As Ashley and I are nearing the end of “in-house” parenting and the “empty nest” phase of life, I’ve been reflecting a lot on our parenting over the years: what we did well and wrong, what were my favorite phases, and what were my least favorites. All phases of parenting have their challenges, but for me, and I think for many, the most difficult phase of parenting is a late middle school/early high school. If you’re there, you’re moving into what I believe is graduate-level parenting, and, in my mind, it requires you to press more deeply into the Lord and what’s important than ever before.
One of the things that makes parenting this age child difficult is the shift in your perspective. When you think about it, during your children’s early childhood, elementary, and early middle school years, your perception of their experience is still direct. You interact with their teachers at school and kids’ ministry directors at church regularly. You hang out with their friends’ parents at games, at birthday parties, and at pretty much any event your children attend. You see your children’s world through their eyes, but you also see it through your own. Because of this, you can moderate their experience with yours, tempering their thoughts, perspectives, and perceptions with your own. This allows you some degree of balance, and allows you to make good decisions with regard to your kids.
A lot of that threatens to go out the window when your kids hit the graduate-level parenting years. Instead of going to events (like parties) with them, you’re dropping them off. You’re dropping them off at school and at church, too, and you have much less interpersonal interaction with their teachers and youth pastors. And, pretty soon they’re driving themselves, and you have even less interaction.
Some of this is good and normal, as our kids start to become more independent. After all, it’s a natural progression away from them not living in your basement for the rest of their lives. If we’re not careful, however, we can fall into the trap of completely viewing our kids’ lives through their eyes. Without having interpersonal relationships with the teachers, youth pastors, and friends’ parents we had before, we run the risk of having our view of our kids’ lives completely mediated through the eyes of a 15-year-old, or a 16-year-old.
And, here’s the thing, something that all of us as parents know: the perspectives of a 14, or 15, or 16-year-old on the world around them, while worthy of attention and note, are inherently very unreliable. None of us would choose a political candidate to vote for based solely on the perspectives of our late middle school/early high school kid. Nor would any of us choose a stock portfolio based solely upon those perspectives. And, yet, if we’re not careful, we’ll make even more important decisions for our kids–like where they’re educated, or under who they learn–based largely, or solely, on those perspectives.
I’m convinced one of the reasons God gave teenaged kids to older parents is that parents have a greater, larger perspective. For a teenager, if it’s Tuesday, thinking about Saturday is a long-term vision. It’s very difficult as a teenager when I’m in one emotional state to ever consider that I’ll be in another emotional state at some point in time (like tomorrow). It’s virtually impossible to imagine that the friends I’m so tired of now will be, if not lifelong friends, those I remember so fondly when I’m older. And, it’s inconceivable that these teachers who keep giving me work will also give me the one piece of encouragement, the one expression of love, that will be the first enduring thing I’ll remember about my sophomore year 30 years from now.
But, as a parent, you know all that. So, here are some things that I think helped Ashley and me make it through graduate-level parenting with only some minor scars:
Get a life. Don’t let being Timmy’s mom or Blakely’s dad be your life. Sure, it’s important, but it’s not your identity. You are a child of God and a future co-ruler of the New Jerusalem, with a distinct calling that includes, but far transcends, being someone’s parent. Pray through and start exploring that life now, trying new things, so your life’s work and contentment is not so inextricably tied to your kids’ momentary happiness. When they’re teenagers, they won’t be happy a lot of the time. You were the same way when you were a teenager, and you survived. But, if your whole life consists of riding that rollercoaster with them, your parenting ride will be way bumpier and less healthy than it needs to be. It will also be harder for you to give them that much-needed perspective.
Find a friend. There’s someone out there you respect who has kids who are older than yours, and whose kids seemed to have negotiated the teen years well–someone who loves Jesus, and who is wise. Make friends with that person, and eat breakfast or lunch with them regularly. Give them permission to speak into your life. Tell them what’s going on with your kids, and ask them whether what your kids are dealing with is a big deal or a little deal. Ask them to tell you stories of their kids’ struggles, and how the Lord brought them through it. I had a number of these precious souls in my life, and they carried me through the teenage years, encouraging and exhorting me, giving me a much-needed perspective on where my thinking was right and wrong. Otherwise, your only peer group is other parents who are getting their sole perspectives from 15-year-olds, which is not entirely helpful.
Know the adults. When my girls were the age we’re discussing, they would often come home from school complaining about their teachers, something old Mr. Smith (names changed to protect the truly innocent) had done to them, or was giving them to work on. They would then criticize Mr. Smith, saying all sorts of things about him in their frustration. The benefit I had was that I had worked with Mr. Smith for 15 years or so, and I knew that what my kid was telling me was skewed; maybe partly true, but mostly very jaded through the eyes of a then-moody 15-year-old. With this information in mind, I could just kind of shrug my shoulders, say, “I’m sorry,” and not get very worked up about it. Or, if they were open to listening, I could share with them some biblical truth about perseverance and learning to deal with others. But, these are the moments when actually having a direct relationship, even an email relationship, with teachers, coaches, youth pastors, and friends’ parents, really matters. Sue Johnson, my former mentor and the venerable elementary school principal at Grace, used to have an agreement with parents, saying, “If you believe only half of what your kids tell you about me, I’ll believe only half of what they tell me about you.” It was a great reminder that my kids’ perspectives mattered, but there was no way those perspectives would cause me to act without some serious investigation and corroboration from the adult voices around me.
Just hang on. Now that I have one child in college and one who is “off the payroll” (graduated and with a job), I see several things. First, the most difficult time of graduate-level parenting, when they were in late middle and early high school, does come to an end. Secondly, the decisions that I made for them, in their best interests, as their parents, decisions they thought were crazy and they didn’t appreciate at all at the time, are decisions they are grateful for now. And, finally, that having my kids in a school where God’s truth and His Word were woven into them daily from teachers who really cared deeply about them (no matter what my kids thought on any given day) was worth it all.
I read a book the other day that I think gives some simple, practical advice as we walk through the days of graduate-level parenting: “stay calm, stay connected, and stay the course:” connected to our kids, connected to the adults in their lives, and, most of all, connected to Jesus and His plan for their lives.