Archives For Discerning your students


As spring is fully upon us, and I reflect on our ministry and the students that have come through the doors this school year, I have realized that there are quite a large number of students who have come and gone and no longer part of our youth ministry community.  I get that sports, school, schedules, etc are the cause for a lot of this drop off.  But most of the reasons that initially caused students to drop off or fade away are no longer part of their reality.  They are now simply out of the habit.  So, the real question is, how do we get these students back in the habit of being part of our community?  Here is what I do:

Put all my students into boxes:

I know, I know, it is awful to put anyone into a box and make a complex being into a two dimensional box filler.  But for this exercise, you have to die to this sensitivity.  Once you get over that, take a sheet of paper and list out all of your students.  I list them out by grade.  I start with every student I can think of and write away.  It doesn’t matter if they are committed or I have met them once, or even if they have actually never made it to youth group.  It simply matters if I am connected to them.  (If you are part of a large student ministry, this exercise can be done with your small group leaders for the same effect)

Once I have every student I know listed on a sheet of paper, I then place them into boxes.  These boxes have nothing to do with spiritual maturity or how much I like them.  These boxes have 100% to do with how committed they are to our youth group community.  For those who are invested, I just look at their names and smile.  Then I circle the names of students who are very loosely connected.  I like to call them fringe, you call them whatever you want.  Some of these “fringe” students come pretty regularly, but they are not committed.  Then I put an asterisk next to students who have dropped off completely, those who I have not seen for at least a month.

Leave the 99:

When I look at my calendar, I realize that almost all of my time is invested into relationships and students who are already 100% committed to our student ministry.  They love me, our church, and most even love Jesus. And while I should make space for these students, and I do, doesn’t it make sense to carve out some time for those students who have or are about to walk away?

Even Jesus left the 99 in search for the 1.  So, I think there is some merit to do the same.  The invested kids will be invested, it is the lost kids who need our time and effort.  Step one is simple, carve out some time.

For me, I spend an hour on Mondays reaching out to and connecting with the the fringe kids and the lost kids.  I remind them that I see them and hope that they are ok.  I invite them to come back to youth group and how their presence is missed.  I send funny post cards or facebook notes.  Whatever it takes to get a “touch.”

Then I will make sure I have several slots throughout the week to connect meet up.  With fringe students and those who have dropped off, I almost never meet up alone.  A) Because it is horribly awkward, and B) If I can connect with them and their friends, then their is a much better chance that we have a good time and feel comfortable.

Over the next few months, I am looking forward to re-connecting with the students who have gone out the back door.  And when I have done this before, I am always surprised how effective, old skool, intentional contact work can be.

New kids will come, worry more about those who don’t come back:

Most youth workers, including myself are always scheming on finding ways to get new students to come to youth group.  But the reality is that most youth groups will attract new kids all the time.  The reality is that most new kids don’t stick around.  Think about what would happen if you relaxed and worried less about what new kids will show up, and simply leverage your relational chops to reach out to those who have already come and simply faded away?

There is an incredible book called Sticky Church, which talks about this specific strategy.  I highly recommend it, and have written a review here.

This is what my plan is to track down students who have gone out the back door.  What is yours?


As I have watched Frozen over and over and over, I have found myself approaching this movie from all sorts of different fronts.  But this last time I watched it I saw something I never saw before, Anna is the ultimate youth worker.

Anna is young and idealistic and pursues her sister (our students) with all of who she is.  She longs to be connected and share life and even though she is shut out from the bulk of her sister’s life, she has nothing but hope and good will for her sister.

Elsa is the classic student.  For whatever amount of personal pain and shut down they have experienced, their world is pretty egocentric.  She is special, in fact, the most special kid on the planet. And this uniqueness means that she is misunderstood and angst ridden.  She runs away to protect others, and really herself.

Even though Anna has been shut out and shut down, she always runs after her sister, always hopes for a restored relationship, and selflessly gives up her life for the sake of her sister.  And this selfless love, in the end actually restores relationship.

My hope is that my heart would be more and more like Anna’s.  

