Chapter OneGood News:
There's a Teenager in
It is time for us to reject the wholesale cynicism
of our culture regarding adolescence. Rather than
years of undirected and unproductive struggle,
these are years of unprecedented opportunity .
These are the years of penetrating questions,
the years of wonderful discussions never before
possible. These are the years of failure and
struggle that put the teen's true heart on the
table. These are the years of daily ministry and of
-PAUL DAVID TRIPP IN AGE OF OPPORTUNITY
When I got to the point where I had been given
all I could humanly handle, I never once doubted
that God in his grace would give me all I needed
to continue on and handle whatever was to come.
-MOTHER OF A TEENAGE SON LOCKED IN THE STRUGGLES OF ADOLESCENCE
It's a commonly held notion that raising or ministering to teenagers
is always difficult. I'm here to tell you that for me, it's been
an incredible ride marked by some amazing ups and a few challenging
downs. I spent the first 16 years of my adult life working
with teenagers in a variety of youth ministry positions. I've spent
the last 17 years studying teenagers, their lives, and their culture.
In the midst of all that, I've spent 23 years raising four kids of
my own. Three have already passed through their teenage years.
One's still smack dab in the midst of adolescence.
For the most part, my incredible ride's been marked by amazing
sights and scenery that have put a big smile on my face. Teenagers
are lots of fun, and mine have brought great joy to my heart.
But there have been some periods during my journey-periods
that have coincided with my own kids' adolescent years-that
have been quite bumpy. When I look in the rearview mirror and
see the years that have flown by far too quickly, I see there have
been times when I've missed a turn, fallen asleep at the wheel, or
even wrecked altogether. There have been times when my kids
have done the same. But through it all and by the grace of God,
I've never once regretted the ride or wished I'd never set out on the
journey in the first place. Whether you're a parent of or someone
working with teenagers, I hope that when all is said and done, it's
the same for you.
But let's face the truth: We're adults; they're teenagers. Although
we may share a roof and DNA, a cultural-generational gap
will exist. And if adults don't make an effort to love teenagers by
working to close that gap, it will only continue to widen. What
should parents do when they experience the highs and lows of
parenting in a rapidly changing world? What should youth workers
and others in relationships with teenagers do to close the gap and
become more effective at fulfilling their unique callings? How can
we avoid being overwhelmed by the normal feelings of confusion,
frustration, and misunderstanding that go with the teenage years?
Is there anything constant we can grasp? Yes, there is.
Finding Your Way Through the Maze of
Our search and experience has yielded some distinct patterns and
approaches consistently present when parents and youth workers
and the teenagers they love have worked together well to find their
way through the maze of contemporary adolescence. As you read
through the remainder of this book, I trust you'll understand even
more the unique pressures, problems, choices, and issues facing
our teenagers in today's fast-paced and rapidly changing world. In
order to be prepared to respond to these issues in a hope-filled, positive,
compassionate, and productive manner, it's important that
you understand and embrace several truths for yourself and your
family and your youth ministry. I know from experience that if you
take them to heart, they can radically transform your life and the
way you approach the valuable years you spend with your kids.
Kids Are God's Gifts to Us
Our widespread cultural cynicism regarding teenagers and these
exciting years of their lives is unjustified and must cease. The
psalmist writes, "Don't you see that kids are God's best gift? The
fruit of the womb his generous legacy? Like a warrior's fistful of
arrows are the kids of a vigorous youth. Oh, how blessed are you
parents, with your quivers full of kids!" (Psalm 127:3-5, The Message).
It's a big mistake to think of kids as liabilities; they're rewards
from God, given to us as a sign of God's favor. Because God
values them so highly, so must we. They're not inconveniences or
nuisances-whether they're in your home or in your youth room.
Even during difficult times, the kids God's given me as gifts remain
No One Ever Said It'd Be Easy
I learned a shocking lesson shortly after Caitlin's birth, and I've
been relearning it ever since. No matter how much time and effort
I put into preparing for parenthood, there will always be surprises.
Some of those surprises can seem paralyzing. Raising and relating
to kids is difficult for everyone, and it tends to become more so as
kids reach the teenage years. The situation grows more complex
for parents who raise more than one child since each child brings
a unique personality and set of experiences.
Each of us will experience highs and lows, jolts and joys, thrills
and spills. If you're struggling as a parent, rest assured you're not
alone. I've made efforts, but I've also made mistakes, struggled
with feelings of inadequacy, and grappled with rebellion in my
kids. I've known sickening dread, sleepless nights, rage, bitterness,
frustration, shame, futile hopes being shattered, and the battle between
tenderness and contempt. (If you're a youth worker, you
know a bit about this, too!)
