What is ‘success’ in parenting teens?
An interview with Dr. Paul Tripp
Editor’s note: Dr. Paul Tripp is one of our CPYU heroes. He is a counselor, teacher and writer. CPYU recommends his book Age of
What sort of goals should a parent have as their children reach the teenage years?
Unfortunately, western culture has had a terribly cynical view of the teen years. It’s a view that is largely biologically based. People tend to see teenagers as a collection of raging, rebel hormones encased in skin. Of course, the idea is that you can’t talk to a hormone. I read someone who put it very well. He said that if you add the word “teenage” to any other word, it becomes a negative. Take “teenage driver.” That’s a simple instance of how this particular age group attracts cynicism.
The problem with this way of looking at teens is that it’s a subtle denial of the Gospel. Actually, what we’re really saying is that there’s a class of people for whom the Gospel won’t work. That’s a devastating theology. My experience is that when parents buy into that view of the Gospel for their teenagers, it begins to bleed over into other relationships. They begin to have doubts about whether Christ can reach all sorts of people.
That means that simply surviving your teens is not enough of a goal. In a sense, having survival as a goal is selfish because it’s focused simply on getting yourself through a difficult time. The other problem with having survival as a goal is that, as parents, we tend to settle for external, behaviorist sorts of goals.
We try to deal with our kids according to the Nike way—“Just do it!” Children who have only had parents who want to regulate and control their behaviour don’t have much when they leave the home.
Naturally, all parents need to have regulations that control the behavior of their children, but it’s not enough of a goal. The sort of rule-keeping that we describe as behaviorism, which is disconnected from the heart, is repudiated throughout the Bible and was the peculiar sin of the Pharisees. Christ roundly condemned it. And yet Christian parents can be very successful at creating a new generation of young Pharisees who live with no sense of need for the Gospel at all, because they’re quite good at keeping external rules. That’s pretty scary to me.
We need to see that the final years of a child’s life at home are a time of unprecedented opportunity. As a child’s world unfolds before him and he experiences greater freedom, his heart gets revealed. This means that we have to take every opportunity to be part of the final stage of preparation. Being involved with our teenagers at a deep level is something we mustn’t avoid.
What’s the real problem that teenagers face? Is it their hormones or is it their hearts?
The world says it’s their hormones; but the Bible says, in literally hundreds of ways, that human beings live out of their hearts. We like to think that it’s other people and circumstances that cause us to do what we do. However, this little bit of blame-shifting comes straight out of the garden of Eden. The Bible says that our situations and relationships are merely the occasions in which our hearts express themselves. I really live out of my heart. The heart is the directional system for each one of us.
What do you mean when you use the word ‘heart?’
The Bible has a very simple anthropology. It says that people consist of two parts: the outer man—which is your earth suit, and the inner man—which is your spiritual self. The Bible uses a number of words—mind, emotion, will, spirit—to describe the heart. In a sense, “the heart” is one, big basket term; it’s really biblical shorthand for the inner man and all its functions.
The Bible attributes many important functions to the heart. It tells us that we feel, think, purpose, desire, believe with our hearts. We also receive or reject God’s new covenant with them, too. This means that if the heart is the steering wheel of the human being, if it’s the thing that causes us to do what we do, then it’s quite obvious that the focus of parenting has to be the heart.
Christ, as you know, uses the example of the tree to explain the function of the heart. You look at the tree and its fruit and you say: “That’s an apple tree, because it has apples.” Now we know that the reason it has apples is because it is apple-istic right down to its roots. If it wasn’t an apple tree by nature, it wouldn’t produce apples. In Christ’s example, the tree equals the heart, and the fruit equals behavior and its consequences.
