Barrett Johnson, co-founder of I.N.F.O. For Families, which stands for Imperfect and Normal Families Only. Johnson addresses the trend we have seen in recent years of public figures having their pasts come back to haunt them, and how parents can protect, teach, and prepare their children to make wise choices in an era where nearly everything they do is immortalized on social media.
JOHN RUSTIN: Thank you for joining us for Family Policy Matters. In recent months we have seen an increasing number of stories and images from peoples’ past coming back to haunt them. From allegations made during the confirmation hearings of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, to more recently the yearbook photos of Virginia Governor, Ralph Northam, public figures—and other individuals, for that matter—seem to be facing a higher level of scrutiny in today’s hypersensitive environment. Now that’s not to say that this is all bad; accountability can be a very good and powerful thing. But it can also be very harmful. Technology these days is ever-present, with cameras and recording devices at practically everyone’s fingertips and social media bringing events into the public domain in the blink of an eye. Young people are particularly vulnerable to having their private lives made very public these days.
Our guest today has some insightful advice for what parents and young people can do to help avoid negative circumstances now and in the future. After serving in the local church for 25 years, Barrett Johnson and his wife Jennifer launched their “INFO for Families” ministry. “INFO for Families” is committed to equipping parents to help their children and teenagers navigate our hypersensitive and hyper-sexualized culture, and to enter into marriage free of much of the relational baggage that often leads couples into real difficulty. And with that Barrett, welcome to Family Policy Matters, it’s great to have you on the show.
BARRETT JOHNSON: Thanks so much for having me, John.
JOHN RUSTIN: Well, it’s our pleasure, we appreciate your time. Now Barrett, I know you wrote a very interesting article several months ago about what parents can learn from the Kavenaugh hearings, which I mentioned in my introduction. We’re not going to attempt to argue who was right and who was wrong in that case. But rather focus on the reality that, as you’ve said, the choices we make in our younger years have a way of following us into adulthood really can be both good and bad. So why is it important for us to give this serious consideration?
BARRETT JOHNSON: Parents have got to think that through, and when we wrote that blog post about Judge Kavenaugh during his confirmation hearing, it resonated with probably 3 or 4 hundred thousand people who read it. I think what we talked about there was this mindset among many parents that said, “Hey, well my kids are young, teenagers, college-age, and I want my kids to kind of sow their wild oats and get it out of the systems.” But what we see is that people are creating habits and patterns of behavior that have the power to define who they’re becoming. In Justice Kavanaugh’s case, in his hearings, a few foolish, careless things he wrote in his yearbook almost derailed his life. Our kids will be foolish at times and must understand that what they do when they’re younger will visit them in adulthood. They cannot forget that, or treat their young years like it doesn’t matter.
JOHN RUSTIN: Well there are significant things that can have lasting impacts on peoples’ lives and their futures. So Barrett, in your opinion, should we readily forgive the mistakes people make in their youth and allow them the freedom to mature and to repent from their mistakes? Or do you believe that people should really be held accountable—and strictly so—for mistakes they may have made in their younger years?
BARRETT JOHNSON: I think it’s both. Obviously, we’re all growing and changing and what we did when we were young doesn’t define who we are now. We can’t judge somebody based on the stupid things they did when they were teenagers. But there seems to be kind of a common pattern played out in the MeToo culture that, when someone’s caught for an indiscretion there’s a lot of remorse, there’s a lot of brokenness. But I suspect many times it’s not because they truly feel broken; it’s because they got caught and they want to apologize and get their life back on track. I think when somebody truly is remorseful and they’re willing to submit themselves to a restoration process, of course we’ll let them walk through that process and extend them the grace they need to be restored again. But I think many times we kind of rush into that, particularly in our public culture today. We rush into forgiveness, and “everything’s right again,” without truly walking them through a process of restoration that might result in true life-change.
JOHN RUSTIN: And those experiences can be such life-teaching and important experiences that we all go through from time to time.
