From my post ‘9 Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me About Parenting Teenagers‘:
Parenting teenagers like tending a garden. If you are a gardener, the goal is not necessarily to have a weed-free garden but to have healthy plants. Sometimes the way to achieve healthy plants is to weed the garden, but it is sometimes also necessary to focus on strengthening the plant before you attack the weed. For example, a particularly delicate plant might not be strong enough to withstand the gardener vigorously attacking the nearby weed, especially if the weed has deep roots nearby the plant itself. In such cases, the gardener needs to focus on nourishing the plant so that it will become strong enough to withstand an attack on the weed. In some cases we need to step back and simply let the plant become strong enough to deal with the weed on its own.
As with gardening, so with parenting. When parenting teenagers, our goal is to have spiritual healthy men and women who will multiply the love Jesus in the earth long after we are gone. In order to be instruments in facilitating this, it is sometimes necessary for us to ignore the weeds of character to focus on strengthening the plant of the soul. This liberates a parent to take a positive approach with his or her teen instead of being overly-negative. It means learning to strategically ignore certain problems for the sake of the teenager’s overall flourishing, just as we might ignore a weed to focus on strengthening the plant.
Saint Gregory the Theologian
Again, this is different to the approach with younger children. When you correct and criticize a younger child, assuming it is done within the context of affection and warmth, the child feels cared for and loved. But when you correct and criticize a teenager too much, he or she can wither and become alienated from you even when it is done in a spirit of love. As Saint Gregory the Theologian said in the 4th century when discussing the responsibilities of parents: “Every harsh and contentious word is but training for strife on a larger scale. And just as we mold our children’s character from infancy, so that they will turn from immoral behavior, so too – in dealing with words – we must not adopt an ignorant and rash manner when small issues are involved; so as not to make it a habit in greater ones. It is easier to hold out against a vice from the very start, and avoid its assault, than to beat it back and gain the upper hand against its advances…”
How you correct a teenager becomes as important as whether you correct a teenager. It is better to ignore problems completely than to deal with your teenager in an attitude of harshness, frustration and anger. Thus, the first step to keeping a healthy atmosphere in the home is not to yell, to avoid outbursts of wrath and to be careful to preserve (as much as it depends on you) an environment that is free from stress. (For more about this, see my post ‘What Science Has to Say About Heavy Handed Parenting.’) If you are upset at your teenager about something, wait until you’ve calmed down before talking to her. The advice given by Abba Dorotheus of Gaza on how abbots should interact with monks under their authority is highly relevant here: “When mistakes occur, do not be greatly indignant but calmly show the damage the mistake caused. If you are forced to reprove someone, try to find the right time for it. Do not be strict about small mistakes or be inflexible. Do not censure continuously. This is annoying, and endless reproofs lead to insensibility and contempt. Do not give orders imperatively but in humility, taking counsel with the brother. The word based on this is effective and more persuasive and comforting to the neighbor.”
Unfortunately many upright conservative Christian parents successfully inoculate their children against the gospel by approaching the parental task mechanistically while living in a way that creates a toxic atmosphere in the home.
Raising children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord is more about letting the fruit of the Spirit permeate the home than it is about knowing all the right discipline techniques and having correct rules. It’s less about trying to get everything perfect and more about modeling infectious love, joy and peace. It’s about instilling an inchoate sense that the life in the Kingdom of God is the Good Life. It’s more about heart-orientation than outward appearance; more about parents knowing how to model the love of Jesus to their teenagers than getting uptight about every little mistake they make. It’s about the home being suffused with an aroma of gratitude, prayer, gentleness and kindness that point the children Godward. (See my earlier post ‘Pointing Children Godward.’)
This can hardly be overemphasized since many parents have imbibed a false idea of what constitutes godliness, mistaking fussiness for holiness. The Lord is not looking for families burdened down by an exacting load of perfectionism. Rather, He is looking for love, obedience, growth, faithfulness, joy and laughter within the context of our fallen world. If we need to loosen up on our standards in order to preserve this atmosphere of joy, love and peace, then by all means we should lower our standards to the glory of God.
Preserving an atmosphere of love and laughter and joy with your teenager is like depositing money in their bank account, creating relational capital that you can later draw on.
We all know that a check is only good if there is money in the bank to back it up. When we ask our teenager to do something difficult, to obey us when they don’t want to, or to sacrifice their selfish desires for the good of the family, we are essentially writing our teenager a check that we want them to cash. But if we haven’t put money in their bank account, the check will bounce. Now the way we put money in the bank account, the way we build up relational capital, is by cultivating this atmosphere of peace and joy.