I could spend weeks talking about my own challenges in working with parents during my 25+ years in youth ministry. For example, one time a parent called on a Saturday night at dinner time to let me know of her “concerns” related to her daughter’s overall experience in our youth group. Naturally, the feedback was primarily negative. As her checklist of complaints started building, I tried to end the phone call, telling her it would just be better for us to get together soon and talk things over.
Unfortunately, she made a rather unkind remark about my lack of attention to her and how typical that was, and that other parents had said the same thing about me.
That really got under my skin, and my oh-so-immature reaction was to take it personally and retort without thinking: “Now just one minute. YOU listen to me….” Suffice it to say, that did not go over well.
After more misses than successes—and some reminders from research—I’ve learned (the hard way) to operate from four fundamental premises in terms of parents and how to partner with them:
1. As much as students connect with their youth leaders, they ultimately seek (and need) a stronger relationship with their parents.
Here’s the brutal truth: Certainly, you can have a large impact on a young person’s life and spiritual development. But at the end of the day, it’s PARENTS, PARENTS, PARENTS. As Christian Smith states in his latest book Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults, “Most adolescents in fact still very badly want the loving input and engagement of their parents—more, in fact, than most parents ever realize.” [[Christian Smith, Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 284.]] As you build into kids, you want to facilitate that primary relationship in every way, shape and form. As Mark DeVries writes in Family- Based Youth Ministry, “One of the secrets to a lasting ministry with teenagers is to find ways to undergird nuclear families with the rich support of the extended Christian family of the church and for these two formative families to work together in leading young people toward mature Christian adulthood.” [[Mark DeVries, Family- Based Youth Ministry, (Downer’s Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1994 edition), p. 18]] Over fifteen years later, Smith underscores this point today: …teenagers wished they were closer to their parents. They wanted to know their parents better, to hear more stories about their parents’ pasts, to spend more time together, and get along better. [[Ibid, 344.]]
It is not an easy job to help parents and teens listen to each other and learn. But we want to work hard to counter the stereotypes in our culture that “parents just don’t understand” and that teenagers are mysterious aliens from another planet. Hard as it sounds, our job is to build bridges between teenagers and their parents. And I want to let you know that it’s more than possible.
2. Perfectly wonderful, normal people are pretty weird about their own children—give them grace.
As you have probably already experienced, the Mama Grizzly Bear reflex kicks in strong at times. So always remember that even your greatest, most supportive parent won’t always see the same “areas for growth” in the lives of their own children that are so glaringly obvious to you. Tread carefully. And more importantly, have great mercy.
In a world full of dreadful news available 24/7, fear-mongering is at a fever pitch. Most parents are deeply fearful, whether they are willing (or able) to admit it. One parent put it this way:
I can understand how parents can go from helpful to hovering. For years the message we’re given is ‘the world is scary and complicated; your kids need you to navigate.’ Then one day (their 18th birthday? The day they leave for college?) we are told: ‘Time is up. Pencils down.’ [[Lisa Belkin, https://parenting.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/03/04/in-defense-of-helicopter-parents/, March 4, 2009.]]
Once again, we can serve the parents of our students by letting them know that their fears are normal, and that the process of individuation is a true challenge. To quote Smith again, “Adolescents and parents indeed are normally continually renegotiating the terms of their relationships.” [[Smith, Souls in Transition, 284.]] This is tremendously disorienting to parents.
3. Parents of teenagers are often having a hard time.
Let’s not forget that parents of teenagers are living with things that you and I (if we’re not also parents of teens) do not have to deal with much, if at all: messy bedrooms, sassy attitudes, fights with siblings, groundings, homework, etc. As Eugene Peterson writes in Like Dew Your Youth: Growing Up With Your Teenager, “There are no well-adjusted adolescents. Adolescence is, by definition, maladjustment.” [[Eugene H. Peterson, Like Dew Your Youth: Growing Up With Your Teenager (Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1976), 1.]] He sums it up even more bluntly later: “Adolescents are, more than anything else, growing up. They do not do it quietly.” [[Ibid., 7.]] This struggle is all the greater if and when significant crises come along.
Worst of all perhaps, parents are feeling rejected and not needed. This is a very vulnerable time for them. Gone are the days when their sons and daughters want to curl up in their laps for cuddling, hold their hands in public, and spend as much free time as possible with Mommy and Daddy. Instead, parents find these sullen, moody, hormonal, non-communicative, independent young adults invading their homes and it often leads to pretty rough waters. Make sure you are supportive, prayerful, understanding and sympathetic toward these parents.
4. There is no guaranteed, tried-and-true “method” for parenting of teens.
I was tremendously relieved to see a recent cover story for Christianity Today magazine: “The Myth of the Perfect Parent” (Jan 8, 2010; also see the FYI blog post). Finally, the elephant in the room is being exposed. As author Leslie Leyland Fields states, “More than any other generation, today’s parents are worried sick that they will mess up their children’s lives.” She supports this thesis with her own personal anxiety: “Our most consuming concern is that our children ‘turn out’—that is, that our Christian faith and values are successfully transmitted, and that our children grow up to be churchgoing, God-honoring adults.”
