Podcast Deep Dive: Kat Bair

Originally posted at fumcfw.org on May 5, 2021

Two full years ago, a small team from FUMC Fort Worth’s Youth Ministries family, including teenagers, staff, volunteers, and parents, jumped into a project funded by the Texas Methodist Foundation called the Innovation Lab. We began with research, interviews, demographic data, and deep dives into the hearts of the young people in our midst and respond.

As we listened, we heard stories of anxiety, stress, hopelessness, of fear. We heard, over and over again, the suffocating reality of teenagers who felt paralyzed by the fear of failure, and not just large-scale failure, but any failure. We realized that the young people around us carried a shared fundamental belief that if they failed at anything, they were failures.

And failure was not acceptable. Heck, even B+’s weren’t acceptable. While all the parents in our community would articulate that their desires were for their teenagers to be happy, healthy, contributing members of society, while they would say that it was fine for them to make mistakes as long as they were trying their best, their children had received a different message.

I would take a moment here and repeat something I often say to those that bemoan and villainize teenagers: children learn the things we teach them.

While parents may articulate a generous, forgiving version of parenting, their children have not been learning it. One of the parents in our team had a lightbulb moment looking at a map of the city we were using for demographic study. She realized she drove across town, past half a dozen grocery stores, to go to the best grocery store, that she drove her kids to the other side of the city to go to the best school for their art, that she took them to the best doctors, the best tutors, the best swim lessons, lunch spots, hair salons, for their entire lives. She did those things because she loves her kids. After all, that’s what she was taught a good mother does. But she never considered what it might be teaching her children:

That only the very best is acceptable.

That since they had the very best tutors and schools and coaches, if they didn’t make the very best grades and teams and get into the very best colleges, they were a disappointment. Since they had been given the very best to start, if they ended with anything other than the very best, they were a failure. And if they succeeded? If they got perfect grades, scored every goal, got into their dream school? Then they had met the bar.

It’s a suffocating, unwinnable way to live, even for an adult. For teenagers, it can be life-threatening.

According to a review of three decades of research in adolescent mental health, teenagers at high-achieving schools (defined as schools with test averages in the top third of all schools), which is almost all of the teenagers in our community “suffer from symptoms of clinical depression and anxiety at rates three to seven times higher than national norms for children their age.” While providing a momentary lapse in the pressure in Spring 2020, the pandemic wound up making problems worse when youth returned to prepandemic pressures in the fall, but with all of the pandemic limitations. A report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the proportion of 12- to 17-year-olds visiting emergency rooms for mental health reasons was more than 30 percent higher in 2020 than in 2019.

When we finally were able to nail down our issue statement, best summarized as ‘teenagers believe if they fail at anything, they are a failure,’ members of our team, particularly the adults, took it like a punch in the stomach. Our parent representatives recently presented our research to a group of youth parents at our Parent Retreat. They described wide eyes, head nods, and by the end of the presentation, welling tears. Because parents knew it was true, and they heard the profile of a kid that sounded like theirs. Even talking to my co-workers here at FUMC Fort Worth with children, I have seen that process of eye-opening, as they have heard descriptions of suffocating fears, seemingly irrational or outsized anxieties in their children, and behavior in adults, that sounded familiar to their own homes.

So what do we do? Given that we can’t undo the parenting already done, given that simply telling teenagers that it’s ok if they fail clearly isn’t enough, what possible hope and truth could we speak into this place of obvious hurt?

Our teenagers came up with an idea that I would never have, and it has shaped everything we have tried since: what if we asked teenagers to fail, on purpose, at things that don’t matter, and had adults fail alongside them?

End of Original blog post. Follow up blog post, from May 14th, 20201, below.

If I’m honest, it’s one I would never have thought of and one I might have dismissed if we had been doing any other project. They suggested that the way we could help teach teenagers that it was ok to fail was to let them fail on purpose at things that didn’t matter and have adults fail alongside them. The idea was Fail->Safe Studios.

A consequence of this fear of failure is that teenagers didn’t feel safe to try new pursuits. They were afraid to try things they thought they would enjoy or which would be beneficial to their mental and emotional well-being because all of their pursuits were so evaluated and commodified. While it is not particularly unusual for adults to play instruments or do amateur photography for fun, teenagers can’t explore those activities without facing the pressure to compete with them or figure out how to make a career out of them. Adults can go for runs; teenagers are expected to race.

For our teenagers, they articulated that this mentality meant that even the things they would do to relieve the anxieties and pressures they faced at school wound up only increasing the pressure they felt. Teenagers have extra-curriculars they compete in, not hobbies they do for fun. They didn’t want a program to teach them about how failure was ok or a series of speakers. They wanted a space to try new things, for fun, with no expectation they would be good at them.

They envisioned a space where they could try out lots of new hobbies and activities, just for fun and be bad at them. They imagined a sacred pocket where they weren’t expected to compete or perform, but to just honestly be creative and expressive and have fun, without anyone judging it. They imagined adults would be there alongside them, trying things new things just as freely, and perhaps mentoring, but never judging. They imagined they could connect with adults in a way that wasn’t dictated by their capacity to perform well at something. It would be where they could create, learn, breathe, grow, figure themselves out, and have fun — a place where they could fail safely. So, Fail->Safe Studios it was.