  • That I will always leave the safety and comfort of the castle, of the 99 and run after the one.
  • That I will not get bitter or disillusioned when my pursuit is not reciprocated.
  • That, in the end, I would actually gladly lay down my life, pour out my life over and over again so that by some possible means relationship would be restored; relationship with me, and mostly relationship with their Heavenly Father.

I love that there is so much to think about and process in this movie.  For me, this time around, I am thankful that God used it to touch my heart, to soften it, and remind me again of what I am truly called to do and be as a youth worker!

“Do you want to build a snowman?”

Screen Shot 2014-03-23 at 7.58.07 AM

It is that time of year.  The most dreaded time of year, Spring!  While the weather is great, and baseball season is upon us, the lives of our students are beginning to disengage from the programmatic rhythms of youth group.  They call it senioritis, but I am still confused how a sophomore has senioritis.  The truth  is that our low stamina students are checking out of this school year.  With all of the ways that students were dialed in to their many activities early in the school year, now only one or two hold their interest.  In the case of my students that includes a spring sport and a love interest.

The truth is that there are actually ton of reasons that students begin to disengage during spring semester; some good, some dumb, but no matter why, the what is real and how we cope with it matters.  

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I love at attractional ministry as much as the next guy.  I love the hype, the big games, the thrill of the crowd, the dynamics of a full room.  In fact, most of how I judge my effectiveness in student ministry is by how full I can get the room.

But one of the pit falls of this approach is that us youth workers end up ministering to the “crowd” and not to the individual students.  As a crowd, students generally play ball.  They engage games, seem to engage in worship, listen quietly and give us adults the answers we want to hear in small groups.

This is all well and good and strokes our ego.  But my fear is that as we engage the crowd, we loose sight of the individual students, their stories, their issues, and their world view.

The more time I spend with students, I am convinced that students are more than rebellious teens, or broken in need of healing, but they are straight up lost.  They have no idea what end is up or who or why they ended up where they are or do what the do.

Even though they may play ball in our system, the truth is that their world view is so far removed from ours.  And if this is the case, the we must as the question, “What are we really doing as a student ministry?”

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My best “go to” game!

February 19, 2014 — 5 Comments


Ok, it is Wednesday and you have been cranking out a semester and a half of youth ministry.  Are you looking for a simple and fun game that takes practically zero set up, engages the entire group, AND is actually pretty fun?  Then this is the game for you.  (I am not taking credit as this game’s inventor, I just love it and it has been my go to for over 10 years)  No, its not shuffle your buns, which is my, not fun, go to, game.  It is a game called:  CATEGORIES

SET UP:  Circle of chairs, pitcher of water, cup of water.  This game is great for groups of 10-30 or for large groups, simply divide into groups of 10-30.  Have everyone sit in a chair in a circle with one person in the middle.

THE OBJECT:  The object of the game is to simply not get splashed with water.

RULES:  The person in the center of the circle picks a category.  They could pick any category.  Some simple ones that can get you started are: states, subjects in school, subjects in school, baseball teams, candy bars, cereal, boy bands, people in the room.  Once a category has been called, the person in the middle tells me, the leader the specific item in that category.  (This keeps everyone honest)  Then I take the pitcher of water and pour some of it in the cup of water and give it to the person in the center.

GAME PLAY:  The person in the center calls the category:  Candy Bars!  Then goes around the circle so that everyone takes their turn naming a candy bar.  The people sitting down call out candy bars hoping to not say the one that the person in the center told the leader.  If they say “Snickers,” the item that was told to the leader, then that person gets splashed with water.   Or if someone repeats what someone else said they get jacked with some water as well.  Then the person who got splashed takes a turn as the person in the center.

That’s it!  Enjoy!


One of the most important aspects to a balanced and thriving student ministry is having an intentional scope and sequence to your curriculum.  We must be intentional with what we teach and to use the limited amount of time we have with our students well.  And while many of you are thoughtful about your teaching and are biblically deep, contextually astute, and clever as all get out, there might be one significant area that gets left out.