I have worked with students and their families since 1982. I would be hard pressed to come up with another time in my career where I had such a strong sense that parents are nearly frantic to do whatever it takes to ensure “success” for their children. I am not sure why this seems to be the case. But I do wonder, in an age when we’ve seen our world turned upside down by 9/11, Columbine, hurricanes and the like, not to mention a dramatic economic downturn, if we each want to find a surefire way to protect our kids from such unexpected and sudden traumas. Certainly, in our best moments we know that this is not possible; but we still hold out hope for such formulas. We have to be careful not to cater to these desires. Every family is different, every child is different, and each person’s spiritual journey is different.
We will have to offer a multi-pronged approach in supporting and guiding the parents of our students. One size will simply not fit all. As Chap and Dee Clark remind us in Disconnected: Parenting Teens in a MySpace World, “Your child is not a problem to be solved, but a creative, talented, and unique gift to be understood, embraced, and ultimately set free.” [[Chap Clark and Dee Clark, Disconnected: Parenting Teens in a MySpace World (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007), 18.]] This is no easy task.
Getting Real with Parents: An Interview with Walt Mueller
We asked youth culture guru and former parent of teenagers, Dr. Walt Mueller, to share some further insights on engaging parents in our ministries. Walt is the founder and president of the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding, and the author of several books on teenagers and youth culture.
Why do we tend to assume that peers are more influential than parents?
One reason is that we are prone to draw conclusions from the visual evidence that we see. For example, most teenagers, if given the choice to spend a quiet evening at home with their parents or a night out with a group of friends, would quickly choose the latter. We assume that because that’s where they increasingly want to spend their time, there is a consequent decrease in parental influence. Then there’s the verbal and behavioral push-back we see coming from so many kids in their responses to their parents’ attempts to provide guidance and direction. Add to that the willingness of so many kids to quickly and impulsively give in to the push and pull of peer influence, and we are easily led to believe that the onset of adolescence brings a loss in parental influence.
How do you talk with parents about the differences between peer and parental influence?
I tell parents the truth. On the one hand, their teenager’s normal social development includes a very natural shift that usually manifests itself in less time spent with the family, and more time spent with the peer group. I tell parents that if they allow it to, this shift could rock their world significantly, especially when they see who they are being replaced with. But I also tell them that appearances can be very deceiving. While it may appear that their kids are pushing them away, what’s really happening is a natural and needed move towards the independence of adulthood. And if you as a parent misread these signs as a “dismissal” from their lives and walk away, your kids will hurt deeply. In the midst of all this, they want and need your presence, guidance, nurture, and input, perhaps now more than ever. Yes, peer influence is strong. But kids are always looking back at mom and dad to get their bearings, even though they may have wandered far away. Parental influence remains strong!
We only see parents a few minutes a week in our ministries at best. What other struggles are parents facing during their week that we might not be aware of?
What we sometimes forget is that parents are no different than anyone else. They are living lives filled with pressure, problems, confusion, and self-doubt that come at them not only as a result of being the parent of teens, but from the other roles they assume in their lives (spouse, employee, etc.). Youth workers should go out of their way to be sensitive to parents. In fact, it’s sometimes safe to assume that the parents who give you the most problems are the very parents who are dealing with the greatest amount of struggles themselves.
While there is no tried-and-true guaranteed method for parenting teenagers, what 3-4 principles would you say are most important?
In my own journey as a parent, I have developed the habit of reminding myself of what I call the “this I knows.” I’ve realized that just when I think I have it all together, God not only reminds me that I don’t have it all together, but he uses my self-doubt, confusion, and difficulties to remind me that my dependence must be solely on my heavenly parent. This is the list of “this I knows” that keep me grounded, that give me perspective, and that I communicate to parents wherever I speak:
- My children are a gift from God, given to me to steward. They were gifts the moment they were given to me. They remain gifts through their adolescent years.
-“Success” is not what we’ve been led to believe it is. The “success” I should pray for and pursue for my kids is faithfulness to God, obedience to God’s commands, and the pursuit of a faith in God that is integrated into all of life.
-Like everything else in life, parenting isn’t easy.
-Perfection? There is no such thing. There are no perfect parents. There are no perfect kids.
-Adolescence is a process. . . and the process is long!
-Independence is the goal of adolescence.
-Helpless is a good place to be. That’s where God gets hold of me and does great work. The path to going deep in the things of God is a path that winds through the wilderness.
-Like all of fallen creation, my teenagers groan for redemption. . . they cry out for a relationship with God.
To Flee or to Partner?
Given my slow learning curve, I would like to share one approach that I wish I had used years earlier: organize consistent parenting seminars. They can become valuable instruments in your toolbox.
In my next article, I will lay out how I planned a series of community-wide seminars for this year, and how they went. I am grateful to say that they were able to gain solid goodwill with parents in the community, and provide some useful input to people who are doing their absolute best to love their children.
- If parents of students in your ministry had to rate you on a scale of 1-5 regarding your attention to, respect for, and care for them, how do you think they would rate you? How would they rate the other leaders on your ministry team? What 1-2 obvious changes could be made to increase that rating? How could you discover the less obvious changes that need to be made to better support parents?
- Walt Mueller shares his own list of “This I knows”—the reminders that keep him grounded as a parent. Share this list with parents of teens in your ministry, and encourage them to develop their own lists of “This I knows” to guide their parenting through the teen years.
- What does support look like for parents who do not share your faith in Christ? How can you guard against marginalizing or threatening their influence in their kids’ lives while also supporting their kids’ faith development?
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