Angie handed her son, Ryan, the sandwich she'd just made him and said, "Honey, I was thinking. Why don't you call that nice boy from church? The one whose parents were talking to us last Sunday as we walked to our car? He seems like he'd be a much better person to hang out with than the two buddies you're always playing video games with."
This was a typical exchange between this mom and her teenage son, so I wasn't surprised when she complained about her son's indifference to her social prodding.
Parents know that their kids' friends have a huge influence on them, so parents are often quick to find fault with their kids' friends. Worried that bad friends will lead their teens astray, they find themselves managing their teens' social lives in wrong ways and for wrong reasons. Unfortunately, this is the quickest way to place their kids under the spell of the wrong crowd.
When people are picking a spouse, they tend to look for someone who fills the gaps in their life. That's why opposites tend to attract when it's time to get married. But when people are seeking friends, they tend to gravitate toward people who share their common interests and values. This explains the myriad of cliques among teenagers. There's nothing fundamentally evil about this dynamic. It's simply the nature of friendships.
But there's a huge lesson to be learned from this phenomena. If your son or daughter tends to gravitate toward kids whose values are hostile to yours, it might be because your child's values are also hostile to yours.
Don't panic. The teenage years are a time when a lot of kids try on attitudes that are different from the ones with which they were raised. When your child makes some bad choices, it's easy to blame the bad influence of their friends. But a more helpful response is to admit that your child may be in a state of spiritual confusion. This puts you in a better position to carefully navigate these typically troubled waters of youth.
Kids do thrive when they're surrounded by friends who incline them toward spiritual growth. With this in mind, let me share with you the No. 1 way to have your children end up surrounded by spiritually passionate Christian friends: They need to be spiritually passionate Christians. Like-minded friends attract; remember? Kids who are excited about following Jesus tend to prefer friends who share their enthusiasm.
So how do you instill this passion? For starters, don't assume it's as simple as having them memorize Scripture and read their Bibles. These things can have a positive effect, but they aren't game changers.
Two things help build spiritual passion in teens. The first is waking up every day in a home with a passionate mom and dad — parents who radiates love, grace, mercy and hope and who spend focused time in the Bible and on their knees. They're fun to live with and easy to respond to when a teen has lost his way.
The second is being part of a family that serves others. Not just a family that feeds the homeless once a year on Thanksgiving, but a family that constantly serves each other, their neighbors, their church, classmates, strangers, the poor and the disenfranchised. When Christian teenagers are "servants," their others-orientation gives them a much better perspective when it comes to choosing friends.
We always encouraged our teens to be a friend to the friendless. When they do this, everyone wants to be their friend — especially the best kids in school. We also taught our teens to mentally divide their friends into two categories: asset friends and liability friends. We encouraged them to have both types, but advised them to see their struggling friends through a "ministry" lens. We urged them to share God's love with these friends, but cautioned them against confiding deep secrets or asking for advice. Instead, we recommended they confide in and lean on their asset friends.
Control Is Not the Goal
As your 13-year-old grows into an 18-year-old, your influence over your teen will decrease and the influence of friends will steadily grow. Unfortunately, there are no 1-2-3 steps or cut-and-dry answers to ensure positive peer influence. Christian friends aren't always "safe," and non-Christian friends aren't always "bad." Although establishing boundaries and accountability for teens is healthy, keep in mind that control is not the ultimate goal.
Here are a few ideas to help navigate the teen years:
- Reach for your kid's heart rather than just implementing rules.
- Pray. Prayer does make a difference.
- Make friends with your youth pastor and encourage him to be a friend to your teen.
- Don't let fear determine your decisions or define your relationship.
- Learn to listen and don't assume the worst.
- Spend time with families who have healthy teens.
- Get Christian counseling if your teen needs professional help.
Part of parenting during the teen years is learning to live with the natural tension in the parent-teen relationship. Don't avoid this ongoing struggle. Instead, at each decision, ask God to show you what you should hold on to and what you should let go of.