Some years ago my children had a bathtub toy that was different from the usual tub toys. Rather than bobbing on top of the water, this particular toy would float in such a way that its bottom half would remain beneath the surface of the water, while its top half stayed high and dry.
At that time, my youngest children were small enough to while away the time with rubber duckies and squirt toys. My oldest children were still close to home both in body and in spirit, and above all, they were close to their Creator. So I can’t explain why I one day looked at that odd little semi-sunken tub toy and learned a lesson about the dichotomy of raising teens in a fallen world.
St. Paul says, “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” In other words, Christians should be “in the world, but not of the world.” We are called to set sail on treacherous seas, and to navigate deep and dangerous waters for the sake of bringing about the Kingdom of God. But at the same time we must keep our heads and our hearts above the brine, ever watchful of the temptations that pummel our boat and threaten to pull it off course. And, like that little tub toy, we’ve got to maintain a steady balance between flotation and immersion.
The task is daunting enough to tackle for the sake of one’s own soul. But for couples to whom God has also entrusted the souls of children, it can be overwhelming. Parental instinct may suggest that the best way to protect children from polluted waters is to keep them on dry land. This is a good plan for safeguarding the innocence of young children, but it is not beneficial to teens.
Believe me, I know. In raising our nine children, my husband Mike and I have learned plenty of lessons. Many of them have been hard-won. Some have been painful, a few very much so. Parenting through the teen years has been a particular challenge. Our predominant concern during this time has been to help our teens maintain a good balance between “flotation and immersion,” but we’ve dealt with other issues as well. Here are some of the do’s and do not’s we have learned on the high seas of parenting:
- Do expect that your teen will question you. He will question your motives, your authority, God’s existence, and the purpose of suffering. He will question why he must, why he may not, and why he should never. Don’t think that his curiosity is the result of bad parenting. Don’t worry that, by addressing your teen’s questions, you are encouraging dissent. Before you speak, ask for the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and let Him work through you. Don’t raise your voice. Don’t allow yourself to be perturbed. And don’t ever punctuate your answer with a dismissive “That’s why!” or a huffily spoken “Period”!
- Do expose your teen to current controversies, however distasteful they may be. Explain to him the stances that you hold and why you hold them. Help your teen to form a set of guiding principles that will enable him to make sound political decisions.
- It’s a jungle out there. Do be sensitive to your teen’s vulnerability. He might be Father’s pride and joy and the apple of Mother’s eye, but he is still subject to human failings. Give him the tools he needs to resist temptation. Take him to confession regularly. Get to know his friends. Limit the time your teen spends online. Install a filter on the computer. Make sure that you can monitor your teen’s online activities and text conversations, and let your teen know that you may conduct an occasional morality check. This is prudence, not a violation of privacy. Remind your teen that communication with his peers is a two-way street, and that all it takes to cause a wreck is for the other driver to be careless.
- On a related note: Do accept that your teen will make mistakes. He will make small mistakes. He will make big mistakes. He may botch things up to such a degree that you’ll wonder where you went wrong, what will become of him, and where God is in this mess. The most important things to do in a case like this are to forgive your teen, and to let him know that you forgive him. Say the words, “I forgive you.” Demonstrate forgiveness by your actions. Show compassion. “As a father pities his children, so the Lord pities those who fear him.” (Psalm 103:13) This applies to us mothers, too!
- Do take the time to pal out with your teen. This is fundamental, especially for the child whose love language is quality time. I made the mistake of discounting the importance of this when my now-adult children were still in their teen years, and it is one of my deepest regrets. Today I value the time I spend in the company of my teenage children. We enjoy more open communication, have a better understanding and appreciation of one another, and are making treasured memories. One-on-one time as a means of instruction should also not be overlooked. Scripture tells us that children are to be taught “when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.” (Deut. 6:7) To this I would add that your teen can also absorb valuable lessons while the two of you are grabbing a burger, taking in a ball game, or riding together to the grocery store.
- Do offer your teen encouragement. It doesn’t matter if your swaggering Joe Cool of a teen appears to need your support like he needs a ticket to the opera. He still wants your affirmation. When admonishment is in order, be firm but gentle. “Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged.” (Col. 3:21) In other words, don’t nag, needle, or nit-pick. It helps to remember that our conduct as parents should mirror that of our Heavenly Father towards His children. “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teach and admonish one another in all wisdom.” (Col. 3:16)
- Don’t assume your teen knows that he is loved. He may be the kind of person who needs the reassurance of frequent compliments and expressions of endearment. Fulfill those needs, even if, like me, you aren’t the vocal type. Make a habit of saying, “I love you” once a day. Whether or not his “thing” is verbal affirmation, your teen will be heartened by your words.
- Do set high standards for your teen. Don’t accept the popular view that the teen years are necessarily a time of trial for long-suffering parents, and a never-ending party for irresponsible teens soon to be bound by the shackles of adulthood. Instead, recognize your teen’s potential. Help him to set objectives, and to work toward them. Remind him to aspire, not only to earthly goals, but also to sainthood: it’s a message that your teen is not likely to hear in his financial management and life skills classes. Let your teen know that your expectations for him are no more and no less than those of God Himself: “So shun youthful passions and aim at righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call upon the Lord from a pure heart.” (2 Tim. 2:22) “Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.” (1 Tim. 4:12)
- Do equip your teen with a thorough knowledge of the Faith. This means that you yourself may first have to do some research, especially if you attended Catholic school in the post-Vatican II era. After all, St. Peter says that you should “…always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you.” (1 Peter 3:15) Take the time to become well-versed in the Faith. Do be aware that you may one day have to confront your own teen’s hostility to it. Don’t think that it can’t happen to parents who strive for holiness, and who have taught their children to do likewise. Mike and I homeschooled our children so that we could be sure that they were learning their catechism. But once our sweet, docile children grew into argumentative, analytical teens, we found ourselves to be poor defenders of the Faith. One of our children has now publicly abandoned Catholicism, and is an outspoken atheist who claims that his apostasy was instigated by his parents’ “simplistic” defense of their beliefs. Educate yourself so as to better educate your teen. When your teen asks a question that you can’t answer, research it with him. Make use of online resources such as Catholic Answers and print media like Envoy Magazine. Don’t be afraid to engage your teen in discussions about religion. Don’t insulate your teen from non-Catholic beliefs and viewpoints, but help him to “…test everything; hold fast what is good.” (1 Thessalonians 5:21)
The teen years are an exciting time of promise. Opportunities wink from the waves, but so do temptations. Even the most skilled sailor cannot steer his vessel safely without navigation tools. But, just as the sailor can rely on his charts and compass, so can we depend upon on Our Lady to guide our parenting efforts. With her help, even the most unseaworthy parents will be able to raise up children for God’s greater glory.
Mary, Star of the Sea, pray for us and our children.
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