Although I was not raised in a Christian home, I was raised by grandparents who loved me and desired the best for me. They sacrificed greatly in order to provide a stable environment and material well-being. They modeled and expected me to work hard, get good grades, primarily so I could get a good job, spend wisely and be a decent person.
For the most part, I lived up to those expectations. However achieving success in those areas did not provide what I really needed, a relationship with God. Instead, they drove me further from God by causing me to rely on myself.
Based on my personal experience and many years working with teens I have observed that teens are generally inclined to conform to the expectations of their parents. Because the goals we set can be so influential it is crucial that our expectations are shaped by God’s Word and not the world around us.
Some parents have the expectation that teenage defiance is just a fact of life. The caricature of teenage rebellion is ubiquitous in our culture. These parents assume the teenage years are going to be difficult and they just hope to weather the storm. These parents may feel like giving up, and would rather just get along with their teen than disciple them. This hands-off parenting style is effectively critiqued in the film “Rebel Without a Cause”. The reason the main character (Jim, played by James Dean) does not have a cause, is the failure of his parents, particularly his father, to guide him.
Other parents may demand perfection, expecting teens to excel academically, athletically or artistically. They are more likely to respond in anger or frustration when their teens struggle. This type of parenting may stem from pride. A desire to be respected by our peers because of the success of our child. Certainly, it is not wrong to desire for your child to be successful. However, that success should be for the furtherance of God’s glory, not theirs and not our own.
Others have expectations similar to my grandparents. Good grades, good job, etc. Again, nothing wrong with those things, but is that what God really wants from our children?
When it comes to our goals for our teens, the most important question to consider is, “What does God expect?”. The answer is not elusive. It is the same for teens as it is for us. Although the Bible has something to tell us about the experiences of teenagers, the Bible does not treat teenagers as a special category.
We have one account of Jesus as a pre-teen where he is found in the temple listening and asking questions, then his teenage years are summed up in Luke 2:52, “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man.”
In Colossians 1:28–29 Paul explains his life mission is to see believers grow in maturity. Peter sums it up this way in 2 Peter 3:18 “But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen.” Spiritual growth is a process which starts the moment we are regenerated and continues our entire life. There is no pause for the teen years. In Proverbs 23:15–28 a father provides some practical advice for his son. He warns about the dangers of the envy of sinners, drunkenness, indulgence which leads to poverty, and sexual temptation. Four times in the passage he emphasizes the need for a heart of wisdom. The very thing we are told in Luke 2:52 Jesus was developing.
Helping our teen’s meet godly expectations
I mentioned a very general goal for our teens as growing in grace and increasing in wisdom. What does that practically look like and how can we help our teens in that process?
Model the expectation
Proverbs 23:26 reads, “My son, give me your heart, and let your eyes observe my ways.” This verse reminds us that our desire is to reach the heart of our teens. We need to emphasize development of character over outward conformity. Secondly this verse admonishes us to set an example.
There is no doubt your teen is observing your ways, are you modeling the kind of behavior you expect? (Matthew 10:24–25). This requires us to be vulnerable, even allowing our teens to see how we handle difficult moments and requires us to spend time with them.
Encourage service to others
Teenagers are notorious for forming cliques. In most cases this probably is not a stubborn unwillingness to engage others. The teen period can be an awkward time of transition in their life. They are looking for places of acceptance and may fear what others will think of them. It doesn’t help when adults may often have similar apprehension about reaching out to teens (Cliques are not just a teen problem). We need to minister to and receive the ministry of the entire body (see 1 Corinthians 12:12–27), people of varying ages, experience, giftedness, and the like.
One way we can do this is to include our teens in ministry. This can actually accomplish both setting an example and encouraging service. If you teach junior church, have your teen assist. If you are visiting somebody in need, bring your teen along. When you help somebody move, include your teen. You get the idea.
Embrace your teens questions about faith
In Deuteronomy 6 starting in verse 4 Moses exhorts parents to love the Lord and to diligently teach their children God’s word. Then in verse 10 he warns the parents of the next generation. When God brings them into the Promised Land with houses and cities they did not build and gardens they did not plant, they should not forget God or go after the gods of the people around them. Why are they particularly prone to forget? They did not see God’s power in leading them out of Egypt or in defeating the Canaanites. Our teens have not endured the struggles we have, the gods of this world look tempting to them (as they do us).
When our teens struggle and have questions we should not rebuke them for their unbelief but encourage them to study the Word and to seek and trust God. We should provide honest, thoughtful answers to their questions. Some of their questions will be difficult and we may not have all the answers. That’s ok. It is better to say “I don’t know”, or lets study this together than to give superficial answers.
Demonstrate the priority of mercy and grace when they sin
How are we going to respond when we find out our teen has been cheating at school, took the car without permission, has been vaping, drinking alcohol, smoking maijuana, has been looking at porn, is involved with somebody sexually or a host of other sins we pray they will not commit? Is our immediate response to blow up? To ask “How could you do this to me?” say things like “What is wrong with you?”, “We raised you better than this”, “What will people at church think?”, “I don’t have time to deal with this”. Those reactions are likely to harden our teens’ hearts rather than draw them to God.
I am not at all suggesting we dismiss their sin, but the reactions above indicate concern about our embarrassment, reputation and convenience more than they do a love for our teen. Listen to how God describes himself in Exodus 34:6–7.
“The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”
While God does not overlook sin His inclination toward us is to show mercy, grace and love. He does not “blow up” at us, but is slow to anger.
We might look at the sins of our teens as evidence of our own failure, an affront to us as parents or an indication our teen is out of control. Although there may be elements of those we should primarily consider them moments of opportunity. They are opportunities we can squander by our own sin and push our teens away from God or by God’s grace we can point them to a gracious God who can forgive their sin and enable them to follow Him.
There may be some truth to the expression written by eighteenth-century poet, Alexander Pope, “Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.”
However, when it comes to raising our teenagers, the goal must be more than the avoidance of disappointment. God has given us the privilege and responsibility to raise children who will follow him. (Ephesians 6:4)