Preventing Damaging Parental Habits

I have never heard a mom publicly announce, “I want my daughter to be perfect,” and I have never heard a dad audibly declare, “I want to force my authority on my son.” And, I’ve never heard parents say, “We want to be judgmental parents.” For I’ve heard hundreds of daughters say, “My mom wants me to be perfect.” And I’ve heard an equal number of sons say, “My dad rules our home with an iron fist.” And I’ve heard thousands of kids say, “My parents are the most judgmental people I know.” Somewhere between our intent and our execution, those can be the very desires we communicate to our kids.

Though we may say we don’t demand perfection, don’t rule with an iron fist, and that we won’t judge our kids, our actions might just be saying otherwise. If we run up against consistent patterns of disregard and disobedience from our teens, perhaps it’s time to ask ourselves a tough question: Am I doing something that pushes my kids further away from me?

Practice #1: The demand for PERFECTION

As parents, we want great things for our kids. Our goal is to ensure that our children’s lives are better than our own. That’s why we try so hard to push them towards excellence. Often, it’s not enough that our son made the football team. We want him to be the quarterback and captain! And your daughter’s science fair project received an honorable mention, but what could she have done better to get first place? There’s a fine line between encouraging excellence and creating unreasonable expectations. When we place unattainable standards before our kids, we always risk raising expectations so high that our kids just give up.

Your teenager might show that he has given up in a few different ways. Some kids will begin to rebel to prove they are in control of their own lives. Others will become hyper-aware of the high standards and turn to drastic measures in order to achieve them (like the ballerina who becomes anorexic to increase her chances of being cast in the leading role).

We both know that perfect people simply don’t exist. But if you have never shared your personal flaws with your kids, they haven’t had an opportunity to see what it’s like to live with imperfection. Instead, they think that faultlessness is normal. The first time they sprout a pimple they’re ready to freak out! By sharing your inadequacies, you allow your teen to connect with you in a different way. It will reaffirm your teen’s understanding and acceptance of himself, while drawing him into a relationship with you as well.

As soon as your teens think they aren’t measuring up to your expectations, they will become frustrated. And with that frustration, your teen will move farther away from you. So use these opportunities to affirm your relationship with your teen. If you’re the parent of a teen, don’t wait until your kids are adults to unveil your flaws, mistakes and inadequacies. Get real with them now. It will draw your kids to you and cause them to relax. Plus, they will see your successes and understand that it’s possible to have a good life even when they’ve messed up.

Practice #2: The role of the AUTHORITARIAN

I remember watching a classic episode of The Cosby Show (It’s was a great show that has now been somewhat clouded by accusations that break my heart). There was a scene where Dr. Huxtable looked over at his wayward son and delivered his famous line: I brought you into this world, and I can take you out of it! That missive from Bill Cosby was funny because we’ve all heard something like that growing up. Stuff like, Do it because I told you to do it! Or this one; If you live in my house, you will obey my rules. Or one I still chuckle about: Don’t ask why… just do it!

Mom and Dad, those emotional calls to blindly obey authority are not working anymore. When you and I grew up, police officers, teachers, coaches, and yes, parents, were treated with a greater level of respect. By their very position and seniority, their words carried some weight. Authority was seen as something you could trust, admire and respect.

For today’s teen, however, those nostalgic times are in the rearview mirror. Kids don’t listen to authority like we did. Can you blame them? How many times have you turned on the news to hear about a scandal with a politician, or teachers abusing students, or priests committing harmful acts against children? These stories are not lost upon teenagers. They’re looking around and watching these travesties and wondering, Why should I listen to people in power?

We can sit and ruminate on the good ol’ days when teens respected their elders, or we can start to develop new ways to teach our kids the value of respect and its proper place.

If we look at the example of Christ, we can find a fantastic role model for those of us in positions of authority. Jesus would have every right to demand blind obedience from us. He certainly has the power to do so! But in Philippians 2:6-7, Paul says that we need to have the same attitude as Jesus, “Who, being in the very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to His own advantage; rather He made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant.”

As parents, God has given us a place of leadership over our teens. We should take that seriously, and so should our kids. Our position should come with a level of respect. But if we are going to mirror Christ to our kids, then we cannot use our authority as a weapon. We can’t use our position to strike fear in teens. We need to win the right to be heard by modeling a lifestyle of service and respect.

