If you could be a fly on the wall at my house at dinner time you would probably bust a gut. I live with three teens ages 14, 15 & 16 as you might remember, and the evenings when our schedule allows us to all eat at one table at the same time resembles something between a game show, reality television drama, and any typical youth group. My kids cycle through deep questions, stories about friends and foes from school, and pure silliness. Many nights the 14-yr-old and 15-yr-old simply can not muster kind words for each other. Other times in one moment my teens are laughing, the next brooding, and some rage might fit itself in between. Last night one of my kids described with great animation how high school boys responded to a teacher who is also a coach announcing to his class, “In my lifetime I have seen a lot of balls.” Their siblings then spent 10 minutes in tears, which was followed by a decision to make up a game that resembled “Name That Tune” only with one person “meowing” the song. It was joyous and loud, so very loud.
Yet, too often these moments turn into the spaces when I am overwhelmed by parenting my own youth group. They talk over each other, they all are insecure and need my full attention at the same time, wanting guidance, acceptance and advice. They have questions I have no answer for and concerns I don’t know where to start. As my children have gotten into these years, I’ve discovered that no one prepared me for how hard it is to live with teens 24/7 and attempt to parent them. I didn’t know I would get so deeply wounded when they tried to tell me they didn’t need me anymore in one moment and the very next ask me for money.
As these experiences continue, my perspective of parents of teens in my ministry continues to change. Here are two main areas I see:
#1: We Don’t Like To Admit Our Weaknesses
I have the same conversation with almost every parent of kids ages 10-18. It starts with some uncomfortable joke about teens being difficult, moves to a quiet desperation of admitting they feel like they are “doing it all wrong,” glides into a moment of wondering if their kids will be “ok,” and circles to a shrug and the phrase, “What can you do?” Yet, in the day and age of perfectly captured moments shared via social media, we parents genuinely believe we are all the only ones who don’t have it all together. Therefore, being truthful about our parenting skills is difficult. This lends itself to parents reacting in different ways: some disengage, others put on a fake smile, while still others appear aloof. It all comes from that pit in our stomach that fears our children will go off the deep end as young adults the way so many statistics in the news suggest.
No one wants to be the desperate parent who sits down with the youth worker and says, “I have no clue?” No instead we might drop kids and leave youth group before you have time to talk to us, or sound a little too excited when our child tells us you are going to pick them up to hang out. You might communicate with us well, but that is not enough. We need you to come alongside us and genuinely partner with us. I promise more of us than you realize are not looking to be replaced, but we do need you and other adults to reinforce truth into our kids.
#2 The Digital Age Is Killing Us
This is practical. It’s easy for my kids to disengage from me and to connect online. It makes communication with my kids on a deeper level challenging sometimes. When my kids are invited to go “do something,” friends and adults can contact my children directly. I will be blunt here. It is a huge pet peeve of mine when my kids get a text from an adult asking them to do something, without engaging me in the conversation. Why? I am the transportation director and schedule keeper. I need more details than my grunting 15-yr-old boy will convey. Parents of teens need help with this digital landscape, and we need those who spend all of their time with teens to help us.
I was taken aside by a teacher that has had each of my kids and asked this the other day, “How are your kids turning out so great? I mean I don’t mean to sound rude, but is it an accident? Most of the time there is at least one black sheep in the family. What are you doing well?” I smiled and talked about Christ as a foundation, and some other stuff. However, what I wanted to say was, “Honestly other than Jesus making up for our mistakes and serving a big God, I have no idea. Really, I guess I just show up. You are probably right, it is a cosmic miracle.”
Then I walked away and remembered again, if I as 25-year veteran in youth ministry feel this way, what are other parents feeling? Then I thought, maybe it is just that I show up, and perhaps what I can offer most to other parents is the encouragement to keep showing up too.