I often use this example. Imagine that you have an apple tree in the backyard. Now this particular tree produces horrible apples year after year. So I say to my wife, “I think I can fix our apple tree.” So I go out with a big ladder and cut off all the old apples. Then I nail delicious red apples all over the tree. I stand back, and from 50 feet it now looks like a good apple tree. But we all know what’s going to happen, don’t we? Those apples are going to rot, too, because if the tree is consistently producing bad apples, then there’s something wrong with the system, right down to its roots. We all realize that we won’t solve the problem by nailing apples onto the tree. But this is the problem with much of modern child-rearing, even in Christian circles. A lot of what we call biblical parenting is nothing more than apple-nailing. And what happens is that six weeks later, or perhaps six months or six years, the child or youth is right back to where they were before.
So you’re saying that many Christian parents are behaviorists?
Yes, that’s right. But the problem is that they don’t realize they are. And much of the time it’s because they’re untaught.
If you go to the average Christian bookstore, unless it carries Shepherding a Child’s Heart by Ted Tripp or my book, Age of Opportunity, you won’t even hear the word “heart” mentioned in books on parenting. They are all about techniques and strategies for controlling behaviour. They are behaviorist, even though they appear in Christian guise.
The scary thing about these books is that they often have a temporary effectiveness. It’s true— I can control a child’s behavior through a variety of means. If I lay enough guilt on my child, it will move him. Or if I manipulate him with something he wants—a new car or a new bike—that will be temporarily effective. Or I can threaten him. That may be of limited effectiveness, too. However, the problem is that none of these things last. The minute the threat’s gone, the inner man hasn’t changed. And the child goes right back to where he was. And that’s what’s happening all over the place, not just in the culture, but in the church as well.
Why do parents usually find the teenage years of their children the most demanding and threatening of all?
I would like to be able to say, as the father of four children, all of them now grown up (although one is still a teen), that the only time I got angry was when one of them broke God’s law. However, what is in fact true, and I think it’s true of all of us, is that often I wasn’t angry because they had sinned, but because their sin had gotten in the way of something that I wanted. And what often gets in the way of parenting teenagers is the idolatry of their mother and father.
As a father, I, too, live for comfort, appreciation, success, respect and control. Now none of those things, in and of themselves, is wrong. But they must not rule my heart. If they do rule my heart, then in a moment of teen trouble, I will be likely to personalize what is not personal and be adversarial in my approach to you. I’ll turn a moment of God-given ministry opportunity into a moment of anger, rather than going after your heart. I’ll settle for quick situational solutions because I just want to get in and out of the room and get it over with. At that moment, I will be enraged with you because you have stopped me from realizing what is really important to me.
That’s why the key to being used by God with your children is to start with your own heart. Try this as an experiment. Imagine someone shooting a video of every waking moment of your life over the last six weeks. What would it reveal about the things you are serving? What would you say is really important to you?
You hear parents confess their idolatry in roundabout ways all the time: “I do all this for you and this is the thanks I get?” Or a father says “How dare you do this to me!” as if the child has plotted against him. I guess it feels personal to a parent because the child has prevented him from serving the idol that’s ruling his life. It can be a huge struggle for the parents at times. But the teenage years are a time of unprecedented opportunity. I’ve found that the most important thing I can do to help parents is to get them to begin the search for idolatry in their lives. Then, when they find it, to confess it and forsake it.
If parents do not deal with their personal idolatry first, then all the strategies I give you are not going to help. In fact, goal setting won’t help either. Why? Because, you always end up serving what rules your heart. It’s like the law of gravity: it’s always operating. That’s why I love reformed theology because it gets to the heart of the problem through its radical view of human nature. Reformed theology declares that worship isn’t first an activity for human beings; worship is first an identity. We are worshippers; you can’t not worship. We are always in the service of something. And if I’m not serving God in the life of my teenager, then I’m serving other things. It’s just an inescapable principle.
What are the most important opportunities in which parents play a strategic role in their teenage children’s lives?
Let me begin by saying that I am always struck by how transcultural and transgenerational the Bible really is. We tend to divide human beings into all these subcultures, believing that we are very different from one another. In some ways we might be, but I should add that the Bible is able to cast its net in a way that catches everyone.
