Teaching Purity in a Seductive Culture

Have you looked around lately?  Our kids live in a dangerous generation.  They are constantly bombarded by seductive imagery.  Innocence is threatened at a young age.  And our culture isn’t doing anything to stem the tide.  In fact, it’s pulling our teens away from purity and pushing them toward promiscuity.

Over the many years at Heartlight, we have worked with hundreds of girls who struggle to maintain their integrity and personal purity.  Along the way, I’ve learned a couple things worthy of passing along to you.

When everyone around a teen assumes they’re going to be sexually active, or makes fun of them if they aren’t, it creates the perfect storm for failure.  In any case, our teens are set up for a private battle of choices.  Many of the kids I talk to are confused about their own convictions on the issue.  Over and over again they say how they wish they were still a virgin, but then admit that if they were still a virgin, they would be moving in a direction to try not to be.

Sexual Normalization

Sexuality is something that teens talk about all the time.  Their banter is almost shocking.  These conversations usually exemplify a teen’s craving for attention.  Even though our kids are communicating like crazy over the Internet, texting, and through social media sites, they aren’t connecting.  So they often resort to other ways to get noticed, such as their appearance and performance.  They think they can get the connection they long for through their sexuality.  And it makes sense that they think this way – television, music, and advertising all give kids the strong message that experimenting with sex is perfectly normal.  It’s no longer just an invitation to sexually express themselves, but an out-right expectation.  In fact, the media makes fun of virginity.  But when it turns out that reality shows aren’t reality, teens become disappointed and confused.

Continuing the Conversation

Parents have a natural opportunity to connect at this point.  When teens discover that a lifestyle of “appearance & performance” don’t deliver the results they want, they’ll start asking:  now what?  This is where having a strong relationship and ongoing conversation with your kids is helpful and many parent struggle with how to get to this place with their kids.  Teens are young men and young women, not just young kids anymore, and we can’t control what they’re thinking, yet we need to have input along the way.  This is a perfect opportunity to sit down with your teen and openly talk about what’s acceptable and what’s not.  So, if you have been building your relationship with your teen along the way, your child may be more receptive to what you’re hoping to accomplish.

Even with good relationship-building, kids don’t always listen or follow our standard.  Parents, if you see your teen acting slightly outside of the standard, it’s okay to choose your battle and say:  I don’t like it, but I’ll let it go.  But it’s important to clarify the standards for modesty and your expectations.

Expectations aren’t a list of rules.  They’re taught in conversations, and caught with an example of your lifestyle.  The parent’s role is to help prepare the child – and instead of showing our kids how to live in a zoo, we have to be teaching them how to survive in a jungle.  Sometimes a child tells a parent:  I don’t believe in the things you do, I don’t behave the way you do, it’s my body, I’ll do what I want.  This becomes a different conversation.  Instead of talking about the expectations of the household, you might have a practical conversation about the Scriptures and show how a lack of modesty can hurt relationships.  Deviating from God’s plan always ends with pain and failure.  We need our kids to know that God doesn’t merely say Don’t!  God says, Don’t get hurt!  The Scriptures are a great place to start because they show our teens their value.

Refining the Message

Kids don’t think of long term consequences, so it’s helpful for you to point out the lifetime ramifications of promiscuity.  Give them practical advice and direction, such as asking the question:  What would your future husband want in you?  What would your future wife want in you?  As your teen begins to define this for him or herself, stay engaged with them.  Model the life you want for them and help them sort through their confusion.  In the context of relationship, teens will see this instruction, not as judgment but as love and connection; just what they’re looking for.

You can hear us talk on this subject by listening to our radio program.  It’s called, Parenting Today’s Teens.  Next time, we talk with Family Coach Tim Smith.  Tim will share his perspective on how important it is to approach this issue with your teen in the context of relationship.

You can hear Parenting Today’s Teens online, as a podcast, or find a radio station near you.  All the information is found at www.ParentingTodaysTeens.org.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:  Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, a therapeutic boarding school located in East Texas.  Call 903-668-2173.  Visit http://www.heartlightministries.org, or to read other articles by Mark, visit http://www.markgregston.com.


