I don’t know about you, but after church my family is always starving. So today, as I was flipping grilled cheeses, the rest of the clan was sneaking food behind my back. Meanwhile, my six-year-old son, Haydn, asked, “Mom, why don’t dogs get to eat lunch?” Observant questions like these make me a proud mom. It’s also one of the more challenging parts of my job description. I never want to answer with, “Because that’s the way everybody does it.” So I described how dogs do not need as much food as we do, and how Weezy (our labradoodle) usually gets a little treat of leftovers when Haydn is “full.”
With three kids, sometimes I am tempted to just say, “because that’s the way it is.” While respect for authority and tradition are important for our children to learn, I also want them to think for themselves and ask good questions. This helps them to find their place in the story of life. Of course, some questions are better than others. We have to discern which are motivated by rebellion and ingratitude rather than inquisitiveness and reflection. Jesus was always good at pinpointing one’s motives behind their questioning (usually in the form of another question).
I remember being offered a book on manners as a wedding gift. The assumption was that this book would teach me the socially acceptable way to behave as a wife. While I wanted to be a biblically faithful wife, I was pretty sure much of what that book contained would maybe make me look like a good wife, but not necessarily be one.
Sometimes our youth are more skilled at recognizing inconsistencies in what we teach and how we live. And often, they have more boldness than we do in taking a stand for truth. We need to be careful not to squelch that with our manners and niceties.
Francis Schaeffer warned us in his book, The Church at the End of the Twentieth Century, back in 1970:
“One of the greatest injustices we do to our young people is to ask them to be conservative. Christianity today is not conservative, but revolutionary. To be conservative today is to miss the whole point, for conservatism means standing in the flow of the status quo, and the status quo no longer belongs to us. Today we are a minority. If we want to be fair, we must teach the young to be revolutionaries, revolutionaries against the status quo” (The Complete Works of Francis Schaeffer, Vol. 4, 70).
Revolutionary is a loaded word. Do we really want our kids to be revolutionary? We want them to stand out academically and on the athletic field for sure. But do we really want them to stand out for their beliefs? We know it will bring suffering more than acclaim. They might appear odd. And they might even point out some of their parents’ hypocrisies. Kenda Creasy Dean makes a similar observation to Schaeffer’s, only 40 years later. This is what she says in her book, Almost Christian:
“Successful teens—i.e., those who win adult approval—instinctively apply a veneer of noncommittal niceness to the process that gives a permissive shrug to difference (“whatever”) and avoids particularities hinting at ultimate loyalties. What niceness masks, however, is our tendency to reduce others to replicas of ourselves, which contradicts the nature of Christian discipleship. Following Jesus requires, not the avoidance of particularity but radical particularity, which, along with genuine openness to the other—is made possible only by taking part in God’s particularity and openness through Jesus Christ” (32, 33).
Raising Christian kids can be pretty uncomfortable. And hard. I really want to think seriously about what I consider to be a successful teen. I don’t think that they all will look the same. I imagine a successful teen is one who looks to Christ for their worth. A successful teen probably isn’t afraid to take risks, because their fear is less in being judged, and more in not living the Christian life to its fullness. A successful teen has high standards, but is humble enough to know they are not their own savior. One thing I do know is that I do not want to produce replicas of myself. And much of how the culture defines a successful teen can do them more spiritual harm than good.
The world values the self-confident teen. Self-esteem is preached emphatically to our kids. They are taught to be ambitiously pursuing their dreams without letting anyone get in their way. Yet Paul tells us, “Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others” (Phil. 2:3-4). That sounds pretty revolutionary, doesn’t it? As a parent, I need to ask myself if I am sending any schizophrenic messages. And, I think the church, as well as the home, should be the very places where our kids are comfortable asking the hard questions.