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Parenting Your Future Teen

What to do now to shape a healthier adolescent
Parenting Your Future Teen
Image: KICHIGIN / SHUTTERSTOCK.COM

Parents whose kids are older than yours often play the "Just Wait" game. When you show these folks your darling infant, they reply, "Justwaitforthoseterribletwos." When your darling reaches 3, it's "Justwaittilltheygotoschool." And when it's full speed into preadolescence, they play the ultimate trump card: "Justwaittilltheybecometeens."

It's assumed you're incapable of preparing for that next stage of parenting. But we can train and strengthen ourselves for whatever adventures lie ahead. As a parent of three daughters—all grown up—I know this firsthand. And based on research I completed, I have 23 experts to back me up. Key church and parachurch leaders provided practical insights on how to parent teens. Their comments were diverse, but they agreed on this single, significant truth: Successful parenting of teens requires successful parenting of young children. And very young children, at that.

Several practical suggestions—embracing three key concepts—emerged from our talks.

Key Concept 1: Honor Thy Kid

Repeatedly, leaders I spoke with focused on the Fifth Commandment: "Honor thy father and mother." But they also declared, "Honor thy child." So how do we honor our children?

We honor our kids by taking them seriously. Wayne Rice, president of Understanding Your Teenager, recalls, "One of my favorite memories of my dad is that he always laughed at my jokes. They were probably terrible. But he honored me by laughing at them."

Honoring our kids, then, means paying attention to them. Showing them respect. Building their self-esteem. Honoring kids means seeing the world the way they see it, then acting accordingly.

To take kids seriously we must avoid treating them like miniature adults, expecting too much, too soon. On the other hand, we must show them the dignity we extend to our closest adult peers. We differentiate between the child's performance and his or her person. Put another way, we distinguish what children are able to accomplish from who they are; their doing from their being.

We honor our kids by encouraging tough questions. "A kid should always have permission to ask 'why?' counsels Roger Cross, president of Youth for Christ, USA. "One great revelation in my walk with Christ was that if I couldn't ask questions, then God isn't who he says he is. We don't have to be afraid of any questions."

Ask yourself: "If a hidden video was produced of our family discussions, would the tape indicate that topics like finances, sex—even tough issues of faith—are avoided?"

To help children prepare for adolescence, begin now by making family communication open. (This does not rule out the need for prudence and discretion.) As the saying goes: "Either Jesus is Lord of all or he's not Lord at all."

We honor our kids by creating an inviting home. Dave Rahn, associate dean of graduate studies and co-director of the link Institute at Huntington College (IN), suggests that preparing to parent teens effectively means having a home that welcomes family members and visitors alike. "I want my home to always be comfortable to my kids and their friends. In fact, that's how I measure success: whether or not my kids bring their friends home."

How can houses be turned into homes for our youngsters and their pals? Create settings that shout out loud: "Come in and take your shoes off for a while." An adjustable basketball net at our house has transformed many afternoons and evenings into a neighborhood gathering for our daughters and their friends.

Key Concept 2: Invite Youngsters into Your World

Perhaps the simplest, yet most provocative, of these experts' recommendations was that we parents must consistently bring our children into our lives. Why is this strategy so important?

Because many of life's faith convictions are "caught," as well as taught. And healthy connections with kids early on can bring rewards when the teen years begin.

Deuteronomy 6:4–9 expresses the balance between "caught" and "taught" better than any passage in the Bible. Here, Moses directs us to "talk about [the commandments of God]"—that's the "taught" part—"when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up"—the "caught" part.

Here's how to let kids catch your faith.

Let children enter your schedule. Ginny Olson serves as director of the Youth Ministry Department at North Park University as well as director of young adult ministries for the Evangelical Covenant Church. She admits that inviting children into our schedules is far from easy, especially when both parents work. But Ginny recalled one parent who "permitted a rocking chair to be moved into the kitchen, so when she was cooking dinner, there was a place where the child could come in, sit and chat. That parent was symbolically saying, 'I am here and ready to listen, even though I'm busy.'"

Why not turn routine errands in the family car into a family talk time? Or send a "thinking about you" card to your child's school? My wife, Mary, and I have created a day (Thank Goodness It's [your] Special Day) for our kids. On that day, we serve their favorite meal, watch their most-liked video or play their preferred table game.

Mary and I also take regular walks around the neighborhood with our three kids and "update our files" on them. What are they involved in this week? What are their needs? How are they feeling? What do we need to pray about?

Let young ones "eavesdrop" on your priorities. Thom Schultz, president of Group Publishing, places significant attention on what he calls "the power of eavesdropping." "Kids pick up a lot more by eavesdropping on their parents than from what their parents may be deliberately teaching. The respect and love I have for the Bible today is based on the many times I came home and caught my dad sitting in his chair with his Bible. Typically he never told me what he was reading. He just allowed me to eavesdrop on how important God was in his life."

