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Preparing Your Teens for College
Faith, Friends, Finances, and Much More
By Alex Chediak, Jonathan Schindler
Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2014 Juan Alexander Chediak
All rights reserved.
CONVERSATION 1 Teaching Responsibility
A HUGE SIGH broke the awkward silence as Frank pulled up at another red light. In the passenger seat sat Matthew, a red-faced teen, staring out the window.
"Dad, the plan was to hang out at Johnny's Pizza. I'm not lying! I had no idea Josh was going to insist that we go to his house instead."
Frank's eyes didn't move. He was afraid to look at Matthew, who had alcohol on his breath. Frank's mind was racing: What had happened to the innocence of Matthew's childhood? Frank remembered Matthew's first year in Little League and how much fun they'd had going to his games. Ever since Matthew had turned 14, things had taken a turn for the worse. He was hanging out with the wrong crowd, neglecting his homework, and often seemed to have a chip on his shoulder.
It's not that Frank had been unconcerned. He and his wife, Mary, took Matthew to church every week and encouraged him to attend the youth group's activities. They just didn't want to dictate his every move. That's why they let him make his own choices. But look where that led, Frank thought.
With a pained expression, Frank glanced at his son. "What happened, Matthew? How could going over to Josh's lead to my getting a call from the police?"
More awkward silence. Then Matthew replied, "Josh insisted we all come over. Once we got there, he disappeared and came back with a few bottles and a flask with a weird shape. It was Jim's 16th birthday, he announced, and we needed to celebrate. Soon there were probably 30 people in the house.
"Look, I wasn't going to drink anything. Seriously. But once everyone got there, they started playing a game that involved sampling the bottles. What could go wrong? I figured. It wouldn't hurt to try a little. I never felt out of control. Not until Josh started getting on my nerves. Next thing I knew, he was going after me in the backyard, screaming. He tried to fight me, Dad. What was I supposed to do? The neighbors must have heard something and called the cops."
Frank was speechless. He stared at the road ahead. He didn't know if he wanted to scream or cry. Something has to change. He replayed the last few years in his mind. He had never talked to Matthew about the temptations of teenage life. Not just alcohol, but also the desire to fit in. To not only be accepted, but respected. He just figured it would all work out. Matthew had been such a sweet kid. Frank wanted his little boy back.
Slowly, Frank realized that he and Mary were parenting Matthew as if he were still a boy. This incident would give him a chance to begin a new kind of conversation—one about freedom, choices, responsibility, and accountability. But Frank felt overwhelmed. He had no idea where to start.
AUTHORITY AND INFLUENCE
As Christian parents, we must always seek to shape the character of our children, to set them on the right course, with an internalized, biblically informed moral compass. That's our duty: "Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it" (Proverbs 22:6). In the early years, this often comes with a high degree of structure. "Eat your vegetables." "Brush your teeth." "Get to bed." And discipline. Children must know that we're in charge and that God, for their good, has put us in authority over them.
As our children grow into the teen years, their ability to do things we disapprove of increases, and like Matthew's parents, our ability to control them decreases. They can lie to us, hide things from us, and even live double lives. We can't spank them; they may even be bigger and stronger than we are! If we're banking solely on positional authority, we're in trouble. What we need is moral authority: influence in their lives, at the deepest level—a level we can't reach without their consent.
Positional authority is God-given; moral authority must be earned over time. Think of moral authority as the permission to speak into the inner core of someone's heart—to shape the person's heart and, in turn, life (see Proverbs 4:23). We must win the hearts of our teens so that they want us involved in their lives, leading them into adulthood, interpreting the fast-paced biological and social changes they're experiencing, helping them process their shortcomings and insecurities, and encouraging them that with God's help they can do great things.
But how? By seeing the hard moments as God moments—opportunities rather than irritations. When our teens make sinful choices or are caught in a web of deception, we have to fight the temptation to give them a piece of our minds. It's easy to show them "who's in charge around here." It's harder to remember that God is ultimately in charge and that he has put us in their lives to prepare them for adulthood. Their failures are opportunities to come alongside them, helping them to understand cause and effect and that (as a college mentor once told me) we never really get away with anything. It's a chance to remind our teens that the greatest happiness always lies in the sometimes hard path of obedience and to let them into our own lifelong discovery of this principle.