During World War II, when the Japanese army received a new group of prisoners of war, the commanders of the camp would randomly pick one prisoner to kill in front of the other detainees as a way of showing authority. In our battles with our teens, are we willing to sacrifice our relationship simply to prove we are in control? In the struggle to teach our teenagers honor and respect, we have to demonstrate respect in tangible ways. We cannot use the old methods of teaching respect any longer. God has given us authority over our teens for a reason, and it’s our job to model proper respect for our kids. We have to show our teens the value of respect by respecting those in authority over us! We can’t say because I told you so! We have to give teens a reason for respect.

Practice #3: Parents who become JUDGMENTAL

This dangerous practice is sneaky. I’ve witnessed parents using voice inflection, body language, and even Bible verses to make a valid point to their son or daughter—but the child only hears a harsh judgment being given. When you take a stand on issues like marijuana, homosexuality, religion, or even movies, your child may interpret your words as unfair criticism. Now it might sound like your teen is putting words in your mouth. I mean, you’re not a judgmental person!

But let me ask you; have you rolled your eyes when your daughter came out wearing certain outfits? Do you use Scripture as a way to enforce rules and requirements in the house? Have you withheld hugs or signs of affection when you son disappointed you? We’ve all done actions similar to these from time-to-time, but we need to put a stop to them. They are signs of a judgmental spirit, and teens pick up on them quickly. It’s okay to voice your concern or disappointment, but be careful that you don’t belittle your kids or look down on their friends when you do so. Display grace in your actions and attitudes. That will allow your family to feel safe, secure, and protected, and makes for better relationships.

I realize that these words are tough to take. It’s not easy to hear that something we are doing as parents may be hurting our kids. But we can all readily admit that we don’t have the parenting gig down pat. We can always do a little better, and grow as moms and dads. To build great relationships with our kids, we have to be willing to pray what the Psalmist prayed; “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”

            If you want to know what your kids think about your desire for them to be perfect, ask them. Right now, text them and ask “Do you think I want you to be perfect?” Tonight at the dinner table, ask them if they think you are a judgmental parent. And somewhere in your conversation over the next few days, ask them “Do you think I throw my authority around?” You might be surprised at the response. No matter what they say, spend more time listening than defending. Their perceptions are important, because your relationship with them is important. Focus on their heart, and they’ll focus on yours. And commit to them that you want something different in the way you “engage” with them. This is the part of the scripture that reminds us to look at the “log” before we focus on the “speck”.

Give these discussions a try; you might be surprised at the response and excited to learn new ways to develop deeper and longer standing relationships with your kids.


            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 40 years, has two kids, and four grandkids.  He lives in Longview, Texas, with the Heartlight staff, 60 high school kids, 25 horses, his dog, Stitch, two llamas, and a prized donkey named Toy.

His past involvement as a youth pastor, Young Life area director, and living with more than 2,800 teens has prepared Mark to share his insights and wisdom about parenting pre-teens and adolescents. You can find out more about Heartlight at HeartlightMinistries.orgYou can also call Heartlight directly at (903) 668-2173.

Mark is also the host of the radio program Parenting Today’s Teen; heard on over 1,600 radio outlets nationwide. Visit ParentingTodaysTeens.org where you’ll find more parenting resources and find a station near you that carries the daily 60-second features or the 30-minute weekend program.  Download the Parenting Today’s Teens App for Apple or Android, it’s a great way to listen on your schedule.

Good Cop, Bad Cop: How to Avoid Policing Your Kids

I have some good friends who work for the local Highway patrol.  They’re all upstanding men, whom I admire and respect.  But while they’re on duty, I’m not so eager to spend quality time together with them.  Much as I like my friends, I know they’re not going to stop me on the freeway to say, “Hey, great job driving.  Just thought I’d stop you to say that you’re doing a fantastic job!”  In my (rather recent) experience, when the police pull you over, they are about to level some strict justice in the form of tickets and fines.  No small wonder I’m a little nervous when I see my cop friends on the highway.  I feel like I’m always looking over my shoulder to see if they’re following me.

As parents, we can come off like highway patrol officers.  We pull alongside our kids and wave them to the side to levee fines, issues warrants, and take them into custody if we have to.  Our intentions are to instruct and guide our teens, but to them it can feel like we’re hot on their tails with the lights flashing.  It could be the reason that our relationships are strained, or why our kids enjoy being away from us rather than with us.  A constant attitude of judgment pushes our teens to run and hide, or dig in their heels and resist.

