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Bugs and Butterflies

Somewhere along the pathway of parenthood I got knocked off my parental pedestal. I don’t remember the exact age of my oldest son when it first happened, but one day I suddenly realized that I was no longer the know-all, do-anything hero figure I once had been in his eyes. In fact, he knew more than I did about some things and he seemed to enjoy gibing me about my shortcomings. I suspect that my fall occurred somewhat earlier with my succeeding children due to his influence around the house.

What happened? Did I change? No, I don’t think so--at least not for the worse. If anything, I probably matured a little. Well, then, did he change? Not necessarily. He just began to develop the ability to see things as they really were. You see, two of the ferocious features of the species called “adolescent” are a keen sense of perception and brutal honesty, often to a parent’s chagrin.

I have noticed something else about my teenagers. They are subject to extreme variations of energy and temperament for no apparent reason. They have sudden bursts of limitless vigor, as when playing touch football with their friends. But at other times they seem to be too tired to get off the couch and go to bed. Sometimes they astound us with their maturity and insight, while on other occasions we are dumbfounded at their childishness and foolishness. The experts tell us that these fluctuations are caused by the momentous changes taking place in their bodies and are perfectly normal. That might help us keep calm, if only we could remember it when they are acting in an emotional and illogical manner, or giving us static about something we want them to do.

But the fact remains, there are moments when we are enjoying the company of a delightful adult and other times when we are tolerating the antics of a selfish child, and it’s the same bundle of bones and chromosomes. The whole bizarre phenomenon reminds me of one of nature’s most magnificent transformations--the metamorphosis of a crawling caterpillar into a gorgeous butterfly. And some days our kids seem to resemble the bug more than the butterfly. Actually, they are neither children nor adults. They oscillate between the two, groping to establish their identity. We can help them immeasurably by viewing them not as struggling children but as emerging young adults.

The Model Parent endures something much like the teen years with us. Who of us would not admit to periodic lapses into childishness along our road to spiritual maturity? The most mature Christians will honestly acknowledge that they still have moments of stubborn selfishness. Yet God patiently and lovingly encourages us to keep on growing toward the likeness of his Son (2 Pet. 3:18). And he views us in the light of what we someday shall become by his power and grace (e.g. Phil. 3:20-21; 1 John 3:2). That assurance is a great motivating influence in our spiritual progress. If we want to bring our teens to maturity in the Lord, we will let God give us his attitude of encouragement and expectancy in place of our attitude of consternation and condemnation. And the teen years will not be a burden to dread but a blessing to anticipate. We shall look forward to them with the bright hope that our teens will emerge as beautifully mature adults.

Even with our attitudes properly adjusted, however, we need to be reminded of some principles that will help us guide our teens successfully through these difficult years. I say remind because we already know what to do. If we have been functioning to this point as God’s Word outlines, very little will change. The example we have set will be as important as ever. The love we show, while becoming less physical in its expression, will continually be given in large doses. The warm relationship we have established and continue to nurture will help keep that infamous generation gap from splitting wide open. The discipline we have maintained, while offering wider freedom and greater responsibility than previously, will continue to be a necessary part of their training. We will keep implanting the Word of God into their minds to provide direction through life and delight in living. In other words, we began to lay the foundation for these years from the day our children were born, and we keep building on that foundation now that they are teens.

Some folks have asked me what they should do when they assume the guardianship of teenagers, such as foster children or relatives, and have not had the benefit of providing all that early training themselves. The only possible answer I know is to begin where they are and follow the principles of the Word with them. If you find yourself in that situation, this letter from just such a woman may reassure you.

When we were in our early twenties the Lord sent us sixteen-year-old Sharon, juvenile hall runaway. We had no special insight nor experience. We were forced to use God’s love and Word. A few months later, the Lord sent sixteen-year-old Robin to us. We used the same tools. Five years later came sixteen-year-old Gwen and twelve-year-old Ron. There were times when we were sure things weren’t going to work, but as we went to the Word we were encouraged to continue.