If you've raised a teenager and been totally spared all of these
experiences, it's only by the grace of God. The reality is that it's
not easy. But we can approach our parenting as a glorious challenge
and opportunity. Dr. Paul Tripp reminds us that "the teenage
years are often cataclysmic years of conflict, struggle, and grief.
They are years of new temptations, of trial and testing. Yet these
very struggles, conflicts, trials and tests are what produce such
wonderful parental opportunities."
There Are No Perfect Kids . or Parents . or Youth Workers
The root of problems in our families and homes and youth ministries
is the sinful, selfish nature of kids and adults. It can be difficult
to coexist peacefully. Parents must strive to raise healthy,
well-adjusted kids. But it's unrealistic to expect perfect kids and
perfect families. To embrace such expectations only burdens parents
and their kids with never "measuring up."
We must never forget that we're all imperfect, finite beings
touched by sin and incapable of perfection-not with our parenting,
our ministries, or our homes.
The World Is More Than Happy to Raise
Our Kids for Us
In recent years, adolescents have had fewer opportunities for times
of interaction and communication with their parents and other
adults. Many families have experienced divorce; and in those families
where Mom and Dad still live together, members get busier all
the time thanks to schedules full of meetings, activities, clubs, and
sports. The other extreme is also occurring in a growing number of
families, where members may all be at home in the evenings, but
everyone retreats to the "aloneness" of their own rooms to interact
"solo" with the TV, computer, or any number of media outlets that
fill their personal spaces.
All of these factors keep families from eating together on a
regular basis, and these realities have certainly contributed to the
fact that when teenagers need advice, they're more likely to turn
first to a friend (55 percent), followed by Mom (44 percent), a
boyfriend or girlfriend (23 percent), and then Dad (20 percent).
When push comes to shove, American dads and moms are devoting
less time to bringing up their sons and daughters, thereby allowing
someone or something else to raise their kids for them.
As a result of his research on the lives of mid-adolescents
(ages 14 to 18), Chap Clark concludes "many if not most mid-adolescents
have been set adrift by parental and familial authorities,
and they are operating as if they are on their own." This sad
reality has been developing for years. Back in the early 1990s, I
attended a presentation on a new reading program at our local elementary
school. While I applauded our school district's efforts in
teaching kids to read, I was concerned about the social problems
it cited for the existence of the program known as HOTS (Higher
Order Thinking Skills). The goal of HOTS is to help kids who consistently
fall behind at school learn how to think for themselves
through the use of computers and "controlled floundering." Dr.
Stanley Pogrow, the founder, explains: "Traditionally, we learn to
think by sitting around the table, being questioned by parents, and
talking as a family. Today, who has time for sit-down meals? Yet,
this critical stage of development cannot be bypassed . So what is
the solution? . Bring dinner table conversation to school. That's
what HOTS does!"
Sadly, the HOTS program exists to fill a void left by parents
who no longer see the importance of spending time together as
a family. When parents give up these responsibilities, no matter
what the age(s) of their kids, others-by default-take over. In
today's rapidly changing youth culture, we hand over the parenting
reins to a variety of institutions, including the school, church,
media, advertising, coaches, and so on. Sure, some of these institutions
are well intentioned and they really do care for kids. But
they can never replace the role parents must play in the lives of
In the same way God gives parents the gift of kids, he gives
kids the gift of parents who will love and nurture them. Scripture
clearly states that parents are to exercise their parental responsibilities
by spending time with their kids, and that includes
teaching them God's will and way (Deuteronomy 6:6-7). Raising
teenagers requires a diligent and unwavering investment of all our
resources. And lest parents should fall into the trap of thinking
teenagers don't want their investment of time, guidance, and direction-they
should think again. Teenagers can be viewed as distinct
lumps of clay that God has entrusted us with, and he has an
individual plan for each one. Like the lumps of clay spinning on a
potter's wheel, no two start out alike. And by the time the potter is
finished, each will become a unique cup, vase, plate, pot, or bowl.
I've had the privilege of watching my own four lumps of clay
grow and take their unique shapes over the years. When they were
little, I wondered what they'd end up like when all was said and
done. Yet, in the midst of that wondering, I knew God had chosen
my wife and me to be stewards of this sacred trust. As parents,
we have the awesome task of cooperating with God to mold and
shape those lumps under his guidance.
A potter is committed to shaping that lump of clay. If she
makes a mistake, she reworks the clay, rather than giving up on
it. What would happen to the clay if the potter decided she didn't
want to work with it any more and suddenly threw it out the window?
