God Help Us…No, Like Seriously (On Parenting Teenagers)

Before I was in kindergarten, sometimes my mom would take me to McDonald’s and ask me not to tell my brother or sister. She taught me a little saying that I still remember to this day.

“Now Matthew,” she’d say to me, “when Tim and Trina ask if I took you to McDonald’s, I have something I want you to say.”

She went over and over the saying with me. I had no idea what it meant, but I still remember my mom laughing her head off when my older brother was interrogating me about whether or not I got to go to McDonald’s, and I said…

“I refuse to answer on the grounds that it may incriminate me.”

I was five. It was pretty darn cute.

I also remember my mom telling me I was the best bed maker she’d ever seen. (Apparently my brother and sister weren’t the only ones who got duped.) So of course I worked my magic on her bed – a red velvet bedspread with white satin throw pillows. I was proud every time I made that bed.

Truth be told, I was a pretty easy kid. Not a lot of drama. Did what I was told for the most part. And didn’t cause much trouble.

When I was in ninth grade my brother went to live with my biological father, my stepbrother went to live with his real mom, my sister got married, and my mom did the right thing and divorced my step dad.

For the next year and a half, it was just the two of us. I can’t think of many times in my life I enjoyed more than that year I spent alone with my mom.

“I’m sorry I’ve been feeding you so much fast food for dinner,” she would say.

“I’m good with it. I love fast food,” I’d tell her. “Why cook when there’s only two of us?”

We took a road trip together that next year – drove from Cleveland, Ohio all the way down through Washington D.C. Neither of us was prepared for the eight lanes of traffic on the highway that cut through the city. I was only sixteen, but the traffic was too much for my mom so she pulled over and made me drive through D.C.

No lie. Sink or swim. It’s a wonder we’re still alive.

That next year I started smoking weed. For a while my mom had no idea. But as soon as she figured it out, she took me to a drug rehab counselor. Her name was Vera and she had scary eyes. One looked me dead in the eye while the other meandered…I imagined searching me for drugs. Vera was nice but she was over it. She knew I was a liar. She didn’t even pretend to believe me when I answered her questions.

I’ll never forget how my mom skipped work and took me to the drug rehab facility that may as well have been jail. It scared me, in a good way, and I was forced to accept the consequences of my behavior.

I have two teenage girls; fifteen and sixteen. I can’t begin to tell you how much I love them. I’d die for them over and over again if I had to. Like I’m sure my mother would for me.

But teenagers are hard. Or haven’t you heard?

There are quite a few parents out there who are running away from parenting. They party rather than parent, and God knows I understand why.

Because it’s hard.

Parenting teenagers can bring you to the end of yourself. Half the time you don’t know what you’re doing, and the other half you’re trying to smooth over the kind of damage they’ll probably need therapy for in the future. (I plan on footing the bill when they need it…I swear.)

But here’s what I’m beginning to understand about parenting teenagers…

I would rather raise my kids in the real world than a world of spiritual and moral platitudes where we’ve been told that if we would just Dad or Mom the right way, our teens wouldn’t be so teenargery – impulsive, selfish, erratic, hormonal, wonderful, compassionate, insecure, and just…struggling.

But the spiritual culture surrounding these moral platitudes is often based on outward actions. And when teenagers who attend Christian youth groups or other spiritual activities are able to mimic what they hear at a surface level, parents like to believe their teens are in the clear.

Listen…if you’re looking for good behavior, then yes, maybe they are in the clear. But if you are looking for effective kids in the world – kids who have gone through REAL LIFE difficulties, faced the consequences of their bad choices and RECOVERED from their bad choices, you are going to need more than perfect attendance at youth group or the empty ritual of “being good.”

I want my teenagers to know how to survive in a broken world – how to get up when they fall down. I’m not looking for perfection. You know why? BECAUSE THEY ARE TEENAGERS. They’re SUPPOSED to screw things up.

I’ve spent way too much time teaching my kids how not to fail, when I should’ve been teaching them HOW TO RECOVER.

My mom loved me. She told me all the time. And then when I screwed up…she took me to Vera, with the bloodhound, pot-sniffing eyeball. She made me face the consequences of my bad choices because she loved me. And her love worked it’s magic in my life beautifully.

I have this idea that in ten or twenty years my girls are going to be killing it out in the world…doing amazing things because they’ve learned how to recover – how to fall down and get back up. Because falling down and getting back up is way more powerful than NEVER FALLING DOWN. Because we ALL fall down, even those of us who pretend we don’t. So if it seems like your kid never falls down, you should probably figure out how their version of falling down is happening, because I promise you, it is.

Porn, drugs, lying, cheating, cutting, stealing and drinking are not the only ways to fall down. There’s also insecurity, self-loathing, undo stress, control, anger, not being able to sit with yourself, over-responsibility, all-or-nothing thinking, and out of whack religiosity. You might want to watch out for this latter group…because while easy to miss, they are just as dangerous.

Last thing…here comes the practical.

WE GET HELP WHEN WE NEED IT. Counseling is the norm in our home. Sometimes Heather and I go separately and sometimes we go together. And those sessions can be frustrating and awesome and fun and so enlightening. We are learning how to communicate better as parents, how to not lie to ourselves or to our girls, how to be more patient and gentle (pointing at myself), how to get some structure going in the home, and how to respect our girls, because when we show them respect we are really respecting ourselves.

I’m staying in the game ya’ll. I’m choosing to keep working hard at parenting and I hope you’ll join me. Because even though it’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, it is most definitely worth it. So DON’T GIVE UP! We can do this!!!

And if you take only one thing from this article, might I suggest:

DON’T LET YOUR SIXTEEN-YEAR-OLD DRIVE THROUGH WASHINGTON D.C.  (For real, Mom?)

READ PART 2 HERE: PART 2: GOD HELP US…NO, LIKE SERIOUSLY (ON PARENTING TEENAGERS)

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