An old Ozark Mountain friend shared some wisdom with my dad a few years ago: "The older I get, the less I know for sure!" That's how I felt when I was raising my teen girls. I couldn't figure out the intricacies of dad-and-daughter psychology. But I worked and prayed and cried over it more than I care to remember!
Don't get me wrong: My daughters were my pride and joy, and I tried every way I could to be the perfect dad. But, man, how many times I failed! I was clumsy and always seemed to be "saying it wrong." I give God and their mom all the credit for the amazing, godly young ladies they were and are today.
During those turbulent and often disillusioning days, all I knew to do was spend time with my girls. Fortunately, that turned out to be the key to the relationship I wanted so badly.
My connecting point with daughter Courtney was on her early morning jogs. She wanted to run three to six miles at 6:15 A.M., so we hit the pavement together. I had to follow her rules, though:
We ran at her pace.
She did all the talking.
I did all the listening.
When I tried to change the pace (a mistake I only made once) or tried to give unsolicited advice (probably more than once), I was quickly corrected and reminded of "the rules."
I still look back on those early morning "joggers" as some of the most important hours I'll ever spend in my life. That's when I learned how vital it is to walk (or run) alongside our teens.
Walking the Walk
We parents of teens are called to leave our paths and get on theirs. Why? To be sure they aren't alone. To encourage them through the thickets and storms. To rejoice when there's something to rejoice about.
When we walk alongside our teens, we usually need to follow their rules. We're there to do what they want to do. We're choosing to actively participate in their world. It might mean joining a neighborhood softball team, or trying out for a community or church theater production, or shooting hoops every night after work, or chaperoning a field trip to a french fry factory.
The fun of doing something together can fill your scrapbook with pages of the best times of these all-too-brief child-raising years. Remember — the days can seem long, but the years are short.
Walking alongside happens when we step into our teens' shoes and see life from their perspective. We don't do it once a year; we do it often.
But where do you begin? How do you walk alongside a kid who may not even like the idea?
Here are some good ways to discover how to walk alongside your son or daughter.
1. Find out what he loves to do. Then do it with him, rather than just cheering him on from the stands. Sometimes what he loves will be obvious, but sometimes it may surprise you both. That was the case with my son Brady, who wanted to be a basketball player. But the pressure of basketball was brutal. I saw potential for something else: music. That didn't come naturally for either my wife or me; she'd gotten kicked out of choir in sixth grade, and the same happened to me in my junior year of high school.
"Brady," I said, "look at those hands of yours. You've got the most beautiful fingers. I can see those on a keyboard. I can see them running up and down the frets of a guitar."
"Well, I'm not interested in music," he replied.
But by the time he was a college freshman, Brady wanted a guitar.
Today he's recording his third album, writing great lyrics and making beautiful music. He sings all over the country; we do youth crusades together. And if you think it's helped our relationship, you're right.
2. Make the most of summer. Walking alongside should happen all year, but the best season for growing with your teen is summer. Before school lets out, get a calendar and note how many days you have until fall classes begin. Find a block of time each day when you can put your priorities, work, hobbies, and worries aside and be there 100 percent for your teen. Plan together what you can do — fishing, camping, shopping, grilling, tennis, whatever your teen would enjoy.
3. Take a wild adventure together. Recently my wife took our grandson on a one-day canoe trip down the beautiful Buffalo River in northwest Arkansas. It was gorgeous, safe, and surprisingly inexpensive (canoes rented for just $20 a day). Another family I know hikes in the Rocky Mountains every year.
4. Ask what your teen has never done but would like to try. Go try it together. Learn something new. Go with an open mind and a sense of humor — like the lady who, when learning to ski, told everyone that the only rule for the day was to laugh whenever she fell. Look for classes in a foreign language, dance, art, computer software. Take piano or guitar lessons. Sign up for a sports clinic.
5. Serve the needy together. Homeless shelters, the Salvation Army, soup kitchens, food banks, convalescent homes, tutoring — the list of volunteer opportunities never gets shorter. One father-son duo did painting and simple repairs at a home for troubled teens, then painted playground equipment for a school in a poor neighborhood. My oldest daughter and I went on a one-week mission trip to Trinidad when she was 13, and it was the best thing we've ever done together. We found common goals, common ground, and made memories that helped us through the most difficult years of our relationship.
6. Find out what your teen dreads doing. Ask whether she wants your help with that PowerPoint project about bacteria or that awkward phone call to a friend whose sister just passed away. What kind of assistance does she want? Remember to follow her rules — for example, letting her be the boss about where things go when you help clean her room.
7. Walk alongside your teen spiritually. You can connect to your teen and connect your teen to God by praying and reading and memorizing Scripture with your teen daily.
Just 10 minutes a day can give your relationship an "eternal touch." School may get what's in the middle, but I was determined to "bookend" my kids' days with a short devotion at the breakfast table and a Bible-and-prayer time before bed.
Three of my four kids really liked our twice-daily times together. I never forced my kids to be part of them; we only had those times when I was welcome. For the uninterested teen, I was like an old, faithful dog — ready in the corner, but not pushy. This old dog didn't jump on the reluctant child every time she came through the door, saying, "Let's talk, let's have a devotional." I was just available.
This should be "sanctuary time," a safe place in today's uncertain world. Don't use it for lecturing, criticism, or manipulating your teen with God's Word. With those ground rules, your teen can look forward to spending time with you.
My advice is to ditch the word "devotional," too. It's not Sunday school; it's your set-apart time, your quiet time, your sanctuary.
8. Bring your teen into your world. When I ran errands, I'd invite one of my teens to come along. If I was speaking at a youth rally, there was a place for my kids on the team coordinating the event. When my teens came home from a party or a date, I invited them to "debrief" over a bowl of cereal with me.
9. Discover your teen's dreams. There's a dream inside every young person, as sure as there's a yolk inside every chicken's egg. Help your teen identify his strengths and work together toward realizing his dream. My book Wired by God is one tool that can help you do that. Guide your teen in setting his own goals; then investigate ways for him to gain skill and experience.
In our family, Courtney enjoyed gymnastics and volleyball; Brady was into guitar and basketball; Cooper liked weight training and football; Jamie pursued cheerleading. I was the lucky guy who got to catch passes, spot flips, and cheer like crazy. Listening to saxophone practice and retrieving tens of thousands of basketball shots helped build foundations for friendships with my kids that I enjoy as an "old guy" today.
10. Remember that the relationship is everything. During those crazy teen years, my relationship with my kids was top priority. The media were telling them to have fun through sex, drugs and alcohol; peers were telling them that parents were no longer relevant. I wanted to earn a hearing by being the person my kids loved hanging out with the most.
No matter how you decide to walk alongside your teen, remember that it's not a chore. It's not a competition, either. The goal is to learn about your teen, to have fun, to encourage, to do some servant-hearted foot-washing.
Walking alongside your teen takes time. It may even start out as hard work. But before you know it, the process will be a joy — because you'll really enjoy this person you're coming to know.