Teen “Busy-ness”: A Challenge or an Opportunity?

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by Jeffrey and Amy Kagan

“Busier than ever:” This is the refrain we, as youth advisors, hear over and over again about the schedules of our teens. Whether expressed as a positive (teens are “highly engaged”) or a negative (they are “over-programmed”), the implications for their involvement in youth group are clear — less time available overall usually means less involvement in youth group programs.

This dramatic rise in time spent on extracurricular activities, sports teams and jobs usually is attributed to the college application process. Teens need “resume builders” to buff their chances of getting in to their dream schools. Although we might conclude that this need is indicative of our achievement-focused society, we also recognize how important it is for kids to be kids while they can—instead of joining the rat race earlier than their predecessors.

In light of the many demands placed on our teens, it is critical that we address this fundamental dynamic if we are to serve them well. As youth advisors, the most disturbing aspect of this trend is when youth group is deprioritized by parents who may not fully understand the impact a positive youth group experience can have on their teens. Do they fail to grasp the value inherent in the opportunities we create? For starters, we help teens hone an array of leadership skills, including group-leading, planning, facilitating, event management, working with adults and other age groups, and more. Participation in youth group also offers teens other meaningful, and perhaps less apparent, experiences focused on identity development, exploration of different choices, spiritual growth, and more.

With all these positives on the table, why is youth group participation not a high priority? Is it because we’re generally more flexible than teachers and coaches (“Miss one practice and you won’t play in the next game.”)? Are teens (or their parents) concerned that the explanation of the skills they developed from a temple youth group might sound “too Jewish” to a secular admissions officer? Or, is it because we haven’t adequately described the power of a meaningful youth group experience and its positive implications for both the short-term and the long-term?

We can certainly bemoan the time challenges we have to contend with, or we can adjust—as we always have—to an evolving definition of adolescence.  Some suggestions for addressing this include:

  • Offering opportunities for community service that are in line with school standards or requirements
  • Accounting for key school and team obligations, within reason, to reduce competing schedules
  • Creating board positions that include significant, pre-established goals and responsibilities
  • Identifying “stretch projects” for high performers within the youth group and temple community, providing avenues for significant achievement and meaningful results that can be leveraged when applying to college
  • Inviting a college admissions counselor from a school relevant to our teens to talk with our board, youth committee, parents, and others in the synagogue community about what the school looks for in a candidate, using that information to adapt some of our programs to incorporate those dynamics and opportunities

Today’s teens, as we know, are busier than ever, devoting their outside-of-school time to a rapidly growing list of activities and commitments.  We can kvetch that they’re not making time for youth group activities, or we can adapt to this new dynamic. At first, it may feel like we’re capitulating to the rat race, but that may just be a part of meeting our teens where they live.

What’s working for you?

Jeffrey and Amy Kagan are in their fifth year as youth group advisors at Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, N.J.  Amy previously served as Director of Youth and Informal Education for NFTY-Garden Empire Region for four years and Jeffrey was the youth group advisor at Oak Park Temple outside Chicago for 14 years. Both are proud alumni of URJ camps, with Jeffrey currently serving as the Marketing Vice Chair of the Kutz Camp Committee.


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