Somewhere near the top of my list of Extremely Irritating Things is when parents a few years ahead of me in the childrearing process say, “Oh, just you wait until . . .” Fill in the blank: “Just you wait until the terrible twos.” “Just you wait until the preteen years.” “Just you wait until they’re thirteen; you haven’t seen anything yet.” “Just wait until they want your car every Friday night.” And so on. I’ve had to boost my filters so many times, lest something slip out like, “I’ve seen the way you parent, and I guess we all reap what we sow. Thanks for sharing.” But let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.
I’ve been warned and warned in particular about the “preteen” and “teen” years. Personally, I think Christians ought to be ashamed of thinking in these terms. God didn’t create teens, market researchers in the last century did, and we’ve fallen for the whole stupid construct like lemmings.
Preteens and teens are just children transitioning to adulthood. They’re not a third category in addition to children and adults; they’re simply young humans experiencing the very early awakenings of adulthood, who will (hopefully) spend the rest of their lives growing into mature adults, without (again hopefully) ever leaving behind the wonder, purity, and joy of childhood.
If young children need parents to keep them from killing themselves (!), to teach them to discern right from wrong, and to train them in loving and doing the right, emerging adults need parents to take them by the hand and guide them into the mental and emotional life of adulthood and into its responsibilities and accompanying privileges. I don’t know why parents seem so surprised when this is (for the parent) a lot of work. In the nature of the thing, you’re going to encounter a lot of emotional responses that are extreme and immature. That’s because . . . your child is immature. We don’t expect newborn colts to run races. Take it easy. Better things will come in time. Just don’t sink to the level of the immature responses yourself, and you’ll be fine. Remember, you’re the parent. You’re setting the example.
There’s the rub, though. In my experience (so far), emerging adults tend to “push your buttons” more than really young children for the simple reason that they’re now playing (however ineptly) on your game board. Suddenly they have ideas and opinions about adult things. Suddenly they have some real adult expectations (the age at which these expectations emerge in our entitled age seems to be getting younger and younger – one wishes the same could be said about a sense of responsibility). Suddenly they begin to manifest that they’re carrying emotional burdens and feeling passions and dreaming dreams that seem faintly . . . adult. You don’t just have a bunch of kids running around that you can put to bed or put down for a movie or otherwise put out of your thoughts as players in another game. They’re in your game. Their moves are starting to interfere with yours in real ways. To make things worse, they learned this game mostly by watching you – so guess what? You get to see all the ways you’re a loser at it, played out in very immature form in them. That child heaping snark on his sister got his tone, posture, and much of his vocabulary from you – and you get to watch it in caricature, because he’s still only ten.
It dawned on me the other day as I was talking with my twelve-year-old daughter, and she was blowing me away with her budding insight on the world, that just as I was far too surprised when my two-year-olds needed obedience training, I’m far too surprised when my preteens need virtue training – when they need calm, caring, and confident guidance in laying aside foolish ideas and emotional vices. Of course they still need a lot of wisdom. Of course their character needs to be formed in all sorts of ways toward goodness rather than selfishness and irresponsibility. That’s what this season of parenting is for. The fact that this is the season we’re in doesn’t mean we’re way off the track. It just means we need to get busy doing what we’re called to do: going for the hearts of our kids, training them to open that citadel to wisdom and invite her to sit on the throne. We need to rebuke, exhort, instruct, discipline, enjoy, empathize, invite, demonstrate, and cheer their every step. We need to ask forgiveness, and forgive. We need to spend time with them at the cross, where all progress starts and hope is always fresh. We need to put them through their relational paces every day, showing them how to prosper in their relations with God, other humans, and the stuff of the earth. We need to take the time that it takes. We need to be careful of frustrating them, because they’re still very new to the game. Where we see that they struggle because we failed in their earlier years – and we will see it every day – it’s critical that we repent to God and to them. Nothing is more central than teaching them that God is their Rock, and we know it, and we need Him, too.
Just you wait, then. Those who sow in tears will reap in joy. It’s going to be wonderful.