Making your youth group a humiliation-free zone

Summer is often a time when we get our youth groups together just for fun and fellowship , and that means…games.

I am continually astonished at how many church youth group books recommend games and icebreakers that are designed to humiliate people. I’m not even sure they know they’re doing it. But I wonder, as I look through The Desperate Youth Group Leader’s Big Book O’ Games, if we recognize when we are putting youth (or adults for that matter) into a situation in which we humiliate them.

The most important thing to know about humiliation is that it is all about the power differential: I can make you do something you don’t want to do. That is why it is so important for youth ministers to be aware of situations that might humiliate youth. When you choose what game to play, youth have very little recourse to say no. They often don’t even understand how they feel, only knowing that they felt uncomfortable or bad.

I have to wonder if one of the reasons youth leave church and don’t come back is that at some point or another, they felt humiliated. Why would you want to be part of a group that would humiliate you?

Here are some signs that games are actually an exercise in humiliation:

1. The outcome of the game is that people will laugh at what participants do or say. This is the big one. I’ve seen too many games described where the goal you are looking for is that the group will laugh at others’ expense. Often these games require only a few participants (“volunteers”) while the rest of the group is an audience. The participants will be required by the game to do something that is incongruous while the audience laughs at the incongruity. This is one thing when you have an improv group that has chosen the incongruity and played it up for laughs; it is another when someone else chooses the incongruity for someone else. Just because people are laughing doesn’t mean it’s fun.
2. The leader holds a secret . You know this kind of game, right? “I’m going to tell them that they will be doing is x, but what they are really doing is y.” And that is setting people up to feel foolish.
3. Requiring a high level of personal intimacy and touch. This is another thing that amazes me: youth group games that require people to enter one another’s personal space in a way that may not be comfortable for them. I remember from my own youth group being required to pass lipstick by rubbing noses or passing an orange held under my chin from person to person. The key word here is "requiring." It’s not that these activities are bad; it’s that, in a youth group setting, there’s no way to opt out. How can we teach kids to say “No. Stop. I don’t like that” about anything if we don’t have an option for them to do that in youth group?
4. Excessive food. Eating too much, too quickly, and in unusual ways may be an indicator that this is about humiliation rather than fun. Check to see if, again, the goal is to get people to laugh at the participants. Also, if you do decide to do a food-related game, make sure to explain up front how people can opt out or stop when they have reached their limit.
5. Practical jokes. Don’t do them. Not if you’re the one in charge. Not to the youth, not to the other youth ministers. I remember being a counselor at a camp where the camp director constantly played practical jokes on the counselors. The campers laughed. The counselors smiled and took it. I never worked there again. Always remember: if your goal is to get people to laugh at someone else, and that someone else is not you, you are practicing humiliation.

Young adulthood is a tough time. There are going to be times when we accidentally make the youth in our charge feel bad, and all we can do then is ask for forgiveness and hope to learn from our mistakes. But we can do our best to make sure we don’t intentionally set our youth up to feel powerless and ridiculed. What do you do to encourage the youth you work with to realize they are glorious children of God?