This means that the Bible speaks to the typical struggles of young people in every culture. It works in a situation when a son says to his dad, “Father, I need to bed down the camel,” and it works when a son says, “Dad, I forgot to put gas in the car.” It spans those generations. So it’s not hard to look at Scripture and realize that the Bible is right when it defines the typical struggles of a young person. Those struggles are the opportunity for discerning parents.
For instance, the book of Proverbs is very clear in reminding us that teenagers don’t usually hunger for wisdom and correction. I’ve never had one of my kids say to me, “As I was riding the bus home from school I was thinking, ‘Dad, you’re a really wise man. I’d just love to sit at your feet and drink in some more of your wisdom,’ or ‘Dad, I realize that when you correct me you are showing me your love. Would you like to correct me some more?’ ” So what should be my goal here? As a parent I realize that wisdom is crucial to pleasing God, and yet it’s not the thing for which my teenager tends to hunger. So now I’ve got my job description. It’s to sell my teenager something that he is not seeking. And so I decide that I’ll model being a wise man. I want to show him that wisdom is a beautiful and wonderful thing. And I want to sell wisdom to him so that he becomes a really keen consumer. The point I’m making is that in each area of teenage struggle there’s wonderful parental opportunity.
Another characteristic of teenagers is that they tend to be very legalistic. They don’t particularly love God’s law, they frequently debate the boundaries and they’re very boundary oriented. I tell people that if God’s law is like a fence, then my kids grew up with fence marks on their faces. As teens they were always pressing against the fence. Now you don’t solve the problem of teenage legalism by debating where the boundary is. Why? Because a child who is pressing his face against the fence is believing a very significant lie. The lie is that the good stuff is out there and God is keeping him from it.
What I need to do is turn his body to the inside of the yard and show him the glory of what God has called us to. Can you imagine living in a town where everybody was gentle and kind, no one ever stole, there was no such things as envy, murder or adultery, no one coveted, everyone was always patient? That’s God’s world! So in each one of those areas of teen struggle there are wonderful opportunities for parents.
You’ve said that if parents don’t regard the teen years as a time of unprecedented opportunity, it’s because they’ve got something wrong with their own hearts. What’s the problem with adult hearts when they begin to resent their teenage children?
What happens in the teen years is that a dynamic relational change takes place. When my child is young, he is pretty much a slave to whatever my agenda is. I am totally in control. He goes wherever I tell him; the only friends he has in the house are the ones that I approve. However, the more my teenager’s world widens, the less that’s true. And what happens is that this adolescent sinner has a remarkable ability to mess up my world.
He can’t help himself. Every one of his choices collides with mine. I tell parents it’s like this: you can’t stand next to a puddle for too long without being splashed by its mud. The fact is that every parent of a teen is dealing with a person who is struggling to come to terms with life. We also must realize that every teenager is a sinner and is trying to learn how to live in God’s world, learning what it means to be godly and learning the dangers of sin. There’s no possible way that that won’t have a huge impact on my life. And that’s why people don’t like their teenagers.
Teenagers are completely different from the babies that we held in our arms. We loved to hear them coo and they smelt so fresh. It seems so ironic that the tiny person who brought us so much joy is the same young man I now resent. In fact, I’m so mad with him, I don’t even want to sit down and have a meal with him. Why? Because he’s made my world uncomfortable. That’s it. And I don’t like my world being turned upside down. I like a world that’s predictable and controlled. And I deeply resent the fact that I have lost that level of comfort and control that I previously had.
Actually, what my teenager reveals in me when I get angry and frustrated with him is a depth and consistency of self-love that is one of the horrible effects of sin. Paul reminds us in 2 Corinthians 5:15 that Jesus came that those “who live, should no longer live unto themselves but for him who for their sakes died and was raised.” Jesus is saying that selfishness is the endemic result of sin. It makes you totally self-absorbed.
