“Why don’t you treat me as well as the other teenagers in the youth group?” my son asked as we argued.
If you have children now or in the future, there will come a time when they grow into teenagers, and the transition from cool youth worker to parent of a teen becomes painfully real. It was for me.
As my son entered the youth ministry at our church, I was not in a full-time youth ministry position, but serving a tenure as a volunteer spanning two decades and had served under at least five youth pastors in the high school department alone. Though I’d been in full-time vocational youth ministry in a parachurch organization, youth ministry had entered my home. My children, now teens, and their friends became and extension of the ministry to which I’d given my adult life.
Not only was I a youth minister who was not the parent of teens, but also the author of some books on parenting. I’d observed thousands of teens and interacted with them through email, chat rooms, MySpace and Facebook through the years. I really felt that for me, the parenting of teenagers still would have challenges, but I’d be better prepared.
Slowly, I discovered the difficult side of youth ministry, the one where I’m not only a professional youth worker, but Dad The Youth Worker—not a mentor to the kids at church but a ministry mentor for my own children. The transition was not easy. Here are some reflections of this change in our home:
1. I’m only part of the equation.
My wonderfully compliant and brilliant elementary school children begging me to read more from the Bible during family devotions quickly began to search for their identities and exercising their own wills as teens. Children are unique within households. Some are naturally compliant while others are not. The teen years bring this out in ways you do not experience when they’re simply showing up for youth group. One of the hardest realities for me was realizing my heart for God alone could not will my children to obey God. They were on their own spiritual journeys, and I needed to allow their journeys to play out, disciplining and supporting wherever I could.
2. I didn’t think of them as teenagers.
Dr. Robert Epstein and his controversial book Teens 2.0 really helped me recognize that while I viewed other teenagers as emerging adults, I couldn’t see my own children in the same way. Maybe it was because every time I looked at them, I still saw them emerging from the womb, learning to walk, finger painting, and riding tricycles, rendering me unable to see for myself that they were becoming adults, capable of doing much more than I realized. The light came on when I gave my 14-year-old son the “How Adult Are You” survey from Epstein’s website (HowAdultAreYou.com). My wife and I took it, as well, and our son scored five points lower and five points higher than each of us. As I began to recognize the change in my son and daughter, who were entering teenagedom, as well, I truly became the parent of a teen.
3. I need community.
I quickly realized I had been the mentor, the cool uncle to other teens in my church, and that was why I saw the successes in that environment while struggling in my own home. I couldn’t be a parent and youth worker to my own children. The two roles are different. Consider that in most of our hero stories, the parents of the hero in the making are dead. Superman, Batman, Harry Potter, Spiderman, Luke Skyewalker and Cinderella were orphans. It’s curious, isn’t it? Plus, they all excel because of a mentor, typically outside the family, who helps them develop into maturity. If I ever believed in the power of youth ministry in the church, I believed in it during my teenagers’ development. No matter how great I was discipling other teenagers, my teens needed adults in their lives who weren’t me to help them grow exponentially in their faith. I’m glad we are part of that community.
4. I shouldn’t be embarrassed by my teens’ spiritual journeys.
One thing I felt I did pretty well was not placing pressure on my children to behave a certain way to make me look good. Proverbs 22:15 tells us that folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but discipline will drive it out. Discipline takes time, and just about any parent understands the challenge of raising children. My teens have very different spiritual journeys, and I’m glad I’ve allowed them to play out in the way they have. There is integrity in their relationships with Christ that is sometimes frightening, but it is forged in Christ and not in my concern for my own reputation. Being raised in a home where a parent is a vocational minister has blessings and wound-making that you have to allow to work themselves out, painful as it may be.
5. My teens changed me.
I think God was shaping me more during those years than He was my children. In case you missed out on your own parents’ guidance or the latest performance review from your senior pastor, your children will help you see your flaws. Just as Luke Skyewalker helped his father come to redemption, so all our children help us in our own sanctification. If you proactively look for those opportunities to grow in Christ as you engage your teenager, you’ll see God do some amazing things in your life, ministry and marriage.
As a single minister and then a married, young parent, I wrongfully judged many parents’ abilities to parent their own children. I’m filled with much more grace for moms and dads this side of parenting teens than previously, and I value the experience of seeing God at work in the lives of my own children during their teen years.