As I waited to check out at my favorite Christian book store, a young mother behind me cooed to a newborn in a stroller. The baby responded with smiles and delighted gurgles. A grandmotherly type joined us and, as grandmothers do, asked to see the baby. Of course, his mother was only too proud to show him off. And that’s when the trouble started.
“What a sweetie!” the older woman gushed. “Enjoy him before he gets to be a teenager.”
“Oh, please don’t tell her that!” I blurted without thinking then tried to explain my outburst. “Teenagers are the best part of parenting. They’re my passion!”
“Really?” the young mother said. “I’ve never heard anyone say that.”
No one? How sad. What had this young woman’s role models demonstrated? That we adore our babies but like our children less and less as we come to know them better? I longed to be a voice of hope. “Oh, yes!” I assured her. “Don’t you wonder what your little guy is thinking? Who he’ll grow up to be? The teenage years are when you begin to find out!”
The grandmother said something to the effect that she’d find out, all right. “They get loud and ornery. Like two-year-olds, only bigger.”
It was my turn to check out. I didn’t get to tell them that teenagers get loud for the same reason two-year-olds do. It’s very frustrating when you want to do things you can’t do yet. Limitations sometimes seem to define life for toddlers and teens!
This encounter caused me to think about stereotypes of parent-child relationships. “Because I’m the parent” and “Because I said so” are quasi-humorous expressions of parental authority, and the teen’s expected response ranges from resistance to rebellion. Kids DO need parents who act like parents, but scripture tells us not to provoke our children to wrath—not to “lord it over” those in our charge. Our Lord is our heavenly Father. How does He treat His children? In the New Testament, “disciples” is used interchangeably with “beloved children.” What if parents treated their teens in the way Jesus treated His disciples?
He was Emmanuel—God with us. Simply sharing your presence and your time demonstrates to children that they have value . . . that they are a priority. As children accompany their parents in life, they absorb and begin to emulate the behavior their parents model. Most Christian parents and homeschooling parents are acutely aware that far more is “caught” than “taught,” yet we still sometimes experience a breakdown in family relationships, especially during the teenage years. What’s missing?
Sometimes the missing ingredient is respect—not the respect a parent demands, but the respect we give. You can’t take away a person’s self-worth and expect them to respond positively. Surely no Christian parent would deliberately strip their child of dignity, but a child’s self-worth can be fragile, particularly during the teenage years. Teens yearn to know that they are loved unconditionally, that we hear them and trust them (even if we have to count to ten and take a calming breath before asking, “Why did that seem like a good idea to you?”). Teenagers often feel full of doubt. They need to borrow our confidence that they can succeed as competent, independent adults. If we write or say things, in public or in private, that communicate a lack of trust or respect, the security that forms the foundation of any good relationship can be damaged.
This can make necessary discipline tricky unless we remember that true discipline reinforces responsibility and independence. It is possible to express disappointment in behavior without attacking personal worth. We can and should establish structures to promote responsibility, but we should do it without punishments that sting and shame. Think about your own reactions to the people in authority over you. Would you be more eager to please a boss who insulted and questioned you or one who challenged you to higher standards?
So give respect, and respect “will be given unto you.” Viewing our teens as beloved disciples, we can model better ways of listening and loving. When necessary, “I’m sorry” can be even more powerful than “I love you.”
Within the safe haven of acceptance and mutual respect, teens can weather their inevitable frustrations with growing maturity, and we can enjoy the reward and privilege of discipling the next generation of godly leaders . . . and future friends.