Could You Be the Prodigal?

Could You Be the Prodigal?In a world where parents indulge their kids with everything they want, it would seem that these kids would be especially grateful.  Instead, a generation has become selfish, self-centered, and unprepared for real life.

A dictionary definition of a “prodigal” is “one who spends or gives lavishly and foolishly.”  You may think your teenager is acting like a prodigal these days, but have you considered that according to this definition, you may be the prodigal yourself?

Many parents lavishly and foolishly give material things to their kids. Some say it is their “right” to spoil their kids — and there is truth to that.  The truth is not as much regarding the parent’s rights, but that, yes, it will spoil their kids.  Unbridled spending on kids can lead to selfish attitudes and feelings of entitlement on the part of the teen.  And such kids are in for a rude awakening when real life comes calling.

Sometimes a parent is being extra generous out of an “I’m giving my child what I lacked as a child” attitude. Or, perhaps the gifts are being used as leverage to improve the attitudes and cooperation of the teenager.  In either case, the kids on the receiving end can become pretty comfortable with such generosity.  It can lead to immaturity, irresponsibility, selfishness and a hard time understanding finances and the obligations of real life when they become adults. In other words, spoiled kids later become spoiled adults.

I know it’s tough for loving parents to limit their giving of material things to their children, especially when they have it to give.  But they may want to keep it in check to prevent the kind of damage that I see every day in some of the teens who are sent to our Heartlight residential program.  For them it can take months of therapy and doing without material things to bring them back down to earth.

The biblical story of the Prodigal in Luke 15 wonderfully illustrates such a turnabout in thinking for a pampered, selfish child who suddenly faced the realities of life.

In Luke 15:12 the son in the story says, ”Father, give me my share of the estate.”  For whatever reason, this young man had a “give me” sense of entitlement that was pretty demanding. It was probably because he never had a need for anything for as long as he had lived. The family was obviously wealthy.

So, as was the custom in those days, the father went ahead and gave him his portion of the estate. The son gleefully took it all and moved away.  But he had soon spent his entire inheritance, all of it, on riotous living.  What a great lesson in finance!  Though he was given so much, he lost it all in a very short period of time.

Then, half-starved and thinking that his gold-digger friends would help him out in his time of need, he found out differently.  In Luke 15:16 it says, ”…but no one gave him anything.” Whether they were acting as selfish as he was, or just fed up with him, their denials told him that he needed to do something different from now on, or else he wouldn’t survive. The very next verse brings it all home.

In Luke 15:17 it says, “…he came to his senses…”  He saw the light.  When the money ran out and everyone stopped feeding this young man’s foolishness, he faced some pretty important decisions in his life.  It helped him realize his predicament and he quickly discovered what life is all about, perhaps for the very first time.

The point is…it took a very traumatic experience for him to come to his senses.  Before he could get past his prodigal mindset, he had to hit rock bottom.  Then he finally began thinking more clearly about finances and about the basic necessities of life.

Could you be the one responsible for your own teen becoming a prodigal?  Moreover, could you be the one acting like a prodigal yourself?  You are if you are catering to your teen’s every financial want or need without teaching them the value of work and how to wisely manage their own money.  Perhaps it’s time to take a look at your finances and begin to limit your giving to your teen, before it contributes to them becoming a prodigal.

By the way, a good way to counteract selfishness and financial foolishness in a teen is to teach them to give of themselves and a portion of their finances to others who are in need.  Take them down to the local mission to volunteer in the food line.  Require that they help an elderly friend or a shut-in neighbor once a week.  Take them on a short-term mission trip to a place in the world where kids have nothing.  When they interact with others who are helpless and in desperate need, they soon realize (without having to hit rock bottom themselves), how important it is to manage their own life and their money.

If you’re an adult prodigal, you may want to shift gears to lavish upon your kids every good thing they need in life, not everything they want.  One good thing they desperately need is to learn how to make money and manage finances on their own.  They’ll have to go without all the goodies you’ve financed in the past, but it’s a lesson they’ll thank you for one day.

About the Author

Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, a residential counseling center for struggling teens located in Longview, Texas.  He has been married to his wife, Jan, for 39 years, has two kids, and 4 grandkids.  He lives in Longview, Texas with the Heartlight staff, 60 high school kids, 25 horses, his dog, Stitch, 2 llamas, and a prized donkey named Toy.  His past involvement as a youth pastor, Young Life area director, and living with over 2,500 teens, has prepared Mark to share his insights and wisdom about parenting pre-teens and adolescents.

Visit www.HeartlightMinistries.org to find out more about the residential counseling center for teens, or call Heartlight directly at 903. 668.2173.  For more information and helpful other resources for moms and dads, visit www.ParentingTodaysTeens.org, It’s filled with ideas and tools to help you become a more effective parent. Here you will also find a station near you where you can listen to the Parenting Today’s Teens radio broadcast, or download the podcast of the most recent programs.

Training Teens About the Value of Work


The fastest way to make a teenager groan is to utter the words, “I’ve got a job for you.” That’s because in an entitled teen culture, work is seen as a punishment, not a gift. Today on Parenting Today’s Teens, Mark Gregston gives parents the tools to change a teen’s perspective—and perhaps your own, as well—on the value of work.  Don’t miss the discussion… today on Parenting Today’s Teens!

