January 27, 2021

Thoughts and Questions for Parents On Father’s Day

troubled-teen-boy-hat-sitting1It’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.


  1. John writes “What about a teen who doesn’t want to go to church?”

    The largest numbers of leavers from churches are teens. I have a son who is 14 who I do not have this issue with, but one thing I am prepared to do if he no longer wants to go to church is sit down with him and explore reasons and options.

    Does he have any friends at church? Does he have any friends that go to another church? Does he have an interest, (instruments, sound recording, sports, that could be fostered through a ministry at church.)

    I remember 30 years ago that I didn’t want to go to church on a particular Sunday. They said “OK” and didn’t make a big deal of it. That way, it never became a source of conflict.

  2. “We need to start treating children who reach the age of 13 or 14 as adults who have responsibilities, all the while teaching children how to become responsible adults.”

    Why wait? What is it about children of any age that says they should not have some responsibilities or be considered a contributing part of the family? Why wait to start listening and talking honestly to our kids until they are already rebelling?

    My parents expected that I would use critical thinking and decision making skills from an early age, while they were still intimately involved in my life, and allowed me to fall down when I was still close to the ground and they were around to pick me up. It gave me a sense of my own ability to make good decisions, and an idea of the consequences if I make bad ones. It also supported continued communication with them, which was vital in the teen years, and something many other teens around me seemed to lack.

    My daughter just turned five, and I already allow her to make many decisions, and experience the results (good or bad) and am there to listen to her when she wants to tell someone about the results. I don’t understand why this would stop working later on unless I get into some big fight with her where I take some absolute stand on something that she is dedicated to.

    Why not take our kids thoughts and feelings seriously? We may not agree with them, and when we don’t we need to tell them honestly *why* we don’t, but if our only answer to them is “you are wrong to feel that way…” they will soon stop telling us how they feel and what they think, and this will make parenting much harder…. no mater the child’s age.

  3. GKGW? That sounds harder to pronounce than “GLBT”.

    Growing Kids God’s Way was / is a program / class for parents that was promoted as “follow this and your kids will turn out as good Christians”. This is how it was marketed by many and many of the graduates claimed this. There are a non trivial number of drop outs and most of the enthusiastic graduates’ kids were still pre-teen as far as I could tell. So I’ve always felt that there was a lot of self selecting going on when the praises of the program were being sung. And I personally saw no difference between the kids who’s parents when through the program and those that did not.

    I got the impression from Anita’s post that the program worked for her. Great. But I felt like we were being invited to a version of the “Stepford Wives” when we were being recruited. Or maybe Amway.

    Since we were “recruited” and declined 14 years or so ago there has been a lot of controversy over the methods taught and the person running the program. Lots of people in his organization have resigned over the years.

    But my basic problem with GKGW and many other Christian approaches to kids is they have a formula to solve all issues. They don’t seem to read the bible and come to the conclusion that we are all unique individuals with individual needs.

    To be honest “Focus on the Family” was very good in this area till they decided to try and “win” the culture war and ran the rest of their ministry off the rails 15 or so years ago.

    Oh, well, I’ve talked to long.

  4. Margaret says

    To John A.’s suggestion of music + sports for child rearing and including these as integral to the church– there’s something good in that.

    To the question what about a teen who doesn’t want to go to church, would you make them? We ran into that one hard with our oldest. We had to consider his viewpoint because it was valid. Our large evangelical church somehow managed to have 3 different youth ministers during his 4 years of high school. The 2nd minister was there his middle two years, and all I could get out of my son was “I don’t like him,” when asking him why he didn’t want to go to church. It came down to us having to respect our son’s opinion and letting him do his own thing which included visiting other churches with his friends in various denominations, but often it meant letting him stay home. His senior year, he started dating a girl out of the blue from a different church and has been going to her church for nearly 4 years.

    The years he was out of church had me praying and trembling, but always encouraged by God’s faithfulness to send Christians into my son’s life. He had over 50% Christian teachers in his large public high school which I believe was a God thing. We didn’t let his non-church participation become a wedge between us.

    Maybe there are times when making the child go to church is the best thing, but especially when their desire to drop out is not in the context of rebellion, we should do our best to figure out where it is coming from. That is part of respect, as I see it. There may be people who as youngsters were abused by clergy who sent their parents a similar message but were never heard. Not that I’d go looking for abuse where it isn’t, just saying it’s a crazy world we live in, and our kids need to be listened to.

  5. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    Growing Kids God’s Way was / is a program / class for parents that was promoted as “follow this and your kids will turn out as good Christians”. This is how it was marketed by many and many of the graduates claimed this. — Ross

    Say no more, Ross, I know the drill: Do X, Y, Z and Everything Will Come Out Perfect In Every Way Just Like Us. (And if it doesn’t, It’s ALL Your Fault — “Secret Sin (TM)” and all that.)

    To be honest “Focus on the Family” was very good in this area till they decided to try and “win” the culture war and ran the rest of their ministry off the rails 15 or so years ago. — Ross

    Or as IMonk put it when they released that “Open Letter from 2012” shortly before the election, “Until fear of homosexuals drove them off the cliff with their constituency in the car”.

  6. THank you for this beautiful post – my oldest children are 13 and 11, and some nights i go to bed utterly exhausted from listening to my 13 yo son talk talk talk to me, following me around all day, talking worldview, philosophy, the novel he’s writing… I love that little guy, but honestly, the teen years (starting around 11) have been sooooo stretching! Some nights i just go to bed scared – it’s like i’ve paddled out to surf a huge wave, and then realize “i have no idea how to do this!” But God *is* the parenting manual, and i’m learning to listen to Him minute by minute – because i need Him minute by minute… This is by far more intense than the toddler/baby stage, but also so fun – so intense, so filled with drama and learning and openness. I don’t know how long it stays this way, and i know i don’t have what it takes, long term. I’m trusting that God will give me manna every day…

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