Monday, March 20, 2006

What your teenager can't or won't tell you

There's a small doorway exit to our church building's north side, and I always try to make my way through there once after-church socializing is finished to cut down on the front door's heavy traffic.

As I was passing that way yesterday, I caught a young teen boy -- probably 14 or 15 -- with his headphones on and his head down. He was dressed in modern skater garb, hair disheveled. He looked like every teenage boy in our youth group -- you know, scruffy. I'd like to think I was better kept than that, being an ex-preppie, but at that age it all comes out the same ... wrinkled and out of place.

I have a real big heart for boys between 8 and 15 because I remember how awkward that age was, so I tried to pass him a knowing smile (you know, that cool high school hallway head-jolt-and-glance that only cool jocks could exchange with any authenticity). It's sign language for, "You're in my posse." My thought was to develop a non-verbal repoire with him, because that's the best way to communicate with boys that age. It shows respect in a language they understand.

I'm a 300 lbs. man. I'm positive he saw my shadow. He insisted on keeping his head down and ignoring me.

Now, if I were older I'd probably use this moment to launch into how rude and self-absorbed teens are these days, but I know exactly what was going through that kid's head. He wasn't being obnoxious. He was avoiding eye contact. He goes to high school. You don't make eye contact in the high school jungle unless you mean to tangle. That's his understanding of the world.

It really doesn't matter what school he goes to -- big public high school in the city, little public high school in the country, tiny Christian high school in the burbs -- he has been conditioned to have his own authority challenged on a daily basis. Sometimes it's in passive ways -- "Hey you [insert insult here] ... I'm just kiddin, man" -- and sometimes it's aggressive.

Every kid learns to be afraid of the world, and that's why celebrities who flaunt power are so enticing. Today it's hip hop. In my day it was heavy metal. In my parents' day it was ... well, it was a lot of things in their day.

It's not the sin that is so enticing. You may be surprised to learn that kids who grow up in Christian homes are not so easily duped by sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Most teens in Christian homes have an intutive fear for blatant flaunting of sin. At first, anyway.

Power is the real aphrodisiac, though. Any kind of music or movie or other cultural outlet that empowers the ego, that bolsters confidence, is going to be a big hit with teens in any era and any culture. It creates a false sense of posture, to stave off the constant assault on ego they face without it. At the very least, it gives you a better chance to relate to a larger group of people that might conceal your weakness and lessen the damage.

I'm 36 now and a lot of my friends have young teenagers. For many valid and not-so-valid reasons, my friends have forgotten what it was like to be teenager, and are now (big shock) at total odds with their offspring.

I can already see these 13- and 14-year-olds start to withdraw from their parents in this power struggle. They get debased at school and stripped down at home. They're emotionally raw without any outlet, so they go into their rooms, turn the music up really loud, and hide in solitude. At least in there they are in control. At least there their reality can be manipulated to their comfort levels. Let them build up that sense of fortress for too long and breaching it becomes that first moment of serious backlash from your own teenager. Invading their room becomes invading their comfort zone. They'll deal with you in the kitchen, but not in their own personal space.

In case you're wondering, I am not arguing for some kind of touchy-feely parental model. Parents are not only in the right, I believe parents are obligated to invade their children's personal space and comfort zone. Being the parent means being the parent. There is no award for being your child's best friend. You are the authority, and if you diminish that authority out of fear of losing the respect of your child, you will lose both.

Establishing that authority is a balance. There's a difference between being authoritarian and authoritative. If you only know authoritarian style house government, plan on a couple things:

  • Constant resistance
  • Constant rebellion
  • Constant bailing your kids out of trouble well into their 20s, because that's what they'll come to expect.

    That's not a firm rule, but it's a pretty good rule of thumb. My father had this down pat, but he gets a pass because he was committed to it. He was going to get me to heaven if it killed him. It almost did.

    He would often quote Colossians 3:20 to me, which I always found ironic, since as a teenager I found little value in Scripture. Later in my life I discovered Colossians 3:21, and sort of put 3:20 in a whole new perspective for me. I actually prefer the dynamic NIV translation, because it paints a vivid picture:
    Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged.
    In place of embitter, the literal translation is provoke. Either way, I think the wisdom here is to not discourage your child with tight reigns. You want them to have some hope of finding your approval. Another good word is exasperate. Over time, embitterment, provocation, and exasperation will lead to teens who have no reason to "honor and obey" their parents because it will appear to be a lose-lose proposition. Why try if you can never win?

    Parents have an effective tool they rarely use: Disappointment. Believe me, if you have been an active part of your teen's early years, your opinion of them is of the utmost importance, regardless what they've told you. A belt to the backside may create a fearful respect, but the true authority is in the expression of disappointment. To a young teen, this can be a crushing blow that might ultimately encourage them to change their behavior on their own. This is especially useful if you have been combating the daily ego shredding sessions they receive outside of the house with some Biblical reinforcement:

  • Your love for them is unconditional, even though your trust of them is conditional.
  • God's love for them is unconditional, though his commandments are not negotiable.
  • They are uniquely chosen for life by God
  • He has a purpose for them, in this life and the next
  • There is peace in His power, in contrast to the turmoil and conflict in the world's power
  • While this life can be painful, there should be no ultimate fear when Jesus is the Lord of our life

    This boy I saw, my heart goes out to him. It's just not my place to step in usurp his parent's authority. What I am planning on doing is praying for him, praying for his parents, praying for his friends, praying that he has an encounter with God so that he's not afraid to look people in the eye. That is my goal this week, to shower that boy in prayer, because God has reminded me what was going on inside of me at that age.

    What this boy cannot express to his authorities and God, I hope to encourage him from a distance, with God's real power.
  • 1 comment:

    Anonymous said...

    I always motivated by you, your views and attitude, again, thanks for this nice post.

    - Thomas