Before becoming a parent I thought I would do best with having a teenager right off the bat. If I could skip the sleep deprivation and toddler tantrum-ing and bedwetting, I’d be good. I wanted to get right to the place where I could have a conversation and reason with my offspring. Because how do you reason with a child who wants to eat soap? Basically I was just holding out for the older years when we could be peers and friends and enjoy each other’s company without fear of a temper tantrum in the middle of Target.
That’s what I thought before kids. But now that I have them, I’m learning as they grow more and more independent and self-sufficient, how much is at stake when it comes to their decision-making. When you have a baby who bites, it’s unfortunate, but it’s also developmentally not that strange and maybe giving them a teething toy will satisfy the urge currently being met by chomping down on their big brother’s arm. Easy enough. It feels big and important at the time, but really, we can handle this.
Before having actual teenagers, teenagers seemed great. But now, as my kids are inching closer and closer to adolescence, there’s the tiniest bit of fear. What happens when your kid hits adolescence and is caught lying repeatedly, or sneaking out, or cheating on tests, or with a porn habit you feel ill just thinking about? Suddenly, a biting problem is an issue you would trade the world for, and the task of talking through consequences and decision making in light of these newly discovered facts about your preteen or teenager feels overwhelming and you feel under qualified.
Rightfully so. It’s terrifying. And fear, whether it’s in parenting or somewhere else, leads to reactive decisions. We do things in effort to self protect. We don’t think long term, we think right now, “What do I have to do to get back to normal as quickly as possible?” We ignore the problem in hopes it will go away or we over react thinking an extreme consequence will scare the bad behavior out of them. And it might. But that’s not all it will do. It might just scare your child away from you.
The thing about parenting is, you’re often managing the tension between trying to make your child into the best human they can possibly be, and wanting to preserve your relationship and influence in that relationship as best you can. Sometimes these two things work well together, but sometimes they don’t. And sometimes we have to make the decision over which takes precedence when they feel at odds.
So the question we have to ask ourselves is: Are we going to get really good at effectively punishing a bad behavior, or are we going to get really good at letting our kids know nothing they do will compromise our relationship with them? Because the older our kids get and the more their bad decisions cost them and cost the family, the more tempting it will be to parent the bad out of them, while also parenting them out of relationship with us.
Our kids will make mistakes. Our teenagers will make bigger ones. Costly ones. Embarrassing ones (to them and to us). And that doesn’t mean we don’t talk to them and have consequences when they get it wrong. But when the consequence for a bad decision—that goes against our conscience in behavior or identity or relationship—is withholding love and relationship and connection, we are more than doing parenting wrong. We are doing Christianity wrong.
God would never ask us to parent in a way that permanently severs the relationships with our kids. How do I know? Because God doesn’t parent that way. If nothing can separate us from the love of our Heavenly Father, than we ought to take a cue from Him and make sure nothing can separate our kids from the love of their earthly parents.
No underage drinking.
No bad relationships.
No sexual choices.
No drug possession.
No internet history.
No late night arrest.
God leaves a way back. So we should too. God leaves the door open. So we should too. God runs breakneck speed down a dirt road to welcome us home. So we should too.
Parenting is the scariest thing I’ve ever done. The weight of responsibility is paralyzing. The big world we are preparing to release our kids to, jarring. And there is so very little I actually have control over in the grand scheme of things and how their lives play out. Except one thing. One very important thing: Whether my kids will go to bed at night certain that they can never misbehave their way out of relationship with me.
If they know that, they know enough. We’ll deal with the fact that my oldest gave my youngest a black eye in a “pillow fight” soon enough. We’ll conquer my youngest’s maddening tendency to make excuses for every bad behavior he’s caught in, in good time. We’ll discuss fairness, and kindness, and sharing and believing the best, and everything else a seven and nine year old should know. We’ll get there. But first, this:
You belong here. You are loved here. And nothing changes that.
Do you kids know that? Do your teenagers? Do you believe it, but have a hard time saying it? Do you think it, but have a difficult time showing it? Start practicing now. Look your kids in the eye and tell them: even though you bit me, I’ll always love you. Even though you kicked and screamed your way through Publix, I love you. Even though you lied about that test, I love you. Even though the cops found that in your car, I love you. Even though, you’re dating him or dating her, I love you. Even though you are making choices I prayed you never would, experiencing consequences I wish you weren’t, I love you.
We can’t get all of parenting right. But we can get enough right when our kids know and believe this is true, and we parent them like it’s true. That’s where we can start.