It is universally agreed upon that there are three things in life that are supremely difficult. The first is riding a bicycle across the Pacific Ocean. The second is training a cat to rotate your tires. The third, and perhaps the hardest, is parenting teenagers.
I haven't attempted the first two, but I'm nearly finished with the third. I began the madness 11 years ago when I had lots of hair. I will finish in 2018 as bald as a baby's belly. That's not a coincidence. Being a parent of teens is a little like being President of the United States. Each day is filled with unexpected decisions we have to make. Should I let him go to the concert? Should I let him drive to his girlfriend's house on this rainy night? Should I let him get his buttocks pierced? I suppose it's hard being President, but at least he has a cabinet of experts to help him make these decisions.
Now, before I paint too negative a picture of this daunting task, I have to say that I love teenagers and I have loved parenting three of them. I love the spontaneity, the goofiness, the passion, the moments of greatness rising to the surface. I love guiding discussions around the table and seeing them wrestle with expressing their thoughts. I love watching sports together and debating who the best teams are. I love seeing them develop into young men with tremendous gifts and quirky personalities. My boys have made me laugh until I cried, filled our house with activity and life, been my friends, companions, and occasionally even my teachers. They've taught me about fashion, music, culture, and unbeknownst to them, how to pray really, really hard.
It isn't just my kids that I've learned from. I have been in youth ministry for over 25 years. I've worked with all types of kids--shy, boisterous, awkward, confident, athletes, nerds, band geeks, IB academics, musicians, rednecks, preppies, cheerleaders, artists, and some who have absolutely no idea what they are. Many of them have a tremendous understanding of spiritual things, and others have no clue. I enjoy them all. But I'll admit that there have been many times when I've felt like a total failure. The student I thought was walking with God made another bad decision. The one who seemed so excited to be involved suddenly disappeared from our ministry. It's heartbreaking work, not for the faint of heart. Just like parenting.
So with all that said, I would like to offer a list of 10 THINGS TO AVOID WHILE PARENTING TEENS. I don't mean to make you feel bad for the mistakes you've made, especially since I write from personal experience, but I hope I can prevent others from repeating them. I'm starting with 5 today because this is a blog, not <i>War and Peace</i>, and you have something else to do, I'm sure.
10) AVOID PUNISHING YOUR TEEN BY INTERRUPTING THEIR INVOLVEMENT IN CHURCH. "My kid got in trouble, so I'm not letting them come to youth group." When we make mistakes, the first thing the devil wants to do is separate us from God. Conversely, the first thing God wants is for us to come to him. I know youth group is largely a social event for kids. Sometimes we have to take something that hurts. But to remove time with God's people as a punishment gives a dangerous subliminal message. God is only to be approached when we are worthy. Church is an activity no more valuable than any other. The spiritual message and the presence of the Holy Spirit at our youth ministry are not effective. A better option is to let one of the youth leaders know what's going on so that someone besides you can have an honest conversation and pray with your kid.
9) AVOID FREAKING OUT OVER YOUR TEEN'S MISTAKES. In 25 years of youth ministry, I've heard just about everything. Are you shocked to learn that some of our teens have been caught stealing, had sex, gotten pregnant, cheated on exams, forgotten to turn in their homework, been depressed, cut themselves, lied to parents, snuck out of the house, posted something inappropriate online, looked at porn, gotten in a fight, gotten drunk, been kicked out of school, taken drugs, sold drugs, grown drugs in the backyard garden? When it's our kid, it's panic city for most of us. But it's important to remember that teenagers make serious mistakes (didn't you?), and though we don't wish for it to happen, it will. Freaking out about it doesn't help. Being too embarrassed to ask the youth pastor or youth leader for prayer doesn't help. I tell parents and teens that there is nothing they can tell me that would shock me. (Well, almost nothing. If your teen has a dead body hidden in the basement, I might be a wee bit surprised.) But honestly, I've heard it all. As sad as it makes us, it's also an opportunity to put our trust in the grace of God and let the Holy Spirit do an incredible thing. That's what God does--makes beauty out of ashes. Stay calm, and pray.