(Confession time: I used to believe my young children were best helped when I exhibited only a moderate display of emotions: never letting them see me upset, angry, or even thrilled or full of joy. I don't know if it had to do with the call for "moderation in all things," but I now know I was dead wrong. By not exhibiting a full range of appropriate emotions, I was not showing my kids how to live their faith through varied circumstances.)

Play back encounters you've had with your son or daughter in the past few days. Based on those encounters, what implied values do you believe your child would identify as yours? Are you satisfied with what you discovered? If not, what other activities or talks would convey your intended values even better?

Key Concept 3: Instruct Children in a Relevant Faith

Probably the greatest snare I've seen parents fall into is to overemphasize the strategy of "caught" over "taught," or vice versa.

Parents of younger children tend to err on the side of explicit teaching. We almost "indoctrinate" our young ones. Caregivers of older children tend to overrate only living for Jesus, to the point of not verbalizing faith to them. Certainly we must model our faith, but we must also "talk the walk."

Two key strategies will help you share your faith with your future teen:

1. Customize the truth according to children's lives. Mark 4:33 states: "With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand." Jesus was customizing (not compromising) God's truth in each disciple's life, according to who they were.

Our family was recently planning what we could do on our spring break. One idea included a combination service project and ski trip in Colorado. As the five of us discussed details, my wife and I remembered what specifically motivated each of our three children. Our youngest, Susie, is a very active sixth grader, so we emphasized what we would be doing on the trip. Our middle daughter, Melissa, is a contemplative sophomore, so our talks with her featured why we would do this. With Elizabeth, an exceptionally relational child, we discussed who also would be doing what we planned to do.

Emulating the Master Teacher caused Mary and me to teach truth to our three daughters "as much as they could understand"; to explicitly instruct them according to who they are, as unique individuals.

2. Own your faith—and help your children to own theirs. Teaching at a Christian liberal arts university has its ups and downs. Ups include the awesome privilege of participating in a young person's most formative years of faith and life. Downs include witnessing how life's roadblocks can drastically inhibit students' growth. Often, parents of struggling students failed to "own" or personalize their faith.

Consider two significant scriptures.

When Moses was documenting how the Jews were to remember Passover, he told parents not only what they should teach their children but how they should teach them. Moses commanded parents to explain God's deliverance of Israel from the Egyptians whenever their young ones asked, "What does this ceremony mean to you?" (Exod. 12:26). These last three words are critical for parents.

Jesus once quizzed the disciples: "Who do people say the Son of Man is?" (Matt. 16:13b), then immediately asked, "But--who do you say I am?" (v. 15b). The Master Teacher shifts from a general poll to a personal inquiry. Parents who actively promote this kind of "ownership" of faith, will fare far better in passing on a genuine and vibrant faith.

I recommend both public and private instruction. "Public" instruction includes ways a child is taught outside the home. Television, phone conversations, the Internet, music, and so forth--though technically in the home--would be public, since each one complements or competes with the education I provide my children. When our children were young, we attempted to establish healthy habits for watching tv, for choosing friends, for attending church.

My friend Wayne Rice tells this story: "I have a friend who, like me, likes to fish. He goes fishing on Sunday mornings, and I tell him, 'You're a fool.' (He's a good friend of mine, so I can say that to him.) He's got two kids watching him, and what he's teaching them is this: 'You don't need to go to church to grow in your relationship with God.' But, one non-negotiable in our family is that we're in church on Sundays. Unless we're all on our deathbed, we're there. This is how you grow in your relationship with God. It's not something you mail in. It takes effort. It takes work."

I can't overemphasize: Good habits in children come not from force or manipulation but from fair and responsible expectations--within strong relationships of unconditional love, open communication and parental modeling.

"Private" instruction focuses on the individual child. Last week, my daughter Elizabeth initiated a provocative discussion on human suffering. "Why does this happen?" and "Where is God in it all?" she wanted to know. (Of course, I did, too.) That talk provided an exceptional chance for us to study the Bible together--and to grow.

My daughter Melissa and I prefer to take walks through our neighborhood--a conscious habit we started seven or eight years ago. Her reflective skills lend themselves to conversing about her devotional life. I might ask, "What are you studying now? What are you learning? What can I pray about for you?"

Mary and I try to instruct Susan, our event-focused youngest, while keeping tabs on her activities like band, roller-rink escapades and church. Recently we talked about her need to befriend a new girl at school.

How do we prepare for the teen years? Must we be scared of them? Not at all, for successful parenting means consistent parenting. Serve kids well now, and you can approach their coming adolescence with confidence and thanksgiving.

Dr. Ronald T. Habermas has taught in Christian higher education for more than 25 years and has served on the staff of local churches for more than a dozen years. Dr. Habermas is the author of many journal articles and several books. Currently he researches and writes on various projects, while doing adjunct teaching.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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