This is the third in a series about parenting from the scriptures. Please first read Little Patriarchs, and then Willful Israelites. The next phase relates to the New Testament, and the trust and teaching that God gave the Disciples of Christ. This phase relates to the teenage years.*
There comes a point when our Israelites have bent themselves to fit our rules and expectations. They know to be safe on the road, and to not eat before dinner, and clean up their room, share their toys and sit quietly in church. They are getting it! As they advance in their ability to obey, parents ought to ease up on their micromanagement. The teenage years are especially suited to this next phase because they won’t listen to their parents anyway. It is important to go through an Israelite phase, and it is essential to graduate out of it. Parents who micromanage teens and adults are destructive to their children’s agency and confidence.
When Christ came, He ushered in a new set of rules. In the Sermon on the Mount He repeatedly said, “Ye have heard it was said in old time. . . but I say unto you” and then refreshed the commandment with a higher principle, and more trust.
He wasn’t undoing the original commandment, He was protecting it with a higher law and principle. Not only should you not commit adultery, you shouldn’t even look on a woman (or man) to lust after them. Not only should you pray, you should do it in a humble and sincere way.
Parents need to make these adjustments as well. Consider a set of safety rules–don’t cross the street without looking– once they start driving, that rule is still important, but more important is the knowledge that cars can kill people and they need to be aware of the car’s power before they get behind the wheel. Then they need to be trusted to comply with the principle however it presents itself in their life on a day to day basis. Parents can’t make a rule for every situation, and as our children grow and become more involved at school and in the community, we see them less and less. They have to learn to govern themselves on these correct principles.
In my teenage years, I needed the most help with social interactions. Those are the sources of my regret in adult life. The principles of “not making drama” and “be generous” and “Be an honest borrower” were important to learn. They could be applied in different situations, with various people and still guide me true. It is valuable to have kids make mistakes and learn from them, but it is also nice to steer them towards less regret with higher principles which they implement on their own. Other guiding principles could be Self Respect (covers modesty and much more), Pursuit of Knowledge (covers “do your homework, go to school…”), Charity in all we do (covers service, kindness, respect for teachers, not bullying). These kinds of principles are true, part of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and have a spiritual core. They can be tailored to different situations and different ages and still guide them. Look for the underlying principles in the rules they are graduating out of the Israelite phase.
The Savior chose to teach the people in parables during his ministry. His stories were about things in every day life–houses and trees, pearls and wheat, planting and harvesting. The principles embedded in the lessons were familiar to the people– you plant in good ground if you want a good harvest. But his stories added on a layer of depth that zinged them with understanding.
With our Independent Disciples, lecturing doesn’t get too far. The words bounce off of them as they zone out or go into fight/flight. A better approach to teaching is to start with “When I was your age. . .” or “I know a guy who. . .” Most teenagers feel like they are the only person in the world who has ever gone through what they are going through. They find comfort in knowing that they aren’t alone in their feelings or insecurity. Especially comforting is that their own parents went through these challenges and came out on the other side.
I treasured the conversations that I had as a teenager with my mom and dad about their teenage years. The drama, the school work, the dances and dates. They didn’t fill me up with rebellious desires to do whatever reckless things they had done, but they let me see who they were as my peer–that I could relate to them more than I thought I could. That they were cool! One-on-one car trips are a good venue for these conversations.
When I was early in my teenage years, I remember having a meltdown of epic proportions because I was so sick of my clothes. I didn’t have a single thing to wear. I was sobbing on my bed and my high-school-teacher dad came in and said, “You know Jan, at the high school, most of the kids wear cut-off shorts and they look really cool. I think you should cut off some of those jeans you don’t like and make shorts.” I instantly sat up, wiped my eyes and smiled. That’s what the high schoolers do? Good enough for me.
Consequences that Teach
Jesus Christ wasn’t intent on punishing. He wanted to lift people to a higher level. The pleasure that the Pharisees took in being draconian to the other Jews was evil hypocrisy. When they brought the woman taken in adultery and everyone was hoping for a good stoning, Christ dismissed them with “let he who has not sinned cast the first stone.” Then to the woman, “Neither do I accuse thee, go and sin no more.” The woman was released–mortified, chastened, grateful for the reprieve, but still released. She had learned. She would repent and not do it again. He didn’t need to inflict an extra measure of external punishment.