When Christmas Joy is Overshadowed by Struggle and Pain

prodigalWith Christmas just around the corner, you’re probably thinking about last-minute shopping or getting your final preparations done.

And then, maybe once those pressing to-do’s are complete, and Christmas is in the rear view mirror, you’ll have a few quiet moments to yourself when you can reflect.  How was the year?  What went well at home?  What didn’t?  What conversations, or conflicts, do I wish I could erase from the year?  And what’s ahead in the new year?

There’s something about the Christmas season that puts us in a nostalgic reflective mood.  It reminds us that God is with us.  It gives us a sense of hope.  But for many people, the holidays stir up all kinds of raw emotions that remind them of their weakness and loneliness.

Reflection Can Bring Pain

At Heartlight, Christmas is a time when we often see a new batch of kids arrive at our residential program.  These kids are in pain.  They have been dropped off by their parents and we often find these kids feeling a mix of anger and failure.  Every family that we see at Heartlight is going through some kind of difficulty.  Christmas is anything but merry to these people.  They are in pain and don’t know where to turn.  And so they have come to Heartlight for help.

When teens begin to act out and express their issues in rebellion and destructive behavior, it places incredible pressure on mom and dad.  It’s a confusing and painful time for the entire family.  Especially when we feel like we’ve done everything right.  We’ve read all the books, followed all the guidelines for happy homes, and yet our kids are struggling and we can’t figure out why.  And we say, Wait a minute!  I’ve checked every box and done what I’m supposed to do.  Why am I not happy?  Why are my kids messed up?  

Owning the Struggle

Allow yourself to struggle with these issues.  Struggle isn’t a bad thing!  It’s important for your kids (and for you) to live with the struggle for a while.  Just because you’ve checked the boxes doesn’t make you a perfect parent.  And you’re not going to be one despite your good intentions.  All of us have fallen short in our parenting skills in some way.  But you can learn to struggle well.

The struggle gives us the answers we need.  Answers will eventually emerge from our confusion if we allow ourselves time to wrestle through the difficult issues.  Instead of filling the holes in our lives with the latest fad on parenting, an oversimplified four-point outline, or shallow advice from well-meaning friends, we need to be okay with the void in our life until we realize that it can only be filled by a relationship with God.

Life is hard.  It is a struggle.  That’s the point.  If we think that we filled the hole with something we did, like a clever parenting strategy or a one-size-fits-all program, then when it fails, we’ll think that we have failed.

The jigsaw pieces of your life will not always fit together like a scenic puzzle picture.  If it does, and we think it does, then we’re on the wrong track.  If there is something in your life that feels okay and perfect, then chances are you are filling the void with something that only God is supposed to fill.

Being With Our Teens in Their Struggle

Depression runs rampant this time of year.  It’s odd that it’s the most joyful time of the year for us as Christians, but for many teens, it’s among the most painful.  When the culture tells us it’s time to be joyful, we can disengage from sons and daughters who are in pain.  When we disengage from our kids, we tell them that they aren’t worthy.  They aren’t worthy of entering into the pain they’re feeling.  They aren’t worthy of working through the problem with them.  They aren’t worthy of the time it will take to engage with them.  If we walk away from their struggle, we tell our teens that they are only good if they are being and feeling good.  There’s something desperately wrong with that notion.

When we telegraph to our kids that they aren’t worthy of our attention, we’re setting ourselves up for failure.  Parents feels like they’re doing something wrong because their kids aren’t okay; the kids feel like they’re alone in the time when they need you the most.  It’s not okay to tell people that everything is okay.  Somewhere we’ve lost the perspective that it’s okay to not be okay.

Christmas:  God’s Response to Our Struggle

When things aren’t okay, we are forced to look to God.  That’s what Christmas is about.  Parents, God sent His Son to fill that empty place inside of us.  In the middle of the struggle, there are a lot of families who are having a wonderful time because of the hope of Christ.  They know that God has given us something to bring these broken pieces together.  Things aren’t always fixed this side of heaven, but we can have hope that the pieces will eventually come together.

Don’t let the sadness and frustrations of the year rob you of the celebration of what God is doing.  Through the first Christmas, God offered His Son to be involved in our life.  When the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, God told us that He is with us, and He will always be with us.  God is calling us to do the same with our kids.

