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(Almost) the Last Lap

"Some days it feels like my 11-year-old doesn't need much parenting; other days I feel like I'm still dealing with a little boy. Can you help clarify my role during these years?"

A. It would be great if parenting followed a straight trajectory. But the truth is, it's a never-ending series of switchbacks. Just this week, I called my dad for advice and prayer—I may be 41, but I still need him now and then.

There's a false sense that our parenting journey starts wrapping up as our children approach their teen years. But there are a whole lot of 20-somethings who have finished college only to end up back at Mom and Dad's house. With puberty hitting earlier and complete independence coming later, the adolescent years have extended on both ends, leaving parents wondering if there will ever be an end to the active parenting years.

I don't say that to discourage you, but rather to help you find your footing as you parent your preteen. While it's true that preteens are a wild mix of childish behavior and adult (or at least less-childish) behavior, it is safe to assume that by the time your child is in high school, most of your parenting will be done. That's not to say there's nothing left to do, but at that point it's normally a bit late to change course.

And that's the real challenge of parenting a preteen. These tender years are some of the most formative in a person's life. Kids at this age are still extremely moldable, changeable, open. But as they settle into their mid-teen identity, change comes less and less often. This is why I always joke with middle-school ministry workers that we are still in "preventive ministry," while high school work is often "corrective ministry."

Parenting works the same way. You are on the last lap—well, at least the second-to-last lap. What does a long-distance runner do in the final lap or two? She thinks of the finish line and calibrates her pace to make it to the end. The preteen years are the time when the lessons you've worked so hard to teach your child will come into question. They are the years when your child will test nearly every value and ideal you hold dear. And these are the years when he will determine who he wants to be and the kind of life he wants to live.

The good news is that you are still the primary influence your child's life. This will begin to shift to his peer group in the older teen years, so now is the time to shore up the core values you want your child to hang onto. While your child might not seem open to your influence, the almost absurd amount of change going on in the life of your preteen puts him in a place of massive malleability.

Take the time to help your preteen start making some of his own decisions within the safe confines of the healthy boundaries you've established. If he wants to spend the night at a friend's house, say yes with the caveat that you will talk with the friend's parents and discuss the night's activities. If he wants to buy a computer game, say yes with the condition that you have final veto power. Lay out clear expectations for his behavior and set up specific rewards and consequences for his actions. Start letting him in on your decision-making process so he can see how an adult determines right from wrong. Think about the man you want him to be one day and parent him with that goal in mind.

So don't throw in the towel. Don't concede. Don't abdicate your role to the church or the culture or his peer group. Let God fill your lungs with the fresh air of strength and courage. And take another step. And another. The next stage truly is in sight.

Mark Oestreicher is the president of Youth Specialties (YouthSpecialties.com), the leading provider of resources and training for Christian youth workers.

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

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