One morning I turned around in the kitchen to see my teenage son. Before I had a chance to greet him, he asked, “Dad, what do you think of my ears?” He was a self-conscious teen who was afraid his ears were far too big for his head. I confess I hadn’t thought about his ears ever. But that morning, I talked longer and more seriously about ears than I had before or have since.
Parenting teenagers is hard. We don’t like the unpredictability, the spontaneity. We get nervous about how quickly things get serious and how rapidly things change.
What the Bible Says About Teenagers
We need a biblical understanding of teenagers, but there’s a problem: the Bible doesn’t say anything about teens. If you looked for verses on teenagers, you’d find none. Adolescence is a recent invention. But Scripture does contain descriptions of the tendencies of youth. Many of these are found in Proverbs. In Proverbs 1–7, Solomon gives life advice to his son and teaches us what teenagers are like.
Proverbs emphasizes the value of wisdom and correction, as well as the importance of listening and submitting to correction. It even says, “He who hates reproof is stupid” (Prov. 12:1). These are revealing priorities for teenagers (and their parents). Most teenagers don’t hunger for wisdom. Most think they’re already wise and believe their parents have little insight to offer. Yet most teenagers lack wisdom and need loving correction.
Win your children for wisdom. Be a salesperson for it. You don’t do this with nasty confrontations and ugly verbal power struggles. That will make them run for cover or fight back. Wisdom isn’t imparted that way.
Making Wisdom Attractive
Win your children for wisdom. Be a salesperson for it.
Do you make wisdom appealing to your teenager? Do you make the taste of correction sweet? Make wisdom attractive. Make correction something to be desired.
1. Prepare yourself.
Deal with yourself before you deal with your teenager (Matt 7:3–5). Sometimes when I’d begin a conversation with one of my teenage children, I’d notice my wife waving her hands at me. She was telling me I was too frustrated. I needed to prepare myself by considering the issues biblically, discussing them with my wife, and praying for my child and for myself. By the time I did all that, I was in a different frame of mind and prepared to be God’s instrument of change.
After preparing yourself, talk with your teen in the right place at the right time. Get away to a quiet room, preferably the teen’s room where she’s comfortable. Don’t squeeze important wisdom or correction into busy moments or attempt it on the fly. By taking time, you’re saying, You’re important and what God says is important. I’m willing to invest the time to be his instrument of correction.
Admit your teenagers push your buttons. If you begin to lose it, excuse yourself, pray, and get yourself together, then go back and complete the talk. Remember, giving wisdom isn’t hitting your teenager with words. It’s putting a lovely garland around his neck. It’s putting gold from God’s pocket into his hands. This is radically different from the way teenagers tend to think about wisdom and correction. Don’t confirm their view and rob these times of their value and beauty by your sin.
Teens tend to be defensive. They often take our loving concern and parental help as an accusation. In response, they defend their thoughts and actions and engage in debate. We need to be careful with our words. We need to ensure we come to our children with honest questions, not accusations. We need to exercise self-control. We need to refrain from loud arguments that have little to do with wisdom and everything to do with winning the debate. Proverbs says, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Prov. 15:1). We must avoid emotionally laden power struggles.
2. Pursue them.
Teenagers aren’t only defensive but also insular. They don’t typically live openly. They tend to spend an inordinate amount of time in their rooms.
Pursue your teenagers. Daily express your love for them. Don’t ask yes-or-no questions. Ask questions that require explanation and self-disclosure. Don’t relate to them only during times of correction. Don’t catch them only when they’re doing something wrong; catch them doing something right and encourage them. Pray with them. Enter the world of your teenagers and stay there. Teenagers reject grenades of wisdom and correction lobbed from afar by someone who hasn’t been around.
3. Keep it short.
Keep conversations with your teenager interesting and to the point. The way to deal with a teenager’s short attention span is to make these moments of wisdom and correction interactions rather than lectures. Some of us carry invisible portable lecterns with us that we’re ready to set up in a moment. Leave them in the closet. Ask stimulating questions that make the teen examine her desires and choices. Help her to shine the light of the Word on them. Surprise her with truth. Let wisdom sparkle before her eyes. Don’t give in to soliloquies or diatribes. Engage your teenager in a stimulating conversation that doesn’t flash your authority or your right to tell her what to do. Rather, talk to her in a way that lifts up truth and displays its beauty.
Don’t catch your teens only when they’re doing something wrong; catch them doing something right and encourage them.
We’ll never be able to predict what each day will bring as we raise our children, but the more we understand our teens, the more we can approach them with a spirit of preparedness rather than a spirit of fear.
Reject the self-centered survivalism that defines success as making it through our children’s adolescence with our sanity and marriages intact. We must settle for nothing less than being instruments in the hands of God, who’s doing important things in the lives of our children. Don’t get sucked in. Don’t get locked out. Don’t engage in interpersonal war. Faithfully bring sweet words of wisdom and loving words of correction. Hold what’s valuable before your teenager and trust God to produce a love for truth in his or her heart.
This article is adapted from Age of Opportunity: A Biblical Guide to Parenting Teens by Paul David Tripp (P&R, June 2022).