We couldn’t start at point A as we did with our three natural children, so we began with them right where they were. All four have received Christ. Two are now married. One is preparing for Christian service. We’ve seen their personalities transformed by the power of Christ and today they are beautiful sojourners, waiting and watching for their Lord. It works!

With that helpful word, we are ready to be reminded of some matters that need to be emphasized when dealing with teens. For one thing, we must keep the lines of communication open. One of the most common complaints of teens against their parents is, “My folks don’t understand me.” Communication is more than talking. It is understanding the other person’s ideas and feelings, and accepting his right to believe and feel the way he does. Acceptance does not necessarily mean agreeing with all his opinions nor approving of all his emotional expressions. But it does mean accepting him even if his opinions differ from ours, and respecting his right to feel that way.

This is one of the hardest things for parents to do. When our kids have different ideas from ours, we conclude that if they are right, we must be wrong. And for them to imply that we are wrong is to attack our intelligence and self-esteem. So we fight back and angrily defend our opinions. And if we don’t have the facts to support our point of view, we try ploys like, “Look, I’m older than you, I know what I’m talking about, and that’s the way it is. The sooner you admit it, the better off you’ll be.” And zap! All communication is cut off.

Our tactic has implied that our teen is immature and stupid, that his ideas are vastly inferior to ours, and that the only real basis for communication is his conformity to our viewpoint. It will be a long time before he subjects himself to that kind of insolence again. How much better it would be to say calmly and kindly something like, “Yes, I can understand why you feel that way. But let me share a few other thoughts for you to consider as you work this thing through in your mind.”

Sometimes our teen’s announcement of what the kids at school are saying or doing, or what he himself has done or would like to do, is met with shock, anger, or a tedious lecture. Plain old common sense tells him how to avoid that kind of unpleasantness--simply by keeping his mouth shut. On other occasions we find ourselves rattling off our preconceived and prejudicial opinions without ever hearing him out or trying to understand exactly what he has said. He doesn’t have to be very brilliant to figure out that we are not really interested in what he thinks, only in what we think. Soon he’ll stop sharing what he thinks.

God has some good advice in this area of communication for parents of teenagers. From the Old Testament comes this profound pronouncement: “He who gives an answer before he hears, it is folly and shame to him” (Prov. 18:13, NASB). Parents, we must learn to control our mouth muscles while we sharpen up our auditory nerves.

The Apostle James added his inspired advice. “My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry” (James 1:19, NIV). Nothing destroys our teenagers’ respect for us faster (and builds more tension or breeds more rebellion) than our quick-triggered, angry reactions. We can expect a certain amount of argument and disagreement from them. They are trying to find themselves, trying to discover who they are, and what they can or cannot do. But when we lose our temper, they know that they are stronger than we are. They discover, if they never realized it before, that they have the power to control our emotions, and the fight is on! We must learn to listen with both ears open, patiently, calmly, attentively, acceptingly, and understandingly.

Understanding does not mean soft sentimentality, however. We will still state our opinions and the reasons for them, but we will do it lovingly. We will still forbid disrespectful back talk, but not with an impulsive slap and an indignant “Don’t you talk to me that way.” Instead we will explain that we understand how they feel, but we must insist that they learn to express their feelings courteously. Their unwillingness to comply will result in denial of privileges or other forms of correction, administered firmly but lovingly. We will still expect compliance with the rules and family routines we believe are proper, but it will be with the growing desire to increase their freedom and personal responsibility.

That need for greater independence brings us to the second general principle. We must treat our teens with respect. We owe them that from their earliest days, but it takes on a new complexion as the teen years blossom. Another common complaint teenagers make against their parents is, “My folks treat me like a child.” That accusation is often founded in a parent’s basic lack of respect for his budding young adult, and this too can sow the seeds of rebellion.

Lack of respect may come to the surface in a variety of ways. For example, parents may refuse to allow their teen the freedom to make decisions for himself. From minor issues such as which clothes to buy, to major matters like what college to attend, parents sometimes force their desires on their young person. God gave him a mind, and we should respect his right to use it to find God’s will for his life, rather than forcing him into our mold. Of course we will offer scriptural advice when he is tempted to move away from the plan God has clearly revealed in his Word, but we will seek God’s wisdom to know when to speak and when to be silent.