Please don't misunderstand. The quest for moral authority doesn't mean we abrogate positional authority. I'm not saying we turn household rules into mere suggestions for our teens to consider. We're still in charge in our homes. And while spanking is no longer an option as our children get older, there are other consequences that can prove instructive, such as curtailing certain expressions of freedom (e.g., driving a family car) until they've demonstrated an appropriate degree of maturity. But the demeanor of our authority must increasingly be one that appeals to their consciences. We have to go beyond our teens' external behavior to the internal motivations of their hearts.
We are in charge, but we're not just bosses. We're coaches and mentors to guide our teens into the years when they'll be on their own. Our deepest desire is that they internalize godly principles and the Christian faith from which they originate so that they're obedient in our presence and in our absence, and not just to us, their earthly parents, but to God, their heavenly Father.
What does all this have to do with preparing teens for college? It's simple: the character of your teens is as determinative of their success in college as their intelligence, if not more so. I've seen this play out in countless students over the years: some come in with excellent ACT or SAT scores and solid high school GPAs, but their inner lives are a mess. They got by because high school was too easy. They lack self-control. They make reckless decisions. Before too long, they're in serious academic trouble. Thankfully, I've also seen the opposite: students whose academic ability is at best average but who through discipline and consistent effort have a seriousness about them that inevitably results in improvement. They find their niche and flourish academically and socially. Success in college really is more perspiration (discipline and effort) than inspiration (talent).
Because character is so important, we'll cover it first. This chapter and the next are devoted to helping you shape the character of your teens so that they leave your home college ready. To do that, we have to grapple with a tension—one that Frank was thinking about as he drove Matthew home: If we give our kids too much freedom and space, how do we know they won't go off the deep end and make some really bad choices? On the other hand, if we don't loosen the reins, how will our children learn to exercise critical thinking skills and make moral judgments for themselves? If we don't allow them to exercise greater freedom, even if it means the occasional blunder, how will they become more responsible?
Was Matthew's problem too much freedom? Or was it too little preparation? We need to think hard about the goal of our parenting and living between the extremes of under-parenting and over-parenting. The goal is to shepherd our teens' hearts while recognizing that their ultimate accountability is to God, not us.
There are various ways to sidestep the struggle of parenting teens, all of which I'd put under the umbrella of under-parenting. I read an article recently about a man who was embarrassed by his wife's behavior. Since their daughter had turned 13, Mom had changed. She began to shop with her teen daughter and to buy the same clothes, preferring to both look and act like a high school girl. Why? She thought it would develop a special bond with her daughter, make her a more approachable mom, and prevent them from being drawn apart during the pivotal teen years. If you think about it, it's the same kind of fear Matthew's parents had—a fear of being too preachy and coming across as fuddy-duddies. We're afraid our teens will turn against us, preferring the acceptance of their peers to the wisdom of their parents.
When we as parents act like teens, we send a clear message that being an adult is less interesting than being a teen. Adulthood, and the responsibilities that come with it, are to be avoided for as long as possible. When we simply put off difficult conversations for fear that our teens will reject us, we send the message that we lack either the wisdom or the interest to help them transition into adulthood.
I have adult friends who tell me that when they were in high school, their dads would grunt and walk away if they disapproved of something. That sent the message, I suppose, but spared Dad the stress of uncomfortable conversations.
We get in trouble when we pursue friendships with our teens by becoming their peers and when we limit our involvement to clucks or grunts of disapproval. Either way, we're failing to provide what we alone can: preparation for entering the adult world. We're abdicating our God-given role as authority figures in the lives of our children. What teens really want from their parents is structure, wisdom, and guidance. Even secular psychologists recognize that this kind of authority gives a teen security.
