How to Train Juvenile Delinquents

Ask most adults their purpose in life and they’ll look at you like you’re wearing a clown costume at a funeral.

I recently asked a group of teens in drug-recovery, Can you remember a time when you did something really well and you enjoyed doing it?”

I gave them time to talk about it—what they’d accomplished, how they’d felt.  Most came alive.  One talked about sports.  Another shared about working on a truck engine with his father.  He recalled discovering his mechanical skills (and how good it had been to connect with his dad—I detected some brokenness there).  Some sat quietly and tried to avoid eye contact.  Their silence revealed plenty:

I’ve never accomplished anything.

I can’t remember feeling good about what I’ve done.

I hate this place, my life, and the people in it.

I’m locked up in drug-rehab.  I’m supposed to feel guilty and ashamed about my life—right?

I think some of them were a little shocked when I apologized for how we, as parents and adults, have failed them.


Jeremiah 29:11 tells us that God has a plan for us.  This verse always evokes an array of emotional responses, from hope to despair to bitterness.  I’ll be honest, very little of my life has felt like a well-ordered plan of divine purpose.  A buddy once said that life is little more than a series of regretful events that lead you to say, “I’ll never do that crap again!”  I laughed, but there’s a lot of truth there.  When I look back on my story, it’s the screw-ups, the betrayals, and the missed opportunities that steal most of the spotlight.

But what if we changed the question from “Where did you screw up?” to “When did you experience true joy?”

Proverbs 22:6 offers a great parenting hack:  “Train up a child in the way he should go:  and when he is old, he will not depart from it.”

Great advice.  Unfortunately, much is lost in translation.

Train up?  I trained my dogs to sit, stay, and come.  I can tell our retriever, Cleveland, to “Go get the ball!” and he’ll disappear on a mad hunt and won’t return until he’s found a tennis ball.  The Bible—the quintessential parenting book—reveals raising kids to be as simple as training dogs: just teach them to follow commands and meet your expectations, and they’ll be okay.

Yes, that’s a sarcastic oversimplification.

I once worked with a teacher who had a crazy educational philosophy:  “Kids come into the world equipped with everything they’re meant to have,” she would say.  “It’s not our job to crack open their skulls and just dump in a bunch of rules and information.  That’s brutality.  Education should be a process of drawing out something that’s buried deep inside—and that’s different for each kid.”

(Friends, our schools’ religion of standardized testing is destroying our kids, but that’s a topic for another day.)

Jeremiah 29:11 tells us we’ve each come into this world for a purpose—we’re actually made for something unique.  Sadly, that divine spark is often buried beneath the rubble of misunderstanding that comes with Proverbs 22:6—just train them like dogs so they don’t pee on the carpet.  And if you can get them to fetch your slippers or the paper?  Even better!

…and Jesus wept.


In his book, The Cure for the Common Life, Max Lucado blows apart the whole warped notion of how adults should “train up” children.  In the original text, the root word for “train up” reveals how most of us have screwed this up and failed our kids in the process.  “To train up,” Lucado writes, actually means “to awaken thirst.”  We’re not training and domesticating wild animals.  We’re supposed to be helping our kids figure out their unique talents and passions—the things they were made for, the things that make them come alive!

Can you imagine how different your life might be if someone had done that for you?

Very few of us had that blessing.  Most of us were just taught to survive, play the game, and achieve some socially-prescribed definition of success.  Good glory, no wonder so many people feel lost, disillusioned and bitter.

My youngest son, Danny, once had to listen to me harangue him about his disaster in the garage.  He’d cut apart a ride-on toy, some scooters, and along with some discarded plywood had created some kind of Frankenstein-monster-death-trap-machine that he wanted to race down our hill.  The only possible outcome was a trip to the emergency room and a lawsuit from the neighbors.

“Danny … son,” I lamented, “what were you thinking?”  (I’ve asked him that question many times over the years.)

“Dad,” he replied with all the dignity he could muster, “I had a plan.  It just didn’t work out.  Sometimes you try things that don’t work out.”

My demure wife was biting the insides of her cheeks, trying not to laugh.  She’d seen plenty of my screw ups.  A part of me wanted to laugh, too, but something in Danny’s words pierced my heart.

I’d quit taking chances and abandoned the risky search for what my life’s plan (not my plan, but THE plan) might actually be.  I’d reduced my life to meeting expectations, playing it safe, hoping for approval … and slowly dying inside.  The words to an old Springsteen song suddenly came to mind:  “I was sitting around waiting for my life to begin, while it was all just slipping away.”  The worst part was how I’d also been suffocating my son’s heart instead of helping him unearth and harness his unique gifting.  Danny shines when he’s taking things apart and rebuilding them into something new.  He could disassemble and escape his crib long before he could talk—how can a parent NOT encourage that kind of talent?

No, that wasn’t a genius I celebrated in the middle of the night, but I can now look back and help Danny recognize his unique abilities and joyous moments.  I’m supposed to be helping awaken his deep thirst, not just berating him because he made some death machine in the garage.  I should be directing my son’s gifting so he can learn to live out of his heart (but not kill himself or anyone else in the process).

In a family of college-folk, Danny is headed to vocational-technical training next year, and I couldn’t be happier or more proud of my son.  Unlike most adults, he’s got a clue about what he’s good at and what brings him joy.  He’s discovering the plan for his life.

Friends, revisiting your life story will reveal your heart’s purpose and path.  It’s never too late to rediscover who you were made to be.  And the best trail marker is the answer to the question, “What’s something you do well that makes your heart come alive?”

When you can marry your talents with your passions, you’ll have lightning in a bottle, you’ll illuminate the plan for your life.  You’ll awaken your divine spark, your unique thirst for a life worth living.

Don’t dismiss anything as trivial or stupid.  Maybe a part of your life’s purpose is cooking.  That doesn’t mean you need to open a restaurant to fulfill your destiny.  If you just press into that gifting and let yourself be lost in the joy of it, you’ll be amazed at how life can be unleashed (for you and the people orbiting your world).

If we can do this now as adults and recapture even a flicker of life, think what it could mean for our world if we could help young people on their journeys, long before they’re as lost, afraid, angry and confused as we are.

Train up a child in the way he should go …

What’s something you do well that makes your heart come alive?

Too often we ignore this question and ask instead what the world expects of us.  As Howard Thurman writes, “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs.  Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

Most days it seems I’m surrounded by miserable, wretched souls who are tired of life.

Life is not meant to be endured, but LIVED.  Awaken that thirst and set free the children … the ones in front of you and the one raging inside of you.

As always, please share this.  Somebody in your world needs these words right now.  I’m humbled by your graciousness.

Also, at my son’s urging, I’m finally on Twitter.  Follow along.  But fair warning: more of my quirkiness will shine through on that platform.

Be well, friends.

2 thoughts on “How to Train Juvenile Delinquents

  1. Really, really beautiful. This is something I’ve been pondering in my heart not just for myself, but also for my children. Raising them to discover their own inherent beauty and giftedness is at once overwhelming, frightening, and wonderful! But He has given us His wisdom to forge this path and I also appreciate you sharing your insight. THANK YOU!!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks, Melissa. I hope the journey for you and your kids is awesome! One of my favorite Mike Yaconelli quotes: Considering the moment of his death, he hoped to have just enough air in his lungs to whisper, “What a ride!” I want to live like that, and I want it for my kids, too.


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