From the Internet Monk:
It’s Father’s Day weekend, one of the Hallmark calendar days, but worth at least some thoughtful consideration. I shared of few memories of my dad on Podcast #145. In this post I’d like to be a bit less reflective and a lot more meddling.
I’ve worked around parents of teenagers my entire adult life.
For all but 4 years of my ministry I was a youth ministry specialist in some setting or another. The four years I was a pastor, I was more involved with parents than ever.
I have incredible respect for those who parent teenagers, no matter who they are or what they believe. It’s a brutal job that can crush you into tiny pieces and lift you up to lofty places of joy.
I’ve stood with parents at the casket of teenagers who have died of cancer and accidents.
I’ve been called to the home of a family who just learned that their middle school daughter was on the verge of death from alcohol poisoning.
I’ve sat in the living room as a daughter told her parents she was pregnant. (A girl no one would have believed was sexually active.) I was there when she gave up her twins to adoptive parents.
I’ve taken parents to jail to see their children. I can’t describe that heartbreak.
I’ve watched faithful pastors and wives deal with wayward children who practically destroyed their faith, finances and families.
I raised two kids whom I love and am endlessly proud of, but there were and are places along the way that I felt helpless and a complete failure.
I’ve spent thousands of hours helping parents and teens work through all those problems that families with teenagers inevitably face.
Because of my current ministry, I’ve reviewed painful family histories and interviewed desperate parents looking for anything that would help them somehow reclaim a teenager that was lost, failing or in destructive rebellion.
For whatever reasons, God has put me in the world of teenagers and their families. I never asked for this, but it’s been my assignment.
So on this Father’s Day Weekend, I want to ask some of the questions I’ve never (well, almost never) asked the parents of teenagers. These questions aren’t subtle or academic. They are “gut-level.” They’re real.
Is this advice disguised as rhetoric? A bit, yes. I don’t claim to know much about parenting teenagers. I think the questions have their own wisdom.
(By the way, I know that these questions don’t apply to every parent, and I’m aware that some of you have a philosophy of raising kids that answers all of these issues. I’m also aware that some of you did all the right things, just like the books say, and now you’re wondering why it didn’t work.)
1. Why so much freedom, money, cars, privacy, free time, video games and electronic devices?
My students watch a documentary called “Two Million Minutes.” It contrasts students in China, India and the United States. One of the most obvious differences in these students is that the Indian and Chinese kids- from middle class families- have no cars, little free time, no personal money and conspicuous purchases, little privacy, limited friendships outside of school and a modest amount of electronics.
My conclusion is that American parents view their children as extensions of their own consumer egos. They need for their kids to have everything and they are reluctant to control access to free time or spending.
When I listen to the rebellious teens I sometimes work with talk about what they are going to do when they are back home, they have NO DOUBT that they will be driving, spending, partying and doing whatever they want. They have an unquestioned assumption that their free time and lifestyle or at stake NO MATTER what they have done.
I’ve seen this up close in many instances I can’t share on this forum. But it’s inexplicable. Entitlement is killing our kids. Parents: learn to say No and keep saying it as needed.
2. Do your teenagers clearly see the deepest values in your life, and understand how those values will affect their life? Or do your teenagers see your values as movable and of little real influence in the kind of person you are?
I can tell you that when a teenager who is being told “don’t do X” or “do Y” discovers that you, as a parent, are doing some version of X or really don’t believe in the importance of Y, you’ve got a problem.
Making decisions based around the importance of education when the values of education are obviously not important to you does not escape a teenager. Nor does the implications of what’s on the history bar of your computer as compared to what you tell him/her they shouldn’t be watching.
Your deepest values shouldn’t have to be shouted. Anyone who has lived with you for a month should know them. And they probably do…no matter what you say.
Get this right: A teenager in rebellion against good parenting and the right values is one thing. It happens all the time. But a teenager who concludes that values in life don’t matter because they’ve seen you live without truly anchored values that shape every day of your life is simply doing what you taught them to do.
3. Have you assessed the effects of your own decisions about money, prosperity, freedom, etc. on your child, or have you bought into the lie that kids are just resilient through anything?
