We had just moved. Our 9- and 11-year-old sons, Jon and Tim, were starting over at an already insecure, uncertain age. No one wants to stand out as the new kid, so we took stock of everything, from clothing styles to school programs. We worked to help our boys find commonality with other kids through sports and by joining clubs. Our uprooted kids had to quickly find new footholds in an altered terrain. To thrive and not just survive, they needed to explore and confidently live out their unique stories.
This is every kid’s challenge, even those who don’t relocate. It’s also every parent’s challenge: How can we guide our children toward the best version of themselves?
We began by connecting Jon and Tim to the greatest story ever told. Then we looked for God’s fingerprints in areas that would shape their own great stories: their identity, their gifts, their relationships and their calling.
Identity: Who am I in my story?
All preteens struggle with a seismic question: Who am I in my own unique story? They are transitioning between childhood and adulthood, from living off their parents’ story to finding their own. Moms and dads have a time-sensitive opportunity to help their kids discover their significant role, their identity.
As parents, we sometimes assume our carefully edited script is identical to God’s eternal purpose for our kids. Now on the other side of this journey, having two adult sons, Jon and Tim, who with their band, Switchfoot, share God’s love through their music, we can guarantee God’s plans for your kids will surprise you! We never predicted our kids would be professional musicians who travel the world.
How do you imagine a great story for your child? We often played the game of Life with our sons. The object? Collect lots of pink and blue pegs (children) and end the game in Millionaire Acres, avoiding the Poor Farm. Although this is a fun game, it is not a compelling story that our kids should pursue as they grow up.
We want our kids to aim for a bolder destination, beyond obvious goals of safety, health, happiness, popularity or financial success. Our audacious goal is to help our children know and reflect the face of God to their part of the world.
How can our kids grasp this greater purpose amid cultural pressures that would shrink their identity to a clever slogan or a brand of shoes? We like God’s advice to parents in Deuteronomy 6:7, which tells us to use ordinary moments to connect our kids to God’s bigger story. So while we carpooled Jon and Tim, cooked dinner or tucked them in at bedtime, we talked about who God is and how we can engage with Him. Conversations about a difficult teacher, not making the team or finding a new friend can bring God into their present, tangible stories.
It is also incredibly life-shaping to connect our kids to others’ brave stories, since kids are drawn to and identify with role models. When we read inspiring biographies or invite engaging folks for dinner to share their stories, we can change our children’s stories to help them become a better version of whom they are.
Gifts: What am I good at in my story?
Parents are like archeologists who gently unearth what God has put inside our kids. With what are your kids especially fascinated (besides playing video games)? When are they most engaged, almost losing track of time? Do your children light up with music, helping others, soccer, bugs, rock collecting, clothing design, outdoor adventure? What do they love to do?
Our tweens’ passions usually follow their natural abilities. We can channel this God-given drive toward complementary activities, such as joining a sports team, signing up for piano lessons, meeting inspiring people in an interesting field or connecting with other kids who share that excitement.
Many parents instinctively ride the brakes somewhere in the late tween years, in white-knuckled fear. Instead, why not use the accelerator and create new learning experiences with safe but outrageous adventures? Take up rock climbing, run a half marathon, learn an instrument, travel somewhere exotic. Without this impetus, our passive kids could be swayed by peer pressure, living someone else’s story.
We gave up our Saturdays to watch surf contests, drove Jon and Tim to countless music and tennis lessons, camped along the California coast and discovered new hiking trails. Life must be interesting to foster interesting kids.
Focus on promising areas to build their confidence. One son liked baseball; the other just endured the game, so he switched to basketball. Jon was drawn to the trumpet; Tim enjoyed the saxophone. No child is good at everything, but everyone can be competent at something he enjoys.
One word of caution: Too much pressure will crush a child’s initiative. We knew several talented kids who burned out from heavy-handed moms or dads. Our unrealistic expectations can crush our children’s emerging story in this sensitive season. Instead we can applaud their momentum, which affirms their natural gifts. Show up for games, notice how diligently they worked on that painting and listen to their original songs. Tweens and teens want our approval and thrive on specific words of praise: “That dragon sketch looks realistic.” “You anticipated that rebound.” “You seemed to really enjoy that book.”
Remember how awkward you felt during your tween and teen years? Body appendages didn’t grow in equal proportions. You got braces or pimples. You were always checking how others styled their hair or wore their socks. Self-consciousness runs high and self-confidence low during this phase. We can be a voice of encouragement in timid times to help our kids be their best version of themselves.
Relationships: How does my story connect to others?
As our children mature, they realize their individual stories are attached to the lives of others. They have an increasing desire to fit in with a group. We can falsely assume this craving for peer friendships means they no longer need or want to be with us. But what all kids really want is to belong. This includes deep, strong roots at home. Nurturing healthy relationships with them is critical to their finding great friendships outside our home. Knowing they are loved helps them to love others well, which is the essence of a great story.
Family rituals remind our kids they belong. We served waffles on Saturday mornings and popcorn for movie nights. We read C. S. Lewis or Tolkien stories before Jon’s and Tim’s bedtimes, invented smoothie flavors and celebrated birthdays with a red You Are Special plate. We fought for regular meals around the table and turning technology off. We bought a cheap above-ground hot tub that facilitated many late-night conversations as we looked up at the stars. Like pleasant speed bumps, these happy habits gave our children’s souls an address in their ever-changing world.
Close family relationships give our kids a springboard for quality friendships, and good friends will shape their stories. An isolated story is never fulfilling. Our kids need others to make their stories great.
Calling: Does my story matter?
Our kids want to be the heroes and heroines in their stories, overcoming conflicts for the greater good. Heroes are never born; they are gradually shaped by facing greater challenges.
Tweens need a gradual increase in freedom, risk and responsibility. As we encourage their expanding freedom and (gasp) risk, we will hopefully see corresponding growth in their responsibility. We are nurturing heroes and heroines.
This is wonderfully illustrated in bald eagles. The parent bird’s objective is not just to have the eaglets leave their familiar nest. The goal is eventually to soar. It’s helpful to remember our destination: helping kids become the best version of themselves. This means raising kids who say yes to God’s extraordinary plans for their lives.
Our kids aren’t playing the game of Life. God wants them to discover who they are, what they can do well, where they belong and how much their stories matter in His eternal story. Whether your kids grow up to start a band like Switchfoot or work to find the cure for cancer or stay home to raise their own families, finding God’s bigger narrative is essential for them to live their best story now and to know it’s not just about them. It’s all about Him.