I am sure that you would agree that our culture is getting more and more coarse.  Students are increasingly self absorbed and rude.  Maybe the truth is that you don’t even realize it anymore or have simply died to it.  Maybe you think that you will lose street cred if you push back against their entitlement mentality.  Or maybe you are satisfied that you can at last get them to say grace when you are all together for a meal.

As students become more and more isolated, they have fewer and fewer places in their lives where they actually have to consider others.  Their music choices, their movie choices, their food choices are all individualized.  Whatever they want whenever they want it is their instinct and highest value.  If at any time a student is done paying attention in a group, they simply need to plug in their ear buds, check facebook, and check out.

Why manners are important:

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I remember it like it was yesterday.  I had an outreach event where we used a raffle with a huge prize as an incentive to have kids come to youth group and to bring friends.  The prize was HUGE and so was the criticism I received form my intern and her recently received B.A. in youth ministry.  The bribe worked and a ton of students came to our student ministry, and this event turned the corner in momentum of for our ministry.  And unfortunately turned my interns heart away from me and student ministry.  Which leads me to this question:

Is there harm in bribing kids to come to youth group?

Now, before you get all judgmental or self righteousness in your theology, why are you really opposed to bribing kids to come to youth group?  I’ve heard the arguments:

  • That people live out the gospel that they are introduced to.  
  • That bribing kids doesn’t correctly portray the life of faith that we are called to live.  
  • Bribing highlights students selfishness and doesn’t help students live the kingdom life that they are designed to live.

But aren’t these arguments simply the pontificating of youth workers who have given up a little bit?

Remember back you your middle and high school experience.  Why did you come to faith? Was it a cute boy or girl?  You didn’t want to go to hell? Jesus would give you a better life?  We are all selfish and self absorbed at first.  Meeting some of these needs is just getting our foot in the door.  And Jesus does that with us, we do that in every other ministry, and for students, it is the same.


What do you do to get kids to come to your program?  How is that not bribing?  What if you embraced that reality and capitalized on it?



Context: Driving a couple of high school boys to youth group talking about movies and the ones we want to see and the ones we are bummed we missed while they were in theaters.

Student: I really wanted to see Don Jon.

Me: That movie has an interesting premise. All that porn that you look at ultimately messed up your relationship with the woman you want to love. If you aren’t careful you will get used to porn and prefer it to actual sex and then you and your relationship / marriage will be in trouble.

Student: I just think Scarlett Johansson is hot.


(Here is some further reading on how porn is changing sexual appetites from the NY Magazine.  The Porn Myth.)


Ever since my first day in student ministry, my number one goal has been to cancel Sunday School.  I mean, come on, everyone knows that Sunday school is the dumbest ministry model on the planet.  It is awful on just about every level.  9:00 on a Sunday morning is the absolute worst time in the entire world for any sort of ministry, especially to adolescents.  We try and try and try to make this hour of spiritual formation relevant and matter to a group of kids who could actually care less.  But it seems as much as we try to put a nail in the coffin of this antiquated mode of ministry, I could never muster the political capitol to pull it off.  That is, until the perfect storm of events allowed me to do just that.

This last spring we had to move our entire church off our main campus to a hotel ball room while we underwent some construction and renovations.  We went from two services with spiritual formation and student Sunday school during the first gathering, to a situation where we were only going to have one service.  The best part is that I didn’t even have a choice.  There were logistically not enough rooms to do church, children’s ministry and Sunday School for students.

When I was approached with this dilemma, I hung my head in grief and said that I would, reluctantly, take one for the team and cancel Sunday School.  On the inside, I was freaking out!  It just happened.  My dream for almost 20 years became a reality and it actually gained me political points instead of costing every point I have ever earned.

And I have to tell you, those first few months of not having Sunday School was a dream come true.  There was no more Sunday morning anxiety or dread for having to face a room full of apathetic and judgmental kids.  No more dealing with the zero feedback on the incredible curriculum I have put together for the morning.  Yes, my only responsibility was to simply glad-hand students and their parents as they walked past to their seats, and again as they left.  I WAS FREE!!