BARRETT JOHNSON: I’ve seen it in my own kids, John. I’ve seen my kids in their teenage years. They grew the most through a foolish mistake they had made. They were more broken for their decisions and we walked them through that, but we have to walk them through the process.
JOHN RUSTIN: Well, drawing from your years of experience in youth ministry, Barrett, how do you think we as parents and mentors can best communicate with young people about the importance of making good choices now, and the lasting nature and impact those choices and behaviors may have in the future?
BARRETT JOHNSON: I think one great thing to do with our kids today is to use examples that are in the media. That’s what our kids get, that’s the world they live in. And so you can talk about what happened to Judge Kavanaugh, or how a few crass tweet from a comedian a few months ago derailed his chances of being the host of the Oscars. These are things from our past that dictate and define who we are now, and we can’t get away from those things these days. So I think using any illustrations we can in the public eye, in current events, to teach your kids that this is happening around us, right now. We have a family friend whose son is almost 30 years old. One bad decision he made when he was 18 years old with a younger girl— it involved getting the police involved. It was just foolish behavior. But on his record right now he’s a criminal sexual offender. On his permanent record, if you will. Every job interview he goes to is based upon what he did when he was 18 years old. So again, I think look for any opportunity you can to teach your kids what you do now matters in your future.
JOHN RUSTIN: And in relation to that Barrett, do you believe that the stakes are higher for younger people today because of the prevalence of technology and social media? And the permanence, and I think that’s so important to consider, the permanence of memories that are digitally captured?
BARRETT JOHNSON: I don’t think Judge Kavanaugh would have survived the process if his teenage lifestyle had been posted in dozens and dozens and hundreds of hundreds of Instagram posts or a Snapchat posts or Facebook things. A lot of the work we do is focused on helping parents to help their kids to navigate this hyper-sexualized culture. So we talk a lot about digital footprint where everything is saved, and the fact that a third of our teenagers today in our culture have sent a sext message to somebody—a sexual explicit message to somebody—or a picture, and lots more put sexy photos online, that kind of thing. And those are the kinds of things that will be seen by college admissions offices. They will be seen by a job recruiter. So what looks cute right now can look a little bit troubling when she’s 22 years old. And so that digital footprint conversation’s got to be a part of the discussion.
JOHN RUSTIN: So Barrett, how should parents as they’re seeking to do this, really balance setting high standards of behavior for their children, while also leaving room for grace when mistakes are made? I know that oftentimes I will talk to my kids about our goals for them, not to be perfect, but really to strive for excellence in all that they do. But there’s got to be a balance with grace when those mistakes are made.
BARRETT JOHNSON: Indeed. I think parents need to aim high for their kids, set high expectations, but know that your kids are going to blow it. Sometimes in some major ways, just like we as parents made when we were younger. But how you respond to those mistakes, I think does matter. Shame and guilt are bad things; punishment is a necessary consequence as you parent, but grace has got to be the overarching factor. When you offer consequences to your kids for not meeting your standards, you’ve got to find a way to be able communicate, “Hey, we love you, God still loves you, but we’re going to keep on pushing towards a better way.” And regarding the sexuality component, which we kind of live and breathe in in our ministry: there’s a whole big section of the church that is wrongly communicating a message to our young people that if you mess up your purity, you’re somehow damaged, and there’s no way to get it back. As a person of faith, I have to believe there’s nothing we can do or mess up in our lives that God can’t restore and make beautiful again. So parents need to model that kind of message to their kids as they parent. Yeah, there’s a standard, but there’s grace when we blow it.
JOHN RUSTIN: Yes, I think that’s such an important thing for parents to understand and consider. It’s tough to find that balance, but as we seek the Lord in the Scriptures and pray for guidance, and understand that grace has been offered to us as well, then it helps to kind of put things into perspective. So I really appreciate you sharing that. In addition to the relationship between parents and children, friendships among younger people are also a very important part of this conversation. How can parents help their children choose friends wisely and cultivate positive friendships that are going to minimize the chances for negative activity, and then the potential for negative acts to be put out in the digital world for other folks to see?