Special Guest: Tim Elmore

Adding “Thank You” to Your Teen’s Vocabulary

Thank You“Continue to live your lives in [Jesus], rooted and built up in Him, strengthened in the faith… and overflowing with thankfulness.”  Colossians 2:6,7

Hanging on the wall of my office is one of my prized possessions.  It’s a plaque that I received back in 1975 during my first rookie days in youth ministry.  It was presented to me by one of the first groups of teens that I had counseled and supported.  The now yellowed and worn certificate simply says, “Thanks for caring.”

That plaque is a regular reminder that there is no such thing as too much gratitude.  But we seldom hear those encouraging words from our older kids, do we?  When was the last time you heard, “Hey, thanks Mom for helping me with this school project.  That meant a lot!”  Or, “Thanks so much for dinner, Dad.  It was delicious!”  We’re not fishing for insincere comments, but wouldn’t it be nice to hear “Thanks” once in a while?

It’s not impossible to train our kids to be grateful, but that does mean pushing back on an entitled generation.  Many teenagers today are growing up with the belief that the world owes them everything, from college to cars to jobs and a comfortable lifestyle.  No wonder kids aren’t developing a sense of gratitude!  But God’s Word tells us that our lives should be “overflowing with thankfulness.”  And as parents, we know that few things come handed to us on silver platters.  We can’t allow our children to grow up believing that they deserve all the good things of life.  Not just to hear a kind word occasionally, but for the health and maturity of our kids, we need to teach them to add “Thank you” to their vocabulary.

Gifts versus Obligation

Recently at the Heartlight campus, I was going about my daily errands, when one of the girls in our program stopped me.  “Hey, why haven’t you met with me this week?” she quizzed me.  “You need to meet with meet with me every week!

I said calmly, “Sweetie, I enjoy talking with you.  But I don’t have to meet with you every week.

Yes you do!” she shot back.

At this point, I realized I was talking with an entitled teen, so I gave her a principle that I have shared with many other kids and their parents.  “Honey, I owe you nothing, but I want to give you everything.”

It’s time to realize that our privileged kids may be creations of our own making.  I know with my own kids, I have crossed that dangerous line many times and given them things that I shouldn’t.  Though I thought I was loving my children, those extravagant gifts reinforced their perception that I was obligated to meet every one of their needs.  While I saw these good things as gifts, they saw them as rights.  This might sound harsh, but as parents, you do not owe your children anything!  Of course, if we love them, we will meet their needs of housing, clothes, food and basic necessities.  But you are not obligated to buy your teen a car, fund their college, or pay their phone bills.  By providing for every one of their needs and wants, we are actually robbing our kids of gratitude and the ability to take care of themselves.  Plus, why would a child ever leave the nest if every craving and desire has been met?

A bald eagle will intentionally make her nest more and more uncomfortable as time goes by to encourage her baby birds to fly the coop.  With our teens, we should be making their responsibilities a little tougher every year to foster independence and a sense of thankfulness for what they have and what they’ve accomplished.

Ease Versus Work

In these tough economic times, having a job and the means to support a family is a blessing.  Work is not a given; it’s a gift.  It’s an attitude that we should be instilling in our teens as they make their way out into the world.  Our society doesn’t owe us a career, a home, a car, a family.  These are things that we have to work for and earn.  That’s why developing a sense of gratitude starts with instilling a good work ethic in our teens.  Don’t shy away from assigning chores and responsibilities for your kids.  At the Heartlight campus I even make up work for my kids to accomplish.  Whether it’s raking pine needles, walking the horses, or cleaning up the rooms, I want to give my students the gift of work.  Using their hands and minds to achieve routine tasks provides them with a feeling of responsibility, independence and also community.  They get a feeling of contributing to the group and accomplishing something for themselves.  When I pay them for the chores they do, it reinforces the idea that work equals reward.

Mom and Dad, don’t feel that giving your teen work will hurt them or make you a bad parent.  It’s really the best gift you can give your kids, and one day, they will be grateful for it.

Demanding versus Modeling

I’ve mentioned the growing sense of entitlement in today’s teenagers, but I don’t exclude myself from the conversation.  Thankfulness is a characteristic that we all can grow in.  So instead of demanding gratitude from my family, I first work towards modeling it.  Let’s face it; parenting can be a thankless job.  No one is running up to give you a pat on the back every day.  But if you can show a thankful heart in your life, your kids will recognize it and eventually pick it up as well.

So stop complaining about your job.  Instead, let your family know how grateful you are to be working.  After dinner, thank your spouse for their work in the kitchen.  When your teen does a nice job cleaning out the garage, or washing the car, sincerely thank them for their hard work.  Keep your eyes open for opportunities to display gratitude in your life.

With Thanksgiving right around the corner, now is the best time to start thinking about how to add “Thank you” to your teenager’s vocabulary.  By refraining from meeting every one of their needs, giving them meaningful work and modeling gratitude, you can make sure that your teen has a long list of things to be thankful for this holiday!



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.