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Performance-based Relationships (PART 2)

by Mark Gregston

You think parents want good things for the kids? Absolutely. I’m not implying that you should abandon your high expectations for your children or that you shouldn’t encourage them to be the best that they can be. Just be careful not to communicate that your love is conditional and assure them that you will always be there for them. 

I want my children, and now my grandchildren to know that they can do nothing to make me love them less and they can do nothing to make me love them more. Parents must be careful how they communicate expectations because every child will fail. Sometimes when your children do not perform well, they think your relationship will suffer, unless you convince them otherwise. This is the critical juncture and often the melting point of a parent child relationship. So often, this is when parents ask themselves how something so well intended, their desire for their child to succeed, could work against them. Kids begin to think that they can never live up to their parents’ expectations or God’s, so they give up.  

Let me give you an example of this that I think is important. Some popular programs motivate kids to save themselves sexually until marriage, which I’m all for. These programs are very well-intended and I’m sure many kids commit themselves to abstinence and saving themselves for the one that they someday marry. This is a well-founded expectation. It’s based on biblical truth. Agreed to by the teen and it’s rooted in nothing but a fine attempt to help teens live the way that God desires for them to live. But what happens when those promise makers become promise breakers? What happens when you no longer fit in the club? What do you think teens feel when they make mistakes that eliminate them from something they’ve been striving for or when they have to lie or fake it to stay in the group and hide their shame? 

Of course, kids experience the consequences of their choices, but sometimes we make those consequences worse than they need to be. We do well when we set high standards for kids. To challenge them in activities that will help them be the best that they can be, but we don’t do so well when we set standards that exclude them. If they make poor choices, spelling bee, soccer, softball, video games are one thing, but when kids break a covenant, they made with God, should they be thrown out of the club? Why am I so concerned? Well, here’s why I’m concerned because one report stated that 61% of kids who make that pledge in one of these abstinence programs break their promise and of those that keep their promise, not to have sexual intercourse, 55% engage in oral sex. 

My point is not to trash any of these programs. If they save just one person from sexual promiscuity, then they’re worth every penny of expenditure, but kids need a plan B that doesn’t eliminate them when they make poor choices. As I read Scripture, I find nothing that eliminates us from God’s family once we come to know Him as Savior. Let us reflect on that when we set our standards.  

I conducted a Tough Guys and Drama Queens parenting seminar in Nashville recently, and I was amazed to hear that the pastor of a 28-member church told me that their church doesn’t currently have a youth minister, nor many kids in their youth program. When I walked in the room that they used for the youth room, I noticed a set of standards displayed on the wall. The standards were certainly biblical, great expectations. Put there with the greatest of intentions. Each member of the youth group was to make these commitments. These are kids, 7th through 12th grade. This is what everyone pledged to do: I will witness to everyone I meet. I will represent Christ in all that I do. I will not sin. I will strive to show Christ’s love to everyone. I will devote my life to serving Him. I will live my life as an example of the one who died for me. I will never be selfish and will strive to think of others first. I will live my life as a sacrifice to Him who loves me and died for me.  

I thought… man, these are some great expectations and standards. I also thought no wonder kids don’t want to be a part of this group. No one can say anything bad about any of these standards, but what human being could ever follow every one of them. I can’t even do that. I was reminded of and pulled out a book Dan Allender wrote. A book called How Children Raise Parents. In it he said, “We fail when certain standards of behavior, rather than grace and forgiveness are assumed to be the core of Christianity, the results of a standards-oriented religion is the rise, if not the dominance of a self-righteousness, for those who appear to be doing what is expected. And for those who aren’t as adept at deceiving others, the outcome of a standards driven Christianity will be shamed. 

It’s not that God’s standards have become too high for kids. It’s just that we eliminate our kids along the way when we don’t provide for their continued engagement. Should they fail, churches, pastors, youth pastors, and parents have got to be careful about setting up things that eliminate, rather than including people who fall like your teen. Grace is undeserved. It is available to those who make poor choices. Forgiveness makes a way for us to include those who fall. If these two points were added to that wall of expectations, that church might just have a larger youth group. And the American church at large might not be losing millions of teens from our youth groups by the time they reached the 12th grade.  

