I recently had a conversation with a dad who complained that his kids wanted nothing to do with him. He was baffled. Hadn’t he always strived to teach and provide the best for his brood? Confused myself, I talked to each one of his kids, and they had the same thing to say about why they never wanted to talk with their father. And it floored me. They told me, “Oh, our dad loves God, and we know he wants the best for us. But he’s the most judgmental person we know! It’s impossible to talk with him!”
Listen, this could happen to any parent. We try to impart wisdom to our kids, but often judgment sneaks into those conversations. Unintentionally, we flavor our comments with little barbs. Criticism flows all too naturally from our lips. We don’t need a class on judging people. Flip on the tube, or go surfing on the web, and you can find countless shows and sites devoted to tearing people down. They poke fun at what people say, what people wear, even what people look like. And social sites like Facebook and Twitter allow everybody to hide behind a computer screen and throw out snarky comments with ease and anonymity. There’s no escaping it … we live in a hyper-critical society.
But we can’t do that to our kids. Judgmental attitudes are a sure-fire way to have teens that are tuned out and turned off. Mom and dad, in a culture of Judge Judys our kids need a place of acceptance, where they’re not torn down but built up.
It’s In the Approach
Talking to a teen is like landing a plane—it takes a lot of skill and dexterity! It can be smooth sailing for a while, but once things get turbulent, and the conversation lands and explodes into a fiery mess, we can blame the passengers and the equipment, or we can take a second look at the approach. Mom, dad, we’re the pilot. We have to learn to handle the conversations with teens with a steady hand and touch of finesse.
In this culture, you can speak about important truth to kids, but often they hear it as criticism. But they need to hear what I have to say! Of course they do. But the outcome depends on the approach. Instead of launching into comprehensive instructions, take a step back. Listen to what they are saying, even if it’s the most ridiculous thing you’ve ever heard. Then, start asking questions. Get a dialogue going. Ask, why do you feel that way? Do you think there’s another side to the issue? Why is this important to you? Probing questions allow your son or daughter to think out aloud and examine the issue themselves before you give them the right answer.
I have found that teaching your teen has a lot more to do with learning than with telling. If your approach is to swoop in first thing and drop your knowledge on them, you aren’t giving your teen a chance to think through the problems on their own. A listening ear and gentle conversation is far more productive in getting your teen’s attention than a one-sided lecture.
What Are You Saying?
When teens feel judged or feel like their feelings are being ignored altogether, you can bet they will close up shop and turn off the lights. Along with a better approach to discussions, mom and dad, we need to choose our words with care. If I’m using up all my time to tell my kids what they did wrong, then I don’t have any time left to tell them what they did right. Don’t misunderstand me—you have to let your kid know when they have jumped the tracks. But if all you do is highlight their mistakes, your teen will block you out.
Dish out the discipline and show them where they messed up, but then give your kid a reason to keep trying. Let them know you see their potential. Make sure they hear it from your lips that they are smart, funny, artistic, caring, strong—and their mistakes don’t define them. If it’s appropriate, share how mom and dad made similar mistakes and what you learned from them. Explain the reasons behind your position on tattoos, boyfriends, curfews, or any other issue that comes up. It’ll take you from a seat of judgment to a place of understanding.
The Bible says, “If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.” (I Corinthians 13:1 NIV)
If your teen doesn’t see love and caring behind what you are saying, all they will hear is noise.
Be the Model
As much as our culture preaches tolerance, aren’t there a lot of judges around? Yes, but don’t become one of them. Model for your teen a person of strong convictions with a compassionate heart. If your son or daughter hears from you judgmental remarks about homosexuals and their lifestyle, they will dismiss any truth you have to share on the subject, regardless if it is correct. It has nothing to do with the content or what you say. Truth is truth, and our teens need to hear what is right. But they won’t listen to someone who disparages others or puts people down. You could have the greatest insight for your child, but if they see you as someone who condemns others, they will tune out everything you say.
This weekend on the Parenting Today’s Teens broadcast, a student from the Heartlight campus will be joining us to give us perspective on discussions with his own parents. Based on the context and the way his parents delivered a message, he felt criticized and looked down upon. It has taken lots of time for this student to see past the negativity in order to discover the wisdom behind what his parents were telling him. We’ll also discuss some tips on how to get your teen to hear what you have to say and move them from combatant to listener.
Moms and dads have a tough job. To impart wisdom and insight requires patience and diligence. Kids need to hear what we have to tell them about life, faith, and family. But if we come across as judging, they will hit the mute button for sure. So watch your approach, take time to listen, model humility and develop a relationship with your child. When you do, your teen will be ready to listen.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, located in Hallsville, Texas. For more information and helpful resources for moms and dads, check out our website. It’s filled with ideas and tools to help you become a more effective parent. Go to www.heartlightministries.org. Or read other helpful articles by Mark, at www.markgregston.com. You can also call Heartlight directly at (903) 668-2173. Hear the Parenting Today’s Teens broadcast on a radio station near you, or download the podcast at www.parentingtodaysteens.org.