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The Power of Outward Focus

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by Topher Philgreen

It was a hot July evening in 1993. I was a young Camp Director and was sending a camper home. He had disobeyed some rule (I don’t even remember what “send-home” rule he broke), and I was meeting with his parents to give them the bad news. After the normal questions about what happened and why he was being sent home, the mom burst out in tears. Their innocent little boy was turning out to not be so innocent. 
“What does it take to raise a good kid?” she asked through her tears and clenched teeth. It sounded like a frustrating rhetorical question, but then she and her husband just stared at me with this longing look in their eyes, waiting for me to deliver an answer to their question. I stared back, my mind racing, and I began to sweat. 
I don’t remember what lame advice I gave that day. It was probably something like “go to church” or “get him involved in extracurricular activities like school sports or theater.” Or maybe it was to “focus on building his self-esteem through positive affirmation.” I don’t know. But here’s what I do know: I was 26 years old at the time, had my first son, a toddler, running around at home, and I didn’t have a clue how to raise good kids. I was scared to death.
Following that encounter, I set out on a quest to answer this one question: If there was just one thing, the most important thing, the lynchpin thing, for raising good kids, what is it?
It’s been 25 years. 
In that time, I have observed thousands of kids every summer. I’ve served as a youth pastor three times, and most importantly, I have raised four children and been a ‘parent as youth pastor’ to their friends along with my wife of 34 years.  
There are so many possible solutions. Of course, there is the aforementioned church involvement and school sports. But what about education – getting good grades and going to college? How important is the financial well-being of the family? I’ve heard a good marriage is important. What about consistent discipline and a clear set of rules?  Which one is most important? It’s so confusing!
I observed what I considered successful parents as well as parents whose kids I was sending home from camp or were headed to juvenile detention. In all categories, there seemed to be  no clear distinction. Some kids came from a stable home and crashed and burned. Other kids came from a broken home but turned out great. Why? Same thing with school involvement, good grades, or economic condition of the family. In each case, some were successful, while others were not. I was looking for the one thing to answer my question, but couldn’t find it – until a truth began to emerge that answered my deepest question.
There is one universal commonality that I see in almost any child, young adult or parent that indicates the likelihood of success. It’s outward focus. It is the one overriding factor that trumps all others. There are psychological, sociological and theological reasons why this works but they are too numerous to cover in this short post. But is it any wonder? 
Jesus said the one thing that is just like loving God is loving and serving others. 
As a now experienced mentor to young parents and even my own son who will father our first grandson soon, I say this: “If you don’t do anything else in your home, foster and nurture an environment of serving others.” Expose your children to serving experiences like mission trips or working locally to serve in your town. Youthfront’s Teen Staff program is one of the most impactful programs we have for high school students. You know why? It helps students become outward focused.
Becoming outward focused is not something you can force on your kids. It is not a rule to be kept or a requirement to be enforced. It is something that is caught by example from parents who serve others. What better way to do this than to serve somewhere together?
Check out an opportunity to serve at Youthfront’s YF Neighborhood Serve Day on April 17.
Sports, grades, extracurriculars, college, jobs, self-esteem, and financial independence…  they are all important, but they are all inward focused. Discover the secret to raising good kids and it will make all the difference not only in your family, but in the world.



Topher Philgreen is Executive Vice President / COO of Youthfront.
He has done full-time youth ministry in various roles from camp director, to youth pastor, to parent-as-youth-pastor for 34 years.
He and his wife, April, have four adult children with their first grandson on the way.
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