Another indication that respect may be lacking is parental ridicule of adolescent awkwardness or physical peculiarities. It isn’t his fault that his voice cracks or that his face is covered with pimples. Those telltale signs of his incomplete development haunt him enough without our magnifying them. A word of encouragement or some constructive advice would be far more fitting.

Sometimes we have a tendency to laugh at the problems which he considers important, like the ups and downs of his love life or the disagreement he’s had with his friends. Maybe they do seem a little trivial to us, but a sincere respect for him would help us look at the problem through his eyes and sympathize with him. We often forget how important those same problems were to us when we were his age. All we seem to remember about our youth are the things that help us prove our point. “When I was your age I never . . .” And almost every parent has finished that sentence in a variety of ways. Don’t do it! It really doesn’t matter what we did or didn’t do when we were his age. Times have changed, and we need to respect our young people for who they are in this day and time.

There are a number of positive steps we can take to show them our respect. We will keep the confidences they share with us. Divulging them to our friends often has a way of coming back to haunt us. We will respect their privacy, knocking before entering their rooms and keeping our noses out of their personal belongings. We may want to ask their advice about something, especially when they know more than we do about it. I asked my teenagers’ opinion of this chapter before I tried it out on anybody else. We may want to take them into our confidence to show them how much we value their friendship. And we will trust them to the limit of what our Lord will permit us.

That matter of trust raises a difficult point. There will be times when our prayerful judgment will demand that we pull in the reins and say “no” to something they want to do. It may be an overnight with a family we do not know, or a trip with some guys of questionable character, or an amusement of doubtful moral implications. But we have no peace about allowing it. The first maneuver of our insistent offspring will probably be, “Don’t you trust me?” How do we deal with that?

The answer to that question may be something like, “Yes, we trust you to the limits of your ability to resist temptation. But if we have any reason to suspect that a situation may apply more pressure than you can withstand at your present level of spiritual strength, then we have an obligation to God to keep you from it.” You see, trust is a mutual thing. We must have a growing trust in them and in their desire to please the Lord when away from our watchful eye. But they in turn must trust our desire to do what is best for them in questionable circumstances. One without the other is unfair.

And this leads us to our final principle. We must provide biblical reasons for our standards. There are so many doubtful things in our dirty world. How do we decide what we will allow and what we will not allow in matters such as movies, music, dancing, fashions, hair, and friends?

It is vital to recognize that we live in a changing world. While God doesn’t change and his eternal principles remain constant, the application of those principles may vary from age to age and from culture to culture. We need to be willing to reexamine and reevaluate our value systems. Too often we demand that our young people submit to our inflexible rules just because we have traditionally followed them. There may be no solid biblical support for some of those standards, but we rigidly impose them upon our teens anyway. And it has been shown to incite a spirit of rebellion in some of them.

Some parents tell their youth they cannot do certain things because “Christians don’t do that,” or “Our church doesn’t believe in that.” But the kids know better. They know that some Christians are doing those things, maybe even some in their own church, and they see the fallacy of our reasoning. But when young people have biblical grounds for the standards set for them and they see a consistent example in our lives, they will be more likely to maintain those values when they are free from our authority, and not indiscriminately taste everything the world has to offer.

Here then are four biblical suggestions for deciding doubtful things. The first is the principle of liberty, that is, freedom from anything that might bring us under its power. The Apostle Paul wrote, “All things are lawful for me, but I will not be mastered by anything” (l Cor. 6:12b, NASB). Any enslaving habit, anything we find that we must have or must do, which we cannot easily give up when we want to, is not acceptable behavior for a Christian. We cannot be controlled by the Holy Spirit and by the things of the world at the same time. And we parents must set the pace. A parent who tells his teen not to drink or smoke while he himself indulges is in for trouble.

The second principle is that of love. True Christ-like love lives for the benefit of its object rather than itself. Since believers are exhorted to love one another (John 13:34), it follows that we ought to live for each other’s advantage. “Let’s please the other fellow, not ourselves, and do what is for his good and thus build him up in the Lord” (Rom. 15:2, TLB).

