Pressures can be placed on the children of Christian leaders like pastors, missionaries and teachers such that they feel they are living “under a magnifying glass.” These kids often don’t get the same room to make mistakes that other kids do. It’s hard for them to feel that they can be authentic, for they always are on display.
I know that when my kids went to high school they faced a higher level of scrutiny from both teachers and peers. Some people expected them to be perfect because of what their dad does for a living. They weren’t perfect (but then neither am I!) It put extra pressure on them, and that’s pretty common for any kid whose parents have a leadership position. We worked hard to make sure they got the chance to go through the normal process and struggles of growing up, but some of the scrutiny simply cannot be avoided.
The expectations these kids face are often very high—higher than is reasonable. And that can have a real negative impact on them. For instance, Robbie is a PK (pastor’s kid) that came to live with us at Heartlight. I asked him what it was like growing up as a PK. He said, “I felt like I had to always live up to a certain image.” This pressure came inside the home from his parents as well as outside the home from other adults and young people. Robbie felt that some of the rules his parents had for him were based more on how people in the church would feel about what he was doing than whether the activity was right or wrong.
“When I was a little kid I went along with it. But as I got older I started to wonder about a lot of the things I had been taught,” Robbie said. “I wanted the chance to figure things out for myself, instead of just being told.” There were a lot of arguments in the home and things began to spin out of control. The expectations of his parents and the church congregation created a one-two punch that knocked him off the path of perfection expected by those around him. Like the lovable childhood actor who later in life tries to show how “adult” he can be, these kids can sometimes do their best to show everyone around them how different they can be from the idyllic image they portrayed in their childhood.
Two Prodigal Sons
In the well-known parable Jesus told concerning a father and his two sons, one son left home and turned his back on everything the father had taught him. He lived an immoral life and wasted everything that had been given to him. The other son stayed home, and to all outward appearances was fine. Yet his bitter reaction to this return of his brother showed that his heart was just as much in need of healing and redemption. This familiar story illustrates for us the two common approaches teens take when they feel they can’t measure up to what their parents expect.
The younger son “went off the deep end.” If perfection is the minimum acceptable standard in the home, your kids are going to have to deal with the pain of never measuring up. The temptation and pressure to do that is especially acute for those parents who are respected Christian leaders. They know that their own parenting will be judged, so they can easily become unreasonable in their expectations. While this can be well-intentioned, it can also have a devastating impact.
They are already feeling pressure from teachers, other adults and their peers, and in their desire for independence, they may choose to fight those expectations by “proving” that they don’t have to measure up to them and they are in control of their own life. Though we want our children to mature, sometimes we don’t recognize the actions they are taking — immature as they may be — as being steps in that direction. This can result in a parent over-reacting and cutting off a vital and necessary part of the child’s development.
The older son tried to be perfect. The other option kids take instead of outright defiance is adopting an outward perfection. I’ve had parents sit in my office at Heartlight and tell me, “She’s almost a perfect child.” My response is, “Then why are you here?” We’ve found that those kids who are outwardly portraying perfection are some of the hardest kids to reach. We have to cut through the mindset that says, “I must be perfect to please my parents. I can’t admit to anyone that I have problems or that something is wrong.” It’s a very difficult process to get these kids to open up enough for us to start helping them.
For the “perfect child,” always trying to be perfect can be overwhelming; since it’s impossible to achieve, there is a near-constant sense of frustration and failure. They feel the pressure to not be the black sheep who “screws up” the image of the family. Children who try to be perfect often end up very bitter, both toward their parents and toward God. Similar to an eating disorder, their lifestyle becomes one of secretly binging and purging, or never feeling like their image is perfect enough so they avoid life altogether.
It’s important to give your child permission to be human and struggle. Every teen periodically struggles and makes poor decisions; it is a necessary part of the maturing process. They’re not going to get it right every time. It reminds me of the college professor who summed it up appropriately when he said, “You get good judgment from experience…and you get experience from bad judgment.”
So, keep the lines of communication open…both about how they’re doing and about the pressure they may be feeling to measure up. Teach them that it’s okay for them to be who they are. They must be allowed to question and have a normal adolescence. Take away the responsibility to maintain your reputation from your kids. Be secure enough to let them make mistakes without viewing it as a sign that you are failing as a parent. Publicly defend your children’s maturing process to those who would hold a magnifying glass up to them, saying, “I wasn’t perfect all the time as a teenager, and neither do I expect my children to be.”
One final word to parents in ministry: if you cannot separate the two, it would be far better to give up your ministry than to give up your children. Most of the time that isn’t a choice that must be made, but if it is, your kids should come first. James Dobson’s father left a greatly blessed and effective career as a traveling evangelist to become a local pastor so he could be present at home for his teenage son. I think we’d all agree that was a pretty good decision.
Help for Christian Leaders
As I wrote this article, it seemed to me that we should do whatever we can do to help Christian leaders who work for nonprofit entities, most who live on a shoestring budget. So, I’d like to offer to any pastor, missionary, Christian radio station staff member, teacher in a Christian school, or other nonprofit leader to come to our next Families in Crisis Conference totally free of charge (including their spouse). The date is just around the corner, February 17-19. If you know of such a leader who is struggling with their teenager and could benefit, have them visit and register at www.familycrisisconference.com. They should indicate on their registration that they are a leader and that it is a free registration. We can only make this available for this one retreat, and only for people who are full-time workers of a Christian nonprofit ministry of some type. More information about the retreat can be found on the website.
By the way, we talk about this issue in-depth on our radio program last weekend titled “When Good Kids Go Bad.” Listen online here (or look for the program at www.parentingtodaysteens.org).
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, a residential program for struggling adolescents located in East Texas.