People often ask me this- Why are we so successful in our approach? And why do kids respond to us the way they do? I tell them that the answer is simple. We love kids when they are literally at their worst. Every teen that I have ever met wants to know that they’ll continue to be loved when everything’s a mess. You and I know that loving is easy when all is going well. It’s quite a different matter when everything is spinning out of control. The first thing you do in the middle of the mess is to move toward your kids, especially if they’re struggling and are in a tough spot. Let them know you love them, regardless. Tell them at least every week that you love them, not because of what they do, but because of who they are. Second, I would tell you that good relationships do not work well with only list standards and expectations. They work well with a love that says, I love you, period.  

You may still get disappointed when you face disrespect, dishonesty or disobedience. You may get frustrated when your child violates promises, acts inappropriately or flunks a class. You may get mad when someone makes mistakes or deceives and lies to you, but you can still love. Love doesn’t take away consequences. It just means you can separate actions from value. Lee learned through the years that people could love her when she was a mess. My years with Young Life taught me to proclaim the gospel of Christ across a bridge of friendship. 

St. Francis said this, “at all times, share the gospel and when necessary use words. My love for this young lady, Lee had nothing to do with what she had done, what she’s doing today or what she will do. I’m just thankful that she knows that she’s loved. And I pray that the same is true for your child. If you want to know if your son or daughter thinks what they do is more important than who they are to you, ask them. Ask them with the intent to know their heart, not just to share your opinion. Be prepared for their answer to sting and don’t criticize their thoughts and conversation. Thank them for being open with you and take their words to heart. 

Ask them what you could do to make them feel your love unconditionally; besides buying them the latest and greatest whatever. This is not about stuff and things. This is about relationship. Let them know you hear them, and you will try to do things differently. So that when you do it, you do it right now. 

Why don’t you text your teen and ask them some questions? You know, teens will say things in a text that they won’t say face to face. So, go ahead, ask them. Here are some questions: Do you think I’m more concerned about the condition of your room than I am about the condition of your heart? If you could change one thing about our relationship, what would it be? Maybe asking him this. Hey, do you know that I love you? Hey, what about spending some time together to talk, not yell about the stuff that makes us so different? Or what about this one… Where do you think I miss your heart the mostOr ask, what word would you use to describe our relationshipHey, if there was one thing you can change about me, what would it be? What are the things that you think we differ on the most?  

Bring those discussions to the dinner table or go out and have a cup of coffee. Eat some ice cream and ask your teen to explain the answer. Follow the simple rules. Mom don’t correct her. Don’t tell him where he’s wrong or share a better way of answering. Don’t try to fix anything that might be broken, convey a message to your child, that you still love him, regardless of whether he’s fixed, broken, all put together or a complete mess. Just opening the door to discussion might convey a message to your teen that you’re more concerned about listening to their heart than you are about sharing what’s on your mind. 

Just listen. Then think about how you would like to respond over the next week. You can share some of those thoughts with your child when you get together. Again, start the conversation by saying, Hey, you know what I’ve been thinking about what you said last week, and here’s some thoughts… 

Teens don’t struggle because they like it. You know, I’ve never met one teen who said, you know, I’d really liked to be a mess or, you know, I kind of enjoyed the idea of being screwed up. Never. Teens are messed up for a reason, just make sure that their mess is not because they think their relationship with you is performance based. One more time, your teens would rather be loved for who they are than for what they do. It’s probably just like you. Psalms 86:15 says “But you Lord are a compassionate and gracious God. Slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness.” Just like God does not have a performance-based relationship with us, my prayer for you this day is that you do not have a performance-based relationship with your child. 

Author: Mark Gregston

Mark Gregston began working with teens more than 40 years ago as a youth minister and Young Life director. He has authored nearly two dozen books, has written hundreds of articles, and is host of the nationally-acclaimed Parenting Today’s Teens podcast and radio broadcast.