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Christmas and divorce

December 9, 2013 — 1 Comment


This last week I had a meeting with one of my favorite moms.  Her love for her daughter, for me, and for Jesus is palpable.  And for a verity of reasons, due to long histories, and for things that I really have no idea about, this mom is in the middle of a divorce.  While the ethics of divorce are complex and worthy of lengthy discussions full of truth and grace, this blog post is not about the ethics of divorce.

As the youth worker, no one is coming to me for marital advice, or trying to navigate a difficult situation, asking for prayers, or discernment for whether or not it is time to pull the plug on a marriage.  No, I am the youth worker, my job, my calling, is to be the child’s advocate, care for them, make space for them, and help them navigate this new landscape.  I actually believe it is not the job of the youth worker to even take sides and spiritualize the landscape.  Our students are only our students for a few more years, but they will always be the daughters and sons of their parents, whether or not they are divorced.  To use our position of power and influence and pick sides will be disastrous for the long term health and reconciliation between all parties, and for all parties and the church.

With that being said, this conversation did help me realize that because all parents don’t expect to be divorced, don’t expect to have divided holidays, and now don’t know how to navigate the holidays, specifically Christmas in-light of their new divorced situation.  Here are a couple of helpful tips to navigate this new family rhythm:

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There have been a number of articles, (here, here, and here) and news stories about how young people are leaving Facebook in droves.  I get that part of it has to do that it is because parents are there and they want autonomy.  And while I will not disagree with this theory, I think there is something else going on.  What if students departure from Facebook was not just about autonomy, but about developmental stagnation.

Facebook made its name by connecting college students through a social network.  College students were able to connect with friends, classmates, and people with like minded passions.  College students by where age are more mature and socially developed than students in high school and middle school.  Especially in the beginning back when college students still actually talked face to face with one another.

To survive and thrive on the Facebook platform takes some social chops.  You have to know what to post, how to present yourself, what to reveal about yourself and at every turn there is an opportunity for feedback.  You can like something and comment on something and all these interactions are visible to your entire network.  Managing this actually takes skill, humor, wisdom, and discernment.   Oh, and most importantly, this takes actually knowing how to maintain friendships.  Hence, “friends.”

I think students are departing Facebook in droves because students don’t know how to have “friends.”  

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How do we help a generation who has no sin see their need for a savior?

A major part of our calling as youth workers is the vital task of evangelism. Unfortunately the tyranny of the urgent puts our true calling on the back burner. We have programs to run, bible studies to lead, and parents to keep happy. As great as these are to do, very few of us got into student ministry because we love programs and managing parents. Many of us got into student ministry because we have a heart for this broken and lost generation. We are cross cultural missionaries called to the field to connect with early and mid-adolescents so that, by any means necessary, they will come to know Jesus.

“I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some “ 1 Corinthians 9:22

Classic Evangelism: This verse sums up the classical understanding of evangelism. Simply we want people who don’t know Jesus yet to know him as their Lord and Savior. We want to use whatever means, whatever stories, whatever programs, whatever resources are needed to do it.

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Retelling a lost story

October 21, 2013 — Leave a comment

This article was originally published at


Remember This Movie: Lions and tigers and bears, ___________! If you could immediately fill in the blank, then, whether you realize it or not, you have been impacted by culture. If upon further thought, you could fill in the blank and your mind went to Dorothy and her companions walking along a yellow brick road towards Oz, then you have some context for that cultural expression. And if the conclusion of that statement causes you begin to think about your favorite scenes, smile at the munchkins, hum a song, and even have fond memories of seasons of life when you enjoyed watching the film, then you are part of the generation that has been impacted by the movie, The Wizard of Oz.

Many of us have grown up with this movie. We know the songs, we know the stories, and we know the characters. We have seen poor high school versions of this movie, and even a brave interpretation of the story by Micahel Jackson. And because this story is so ingrained in our current pop culture, there was a place for someone to come along and use that story to tell a fuller story. And that is exactly what happened in the production of Wicked.

In case you haven’t seen the play, which I highly recommend, let me give you a quick synopsis. Wicked is a more complete story of what is going on in Oz during the time of Dorothy. The movie is Dorothy’s story, and the play is the unfolding drama between the two witches, Galinda, the Good Witch of the North and Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West. All by itself, Wicked is a compelling play with great characters and music. But what makes Wicked amazing is that it so incredibly clever.