Then there was a pandemic. Our whole team went home. Confined to houses, scrolling TikTok and Instagram, a strange phenomenon emerged. When the pressure came off for a few weeks, when classes were pass/fail, when there were no sports to compete in, what did we all do? We created.

We all saw it. People baked sourdough, planted gardens, remodeled their house, tried new recipes, picked up crocheting, learned silly dances. Teenagers in our community started baking, painting, making short films, writing music, sewing, and in one case, building paper Mache mythical monsters.

Because hope matters. Because being ok with being human, being flawed, matters. Because freedom, and creation for its own sake, and being abundantly alive, is the good life promised us in Jesus.

In an insane proof of concept, none of us saw coming, space where the competitiveness evaporated when time was no longer an issue, when there was no one to judge, created itself all at once for a few weeks. And teenagers showed us just how capable of creating they were. I mentioned in the first blog that research indicates that there was a window of time where teenage anxieties decreased in Spring 2020, at least anxieties around success and failure.

But, of course, over time, the wear of pandemic and the move to virtual, hybrid, or significantly altered school in the fall, brought all the same fears back into play, now exasperated by youth having just as high expectations but less capacity to realize them. Mental health outcomes for young people plummeted. We recorded a series of interviews with young people in January 2021, where we asked them to sum up their 2020 in their own words, and we heard repeated refrains of hopelessness, isolation, and fear.

Fail->Safe Studios still seemed important. In the Fall of 2020, I suggested a prototype, a little piece of Fail->Safe that we could do while we were virtual-only, which just maybe would provide a breath of life. We called it Quarantine Craft Time. You can read about it here and even check out the videos on our IGTV page! I couldn’t create a shared physical space, and I couldn’t provide supplies, but I could joyfully learn and fail. So I did. And then Matt did the following week. And then Gabby. And then volunteers, and then kids, and on and on, we just never stopped thinking of things to try. When so much of our days felt dark, when the Sanctuary and the Justin felt so empty, it was something that had just a little bit of light.

Now, we’re back in person. We’re back in the Sanctuary. We’re back in the Justin. Teenagers are in finals for a year of classes in which many of them would articulate they didn’t learn a whole awful lot. We’re talking about summer, about a full-scale fall, about vaccinations, even for teenagers. We’re’ talking about normal.

So it seemed like the right time to run a pilot test of Fail->Safe Studios. This Sunday, at 6 pm in the Justin Youth Building, we are putting up finger-painted signs and encouragements like “Winning isn’t Everything” and “Failure is Always an Option” and, right in the middle of the doorway, “No Perfect Beyond this Point.” We’ll spend some time talking about failure, about hope, about who we are: people made in the image of a playful, creative God. Then we’ll fail together, having volunteers and teenagers lead stations where youth and their families can bake, and build, and play, and make balloon animals. We’ll have a gallery of all of our badly done projects, and we’ll celebrate in creation, in experimentation, in having fun for its own sake, together.

We’ll pilot the studio this weekend, and we’ll have people reflect on their experience and use the feedback to make tweaks, and come fall, Fail->Safe Studios will become part of what we do here in the Justin.

Because Fail->Safe Studios is a silly thing, but it’s done for a serious reason. It’s done because our research suggests that it could be vitally important for the success and mental health of teenagers. But that’s not the only reason, of course, because we’re not a research institute. We’re a church. And we do this because it’s a way to remind us of who we are. And who God is.

Because hope matters. Because being ok with being human, being flawed, matters. Because freedom, and creation for its own sake, and being abundantly alive, is the good life promised us in Jesus. We deserve to model to our children that there is a life worth living that is more than making money, buying stuff and dying, and this is part of how we show them how. Because we still have a chance to change. Even as adults. Because we deserve to experience life lived this way too.

We were called to a life of freedom in Christ. We were called to create, to laugh, to enjoy being alive for its own sake, to rejoice in the love of our Creator, and who that Creator created us to be. Failures included.

Follow up:

In-Person Craft Time was a huge hit. Fail->Safe Studios has become an integral part of who we are as a ministry. It’s transformed the way my teenagers talk about success. A room of our building has functionally become the Fail->Safe Studio, and the walls are covered in paintings, the tables are covered crafts, and more. This has become one of our great joys, great success stories, great pockets of the Spirit moving in our lives.

Kat Bair

Kat Bair has served the Director of Youth Ministries at First United Methodist Church of Fort Worth for more than five years and has a Masters in Youth Ministry from Austin Seminary through the Center for Youth Ministry Training. She also works on larger ministry innovation initiatives as a consultant, coach, and content developer for Ministry Incubators, Youth Ministry Institute, the Youth Ministry Innovation lab, and the Women in Youth Ministry network. She is a Nashville native who lives with her husband Andrew, and their pitbull, Tutu.

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