And so what do I want? I want pre-sanctified, self-parenting children. I want children that I can always take to a restaurant without being embarrassed. I want kids who will do their homework without me being on their backs. I want an easy life for myself. And frankly, I never expected that becoming a parent meant that I would have to lay my life down for my kids. But that’s exactly what God calls me to do. My redemption cost Christ not only His glory; it also cost Him His life. That’s the model.
What sort of attitudes and approach should parents have with the family if they are to be in the right frame of mind to deal with their teens?
First, we need to understand how the modern workplace has devalued the importance of family relationships. This trend began with the modern industrial revolution. Two hundred years ago, when industry was cottage-based, if the family was in crisis the shop shut down to settle the problem because the family ran the business. But if you remove men from the home and relocate the place of work, all of a sudden industry begins to dictate lifestyle. What man today would call his boss and say, “I’m going to be two hours late because I’m sorting out a difficult problem in our home and it needs to be dealt with now.” What you do is say to your wife, “I can’t talk about that now because I have to be at work.”
As work and family life became separate, men began increasingly to define success in terms of their performance on the job rather than on their success in the home. Then along came the further problem of women leaving the home to travel to their work. Now women are also defining their personal success in terms of job performance. Today we are generations down the road from our Christian forbears on thinking about the family. Sadly, we don’t think nearly as much of the place of family relationships when we think of the definition of a successful life. But we need to. We must come to a position where we say: “There is nothing that I will ever be that will rival the importance of God’s work in the formation of my children’s souls.” There is nothing more important than that. And that demands some hard choices.
When I go out to speak, I’ll make that challenge to men in the congregation. I’ll point my finger and say: “There are some of you who are so busy in your careers that you’re seldom home, and when you are, you are so physically exhausted that you have nothing to offer your children. There are men here who actually don’t even know their own kids. And I want to offer a radical challenge to you. Go to your boss and ask for a demotion. Take less pay. Move out of that dream house and into a smaller one. Sell your brand new car and be willing to drive an older one. And be willing to do what God has called you to do in the life of your children.”
What are the most helpful ways to understand teenagers if we are to play a vital role in their spiritual development?
I think the most helpful thing to remember is that your teenager is more like you than unlike you. Unfortunately, we have this view that teenagers are in a separate class as though they’re aliens who’ve dropped from the sky.
One humbling thing that I’ve realized is that there are few struggles in the life of my teenager that I don’t recognize in my own heart as well. For instance, imagine my child has gotten into trouble because he’s procrastinated on a school assignment until the night before and he can’t possibly get it done. But haven’t I done the same? Of course I have. And when I realize that, I don’t come to him and say, “How dare you! How could you? In my day I would have never thought of doing this!” Instead, I come as a fellow sinner.
It’s at this point that my dealings with him are based on the gospel rather than law. Here’s my opportunity to point him to Christ. So I say: “Son, there’s a rescue provided for us in the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. There’s hope for both of us. I need it every bit as much as you do. And I stand with you. However, don’t expect me to write a note to the teacher to get you out of the assignment.”
So you see, it’s a whole different approach. I actually think that the self-righteous—“I’m more righteous than you”—approach closes down teenagers; it doesn’t open them up at all. That’s why Christian parents shouldn’t use it.
Is the wisdom literature of the Bible, especially the Proverbs, helpful in preparing us to meet the challenge of the teenage years? How does it help parents get ready for their responsibilities?
Yes, it’s vital for dealing with teens. As I have read the first few chapters of Proverbs it’s often hit me that what we have here is a father giving advice to his son. “Son, pay attention to my wisdom.” “Son, give heed to my instruction.” So I decided that I would keep reading the first eight chapters over and over again. I literally read them hundreds of times. Interestingly, what happened was that a number of themes started rising to the surface—a theme being something that’s repeated over and over again.
Now, I know enough as a parent that if I have to repeat something several times to my children, it means I’ve identified a struggle within them. So the themes that are in Proverbs give us a wonderful picture of what are the typical temptations or struggles of a young person. And they give me a nice template for thinking about the kinds of things I am going to encounter as I go through the teen years with my children.
