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Training Teens

January 15, 1996

Dear Michael, I have a fourteen-year-old son who is worldly minded. He gets his hair cut so that his bangs hang down over his eye on one side.

He will sit in church and sort of swing his head so that his bangs bounce around. It appears that he likes to peek at the world through his pretty hair. It seems that he becomes totally absorbed with how he looks. It is embarrassing and, I am ashamed to admit it, but sometimes when I look at him I am disgusted. He is not satisfied with his clothes or shoes unless they are the current fashion. When I tell him how ridiculous he looks, he only withdraws. When I try to curb his desires for the latest fashions, he becomes miserable until we give him what he wants.

I don’t want him to be unpopular or rejected because of his clothes. He doesn’t get along with his brothers and sister, but has friends he would rather be with. I know that we have made some mistakes, but what can we do to correct the situation? It seems we have lost touch with him. It is as if we are in two different worlds. We do not want to drive the wedge deeper.

His father doesn’t say much, he is always busy working and doesn’t seem to notice what is going on. I know that my son is not going to change as long as I have a critical spirit toward him. I am desperate. Do you have any suggestions on how to retrain him?

“Groannnnn.” That’s the sound I make sitting at my desk trying to answer a letter like this. I feel like the Station Attendant when the lady drives the car in on a flapping, fragmented, flat tire and then wants him to fix it. Lady, it should have been fixed back down the road where the flat first occurred.

There is something you must understand about yourself and your child. There is a strange struggle, a competition, taking place. Your relationship to this child began in infancy with him totally dependent. As he grew older, your words could move and persuade him. Your logic was beyond assail. Your power omnipotent. You were loved, feared, respected. He began as a young sapling that could be bent to your will, caused to grow in any direction. You took for granted your control. You didn’t see the curve of independence asserting itself in the relationship.

Suddenly you find your dependent child has become stiff and unyielding with a mind and will of his own. He disdains your logic. Your reasons are without foundation. You don’t under- stand him. You are old-fashioned, out of touch. He views you as one who is trying to persecute him and keep him from happiness. He alone has experienced the passions and joys of life. He is ready to feel, taste, experience. He stands on the edge of the great thrill of life, and you, with all your talk of duty and responsibility… you are the enemy. His friends “understand him” because they are in the same passion- ate vortex. It has never dawned on him that you weren’t born a hardened adult. He doesn’t know that you once had the same disease called youth— and got over it.

A child is kneadable clay, still being formed, but an adult is pottery baked in the oven of time. Between the trainable child and the unyielding adult is the twelve to sixteen-year-old. They are like clay, half baked in the sun. It is too late to forcibly remold them, but they are not yet so hardened as to be totally beyond reclaiming. The twelve-year-old may demand the independence and liberty of an adult, while having the emotional needs of a small child. They expect the security of being mothered and the supremacy of being an adult.

Their struggle comes because they possess the developing passions of an adult with the indulging mentality of a child. They have always lived by their wants. Their unrestrained indulgences appeared to be no problem when the consequences were nothing more than cavities. But an unrestrained teenager can reap dire consequences.

It is natural for a child to grow into a state of independence, to gradually assume the command of his or her own life. It is when they demonstrate ineptness of responsibility that we parents become upset.

It is not a question of giving them independence, they most certainly grow into it. We parents enjoy handing the reins to the children and saying, “You can drive awhile.” But the day comes when they do not drive as we think they should. When we demand they give over the reins, we find ourselves looking into the determined, independent face of a twelve to sixteen-year-old adult. They are forever beyond being governed from without. It is a hard adjustment for the parent to make, for the young teen wants to be fed and protected in the nest, but wants to wander without accountability.

We parents know the child is making bad decisions, but when we try to intervene they are resentful. We see them eating our food and greedily demanding more of the luxuries our money can buy, but unwilling to accept our jurisdiction over their lifestyle. The young teenager is no more on his own than when he was three, but he demands that everyone respect his right to sovereignty. We figure that with the food and clothes we provide and the roof we keep over his head we have purchased governorship. But, having spent his whole life as one totally cared for, he feels it is all his due. So the parents and the child/man don’t see the world through the same glasses. Our wisdom and judgment have always overruled all his reasons. He turns twelve or fourteen and suddenly we have lost all persuasive powers.

If a child turns eighteen and walks away to provide his own roof, food, clothes, etc., we can readily relinquish our hold, but a totally dependent fourteen-year-old suddenly assuming that he is wiser than we are is hard to swallow, especially when his hand is still in our pocket.
We parents have great aspirations for our children. We want the best for them. We have made mistakes and have witnessed the mistakes of others. We know where the pitfalls and deathtraps are located, and it is hard to see our children blinded, arrogantly rushing across a battlefield where we have seen many casualties fall, some to never rise again.