When communicating with our teens, it’s important we instruct and nurture them as parents, and not just officers of judgment.  Here are a few things I’ve learned throughout the years that might help you form a warmer relationship with your kids.

Step #1:  How Am I Coming Across?

At a party, if you noticed that people were dodging conversations with you, you might ask your spouse or a close friend, “Is it me?  How am I coming across?”  This is a great question to ask yourself as a parent, as well.  If your teen seems to be avoiding you or shutting down during conversations, it could be that your intention is good but your delivery is bad.  Instead of gleaning wisdom, your teen might be hearing judgment instead.  To avoid this trap, ask your teen point blank, “How do I come across to you?”  Allow them to respond honestly.  This will provide needed insight into how your child hears you.

Another helpful trick I found is to ask your teen to repeat what they heard.  I’ve employed this technique numerous times in counseling sessions.  After explaining certain issues with a student, I’ll pause so I can ask, “Now what did you hear me say?”  If what they echo in response is way off course, I can correct the misunderstanding and find another way to get the information across.  I want to ensure that teenagers hear my heart and understand what I’m saying, even if it takes a couple of attempts.

Step #2: What Am I Saying?

Take some time to reflect back on past conversations with your teen.  How many of your comments or concerns were negative rather than positive?  I’m the first to admit that kids need instruction and guidance.  But keep in mind that your child receives correction constantly.  They wake up to instructions about school, chores, and responsibilities.  Then they go to school and hear reproofs and criticisms from teachers and staff.  Finally, they come home and kids may hear added judgment from parents and siblings.  It can be exhausting!

I had one student explode in frustration and blurt out, “I know a lot of what I do is wrong.  But could you tell what I’m doing right?”  It was a humbling conviction to realize that I wasn’t taking as much time to reinforce the positive as I was to point out the negative.

It’s like those new GPS systems.  I try to follow its instructions as closely as possible, but being the man that I am, I like to use my own directions at times.  And then, inevitably, and to the chagrin of my wife, I end up getting lost.  But the GPS doesn’t help.  For every wrong turn I take, it chimes in with the annoying word, “re-calculating.”  I know that it’s trying to help me, but at the same time it’s continually pointing out my flaws with its constant correction.  It didn’t praise me for following the directions prior to taking the wrong turn.  But every time that GPS says “re-calculating” I want to throw it out the window.

Don’t become a constant source of correction in your home.  Take inventory of the words you use around your teen.  Spend time highlighting the things your child is doing well along with the areas where they might need improvement.

Step #3: Who is This About?

Hearing criticism can be tough, even for parents.  Nobody wants to hear that their parenting style could use a few tweaks.  But in the end, you want what’s best for your teenager.  And if that involves changing up your communication style, it’s a small price to pay.  It’s important we constantly remind ourselves, “Who is this about?”  If a teen can’t benefit from what I am trying to say because all he hears is judgment, then it takes some humility on my part to say, “Okay, let me change it up, and approach it differently.”  Changing our communication habits lets our kids know that we care more about instructing and encouraging them than brow-beating them over the head.

When your teenager accuses you of judging them or excessively pointing out the flaws, don’t be quick to dismiss it.  Though you may be imparting some great wisdom, use this as an opportunity to say, “This is about her, not me.”  Try using a different method to explain your case.

Step #4: Am I on a Loop?

Few things are more frustrating than repeating the same thing over and over to your teenager.  If you find yourself on a constant looping pattern—stop.  Insistent reminders about the same issues over and over again will likely come off as judgment to your kids.  This will only encourage them to tune you out even more.

Instead, find a new way to make the same point.  If the issue is something simple like not leaving shoes out on the floor and you’ve preached the same sermon a dozen times, come up with a new way to get the message across.  Hang a sign in the entryway to remind would be violators of the penalties of shoe tossing.  Create a footwear impound where shoes found on the floor are held for bond until the perpetrators can post bail.

Einstein said the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result.  Don’t make yourself loopy; stop the repetition and develop a different method for reaching your teenager with your point.  It might take a little creativity, but it will pay off in the end.

Talking with teens is a delicate business.  It takes a whole lot of patience, love, and understanding.  And when a teenager tunes us out and avoids us, it’s difficult not to take it personally.  I’ve known plenty of great kids with great families attending great churches who go off track.  Don’t allow a struggling teen to make you doubt God’s provision.  But do allow God to change your conversation and communication habits so that judgment is kept in check.  You don’t want to be the cop in the family.  You want to be the parent.



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.