When we were young, the world may have seemed like an open playground, full of adventure. Around every corner was a brand new opportunity. There was wisdom to be gained from every experience. Many of us were bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as we took on the world for the first time.
Then we became parents. And the world changed.
We put safety latches on the cabinet doors. We placed plastic covers over empty electrical outlets. We told our precious children not to talk to strangers, not to take candy from people they don’t know, to avoid certain parts of town, to look both ways before they cross the street, and to call when they get there. As parents, we sweat when our daughter gets her license, goes to a dance, hangs out at the mall. We lay awake some nights worrying about whether our son will finish high school, find a job, avoid an accident, stay out of jail, and find a nice girl.
Let’s face it; the world suddenly becomes a much scarier place when children enter the picture. Unfortunately, the fear we feel as parents can trickle down into the way we raise our teens. Our apprehensions can force us to relate to and train our kids in an unhealthy way.
What exactly does fear-based parenting look like?
FEAR #1: Loss of Control
As parents, we tend to think that if we lose control of our kids, they will somehow go off the deep end and wreck their lives for good. This makes sense to some degree. We know the dangers inherent in the world, so out of love we try to shelter our precious children from harm. But in order to do that, we clamp down on them. We start to dictate every area of their lives—from what they wear, to where they go, to what they do in their free time. Of course, we want to ensure they have the best opportunities as they grow up. But when we are overzealous in our protection, our high-control techniques keep teens from exercising muscles that will actually strengthen their character in the long run.
It’s like getting a new car. When you pull your new wheels into the driveway, it looks gorgeous. It’s clean, sleek, and perfect. And then you drive it. After you put a couple thousand miles on it, it gets dings in the door and scratches in the paint. The shine wears off. Still, if you take care of it, it will run smoothly for many long years despite a few scratches and bumps. You could try to keep your car in perfect condition by leaving it in the garage and never driving it. But cars are made to be driven. And while hiding your car in the garage may protect the paint for a while, hoses, belts, tires and exposed metal parts will begin to crack, rot and rust. I’d rather drive a car with a few dings in it, than have a flawless paint job on something that doesn’t run!
Now, our kids are the same way. If we try to keep them away from the world, they may look good on the outside, but they will not be able to function when they have to encounter the world on their own. And let’s face it: No matter how long we keep our kids sheltered, sooner or later they are going to have to step out into the larger culture.
Do you really want the first time your kids get hurt or make a mistake to occur after they are out from under your care? At some point, you will lose your power to influence them. Whether your children are out of the area for college, the military, or a job, your ability to speak into their life will decrease. When this happens, their primary source of guidance will be the character you built into them before they moved out– so it’s wise to make the most of the time you have with them right now.
Begin to give your kids more responsibility. Encourage them to use every experience in life—good or bad—as an opportunity to apply the lessons you have been teaching them. With the right balance of responsibility and opportunity, your child can begin to build that sense of independence and character needed to safely transition from adolescence to adulthood.
Fear #2: Exposure to Culture
Our culture bombards us with an ever-increasing number of suggestive and inappropriate media messages, and it’s easy to fear that our kids will be led astray. Unfortunately, short of wrapping our kids in bubble wrap, blindfolding them and plugging their ears, we simply can’t protect them from every negative influence. It may be tempting to make the boundaries so tight that there is no wiggle room, perhaps by keeping them from all technology. In reality, this is both impossible and unhealthy. The Internet and technology are too pervasive. And really, there are many good uses for them. We do not want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
The desire to protect our children from culture’s negative influence is legitimate. But in the teen years we have the opportunity to move from teaching and policing to coaching and training. While they are young, children need greater adult supervision on the computer, and this is where Internet filters come in handy. But teens require guidance on how to deal with the constant stream of information they have access to every day. It’s not enough to use filters anymore; there’s always a way to get around them.
Instead, let’s have honest conversations with our teens about proper boundaries. Talk with your son or daughter about cyber-bullying, and ways they can avoid it and help others. Discuss the dangers of pornography and the reasons they should keep their eyes pure. Talk about the problems of over-sharing on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter and the hazards associated with revealing too much to strangers. These conversations will be more effective than harsh rules. Teaching our teens to have discernment is vitally important. They will inevitably still make mistakes. But even in those mistakes we can help them see opportunities for growth. Let your teen experience the consequences of their actions—whether it’s a brief loss of privileges, grounding, or having to make restitution—and continue to slowly delegate more responsibility and freedom for their self-government. Remember, your goal is to coach your child to navigate culture on their own.
I also suggest parents take one night a week to be completely media free. It was once common for chairs in the living room to face each other; today they face the television set. So turn the chairs back toward each other and have a good talk. But first, shut off all the electronic devices, including your own cell phone. Take time to listen and ask your kids questions about what is going on in their lives. Get the conversation started by playing a fun board game or go out for the evening to a park, swimming pool, or ballgame. In fact, surprise them with what you will be doing each week. The first couple of times you do this may be a bit of struggle, but your kids will actually begin looking forward to it! It is well worth the effort.
Fear #3: Conflict
I’ve been confronting kids for 40 years and it has not gotten any easier since the first time. One would think that after living with 60 high school kids at a time for so long, confrontation would come easily. It doesn’t. But I have learned this through the years; even though I do not enjoy confronting people, I sure love the results. Conflict is a pre-cursor to change, not only in the life of the people I confront, but in my own life as well.
Conflict happens in every family. But we should not be afraid of it. Yes, there is always a possibility that something said or insinuated might be hurtful. You could make a mistake in your approach to conflict (wrong timing or mishandled accusation) or in the content of the discussion (misinterpreted words or comments wrongly made in the “heat of the battle”). But don’t let these fears stop you from engaging in family conflict! When you make a mistake, be quick to apologize. It will be another good lesson for your kids, and an exercise in humility for you. So don’t run from conflict between you and your teen. Use those times to communicate and work through the problems together.
Fear #4: Loss of Appearance
Moms and dads might also worry that their child’s bad behavior will reflect negatively on their parenting, so they micro-manage the house to erect a façade of perfection. But this fear-based attitude can be devastating for both you and your teen. Concerning yourself with your own good image is one of the fastest ways to build resentment in your home. If your teen has to have the haircut you want, listen to the music you approve of, wear the clothes you pick out, work at the job you chose, or have the friends you like, you’re inviting a rebellion. A teen at the Heartlight residential center once told me, “I’d rather do wrong and be in control, than do right and not be in control.”
Of course, I’m not suggesting that you lower the standards for proper behavior in your home. But keep in mind that it doesn’t matter what other people think about you or your child. It’s okay to admit, “We’re struggling right now.” Teens will make bad decisions. Parents will make mistakes. But that doesn’t mean you’re failing. There is not a parent on the planet who has achieved perfection. Let go of your fears about projecting a flawless image, and parent your teen in confidence.
We can be scared as parents. But we cannot parent in fear. If you’ve noticed that your parenting style is founded on anxiety and worry, learn to release all those fears to the Lord. It will free you up as a person, and as a parent.