Wicked tells the story by weaving in and out of the movie the Wizard of Oz. They reference people, places, and scenes. It is as if you get to walk through Oz and occasionally cross the yellow brick road just missing Dorothy and her entourage. During the entire play you have, “Ah, ha!” moments as you put all the pieces together. I found it to be a great evening of fun and incredibly refreshing. As I was driving home, I realized how much more I would have enjoyed this play if I had rented the Wizard of Oz before and re-familiarized myself with the original story. There was so much I missed, and if I weren’t so cheap I would have done that.

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Orange is the new Black

September 30, 2013 — Leave a comment


Ok, this blog post isn’t about the new Netflix show, Orange is the New Black. But it is about Orange and how all over the blogosphere Orange leaders are spending the week promoting Orange!

What is Orange? That is a good question. Orange is a ministry philosophy, a curriculum / strategy resource, and an epic conference designed to encourage and equip those who are like minded in ministry.

Throughout this week some of my friends and I will will be writing about some of the many facets of Orange and the upcoming Orange conference. There will be product reviews, give-a-ways, and general encouragement towards the Orange strategy. Below is a list of the bloggers who are participating this week. I highly recommend you take a look at them and even add them to your RSS feed.

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For the past few years it has been obvious that the culture in which we do ministry has fundamentally changed.

I know that pop culture continues to devolve into twerkfests on MTV, but that is nothing new.  What I am seeing that is new, is that the Christian adults within this culture have a totally different world view and values than those Christians that have gone before them.

There was this time in youth ministry’s hay day where a youth group was made up of the kids of that particular church and their friends.  It was important for the kids to be a part of youth group, and if it wasn’t important to the kids, it was at least important to the parents.  In fact, much of my early years of student ministry was bemoaning the fact that so many church kids would be forced to come to youth group and cause trouble for me and my leaders.  If I only knew how good I had it.

Now, students along with their parents see fellowship, gathered worship, church, and youth group as electives.

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MCC Fall Calendar

Fall Calendar thanks to Ben Read at  Thanks homie!

Dear Parents,

It is finally September.  Summer is a distant memory, school is in full swing, and for us here at Marin Covenant, it is now time to get down to business.  The student ministry team here at Church has put a ton of prayer, time, and effort into this upcoming year and we could not be more excited about what God has in store for our ministry and for your kids!

In order for this fall kick off to be a success and for your child to land in our student ministry community, there has to be a joint effort in helping them land.  As I have said before, your son or daughter has a totally different set of felt needs when it comes to church, youth group, and their spiritual life.  For you, as an adult, it is easy to come and go, to take seasons off from the church, and even seasons off from community.  But when you are ready to dial it in, you make it happen.

Unfortunately, this isn’t how it works with your kid.  There is not guilt or shame that drives whether or not they are a part of youth group or church.  In fact youth group, church, even the Bible are not seen as needs for their spiritual development.  What 99.999% drives whether or not they are going to be part of youth group, part of church, part of the faith community and move towards an orthodox understanding of the Christian life is their friendships.

This means, that if they have friends at youth group, then we will actually show up, and even grow in their walk with Jesus.  If they don’t feel comfortable there or don’t feel like they have any peeps, then they are out!  This is a challenging reality to live in.  But it is reality none the less.  So that means for your son or daughter to actually land at youth group, they have to show up, have friends, and feel comfortable, seen, and even loved.  This can only happen if we work together :)

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As we start up a brand new year, no doubt we will have some students who will be considering Christian college.  Here is a guest post by Michael Juba about some things to help our students consider as they wrestle through this decision.  Enjoy :)


Education. Nurturing. Spiritual enrichment.

All these phrases—and many others—describe the kinds of experiences many students have at Bible College as well as within their youth ministries. There are multiple reasons that a religious-themed higher education is right for those, especially those who are members of their youth ministry.

Here are some tips to help you when choosing a college.

