I can’t tell you how often I hear from parents of elementary age children or younger (babies even) how fearful they are for the teen years ahead. I get it. In today’s selfie world of cell phones and social media what we experienced growing up is intensified for our teens. So it is daunting to consider what they may be faced with and how to help them navigate through it. But it is also a huge opportunity.
An opportunity is how I chose to view it way back when I was a young mom and first read Paul Tripp’s book Age of Opportunity. At that time my husband was a family pastor leading a group of parents of teens through the book and I joined in. I’ve read it several times since then, but from the get-go what I carried away is I can either dread the years ahead or approach them as an opportunity to significantly shape their lives.
Instead of living in fear and dreading what might be, this idea of opportunity has enabled me to press on through the turbulent times with a grander perspective in mind. I think of my daughter’s battle with an eating disorder and while I wouldn’t wish anyone to go through it I see God’s goodness in it to shape and grow her (and me). It was an opportunity; to see it that way was not easy.
As believers we are called to shift our eyes from the here and now to the hope of what’s to come. It’s no different with parenting. We must look beyond the peace, fun or ease we long for today, and set our treasure on something far greater for them and us. So whether you are standing at the cusp of middle school or still in the diaper days, don’t wait to adopt this opportunity mindset. There are many practical everyday things parents of younger kids can do to lay the groundwork for the teen years ahead.
Of course, our tendency is to think if we just follow the right steps everything will work out how we want, but that is just not true. We can do everything right, or nothing right – ultimately God is the one ruling and reigning over the lives of our children, and ours. So I hesitantly give you eight things to be mindful of now, but hope you will put your trust in him and not in your own “work” as a parent.
- Create categories for understanding their heart. Talk about sin as idolatry- whatever rules their hearts is what they functionally look to for “life” instead of God. Even if your child is too young to understand, remember teaching precedes understanding. If they already know the terminology and have been trained to think deeper about what is going on in their hearts, the conversations will naturally go deeper as they grow older.
- Live redemptively in your home. This means owning up to your own sin instead of hiding it, dismissing it or justifying it. Let your kids hear you confess and ask for forgiveness. Tell them how unlike Jesus you are, which is why we need him. When they know mom and dad need a Savior, it will help them see their own need to live dependently on Jesus.
- Shepherd hearts rather than police behavior. If you’re only concerned about having an outwardly well-behaved kid and punish/address the external behavior without going under the surface to see what is driving the behavior, you will simply put band-aids on the real issue. By the time they become teens they may master the art of “appearing” godly, but their heart may be far from him. So you’ve got to deal with the root sin (the idolatry) of what is controlling their heart to lead them in deeper dependence on Jesus.
- Seek to understand and love them for who they are rather than conform them to who you want them to be. Sometimes when our children have different personalities or interests than ours we try to push upon them the way we do things, or our hobbies. Without meaning to this can make them feel shame for not measuring up to your standard or for being more like their sibling. If they do have similar interests, do not make them feel like they are in competition to your previous successes. Their performance is not why you love them, but if they grow up thinking it is the idol of performance and perfection can drive them to despair as teenagers.
- Learn to say NO! Your child does not need everything he/she asks for. They also don’t need to do what everyone else is doing, or to be constantly entertained. Teach your children discipline. Allow them unscheduled time to be creative. And impress upon them an attitude of gratitude. You do not want entitled teenagers. But if you don’t ever tell them no, they will grow up to expect to be catered to.
- Slow down. Your kids will want to be older than they are, but they will get there sooner than you want (and sooner than they actually want too as our college daughter discovered). There is no need to overload the activities and enter the competitive sports world too young. They will burn out. You will be too busy. And you will miss out on time you will never regain. You control the schedule; don’t let their schedule rule you because once you start it is really hard to go back.
- Prioritize family time. This seems obvious, but as kids get older the more friends and activities do take over. Easily every family member can be going in all different directions. So work now to make home a safe haven and a fun place they want to be with you and their siblings. It is the family relationships that carry on with them for all of life. Again it’s okay (and necessary at times) to buck what everyone else is doing to protect your time for family and church.
- Identify with them. If you want your kids to talk (really talk) when they are teenagers, you’ve got to start now. Pay attention. Ask probing questions. Put your device down. Cut short the lecture. Most importantly when they share their sin, don’t act shocked. Reassure them of your love, identify with them in their struggles and be willing to walk the hard road with them. And always remind them who Jesus is for them is who they are.
Remember none of this is a prescription, but comes from what I’ve learned. And one thing I’ve learned is we are all in the same boat, growing in grace together.