Question from a Father:

I have raised three girls and they all turned out well. My last child is a boy who has just turned fourteen. I am seeing signs of trouble and need some advice. I don’t think I know how to raise a boy. He is unhappy with his circumstances in life. He feels that I am depriving him of friends and opportunities to experience life. He wants a cell phone so he can share with others on social media. He wants to “hang out” with guys that I do not have confidence share our vision for our son. My greatest concern is that it seems I do not have his respect. We are really not friends. I feel like he thinks I am an impediment to his happiness. What can I do?

Michael Answers:

If by “do” you mean some overlooked parenting technique, I must tell you there is nothing to “do.” Your child and the dynamics of your relationship are so much more complex than to be solved by the addition of some single corrective act. Think about it. If you came to me with marriage difficulty and asked for something you could “do” to cause your wife to suddenly respect and like you, and drop all her grievances, would you expect it to be as simple as roses once a week or a sit-down talk? Marriage is a relationship built on many hours and many experiences. Healing requires a fundamental change in the soul of one or both individuals. Likewise, the raising of a child is a complex relationship, even more complex than marriage due to changing hormones. It is a good thing that there are only about four or five years before a post-pubertal child is weaned from his parents as a young adult, no longer under family mandates. If the relationship that exists from thirteen to eighteen years of age lasted twenty years instead of five, 95% of kids would soon divorce their parents. It is the sure knowledge that their servitude will be over in just a few years that gives hope to disgruntled teenagers.

Yeah, I know, this sounds dark and hopeless. Yet there is a way. But it comes at a price higher than most parents are willing to pay, for in many cases it requires a change of heart and a change of lifestyle—maybe a change of occupation and the community in which you live.
I look around at families I have known and observed since the parents were teenagers or younger, their children now grown and married or of marriageable age, and I see mixed results. Some are dismal failures and others are a delight to God—an expression of heaven. I can see the root causes of successes or failures, and it is not as most would think. On one extreme, I know parents who smoked tobacco and pot and drank moderately who were nonetheless a raging success as parents—be sure, a very limited number indeed. And on the other end of the scale, I know parents who were strict, teaching their children to quote large portions of the Bible, never watching any media or mixing with sinners. Everyone dressed modestly and said, “please” and “thank you” and “yes ma’am” and “no sir,” and at the first opportunity some of their children went the way of world, wanting nothing to do with God today. I see the difference. I know the causes and effects.

In most cases success is not due to any forethought or deliberation by the parents; they just pass on their hearts and temperament in a natural context incidentally suited to raising good kids. It’s the “old paths”—what average Christian, rural families were seventy-five years ago. Our society is no longer Christian and no longer natural. Community is not natural. Family is not natural. Education is not natural. And child training is not natural. There are still small pockets where young men and women come to marriage bringing with them a relaxed worldview and lifestyle that will result in good kids, but every year that circle becomes exponentially smaller.

In an age where the old paths are mostly forgotten, it takes careful planning and deliberate, patient execution to guarantee success in raising children. If you didn’t inherit a lifestyle, community, temperament, and worldview that are conducive to raising good kids, you must make the sacrifices necessary to reestablish a working form of the old paths.
What are the old paths of which I speak, and how can you reclaim a culture you never experienced or inherited? I will recount the common characteristic I have observed in successful families.

A family that works together stays together. A family that strives together thrives together. A family that is a working team, striving toward a common goal, will engender loyalty in their children. Things like feeding the animals, collecting eggs, butchering chickens so you will have meat on the table after church on Sunday, repairing the barn, or adding on a bedroom so the kids can spread out are examples. Taking the boys to work where they learn a trade is invaluable. Even the girls feel better about themselves when they have operated a weed eater, bringing in money to enhance the quality of life for the whole family.
The child who is not needed as part of the team will gravitate toward loyalties outside the family. Participation cannot be staged or fabricated. It must be real. The child who is not truly needed for the survival and well-being of the family will not develop holy pride and righteous ambition. He will turn to video games, social media, and friends who just “hang” together, talking about how the world “sucks.”

Back to the letter that prompted this discussion: You say you raised three good girls. But boys are quite different from girls in what satisfies their aspirations. Boy have a greater need to explore, invent, achieve something objective, conquer, and compete. They have a need to be meaningfully engaged in pursuits that yield objective results, like rebuilding automobiles, painting a house, cutting firewood, building something that others will admire. They are little kings looking to build a kingdom and furnish it. Idleness (including entertainment) breeds self-loathing and wanderlust.

If you are not skilled in the “manly” arts, there are alternate ways to provide expression for your boys. It is subpar but better than nothing. You can loan them out to Christian friends who are active in welding, mechanics, farming, construction, lawn care, building of any kind, etc. The problem with letting someone else apprentice them is that they will bond with and respect the other man instead of you. But, again, it is far better than video games, social media, and “hanging out.” If you are a city slicker with a business or job that prevents your children from participating, there is an effective alternative to physically working together to achieve daily sustenance. Families that minister together and see positive results in the lives of others will raise delightful kids. When daily life is filled with prayer, counseling, teaching, and assisting others less fortunate, the children will grow up totally satisfied. But beware—Pharisaical, religious business will drive them away. Children are usually uncorrupted psychologists who see through religious pretense.

It is the satisfaction of achieving and conquering together that satisfies the soul of the child. The struggle to maintain shelter and food, as would be the case with an indigenous farmer, is the most natural context, but not everyone can do that. I have seen very wealthy families maintain the loyalty and respect of their children because they sit around the dinner table and share their vision for expansion of the business, involving the children in the enterprise. At the earliest ages, the children are given jobs to do at the office that are meaningful. Projects at home focus on the children rising to challenges. A new pool and garden can be planned by the children and they can help the workmen. One wealthy father told me that in contracting out some remodeling, he told the carefully selected bidders that their bids should include apprenticing his two boys. They were to work alongside the crew every day for the entire six months. Mother can arrange for the children to work at a local shelter or to teach Good News Clubs through Child Evangelism Fellowship. The family can “adopt” several widowed grandmothers and make weekly visits to assist them, even painting their dilapidated home and taking them shopping.

A busy life that is filled with productivity on the behalf of others produces a satisfied soul. An empty life of self-indulgence becomes boring and agitates the soul to seek satisfaction and excitement in carnal pursuits and worldly friends equally empty of heart and mind.
Self-respect is achieved the same way and for the same reason we respect others. It is based on integrity, hard work, sacrifice for others, expressions of compassion and mercy, justice, etc. When children act worthy they will feel worthy. Positive affirmation is only useful when it is in recognition of a job well done.

As you can see, the answer to the question is simple but not an easy, quick fix. I said it may require a complete change of lifestyle. Most parents are so wed to their social circle, church, vocation, and comfort zone that they will not take my advice. You will not want your daughters to marry their sons or vice versa. But there is no way to mold a child into the image of Christ if they are allowed to grow up in a different mold.
You, Father, are the head of the house. Raise your children in Sodom and you will have results no better than Lot. Build your house on a rock and the children will survive the storm.
There are other factors that are critical to raising good kids, some of which I have discussed in other articles and books, particularly Strong in Spirit. Space does not allow a thorough treatise of our subject—though what I have said here is universal and fundamental. Maybe in the next magazine I will expand upon it.