It might be difficult for some parents to read through, but here’s a top ten list that I’ve been wanting to write for a while. Over the next several days I’ll be expanding on each of these in succession, but for now, here is my top ten mistakes Christian parents of teens make:
10. Not spending time with your teen.
A lot of parents make the mistake of not spending time with their teens because they assume their teens don’t want to spend time with them! While that’s true in some contexts, teens still want and need “chunks” of one-on-one time with parents. Despite the fact that teens are transitioning into more independence and often carry a “I don’t need/want you around” attitude, they are longing for the securing and grounding that comes from consistent quality time.
Going for walks together, grabbing a coffee in order to “catch up,” going to the movies together, etc., all all simple investments that teens secretly want and look forward to. When you don’t carve out time to spend with your teen, you’re communicating that you’re not interested in them, and they internalize that message, consciously or unconsciously.
9. Letting your teen’s activities take top priority for your family.
The number of parents who wrap their lives/schedules around their teen’s activities is mind-boggling to me. I honestly just don’t get it. I know many parents want to provide their children with experiences and opportunities they never had growing up, but something’s gone wrong with our understanding of family and parenting when our teen’s wants/”needs” are allowed to overwhelm the family’s day-to-day routines.
Parents need to prioritize investing in their relationship with God (individually and as a couple), themselves and each other, but sadly all of these are often neglected in the name of “helping the kids get ahead.” “Don’t let the youth sports cartel run your life,” says Jen singer, author of You’re A Good Mom (and Your Kids Aren’t So Bad Either). I can’t think of many good reasons why families can’t limit teens to one major sport/extra-curricular activity per season. Not only will a frenetic schedule slowly grind down your entire family of time, you’ll be teaching your teen that “the good life” is a hyper-active one. That doesn’t align itself to Jesus’ teaching as it relates to the healthy rhythms of prayer, Sabbath, and down-time, all of which are critical to the larger Christian task of “seeking first the kingdom of God and His righteousness” (Matthew 6:33).
8. Spoiling your teen.
We are all tempted to think that loving our kids means doing all we can to ensure they have all the opportunities and things we didn’t have growing up. This is a terrible assumption to make. It leads to an enormous amount of self-important, petty, and ungrateful kids. A lot of the time parents are well-intentioned in our spoiling, but our continual stream of money and stuff causes teens to never be satisfied and always wanting more. Your teen doesn’t need another piece of crap, what he needs is time and attention from you (that’s one expression of spoiling that actually benefits your teen!).
There are two things that can really set you back in life if we get them too early:
a. Access to too much money.
b. Access to too many opportunities.
Parents need to recognize they’re doing their teens a disservice by spoiling them in either of these ways. Save the spoiling for the grandkids.
7. Permissive parenting.
“Whatever” — It’s not just for teens anymore! The devil-may-care ambivalence that once defined the teenage subculture has now taken root as parents shrug their shoulders, ask, “What can you do?” and let their teens “figure things out for themselves.” I think permissive parenting (i.e., providing little direction, limits, and consequences) is on the rise because many parents don’t know how to dialogue with and discipline their children. Maybe parents don’t have any limits of boundaries within their own life, so they don’t know how to communicate the value of these to their teen. Maybe it’s because they don’t want to, because their own self-esteem is too tied up in their child’s perception of them, and they couldn’t handle having their teen get angry at them for actually trying to parent. Maybe it’s because many parents feel so overwhelmed with their own issues, they can hardly think of pouring more energy into a (potentially) taxing struggle or point of contention.
Whatever the reason, permissive parenting is completely irreconcilable with a Christian worldview. I certainly do not advocate authoritarian parenting styles, but if we practice a permission parenting style we’re abdicating our God-given responsibility to provide guidance, nurture, limits, discipline and consequences to our teen (all of which actually help our teen flourish long-term).
6. Trying to be your teen’s best friend.
Your teen doesn’t need another friend (they have plenty); they need a parent. Even through their teens, your child needs a dependable, confident, godly authority figure in their life. As parents we are called to provide a relational context characterized by wisdom, protection, love, support, and empowerment. As Christian parents we’re called to bring God’s flourishing rule into our family’s life. That can’t happen if we’re busy trying to befriend our teen. Trying to be your teen’s friend actually cheats them out of having these things in their lives.
Sometimes parents think that a strong relationship with their teen means having a strong friendship—but there’s a fine line that shouldn’t be crossed. You should be friendly to your teen but you shouldn’t be your teen’s friend. They have lots of friends, they only have one or two parents—so be the parent your teen needs you to be.
