found that striking up a meaningfully, often timely conversation is much easier and less complicated (and less stressful) than imagined. Rather than being intimidated, simply ask personal and pointed questions of students and expect honest answers—out of genuine interest without building an argument in response. Whatever they say, don’t overreact, roll your eyes in disapproval, or be judgmental. Be listeners first, advocates second and finally, don the role of spiritual/surrogate parent, rather than professional counselor.
Sample Questions to ask students might include:
1. Is there anything in your life you would change right now?
2. What are the tenets you believe about yourself or your gender/generation?
3. What do you believe is the purpose for your life?
4. Is there anything you are doing right now that is harmful to yourself or another?
5. Do you have a personal relationship with God?
Second, please don’t underestimate the courage (and comfort) that is exchanged when you consistently (or even randomly) encourage and physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually support a local or out-of-area student!
Third, don’t lose touch with students and young adults with whom you begin a relationship. This simple rule is very parental in nature. A parent will simply not lose contact with a child—they will patiently pursue, always keeping up with their most recent address and phone numbers. With true and long-term interest, parents stay informed with their status of their child’s progress in school or at work. Of course, parenting takes time and intention. And “spiritual parenting” is really no different. Knowing how to stay “in touch” by email (on a computer) or how to send and receive text messages is part of the “drill” in communicating with this younger generation. Because this is the way most students and young adults communicate, it is important to make the effort to be accessible to them through these methods.
In closing, I want to remind you that you don’t have to look very far to find a student who needs to be supported or encouraged. They are everywhere! Just be courageous and assertive. Of course, if you don’t feel personally prepared, I would encourage you to immediately begin your research of today’s culture, upgrade your technology, and fortify your own life spiritually. Most importantly, know what you believe, why you believe it and how to articulate it in a few brief sentences. Then live out the tenets of your faith in front of others with consistency. Remember, you don’t need to be a parent (or have been a parent) to mentor or “spiritually” parent this young generation. You only need to possess a deep confidence that you have been called—for such a time as this—to come alongside one or more students or young adults to give moral, spiritual and parental support.