The Bible helps us enter into the suffering of our family.  There is a path, a way to find joy in the midst of our pain.  That path is not what you might expect.  That path is lament.  Popular recording artist and Bible teacher Michael Card has done a lot of deep thinking about lament and what it’s like to sense this feeling of isolation and loneliness.  You can hear my conversation with Michael on our radio program.  Listen to Parenting Today’s Teens online, as a podcast, or find a radio station near you.  All the information is found at www.ParentingTodaysTeens.org.

In the meantime, Merry Christmas, my friend.  In the midst of our struggles this season, let’s keep our eyes on the One who was willing to walk among us.  Through Christ, we can have hope because He controls our future!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, a therapeutic boarding school located in East Texas. Call 903-668-2173. Visit http://www.heartlightministries.org, or to read other articles by Mark, visit http://www.markgregston.com.


Parable for Dads

prodigalHave you ever considered the father figure in the Parable of the Prodigal to be the focus of that story, not the wayward son?  After all, the word “father” is mentioned many more times than the word “son.”

A “prodigal” is defined as one who “spends extravagantly.”  While the son spent his inheritance; it was the father who was the most extravagant, both with his money and with his love.  It was the father who was the prodigal.

Whether or not Jesus’ parable was taken from a real life example, I imagine it wouldn’t be easy for any father to see his son live a sinful lifestyle and waste his inheritance.  But there is no mention of the father bringing brute force or threats to bear to hold back his son or to bring him home, any more than God forces Himself on us.

Oh, how much would he have liked to pull (him) back with fatherly authority and hold (him) close to himself so that (he) would not get hurt.  But his love is too great to do any of that. It cannot force, constrain, push, or pull.  It offers the freedom to reject that love or to love in return.  It is precisely the immensity of the divine love that is the source of the divine suffering. God, creator of heavens and earth, has chosen to be, first and foremost, a Father.” – Henri J.W. Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son

When the son came to his senses, the father again showed his prodigal nature by extravagantly welcoming him back into the family with fanfare and rejoicing.  There was no demand for repayment, no warnings, no threats, and no expressions of disappointment … just love and grace.  He threw a party and lavished all the same rights and privileges on the son as if he had never left the fold.

It’s the kind of prodigal grace and attention fathers need to lavish on their teens every day today.  In our counseling of teens at Heartlight, the most often mentioned desire of teen girls is, “I want more time with my Dad.”  They want time together, even if they don’t act like they do.

If you are a dad, take your teen to lunch, grab a snack after school, attend all games or school events, find things you can do together, and communicate with them online.  Send daily text messages to say “Hi” or, “I love you.”  Make sure your teen knows your desire to continue to be involved in his or her life even if there is a split in the family.  Do it, or they’ll seek validation from someone else, and that can lead to bigger problems than you ever want to have with your teen.

The Missing Dad

I asked one young girl in our counseling program how she was doing.  It was a simple question in passing, and I expected a simple “doing okay” answer.  Instead, the young lady proceeded to tell me everything about herself, everything she ever did, everything she ever accomplished, everywhere she had ever traveled and every talent she had.

She reported how she could play the guitar, the cello, the violin, the piano, the harp, the drums, the trumpet, the bass guitar, the flute, the clarinet, and the tuba.  She told me about all the things she likes to do, and all the things she doesn’t like to do.  She talked about how she is a swimmer, a gymnast, a dancer, an equestrian, a pianist, and a volleyball queen.

She “shared” how she was homecoming queen and the “most likely to succeed” in her class.  She told me what she wanted to be, and what she did not want to be.  She told me all her hopes and dreams, and all her disappointments and failures in one breathless dissertation.

I quickly realized that this one-way “conversation” was a desperate cover-up of what was going on inside her.  She wanted me to know she is worth something and she plead her case based on her accomplishments.

When she took a breath, I finally got a chance to wedge in a better question that might open a real dialogue.  Her demeanor completely changed when I asked, “What’s been the most difficult thing that has happened in your life?”  Her chattering stopped, her eyes welled up with tears, and she replied, “When my dad left, I felt all alone.”