Its destiny would vary, depending on where it landed. It
could land in the street and be run over, flattened and forgotten.
It could land in the grass, only to be pounded and eroded by the
elements. It could bake in the sun until all of its pliable properties
disappeared. Dried and hardened, it could never be worked again.
All too often, teenagers meet such fates due to parental neglect.
It's as if they've been thrown out the window and left to whatever
fate befalls them. I know this is true because I've met far too many
of these abandoned lumps of clay over the years.
But when the potter keeps the clay in her hands, working and
reworking it with tender care, it eventually turns into a beautiful
and unique piece of pottery. So it should be with our kids. They
must grow up knowing Mom and Dad are loving, hands-on kind of
people who eagerly fulfill their God-given responsibilities to raise
Any Kid, Anywhere, Anytime
During a youth culture seminar I was leading a few years back,
I made an effort to help parents and youth workers see that a
variety of factors combine in our world to make the voice of the
culture far more compelling and attractive to kids. I told them it
doesn't matter where they live, whom they live with, or what kind
of school they go to. Any kid living anywhere can be influenced by
the negative and dangerous aspects of our culture at any time. No
church, school, family, or child is immune. To my surprise, many
in the audience protested this message and refused to believe it
In November 2005, a friend called me to ask what role, if any,
the Center for Parent Youth Understanding was playing in the
unfolding story of a double murder that had occurred on a quiet
Sunday morning in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. A local 18-year-old
had allegedly shot and killed the parents of his 14-year-old
girlfriend. Then the pair took off to get married and start a new
life, only to be caught a day later in Indiana. The story was loaded
with the kind of dramatic twists and turns that make news producers
and networks drool. They told the story over and over in typical
soap opera fashion: a forbidden love affair, a double murder,
a kidnapping, access to the kids through their online blogs, their
"religious" backgrounds, a multistate manhunt, and their history
as homeschooled kids. Nonstop news network coverage featured
the "expert" pontificators speculating, as usual, in a manner that
told the story long before the story was even known.
"We're not involved," I replied.
"Well, what do you think of it all?" he asked.
I answered, "Sad, but not surprising." I didn't know the families,
nor did I know enough about their backgrounds to make comments
on the tragedy. However, this situation and the specifics
as we knew them prompted some thoughts that have continued
to evolve as I study the Scriptures and observe our Christian subculture.
For years we've been challenging Christian parents to
stay in touch with teenagers and their world. To believe our faith
somehow insulates them from the realities of the world is both
pragmatically and theologically wrong. Like it or not, we live in
the culture and that culture influences and affects us all. There's
no escaping it. And there isn't supposed to be a way out. Like it
or not, God doesn't want us circling the wagons or living in some
kind of a bubble in an effort to keep ourselves pure. Jesus prayed
the will of the Father the night before his death-that his disciples
in all times and in all places would be in the world (living as salt
and light) while not living as though they're of the world (John 17).
That's not only how we should be living, but it's how we should be
preparing our students to live every day of their lives.
Believe it or not, to assume you've somehow made kids immune
to the influence of culture just by shielding them from culture
might just produce the opposite effect. In other words, by not
preparing them to engage the culture with minds and hearts saturated
by a biblical world- and life view, we actually make them
more vulnerable to the negative cultural forces they face both now
and for the rest of their lives. Both we (parents and youth workers)
and our kids need to be wise to the Scriptures and streetwise about
our culture. Just like he did with his son Jesus, God has made us
all particular types of people who do his particular work in the
particular time and place where he's placed us.
Over the years I've been questioned by a growing number
of pastors and youth workers who are dealing with a segment of
Christians who resist this approach and even believe it's morally,
ethically, and biblically wrong. Sorry, I don't see it. I feel even
more sorry for their kids. I love what theologian John Stott says
about every Christian's call to become a double-listener: "Christian
witnesses stand between the Word and the world, with the
consequent obligation to listen to both. We listen to the Word in
order to discover ever more of the riches of Christ. And we listen
to the world in order to discern which of Christ's riches are needed
most and how to present them in their best light."
This is our calling as parents and youth workers, and, consequently,
it's also the calling of our kids. When it comes to teenagers
and their culture, what we don't know (or don't want to know
or refuse to know) can hurt them.
They Long for God
Blaise Pascal described a universal hole in the soul as a God-shaped
vacuum. Alister McGrath describes Pascal's model as "a
God-shaped emptiness within us, which only God can fill. We may
try to fill it in other ways and with other things. Yet one of the few
certainties of life is that nothing in this world satisfies our longing
for something that is ultimately beyond this world."