So it is in this betwixt-and- between stage where the parent is uncomfortable with the child’s growing independence, and the child is uncomfortable with the parents’ clinging governorship. Ideally, the parent should have prepared the child to be responsible in his growing independence. We should be training them toward the time when they will make decisions alone. It is a joy to see your child wisely assume command of his own life. It is comforting to relinquish your authority when you can trust the hands that receive it. But to see an irresponsible child destroy all that you thought you were building is misery indeed. To have him or her rebel and run helter skelter into sure destruction is the ultimate disappointment in life.

So in answer to the original question:

“What can I do to train my fourteen-year-old son?” IT IS TOO LATE TO TRAIN HIM. He is beyond the power-plays and the unquestioning submission. He is no longer one of the “little children” to whom the kingdom of God belongs. He is a skeptic where your opinions are concerned. He sees your hypocrisy and will not respect anyone who is not respectable. He will give no honor based on rank. He is a free moral agent bent on demonstrating his independence.

You must change your approach from hot demands to respectful persuasion. It is too late to forcibly cut his hair. Too late to make demands without good logic behind it. As an independent free-agent he must be persuaded. His own will, based on his own values, will be the ruling factor in his life. You must win his confidence and earn a right to be his counselor. Your anger that once caused him to cower and submit will now only cause him to withdraw. There was a time when demonstrating how hurt you were broke his heart and made him submit. Today it disgusts him and makes him seek friendships elsewhere.

However, you should not let your guilt over your failure cause you to submit to your teenager’s tyranny. You should take authority over your house and all who live in it. You are the “Lord of the Manor.” You can no longer tell your subjects how to think, but you still have sovereign control of all acts within your domain. Your child’s soul may have grown out from under your jurisdiction, but as long as he is under your roof eating your food his actions are still under your control.

You must earn the right to enter his soul, but he should be made to understand that he must earn the right to live in your house and eat your food.

Where a teenager will resent your jurisdiction over his soul, he will respect your right and authority over the outward management of your home and resources. If you are dignified and calm in your legislation, he will respect it even if he gripes. For instance: You do not have to pay for designer clothes. You should provide modest clothes that are serviceable, nothing more. You don’t have to give them any allowance at all. They can work for it. You need not pick up after them and cater to their wants. You have a right to control the music and TV in your house, if you have such. They will expect you to exercise control over all physical and external matters of running a smooth house- hold. They will appreciate your demands that they treat every member of the house with the same respect that you do. Of course if you are a screaming idiot, they would not respect your request that they be any different. If you are indulgent, your demands that they not be indulgent will only be met with ridicule. If you are worldly in your approach to dress, they will show no honor when you want them to dress modest and practical.

How did your children get in the condition they are in? They were not born that way. How did they learn about designer clothes and mod hair cuts? How did they develop associations with worldly kids? You didn’t send them to the public or private school, but did you put them in a position to be part of a youth group in a large public church? Did you take them shopping in the malls? Do you coo over chic clothing styles? If your children are trying to conform to the world instead of being transformed by the renewing of their minds, it is because you have provided a worldly environment to allure them. If they act like some of the jerk comedians on the TV, it is because they admire someone whom you once thought was funny. If they have a don’t-care attitude, perhaps they learned it from Hollywood. If you cause a pumpkin to grow hanging on a fence, you should expect it to have impressions of the wire on its outer skin. Though it is not the final deciding factor, the environment is the mold in which your child is formed. While you gave no particular concern to training, their world was a constant training ground.

Yet now you cry out with a broken heart. You are willing to take the blame. You are willing to correct those faults in your own character. You are willing to purge your home and environment of worldly influence. But what can you do to rectify the wrong? You can start by becoming the person you desire your child to be. No double-mindedness or two-faced fraud. You must be a real Christian through and through. To have a little revival in your child’s soul you must have a big one in your own. They can not be changed by you from without, but they can be changed by themselves and God from within. Your job is to lead them to desire goodness with all their hearts. You can not push with criticism. You must lead by example.

Understand your limitations and your authority. You have the authority to rule the home and everyone in it externally. But, in dealing with your teenager’s soul, you are limited to persuasion and counsel based on mutual respect. You can tell them what to do in regard to the family environment, but you cannot tell them how to feel. You can teach and exemplify values, but you cannot legislate values.

For a teenager it is too late to “train up a child,” but it is not too late to lead them into the paths of righteousness. Their struggle comes because they possess the developing passions of an adult with the indulging mentality of a child.

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3 comments on “Training Teens”

  1. i believe the father needs to be more involved to teach him how to be a man a woman cant teach a boy or young man the manly things of life….as women its nearly impossible God made men and women different women training the young girls/ladies is fitting, men training the boys and young men is fitting…..if thats all our young men are getting their training from is the mother we are gonna end up with more and more emasculate men……so basically boys need their fathers or a male mentor in their lives…

  2. Thank you! This is exactly what I needed to hear today. Instead of coming under condemnation with all the flaws I see in my children of ‘how I didn’t do it right’ sometime in their past, I must now let God’s righteousness in me to attract them instead of my instructions. I’ve been learning that I need to get off their case & get more of a life of my own, now that they require less training & physical care. I’m still learning to bring every thought captive to reject the condemnation & remind myself of the truth!