The Apostle Paul personally felt at liberty to eat meat that had been dedicated to idols. After all, the idol meant nothing to him. But he denied himself that privilege lest a weaker Christian for whom it would be idol worship follow his example and fall into sin. We are not faced with the problem of meat offered to idols, but there are other things we might personally feel free to do that could lead a weaker Christian into sin. “Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak” (1 Cor. 8:9, NIV).

The third principle is that of edification. “All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful, but not all things edify” (1 Cor. 10:23, NASB). Not everything we feel we can do will make a worthwhile and strengthening contribution to our physical or spiritual lives. It may be harmful to our bodies which are the temples of the Holy Spirit. But even if it doesn’t actually harm us, it may monopolize time, waste money, and dissipate energies that should be more profitably invested elsewhere. God knows that we all need diversionary recreational and relaxing activities to be at our best for him. And every believer has to apply this principle to his own life individually by the direction of God’s Spirit. But parents have a responsibility to give their teens some godly guidance in employing it, both by instruction and by dedicated example.

The fourth principle is that of exaltation. God says we belong to him, and everything we do should show off his goodness, glory, and grace. “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31, NIV). Our manner of life should say to those around us, “See how wonderful my God is--how holy, how loving, how gracious, and how kind!”

This is a high level of living to attain. But how can we do less than grow toward it for a God who has forgiven our sins, freely given us eternal life, and come to dwell within us. “Haven’t you yet learned that your body is the home of the Holy Spirit God gave you, and that he lives within you? Your own body does not belong to you. For God has bought you with a great price. So use every part of your body to give glory back to God, because he owns it” (1 Cor. 6:19-20, TLB).

When Young People Go Astray

In spite of our best efforts, there may be instances when a young person insists on defying our authority and going his own way. The promise of Proverbs 22:6 is inviolable, but there are some critical years between the time we train the child “in the way he should go” and the time “when he is old.” Satan is going to dangle the enticements of the world and the flesh before him during those years and make sin just as attractive as he possibly can.

Jesus told a famous story about a wayward son and it provides some practical help for parents who face that crisis in their homes (Luke 15:11-32). It is important to note in Christ’s parable of the prodigal son that the father did not forcibly restrain his son from leaving home. While younger children can be dissuaded from running away, there comes a time in the life of an older adolescent when physical force will not prevail. If your child has determined to give his life to debauchery and degradation, he is going to find the opportunity to do it one way or another. So let him go. Let him make it on his own. As long as he lives under your roof you are financing his rebellion, and that isn’t helping him at all. You should sit down with him, calmly point out the pitfalls of his choice, and lovingly warn him that God will deal with him as a son. But if he persists in his course of sinful self-will, there is no point in trying to stop him.

Notice secondly in the parable that the father let his son bear full responsibility for his actions. He didn’t take the blame personally and he didn’t run to bail him out of his scrape. Not one of us will be an absolutely perfect parent, but God doesn’t want us to torture ourselves with guilt over the way we have raised our child. He wants us to acknowledge our failures and enjoy his gracious forgiveness (1 John 1:9). In spite of our parental shortcomings, our child must answer to God for his own actions. He cannot blame his parents for his decisions. If he chooses the path of sin, he does it of his own volition and he must live with the consequences of his choice. “Yes, each of us will give an account of himself to God” (Rom. 14:12, TLB).

Notice thirdly that when his son repented, the father welcomed him home with true forgiveness. There was no attempt to shame him nor belittle him, just a genuine expression of love and concern for his well-being. When our wayward one gives evidence of repentance, we too need to forgive and welcome him home. And with true forgiveness, we will not try to make him suffer for the embarrassment and heartache he caused us with questions like “How could you do this to your mother and me after all we’ve done for you?” We cannot condone his sin, but we must show him that he is more important to us than our feelings or our reputation. Such forgiving love is more than the world can offer and may be used of God to bring some unbelieving onlooker to himself. If that should happen, those agonizing days, or years, will culminate in two-fold joy--the joy of our child being restored to us and the joy of a new child being born into God’s family.

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