Over and over in His ministry, He forgave sins. People learned from the consequences of their sins and they also learned their worth from His response. It was quite a change from the exacting God of the Israelites, but that was intended. They had already learned all of the rules. His followers were, by and large, the good, law-abiding Jews. He reserved his wrathful condemnation for the hypocritical parties at the time, but if people were trying to do good, and still messing up, He encouraged them to keep trying. He was not sent to condemn the world, but that through Him, the world may be saved. (John 3:17)
When I was a teenager, I did the normal stupid things that a good teenager in Utah did, like seeing how far the car could go in neutral without turning it on. All the way down a curved and steep road called Bannock hill, it turned out. It was at the crest of the hill that I realized that the brakes don’t work if the car is off. Angels were not deterred from the screaming inside the car and we survived without a scrape. I learned my lesson. I think my mom is learning about this event for the first time right now. The natural consequence of a stupid kid experimenting is fear, guilt, intense gratitude at surviving. Those things teach teenagers more than a punishment could.
We can lecture our teens about safety, or chastity, or grades but they will only internalize it when they experience their own natural consequences in pushing the boundaries. It is scary as a parent to see your beloved child making unwise choices, but allowing them the full brunt of their consequences and reminding them about the atonement will teach them how to deal with mistakes throughout their entire life. Discuss together the guilt they feel, or the friendships that went sour, or the boy who wanted to park with them. Help them feel their own spirit’s response, and don’t let them minimize it or rationalize it away. Help them have the courage to talk to a bishop and access Christ’s atonement–let them feel that power when they make a mistake. Teaching them how to respond to mistakes and repent will set them up for success for their whole life.
People talk about how hard it is to parent teenagers. I think it must be gut-wrenching to watch these little humans who you have invested all of your energy and time into doing stupid/dangerous/selfish things and seem bent on self-destruction. It is a part of their brain development to take risks and learn from them. They will survive this and come out on the other side with wisdom gained from experience.
Christ’s entire mission in mortality was to protect the fallen innocent from the effects of death and sin. He came to save us because He knows what we are up against, and we have no idea. That was the big purpose for His coming, but throughout His ministry, He was also protecting people day-to-day. The children were allowed to come to Him, and He taught that if anyone hurt one of them, it would be better for them to wear a millstone at the bottom of the sea. He protected the woman taken in adultery. He helped so many disabled and vulnerable people in various ways, giving them the power to fend for themselves. He could see the evil and darkness and pain all around the people and He earnestly tried to protect them.
The reverse side of this coin of independence and natural consequences is the complete naivete and innocence of children becoming adults. They start to look like adults, they wear clothes and makeup like adults, but they don’t quite understand what being an adult entails, especially in relationships. They are often playing a dangerous game, quite naievely. Our job as parents of these blossoming adults is to protect them from dangers that they have no idea even exist. Obviously abuse or sexual exploitation is at the top of the list. They may have no idea that their new older boyfriend is just a walking red flag. They may have no idea that their booty shorts and halter top are going to get them in trouble. They are playing around with their adult bodies and adult relationships without realizing how serious the consequences could be. But also important, we should protect them from devaluing themselves, or trying to fit in with kids who aren’t going anywhere good, or being in a relationship just for the sake of a relationship.
In my college years, I had a boyfriend that I really liked. We were both in my hometown for a weekend, and he said he would come by and pick me up at 7:00. The doorbell finally rang at 11:00 pm. I got up to go and answer it but my mom stopped me. “No. You stay here. I’m going to handle this.” She went to the door and said, “You are too late. You need to go home. She isn’t going out with you four hours after you said you would come.” Then she shut the door in his face. Later he told me that it made him feel “sort of pooey.” We broke up shortly thereafter. It was a watershed moment for me, in my first relationship, to hear that I didn’t have to put up with being disrespected. I was more than a “wait around until someone comes” girl. My mom protected me from my own low expectations for myself.
Our society tends to keep kids young for much longer than people did in the past. In previous generations, teenagers were getting married, leaving home, being apprenticed out, getting jobs. I’m not advocating to return to that entirely, but reminding parents that they can handle a lot more than school and volleyball. They should be able to be trusted to make choices based on principles and learn from their mistakes. The correcting and managing of choices should have happened in the Israelite phase so that these mini-adults can start handling life independently, while still under the protection and shelter of their parent’s home. It is the safest way to practice these big life decisions.
*At this point in my thoughts, I will necessarily shift from my experience as a mother to my experience as a teenager. My oldest child is just 12, so I haven’t had personal experience parenting a teenager–though I do remember being parented as a teen, and have had experiences with teenagers both in church and in school settings.