5. Holding low expectations for your teen.
Johann Goethe once wrote, “Treat a man as he is and he will remain as he is. Treat as man as he can and should be, and he become as he can and should be.” All of us rise to the unconcious level of expectation we set for ourselves and perceive from others. During the teenage years, it’s especially important to slowly put to death the perception that your teen is still “a kid.” They areemerging leaders, and if you engage them as such, you will find that over time, they unconsciously take on this mantle for themselves. Yes, your teen can be moody, self-absorbed, irresponsible, etc., but your teen can also be brilliant, creative, selfless, and mature. Treating them like “kids” will reinforce the former; treating them as emerging leaders will reinforce the latter.
For an example of how the this difference in perspective plays out, I’ve written an article entitled “The Future of an Illusion” which is available as a free download from http://www.meredisciple.com (in the Free Downloads section). It specifically looks at my commitment to be involved in “emerging church ministry” as opposed to “youth ministry,” and it you may find some principles within it helpful.
4. Not prioritizing youth group/church involvement.
This one is one of my personal pet peeves (but not just because this is my professional gig). I simply do not understand parents who expect and want their kids to have a dynamic, flourishing faith, and yet don’t move heaven and earth to get them connected to both a youth group and local church.
I’m going to let everyone in on a little secret: no teenager can thrive in their faith without these two support mechanisms. I’m not saying a strong youth group and church community is all they need, but what I am saying that you can have everything else you think your teen needs, but without these two things, don’t expect to have a spiritually healthy and mature teen. Maybe there are teens out there who defy this claim, but honestly, I can’t think of one out of my own experience. As a parent, youth group and church involvement should be a non-negotiable part of your teen’s life, and that means they take priority over homework (do it the night before), sports, or any other extra-curricular commitments.
Don’t be the parent who is soft on these two commitments, but pushes their kid in schooling, sports, etc. In general, what you sow into determines what you reap; if you want to reap a teenager who has a genuine, flourishing faith, don’t expect that to happen if you’re ok with their commitment to youth group/church to be casual and half-hearted.
3. Outsourcing your teen’s spiritual formation.
While youth group and church is very important, another mistake I see Christian parents make is assuming them can completely outsource the spiritual development of their child to these two things. I see the same pattern when it comes to Christian education: parents sometimes choose to send their children/teens to Christian schools, because by doing so they think they’ve done their parental duty to raise their child in a godly way.
As a parent–and especially if you are a Christian yourself–YOU are THE key spiritual role model and mentor for your teen. And that isn’t “if you want to be” either–that’s the way it is. Ultimately, you are charged with teaching and modelling to your teen what follow Jesus means, and while church, youth groups, Christian schools can be a support to that end, they are only that: support mechanisms.
Read Deuteronomy 6 for an overview of what God expects from parents as it relates to the spiritual nurture and development of their children. (Hint: it’s doesn’t say, “Hand them off to the youth pastor and bring them to church on Sunday.”)
2. Not expressing genuine love and like to your teen.
It’s sad that I have to write this one at all, but I’m convinced very few Christian parents actually express genuine love and “like” to their teen. It can become easy for parents to only see how their teen is irresponsible, failing, immature, etc., and become a harping voice instead of an encouraging, empowering one.
Do you intentially set aside time to tell your teen how much you love and admire them? Do you write letters of encouragement to them? Do you have “date nights” where you spend time together and share with them the things you see in them that you are proud of?
Your teen won’t ask you for it, so don’t wait for an invitation. Everyday say something encouraging to your teen that builds them up (they get enough criticism as it is!). Pray everyday for them and ask God to help you become one of the core people in your teen’s life that He uses to affirm them.
1. Expecting your teen to have a devotion to God that you are not
cultivating within yourself.
When I talk to Christian parents, it’s obvious that they want their teen to have a thriving, dynamic, genuine, life-giving faith. What isn’t so clear, however, is whether that parent has onethemselves. When it comes to the Christian faith, most of the time what we learn is caught and not taught. This means that even if you have the “right answers” as a parent, if you’re own spiritual walk with God is pathetic and stilted, your teen will unconciously follow suit. Every day you are teaching your teach (explicitely and implicitely) what discipleship to Jesus looks like “in the flesh.”
What are they catching from you? Are you cultivating a deep and mature relationship with God personally, or is your Christian parenting style a Christianized version of “do as I say, not as I do”?
While having a healthy and maturing discipleship walk as a parent does not garauntee your teen will follow in your footsteps, expecting your teen to have a maturing faith while you follow Jesus “from a distance” is an enormous mistake.
You are a Christian before you are a Christian parent (or any other role). Get real with God, share your own struggles and hypocrisy with your entire family, and maybe then God will begin to use your example in a positive and powerful way.
To order a copy of Mere Disciple: a spiritual guide for emerging leaders, click here.