Divorces. Relocations. Changing schools. Friends moving away. Financial changes. Church/religion changes. It all has a cumulative effect.
For example, we now know that relocation has a tremendous effect on development. I’ve heard kids narrate what it’s like when mom and dad go from this church to that church. Loss, change, adjustment, starting over. These things aren’t easy. They may be unavoidable, but they are deeply affecting.
4. Do you believe that you are going to tell your teenager what it means to be a normal teenager or an adult? Just where did you pick up that idea?
The trump card in parenting teenagers is held by the teenager. They will decide who or what they want to be. You may decide how the chess match unfolds. You may provide enablement or obstacles. You may have credibility or not. But at the end of the day, your teenager will make their own decision about who they are, and they will make that decision from a mixture of influences over which they alone have control.
You may not like to consider that one web site, one band, one friends can outweigh years of youth ministers, dozens of books, weeks of great camps and experiences. But you have to understand this in the short term so you can play for the long term.
Christian parenting rhetoric is full of the lie of total control. I see it in the comments of this web site all the time. We love to be told that we can be the person who raises a child without any deviation from exactly what we want. There are some of those parents, and they often did a great job with their kids. But don’t forget who, ultimately, made the decision to be the kid mom and dad wanted: the kid.
5. Have you assessed what the wired world means for raising a teenager?
If you are like me, one of the hardest things to do is seeing the implications of technology. Not using it. I use it just fine. I understand technology better than many teenagers. But the implications for how technology shapes the lives of the students I work with? Understanding what it makes possible for them that was much more difficult even a few years ago? There I am very much a novice, though I am learning fast.
For example, I frequently am the person who has to tell a new student that we do not allow students to have cell phones on our campus during school terms. The reaction today is considerably different than it was in the days when I told new students that they could only use the phone once a week for the first 30 days- a rule we still have. The reaction today is all about the fact that young people live in a state of virtual connectedness with everyone. Instant pictures. Instant ability to converse. They are socially, emotionally and mentally wired into the world in a different way than previous generations.
The implications are easier to see when you force teenagers out of that environment. For example, when I tell a class that they are going to write the research component of a paper in the library without computer access, the reaction is explosive. Not because kids can’t read or make note cards. It’s because I am forcing them out of an environment where they can “research” school work and do 5 other things in their personal life at the same time.
This is the functioning equivalent of a teenager living 80% of their life in a world you have no access to, and you’ve bought into it on ideas like “they need this for safety.” I don’t want to sound like an Amish Luddite here, but awareness of your teenager’s world is always going to be an uphill project. If you are naive about the wired world and how deeply your student lives in it, don’t complain when you discover things are very, very different than you ever expected.
6. What are you doing/being that creates any desire in your children to be a responsible, Christian adult? Particular a disciple of Jesus seeking the Kingdom of God and its righteousness above all else?
If you believe Christian kids and youth ministers are going to create the desire to be a disciple of Jesus, I hope you are right. The fact is that some of you are at some megachurch right now that might as well be the set for Saved II, and you have no idea that you are literally helping your kids abandon evangelicalism and perhaps Christianity. Why is this? Because instead of being a deep-water swimmer with Jesus yourself, you want your kid to go to the Jesus mall and get excited what they see in the stores. You hope they will want to be like the other “cool kids” at church. Good grief. This is Christ’s way? Wake up and start living a life that can’t be explained except for the fact that Jesus is your Lord and you follow him. Kids are incredibly cynical about all the flash in the pan glitz of evangelicalism. Only clueless adults buy it.
7. Are you ready to let God be God and let yourself off the hook?
God’s path for some kids is the hard way, full of some really stupid and painful choices. Do your best, then let God take over. Be a parent, but don’t be a martyr. Your kids won’t be saved by you punishing yourself. Your sins as a parent were placed on Jesus. Don’t be a slacker about it, but take God’s grace and move on. Your teenager may have to take God’s hard and narrow road and it may not end up anywhere close to the nice middle-class life you wanted. Let God and your child have that freedom….because you don’t control them anyway. Have your cry and learn to live with love and limits. That’s where we all are.