Teens today spend the majority of their time with their peers, people who (whatever their strengths) are not in a position to lead them into responsible adulthood. If we don't take the initiative to prepare them, our teens are left vulnerable to the powerful voices in their social scene, for better or worse. Either through impulse or ignorance, they'll probably make some regrettable choices, possibly with long-lasting, even devastating, consequences. Many would testify that parental abdication of leadership in the teen years can swell into a source of deep resentment between adult children and their parents.
Under-parenting can be subtle. Matthew's parents, from a distance, appear to be good and honorable people. They take their children to church every week. But on another level, they're actually taking the easy way out. They want to respect Matthew's space, so they choose to "let him make his own decisions." But what's their real motivation? They have no idea where to start the conversations. They've under- parented by default. It was easier to treat Matthew like a child even though he had begun the journey to adulthood.
The book of Proverbs assumes that parents are to be regularly teaching their children the lessons that will equip them for adulthood. It speaks of the need to heed parental wisdom (e.g., Proverbs 2–4) and of the fool who refuses to do so (see Proverbs 10:1; 15:5, 32). In the long run, the fool pays for it. My wife and I still have young children. When they're disobedient and I discipline them, I try to explain that the pain of discipline, though real, is much less than the pain that comes with habitual violation of God's standards. The way of the wicked is hard (see Proverbs 13:15). The undisciplined, in the end, wish they had heeded instruction (see Proverbs 1:20-33). In contrast, "it is good ... [to] bear the yoke in ... youth" (Lamentations 3:27) because that's when character is formed and when correction, discipline, and instruction are most crucial. In the words of J. C. Ryle, as true for young women as they are for young men:
Youth is the seed-time of full age, the molding season in the little space of human life, the turning- point in the history of man's mind.
By the shoot we judge of the tree, by the blossoms we judge of the fruit, by the spring we judge of the harvest, by the morning we judge of the day, and by the character of the young man, we may generally judge what he will be when he grows up.
Many teens who disregard loving authority may wind up paying the price their entire lives. You can go to prisons all across the country and ask inmates to recount their regrets. In many cases, the earliest regret you'll hear is this: "I wish I had listened to my mom." (And the fact that many prisoners don't even know their fathers ought to tell us something.)
As parents, we need to be parents. We need to teach, model, encourage, and train. We must intentionally shape our teens into the kind of adults we hope, with God's help, they become. The last thing our teens need is for us to try to be cool or hip, to wear the same clothing, or to engage in the same sorts of conversations in the same way as their peers. If we do, we're more likely to look foolish than to impress them. And deep down, parents trying to be peers are not even what teens really want. Offer your teens what they cannot get elsewhere, and you'll lay the foundation for a deep, lifelong relationship.
This parental instruction doesn't always have to be something formal. It can be listening to an update on your teen's life while working in the yard and then relating the things you've learned from your parents, someone else, or the "school of hard knocks." It can be taking your teen out for ice cream after a basketball game and talking about how character (good and bad) was exhibited on the court that night. It's in drawing your teens out, taking the time to get into the nitty-gritty of their lives, listening and looking for those opportune moments when they're most teachable. (From working with students, I've learned that these moments can come without warning. But we need to take them when we get them.)
And there's something to be said for persistence. What you say may sometimes seem to fall on deaf ears. But you'll be surprised at what your teens remember.
Over-parenting controls teens instead of coaching them. It's too much positional authority and too little moral authority. It tells teens what to do but not why to do it. It conveys the message, "You need me to do things for you. I'm afraid you'll blow it if you do it yourself." The "helicopter parent" falls into this category.
What kind of teens are we trying to produce—the kind who will continue to depend on us like children? Or the kind who can one day relate to us as competent, functionally independent friends? If I check my daughter's math homework every night, whether she asks for it or not, I'm telling her that she's incapable of finishing anything on her own and that she doesn't need to check it herself. Instead, if I first show her how to check her homework, and then expect her to do it, she often will (not just now, but also in college). She'll be both empowered and motivated to take ownership for this area of her life.
Excerpted from Preparing Your Teens for College by Alex Chediak, Jonathan Schindler. Copyright © 2014 Juan Alexander Chediak. Excerpted by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc..
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