Last year, as our church planned its annual youth trip to Mexico, one dad took me aside. “I’m thinking about letting my 15-year-old daughter go, but I have one question. Can you guarantee it’s going to be safe?”
I looked him straight in the eye and said, “No.”
He was shocked.
“I can’t guarantee her safety,” I told him. “But I can guarantee you this. It’s going to be much safer for your daughter to travel to Mexico and go public about her faith, learn to serve, develop a heart of generosity and actually depend on God, than it will ever be for her to grow up in our community without stretching her faith or learning to take risks and follow the same daily routine where she thinks she doesn’t need God.”
As parents, we’re often concerned about our teens’ safety. That’s one of the reasons we give them appropriate boundaries. But here’s the problem: Teenagers love to test boundaries. If we try to keep a lid on our teens, they’re going to test the lid. But if we expose them to real life, where they have to act on their values, exercise their gifts and depend on God, they’re going to have far deeper convictions and much stronger character.
The age of testing
A Christian school tells a young man he can’t choose his own hairstyle and is surprised when the boy wears a wig to cover his hair. A Christian father tells his daughter not to see a certain boy, and the parents are shocked when they learn she’s sneaking out after bedtime to meet him.
The only surprise in these scenarios should be that they surprise us at all. Once children are about 13 or 14 years old, they’ve moved past a “discovery” age and they’ve launched into a “testing” age (an important part of their development). They pretend they have no parents, ask to be dropped off a block away from school and perfect the nonverbal communication of eye rolling. During this stage, a parent’s reaction is usually to tell them not to test. We batten down the hatches until they hit college. Then after one semester when some come home with failing grades, an unplanned pregnancy or a criminal record for drug possession, we wonder what happened.
When we tell our teens to follow our way and present it as the “only way,” we dare them to test us. A better plan is to channel their testing into positive behavior.
The shape of testing
Keep in mind that even as parents let their teens make decisions, they still need to implement boundaries when “testing” involves any at-risk behaviors. That said, many parents have found creative, healthy ways to shape their teens’ testing.
My wife, Carol, and I never made a decision for our teens that they were capable of making for themselves. I’d say, “What do you think about _______?” and launch a conversation. This built their confidence and helped them test the waters in a more controlled setting. And if their decision making drifted in a potentially unhealthy direction, I was able to help steer them back on track.
I know parents who gave their 16-year-old a budget and the responsibility to pay all the household bills. The teenager discovered that she was financially capable, and she learned that turning on the lights and television actually cost money. As her confidence and sense of responsibility grew, she became less interested in testing so many boundaries with her parents.
As we raise our teens, our concern is really whether they will follow us in the faith. One of the best things we can do is let them see the values we hold. If they see our values through our actions, we can better guide them to test their own spiritual gifts, their faith in God and their individual abilities.
So what about the dad who was contemplating the youth trip to Mexico? With his encouragement, his daughter did go on the trip. And she has never recovered — in the best of ways. By offering her something to test, this dad shaped how she developed her convictions and character. We can do the same for our teens. And that is the best way to keep them “safe” as we direct them toward a mature faith in God.
Ray Johnston is the pastor of Bayside Church in Granite Bay, California, and the author of The Hope Quotient.