What should be the basic spiritual goals for parents in dealing with their teens? Should I simply be trying to regulate their behavior? Is that a worthy aim, or should I be trying to achieve a lot more? My problem with a lot of parenting is that it is reactive; it’s not goal-driven. Something comes up and I react to it. However, Scripture expects us to move well beyond reactive parenting. It sets us heart goals. And so when I am helping my teens deal with issues of dating, or use of the car, or behavior at school, their individual situation gives me a God-given opportunity to help them advance in one of these areas of heart goals. So, for each of my children, I have tried to look through the individual situation to the goal for their hearts that I’m seeking to achieve.
One of these goals is to teach my child to understand and participate in the spiritual struggle. The Bible tells us that the most important things to happen in life are unseen. It also tells us that there’s a real enemy who wants control of my heart. And that war goes on in every situation of life. I want my teenager to get beyond clothes and sports and see the significance of sin and temptation which is there in every situation of life.
The issue of what rules the heart involves the issue of idolatry. Teenagers need to be challenged about what is governing them. Here are three idols of the teen years: appearance, possessions and acceptance. And so I want to take them to the level of the heart so that they can understand what is really going on in their lives.
Why is it that Christian parents are often frustrated in their efforts to cultivate a heart for God in their teenagers?
Because it’s the hardest work a human being could ever do. We have to get to the point where we realize that there is no hope apart from Christ. If I could turn the human heart by the force of my voice, or the strength of my personality, or the logic of my argument, or the wisdom of my parenting strategies, then Jesus would never have needed to come. So, as a parent, I’ve hit something that I can’t do by myself. And it makes me angry. It frustrates me. It discourages me. You see, what I want is some “instant fix.” Give me the three steps to producing godliness in kids. The Bible doesn’t do that. It doesn’t give us a system of redemption; it gives us a Redeemer. And here’s the really scary news. No matter how righteously I act with my teenager, he must deal with God or there won’t be any hope for him. And I can’t do that. So what I do, in my frustration, is try to do God’s job on my kids.
Many teens leave home because their relationship with their parents is so bad. What can parents do that will ensure that when they leave home they’ll be grateful for the life preparation that they’ve received?
Parents should remember that the best climate for a relationship is a climate of honesty and humility. I have watched restoration take place when parents are willing to begin to be honest about their own struggle. One of the things that drives teenagers crazy is parents who are all talk but no action. They hold up standards but never keep them themselves. I mean, how can you talk about grace but be bitter and angry? After a while, the child just can’t wait for that first moment to make his exit.
One of the ways I preach the Gospel is declaring my own need for it. And that can be done casually. I was talking to my 17-year-old son recently. I felt I’d been impatient with him. And I said: “It’s not going to be any surprise to you that I’m going to say I’m a sinner.” Well, he laughed at that, because I also said: “You have a robust experience of the same.” Then I said, “You know there are times when I think of myself more than you, and last night was one of those times.” And he said, “I do the same thing with you Dad, and I forgive you.” After that exchange there was a warmth between us. However, there would have been a very different outcome if I had said: “You know, you really ought to be glad that you have a dad like me. I’m always going out of my way for you. Why do you mess up all the time after all I’ve done for you?” You see, it would’ve been a whole different ball game.
The point is this: if I’m willing to admit my need of Christ, then I come before my child with the evidence of what he also should do. He has not only seen his need, but he has seen the changes Christ is able to do in me. I’m preaching the gospel just by living my life. I think that’s a very powerful thing. And I think it’s an opportunity that we miss, because we believe that if we admit sin, then we compromise our authority. My authority is representative anyway, it’s not based on my righteousness, it’s based on Christ. And I think that’s the way that I can be an instrument in Christ’s hands.
For more information on resources to help you understand today’s rapidly changing youth culture, contact the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding.
©2009, The Center for Parent/Youth Understanding