This kid was impossible.
For almost twenty years, I co-directed ministry teams leading performing arts camps for kids in hundreds of churches across the U.S. It was a whirlwind of laughter, blessings, challenges and on-the-job learning. From the start, it was clear that kids are pretty much the same everywhere —funny, creative, insightful and eager to please. We were in each church just a few days, so it was essential to connect with the kids quickly, get them laughing and keep them engaged. Usually, we did that very well. Then we met J.R.
J.R. was impossible — loud, inattentive, constantly on the move and picking on children around him. None of the usual tried-and-true methods for redirecting behavior worked. We tried prizes and positive reinforcement, repositioning in the group, pep talks, extra responsibilities and every motivational trick we knew. With a one-on-one helper at his side he stopped bothering other kids, but still appeared bored and completely unengaged. Stumped and frustrated, we carried on the best we could and tried to focus on an otherwise fun and enthusiastic group of 1st-6th graders.
I don’t know why we didn’t take the obvious step of talking to J.R.’s parents or seeking counsel from someone at the church. In hindsight, I think it’s because God wanted us to learn a profound lesson. But at the time, our experience as “experts” identified poor parenting as the main problem. Clearly there were no boundaries in J.R.’s home, no discipline, no consequences for negative behavior. And there was nothing we could do about that in one short weekend.
On Sunday evening, we met the kids at the church to get ready for their big performance for families and friends. Everyone was thrilled and excited—except J.R., who, as usual, was in motion and preoccupied. We feared he would be a distraction on stage, but were relieved and surprised when he joined in many of the songs and remembered when it was time to play his rhythm instrument. We met lots of parents after the show, but not J.R.’s mom and dad. This wasn’t unexpected; we knew that parents with the most challenging kids rarely made themselves known.
What we never expected came on Monday morning, when our host announced that J.R.’s father had volunteered to drive us to the airport. No one spoke up, but we each had the same thought: “Uh-oh, this could be a VERY awkward trip.” When the van pulled up to the hotel, a smiling man stepped out, hugged us warmly and insisted on carrying our luggage. He was distinguished, cordial and articulate — the exact opposite of the person we had expected. But nothing could prepare us for what J.R.’s dad said.
“I want to thank you for everything you did for Jeffrey this weekend — I know he can be a handful, but he had a blast and we were so proud!”
Confused, we asked him clarify that “Jeffrey” was, in fact, J.R.
“Yes, my son is J.R. — but I call him Jeffrey. May I tell you his story?”
Little did we know that God was about to teach us a lesson that would change how we did ministry with kids from that moment on.
“My wife and I adopted Jeffrey three years ago, when he was seven. We had raised two great sons — both were smart, athletic, good students, loved the Lord and were everything parents could ask for. We first saw Jeffrey at a picnic where prospective adoptive parents could meet and interact with children who needed a home. There was nothing ‘attractive’ about him— Jeffrey was withdrawn, sullen, non-communicative — but for some reason we felt drawn to him. And when we heard his story, we understood why.
“The staff told us that Jeffrey had been raised in a dog cage until the age of five. He was abused, neglected and underfed until he was rescued by Child Protective Services. He made fair progress in foster care, but desperately needed the stability and permanence of an adoptive home. My wife and I knew this wasn’t a decision to take lightly, so we prayed and thought long and hard. In the end, we believed that God was leading us to adopt Jeffrey as our son. We were confident that with God’s help (and our proven track record as parents), Jeffrey would thrive in a loving environment.
“The first few months were a nightmare. Our new son fought, screamed, hid under the bed and hoarded food. We tried to reassure Jeffrey and help him feel safe and loved. But the harder we tried the more he seemed to withdraw. My wife and I prayed, cried, sought counseling, did everything we knew to do — but we saw little progress. It was always one step forward, three steps back.
“On a particularly hard day, I cried out to God, ‘What can I do, Lord? Why doesn’t Jeffrey trust me? Why can’t he see how much I love him?’
“In that moment, I heard God say, ‘That’s the way I feel about you, too, my son. You aren’t perfect. You pull away. You’re afraid to trust. Why can’t you see how much I love you? That’s the place to start.’
“I realized how much of my pride had been wrapped up in ‘fixing’ the situation and making things right in my own wisdom and strength. I was ashamed to recognize that being seen as a good parent was often more important than being one. I had to admit my failure, confess my pride and entrust Jeffrey into the care of his heavenly Father. I needed my less-than-perfect son to teach me what God’s perfect love really looks like. That’s the day I learned how to be Jeffrey’s dad.”
“From then on, things started to change. My wife and I relaxed more and pressured Jeffrey less. We tried to take joy in the little things, the small victories. Instead of trying to ‘fix’ him, we tried to let him feel how much he was loved—by God and by us. And bit by bit, he started to trust. He stopped hoarding food. He began to communicate. Best of all, he started to smile. There are hard days, but Jeffrey has come so far.
“This weekend at church was the first time we have seen him participate with the other kids and be a part of the group. Now he knows—and we know—that he can do it! Thank you for that gift!”
By this time, everyone in the van was crying. We were heartbroken hearing about J.R.’s traumatic past, ashamed by our previous assumptions about this precious family and humbled by God’s love for us as his children. Had we known J.R.’s story in advance, we wouldn’t have treated him the same as the other kids (which he needed) — and we wouldn’t have learned a paradigm-changing lesson (which we needed).
Here’s the lesson we learned: When a child acts out, there’s always a deeper reason. Love him/her even more. Never give up. Don’t lower your expectations of the child — just raise your expectations of what God can do. And never forget that God sees you exactly as you are, accepts you and loves you anyway.
P.S. — Several years later, we returned to that church. J.R. was a teenager and we hardly recognized him. He was laughing, hanging out with a group of friends, and his parents said he was doing great. J.R. had forgotten us. But we will never forget him.