Suddenly, there was silence. I stood looking at her for a few seconds and instead of trying to come up with the right words to say, I just gave her a hug.  She wanted to talk, but I encouraged her, “Hey, hey, hey … you don’t need to say anything.”  Finally, a real connection was made.

When dads are missing, problems will usually follow.  Why?  Because moms are the ones who instill a sense of value, and dads are the ones who validate it.  All children need their father’s blessing.  When dad’s stamp of approval is not there, the child will look for validation somewhere else.

This is especially true of teenage girls.  They need their dad to meet that need for validation – something only he can really fulfill.  And with 12- to 14-year-old girls, this need is greater than ever.  But sadly, many dads get too busy or otherwise emotionally move away from their daughters at this time in their life.

Learn to Listen Extravagantly

Dads are usually weak at listening.  They’re made that way.  They aren’t easily distracted from their focus on whatever they are doing and they’re always doing something.  It’s a great asset to have in the business world, but it’s a liability at home.  Many times dads are concentrating on something else when their teen attempts to talk to them; or they are only thinking one way and anything different fails to get through their filter.

You don’t have to work so hard to listen to your children when they’re little, but when they enter the teen years, you have to work at it.  If you are willing to just listen, you might touch the heart of your teen and convey a sense of value.  Don’t try to fix their problems like when they were young – not unless they ask for your help.  And don’t worry about what your answer is going to be; we can’t all come up with the scripted responses of TV dad’s like Ward Cleaver, Ben Cartwright, or Heathcliff Huxtable.  Focus on your teen and offer your attention as a wordless message of support.

Have Fun Extravagantly

“Life isn’t about how to survive the storm but how to dance in the rain.”  Author Unknown

Years ago, I listened to a man on the radio that I’ve been a fan of all my life, Chuck Swindoll.  He stated in so many words, “What I want written on my epitaph is that ‘Dad was fun!’”  Does that surprise you?  It did me.  I thought what every good Christian parent was supposed to want written on their epitaph was something to the affect of how godly or spiritual a person they were, or some thought about how they provided for the family.  And here was one of the godliest men that I ever listened to sharing how he wanted to be known forever as a “Dad of fun.”

I agree with that philosophy, balanced with everything else that it means to be a good father.  You may be pretty good at maintaining parental authority and discipline in the home, but are you making a connection with your teen in a way that is fun – fun for them?  Sometimes it’s okay just to sit and watch a movie together.  You could go fishing somewhere or take blankets and go out and see the stars in the middle of the night.  You may see a meteor shower.  These connections are manufactured times and they just don’t happen automatically.  Come up with a list of ideas that you’ve got to make happen for that special time with your child — even when they don’t want to do it.  Build up to it, “Tomorrow, we’re going to do this,” and then make sure you do it, without fail.

Right the Wrong

Dads can be great at checking out or avoiding issues.  They can boil, stew, hold a grudge, and allow unresolved issues to destroy their relationship with their child; or, avoid conflict by compromising their standards.  Then there are those who cover up problems by overindulging their kids … deflecting the problem temporarily and causing even more problems in the future.

But dads can also be pretty good at correcting their own errors if they put their attention to it.  If you’ve not been the dad you know you should have been, will you take responsibility for steering your home in the right direction, fostering positive emotions and mutual respect?  Start by identifying where you have been wrong, and seek forgiveness from those you have offended.

I recently witnessed an entire family break down and sob when the father asked each member to forgive him for his failures.  He repeated his request with intensity and emotion.  It was a humble, sincere apology, and a good step toward healing the resentment of his children.  Every heart in the room melted and it was a new beginning for that family.

Dad, let me urge you to not despair and certainly not to quit.  Instead, choose to have an honest conversation with God about your struggle, just as your teen should be able to have with you.  Ask Him your questions, and tell Him how you feel.  He, too, is a Father.  Ask Him what you are supposed to learn and what you should do to make things better.  Be okay with life not always making sense.  Celebrate being needful of God’s care.  Our Heavenly Father shines best when our life is a mess, and I hope you’ll be your best when your teen needs you.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, a therapeutic boarding school located in East Texas. Call 903-668-2173. Visit http://www.heartlightministries.org, or to read other articles by Mark, visit http://www.markgregston.com.