8) AVOID COMPLAINING ABOUT YOUR TEEN TO OTHERS, ESPECIALLY ON SOCIAL MEDIA. This is one that should go without saying, but unfortunately I've seen it happen--parents venting about their teen to other parents, occasionally even online. I get it--we all need to vent sometimes. That's okay. My wife and I vent about our kids--and yours--on occasion. Venting with a trusted friend who keeps her mouth shut might be a better outlet than posting your frustration to 1100 Facebook 'friends.' Kids get bombarded with negativity all the time. Parents should encourage their teens at every opportunity and speak well of them to others. One of the things we try to celebrate in our youth ministry is the unique contribution each kid brings to the table as image bearers of their Heavenly Father. Every kid is made in the image of God, even when it seems from their mistakes that they are more like us. Look for the good in your teen and talk about that instead.
7. AVOID FREAKING OUT OVER YOUR TEEN'S DOUBTS AND QUESTIONS. It has been a long time since I was a teenager. It's impossible to remember what my brain was like back then. I mean, I used to think that I was never going to get over that girl dumping me for that kid I couldn't stand. I was absolutely certain that I was destined to spend my life alone in a Georgian Super Cave for Losers. All these years later, my wife of 27 years still thinks I'm hot. You see, the truth is that the teen years are developmentally tumultuous. The thirteen-year-old--a concrete thinker who has zero doubt that Jesus died for them and the Bible is 100% true--gradually becomes the 17-year-old--an abstract thinker who starts to wonder if Samson could really tie the tails of three hundred foxes together, and thus questions his salvation. Psychologist Jean Piaget identified assimilation and accommodation as key components of adolescent development. Teens are constantly learning new things and are forced to assimilate them into their existing belief system. When there's a conflict between new information and old, they are forced to make accommodations for the new belief. It's painful. It's normal. It's good. It's what helps us make our faith our own. So when your teen admits she is having doubts about her faith, don't freak out. I tell students all the time, "You haven't thought of anything that nobody ever thought before. There are reasonable answers worth searching out, and there are many things we cannot fully understand." Faith involves knowledge, mystery and wonder. It is never complete or static, and never should be.
6) AVOID OVERPROTECTING YOUR TEEN. When my son Tim was two-years-old, we awakened one morning to find him missing from the house. After a 60-second mad scramble, we discovered him outside, behind our car, nearly in the street, playing in the dirt. As a result, Tim spent the next 18 years of his life in a 4x4 dog kennel so that he would never do that again. All joking aside, some well-meaning parents, fearing the worst, do everything possible to shield their teens from danger, whether it be physical, social or spiritual. But over-protection is really parenting by fear instead of parenting by faith. Safety is NOT the ultimate goal. As our teenagers grow, we need to remove the harness and allow them to take some risks in search of independence. Our goal as parents is not to protect them, but to see them grow into independent, confident, even dangerous ambassadors for the kingdom of God. That means allowing them to interact with all kinds of people, to go on that mission trip or wilderness adventure, to develop a life outside of our family, to think differently than we think. Imagine if Mary, knowing Jesus was in danger, had never allowed him to leave the house? Playing it safe may seem like good parenting, but it might be hindering the kingdom of God.
Joe McGinnis of INGAUGE Parenting has an excellent diagram which is helpful to see how our role as parents changes as our kids grow up. It shows how we must transition into new roles as our kids grow and mature, moving from protector to teacher to model to coach to mentor. I find this very instructive.
For more, check out http://joedmcginnis.com/
So those are my first five Things to Avoid While Parenting Teens. Check back soon for five more. As you ponder mistakes, and all the others we've made along the way, please be encouraged that our mistakes are not the final answer on who our kids will turn out to be. Not only is God's grace sufficient for our teen's mistakes, but for ours as well.
Now I have to go see if my cat finished rotating my tires.
With encouragement and love,