BARRETT JOHNSON: That’s a great question. I think if we had the perfect answer to that question we could write a book and we could sell a billion copies. Every parent wants to figure that out. But I think first of all, moms and dads have got to stay connected to their kids and stay involved. Not just as parents, but in a close loving relationship. And I say that in response to many parents who have the attitude of “I’m a parent, I’m not my kid’s friend.” I get the logic of that. You don’t want to be your teenager’s buddy, but you don’t want to be such a parent that you’re the authority and you’re not in relationship. We heard somebody really wise once say that when your kids are teenagers, you want them to like you, because if they don’t like you they won’t listen to you. Do you listen to people that you don’t like? Of course we don’t, we shut them out. And so, cultivate a relationship with your kids so that you’re friends with them in a way that they want to be influenced by you. So when you do have words to say about their peers and who they’re hanging out with, they will listen. And one thing I would coach parents is to say to their kids “You will be turning into the least common denominator of your peers. So if your peer group kind of rolls this way and at their worst they are like ABC, you’re going to eventually move towards ABC. Every kid’s got the attitude of ‘Well, I’ll bring my friends up to my level.’ No, you’re probably going to be dropping down to their level. Where there’s influence like that, you’re turning into your friends. So take a good close look at your relationships with your peers. Do you want to become that long-term?” And that’s a great discussion to have in our homes.
JOHN RUSTIN: Also, with the prevalence of social media, which we’ve mentioned over and over again during our conversation, are there specific tools or standards or things that you recommend to parents and young people to help safeguard their use of social media, and to do it in a productive way?
BARRETT JOHNSON: If there are parents listening who have got younger kids that don’t have a smart phone yet, I think the pre-smart phone conversation needs to be, “Son/Daughter, I’m letting you have this smart phone, but it’s not your phone, it’s my phone. I get to control what you do on it and who you connect with and what apps you use.” Now if you have a 16-year-old, and he’s had a smartphone for a number of years, you probably need to have that conversation as well. It’ll just be a lot easier at the front-end than back peddling and reeling back some behaviors. We had a policy at our home with all my kids when they were teenagers that, “If you’re on this app, if you’re on this social media app, I’m going to follow you, we’re going to be friends on that app. I’m going to chime in sometimes and I’m gonna watch what you do. I’ve got permission as your parent to look at your phone anytime I want to, to see what you’re texting.” Just to be involved that way. There’re some great software tools. Circle device is a great device. Covenant Eyes manages use and pornography use, that kind of thing. Parents who want to really get in their kids’ business because you think there’s a problem, there’s a resource called TeenSafe that you can find online that enables the parents to track basically everything your kids do online. Bark is another great tool as well. There are great tools out there for parents to use to be able to stay in touch with what their kids are doing.
JOHN RUSTIN: Well Barrett, I know you’ve got a lot of great information on your website “INFO for Families,” tell us where our listeners can go to avail themselves of that great information that you have.
BARRETT JOHNSON: Well, our website is infoforfamilies.com, just like it sounds. Our goal is to help parents to have these conversations. There are two great resources you’ll find on our website these days, one for boys and one for girls. We have a book called The Young Man’s Guide to Awesomeness, which is designed to help teenage boys—and hopefully their dads or another male figure in their life—talk about how to treat girls, chivalry, pornography, how to not turn into Harvey Weinstein, basically. And then a new book we just released for teenage girls called Meet Me In The Middle, which is conversations about these issues between a daughter and her father to help dads to be involved in those conversations. So I know that at “INFO for Families” we love resourcing the parents of our world to help their kids get this right.
JOHN RUSTIN: That’s great. And again, that website is infoforfamilies.com, and I want to encourage our listeners to avail themselves of the great information there. And with that Barrett Johnson, I want to thank you so much for being with us on Family Policy Matters today, and for the great work that you’re doing to help provide parents and young people the information that they need to operate in a safe and productive way in our hypersensitive arena today.
BARRETT JOHNSON: Thanks, I appreciate what you guys do as well.
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