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Parenting Isn’t Paint By Numbers

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As our kids become teens, we’ve already established many of the parenting basics. But the masterpiece isn’t finished, and our role as parents is changing.

You want to paint a mural in your room? When my daughter Jeannie was on the cusp of her teen years, she asked if she could paint a “masterpiece” on her bedroom wall. It was a big undertaking for an inexperienced artist, but she seemed ready to tackle it, and she started sketching out ideas while I made lunch. Still, the project made this parent a little nervous. Would she finish? What about my carpet and my nicely painted walls? Why wouldn’t she let me in her room to see how it was going?

Jeannie worked late into the night. The next morning, she had me close my eyes as she led me into her room. I opened my eyes to see my daughter’s amazing work—it was perhaps the first time I fully recognized her maturing, God-given talent as an artist. I lavished her with affirmation and encouragement. We talked about the inspiration behind her masterpiece. It wasn’t the time to point out her mistakes or the paint spills. Her ability to scale an art project without any formal training was a gift to be nurtured.

Later that night, I thought about my artistic daughter, and how different she was from her siblings. They were all truly one of a kind. I wanted to honor and respect their unique personalities. How can I help guide them wisely, yet still in accordance with how God has designed them to be? And can I do so while still having a strong relationship with each one?

Changing roles

I learned something about parenting teens as I watched Jeannie tweak her masterpiece. My daughter didn’t immediately get the results she desired. The basics were all there, but there was still much work to be done. She had to mix colors, paint, wait for it to dry, and then add additional touches here and there until it was finished.

Raising future adults requires similar, ongoing attention. As our kids enter the teen years, we’ve already put many of the parenting basics in place. We’ve generally established acceptable behavior, taught truth, nurtured their faith and character, helped them learn various life skills. But the mural of who they are becoming isn’t finished, and our role as parents is changing.

Our teens need a little more space to discover lessons on their own. As parents, we begin the transition from managing their daily tasks and schedules to being more of a guide, helping them navigate a challenging season of growth and maturity so they have the confidence to make decisions on their own. And when it’s safe—when they want to paint a mural on their bedroom wall—we give them that freedom to create without being managed. The freedom to try, and even fail, without fear.

No, teens aren’t usually mature enough to be given complete freedom at once. It happens little by little with our help along the way. That’s why we gradually move into this phase of parenting. We give teens the freedom when they’ve shown they can handle it.

An opportunity for responsibility

In the teen years, our kids start to push back on your instructions, wanting more flexibility and freedom in pursuing the goals of responsibility and wise behavior. That desire for freedom is an excellent opportunity for us to let them assume more responsibility — for the good decisions and the poor ones. I enjoy speaking to my teens with this phrase: “I invite you to consider.” It usually softens any comment or reminder from me, reducing tension: “I invite you to consider doing your schoolwork before going to practice.” That style of speaking communicates respect for a teen’s coming maturity. And often my teens will ask for suggestions when they know they are only being asked to consider possible alternatives. 

Teens gain confidence when they know we believe in them. As a result, the natural fear of failure doesn’t hinder them from learning to try. When they experience your willingness to let them make decisions, their desire to ask for our input grows.

Parents: don’t be ruled by rules

Enforcing boundaries is a necessary part of parenting. But as kids transition into the teen years, we can too easily become bound up by our boundaries. There are many reasons we cling to our parenting rules: We don’t want our child to mess up; we want to be fair to every child; we want to maintain some control over the chaos of family life.

All of these are valid concerns, but we must not forget we are raising unique individuals who will all too soon be trying to establish rules for themselves. I’ve seen too many families suffer broken relationship at the hand of the unbending parenting rules.

Every child is a masterpiece—an original masterpiece. There are no replicas. So it only makes sense that we should carefully tailor our parenting as we help our child become the masterpiece he or she was created to be.

Children who demonstrate maturity can be given more freedom than children who struggle to carry out their parents’ instructions. Some children need more parental time or more detailed training. Other children are hard to keep up with because they are maturing quickly. When we avoid a paint-by-number approach, our children are free to grow up at a pace they can handle. By not allowing our parenting rules, limits and boundaries to rule us, we lower the risk of ruining the relationship.

Discerning their Motive

One night after hosting a Bible study for teens, I asked a couple of my children to clean up the kitchen before going to bed. They nodded in agreement, so I focused on other things. The next morning, I walked into the kitchen only to see the sink full of dirty cups and plates. Why didn’t they do what I asked them to do?

After breakfast, I inquired why the dishes hadn’t been done. They responded with an immediate apology and began telling me how some of the kids wanted to talk about personal struggles. By the time they had all finished the conversation, it was late and my kids had forgotten about cleaning the kitchen.

Had I reacted before asking, I would have missed the opportunity to listen to them talk about their conversation. If we’re going to discern teens’ motives, it’s important to listen so our children feel heard and respected. When we are slow to speak and quick to hear, our kids learn to trust us with their ideas and dreams and even mistakes. That’s how relationships grow stronger.

As parents, we are the primary influencers in a child’s life. How will we nurture them as unique individuals? One day when looking back, you’ll see how a willingness to parent the masterpieces that God has created yields rich relationships that last long after your kids have left your home.

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