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I think programatic youth ministry has gotten a bad rap over the past few years or decades.  A solid program is the skeleton in which relationships can be built and faith gets formed.  With no program, there is just you and a half dozen kids.  Every great youth ministry has a program that is fun, engaging, inviting, and points towards Jesus.

But a good reminder is that no matter how amazing our programs are, how many cool lights and graphics we have, what are online presence and platform has become, without personal contact we have nothing.

At its very core, ministry is about relationships.  

Now I know you are pretty smart and know this.  But before you skim down to the end or click to a new page, ask yourself if you really do know this?  A good gut check is to take a look at your calendar and see how you spend your time.

Of all the hours you have allotted to pull of ministry, how many of them are spent building relationship, doing contact work, texting your guts out, facebook and instagram stalking, buying ice cream and coffee for, calling, etc. Chances are less and less of your time is devoted to these things.

I am watching this alarming trend among my good friends who are youth workers.  They think that clever programs and graphics with witty names draw kids to youth group.  Worse, some actually think it is their teaching.  While clever programs and solid teaching are vital for solid ministry, it is the hidden hours of connecting with students individually, seeking them out, listening to their stories, building memories doing silly things, goofing off before and after events, and mostly remembering the little details of their life that allow them to be seen and cared for.  And when students feel seen and cared for, then they are willing to engage in a program and even let their guard down enough to wrestle through the intimate and dangerous issues of life and faith.

As you gear up for your fall program, work hard to have epic games, clever videos, and sassy graphics.  Knock your program out of the park!  But DO NOT NEGLECT THE THINGS YOU DID AT FIRST!!  Make contact with those kids, see them, love them, build friendship with them.  Then and only then will your hopes and dreams for your program be realized!

Happy Fall Kick Off!

Back by popular demand . . .

Do you remember the last time you kicked back, relaxed, and just had fun? I don’t.

Have you ever noticed that high school students that joking and laughing seem to come pretty easy? In fact, if you really look, most of their interaction is light hearted joking with one another. When my friends and I get together, this just isn’t the case. Our conversations are really deep and important. I wonder why that is? But why it is, is not the topic of this post. The fact that it is, is what I would like to explore.

As youth workers, we are called to connect with students, and to be cross cultural missionaries. We are to enter their world and find places where we can share the love of Christ, to bring the abundant life to them, in their context, on their level. What if one of those thing places was actually good ‘ol fashioned fun. Fun in the form of music and dancing might actually be a powerful tool to accomplish this challenging task.

Why do you think we suck so much at having fun? It might just be because we are old. Somewhere along the way we have gotten caught up with all the heaviness of life and our calling. We have taken our jobs seriously as youth workers, and we are pretty good at it. We can teach the spiritual disciplines, help manage sin, provide spiritually moving experiences, all while genuinely providing space to help students grow in their faith. It seems the rule is that the more serious you take your calling to student ministry, the less fun you should have.

What if part of our job was expanded from just creating spiritual experiences for our students to helping them live an integrated life? What if we could help the develop a theology that works for their entire lives, not just their very limited time at youth group? What if we could help them see that being deep and having fun are not mutually exclusive, that being spiritual is bringing Jesus into every activity, the good, the bad, and the ugly.

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I am blown away at the amount of resources that are available to parents to help them navigate the technological world that their kids live in.  It seems that the more that is out there, the less equipped our parents are to deal with the never ending onslaught of new technology and clever ways around old technology.

There are many opportunities for youth workers to communicate with parents and educate them on this subject.  But every year that goes by the technological gap between parents and kids seems to grow exponentially.    As an older youth worker, I am starting to feel the effects of the distance.

For the longest time, it seems that the approach of concerned parents and youth workers was to simply protect our kids from the darker parts of technology.  This worked well when we only had tv and video games to worry about.  Now there is the online component to video games, and those video games involve graphic violence and sex.  Add to the mix every and all social media platforms and it starts to get scary.  And that ipod you bought your kids, that is a thoroughfare of unregulated technology.

Obviously protectionism alone can not solve this problem.  There is too much and too many ways around it for parents to adequately control it all.  So what is a parent to do?  I think the answer begins with understanding two fundamental truths:

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