An Exercise in Self-Reflection

Thank You“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.”  Psalms 139:23-24

I have never heard a mom express to me out loud, “I want perfect kids.”  And I have never heard a dad actually say, “I want to force my authority on my family.”  Yet, somewhere between our intention and our execution, these sentiments can come through loud and clear in our parenting styles.  Then we wonder why our teenagers don’t listen to what we say!  Though we might not verbally demand perfection, our habits and patterns may prove otherwise.  If we run up against consistent patterns of disregard and disobedience in our kids, it could be time to ask ourselves a tough question: Is there something I’m doing to keep my kids from hearing me?

I would like to point out five problematic parenting styles that can slowly work their way into our homes.  These habits are guaranteed to wound relationships and push your children away.  A little honesty and self-examination can go a long way as we do our part to reach our teen’s heart.

#1: Perfection Parents

The first parenting style to avoid is one that demands perfection from our kids.  Sure, we may not say, “I want you to be perfect,” but if the majority of our conversations with our teenager revolves around what they should do, what they should have done, and how they can do better, those are verbal cues that shout, “Be perfect!”  When kids get overwhelmed with these types of expectations they will eventually start to shut down.  Faced with the constant stress of living up to their parent’s ideals, teens will either give up altogether or burn themselves out trying to meet unreal goals.  I’ve had teens tell me that if they don’t make A’s in school, then their parents will not love them as much.  These parents are shocked to hear their burdened teen voice this perception, because they never explicitly said that grades determine their love.  They had no intention of relaying that message to their teens, but their actions and conversation said otherwise.

If you’re unsure whether your child feels this expectation from you, tonight around the dinner table ask your family point blank, “Do you feel that I demand perfection from you guys?”  But if you ask that question, be prepared for their response.  Be humble enough to listen to your child’s opinions and feelings and work towards adjusting your parenting style.

#2: Irresponsible Parents

While perfection parents are always telling their kids what to do, “irresponsible parents” do everything for their kids!  Well-meaning, responsible parents can many times create irresponsible teens.  It happens when mom and dad take it upon themselves to solve every problem, meet every need, and work to make sure their child never feels sad or angry.  But this type of parenting style robs a teen of valuable life lessons in how to manage their own life.  Upset with the lack of any control, a teen may lose all motivation to accomplish anything on their own.  Or worse, a child may try to escape the home and engage in dangerous behavior just to prove to their parents that they can make their own decisions.

If there are hints of the “irresponsible parent” in you, then it’s time to back off!  Start small by giving your teen control over decisions like clothes, music, homework, friends, or other issues.  As they display responsibility, hand over more control each year.  Allow your teen the opportunities to learn, grow, and develop the disciplines that will make for a responsible adult.

#3: Overprotective Parents

When I encounter parents who want to shelter their teenagers from the outside world, I always say, “Train your kids to survive in the jungle, not live in a zoo.”  I agree that our culture is scary place with influences and beliefs that run counter to our own.  But we do no service to our kids by cloistering our teens and shutting down all access to anything negative.  I know of many parents who work so hard to monitor TV, computers, phones, friends, school, and life that it resulted in domesticated children who would have a difficult time surviving in the world.  We all know of an over-sheltered teen who became a wild child once they reached college and eventually crashed and burned.

No parent wants that for a son or daughter.  So ease off the restraints.  When your child encounters bullies, instruct them how to respond appropriately.  When they hear offensive language in movies or music, take time to discuss why it’s inappropriate and why they should avoid it.  Be open about the sexual temptations that they will experience out in the world, or inform them of the dangers of drugs and your concerns.  Instead of putting blinders on your children, turn those negative influences around and use them as teaching opportunities to train your child for the wild!

#4: Negative Parents

If you haven’t found your parenting style in our list so far, try this little exercise this week.  Start counting the times you say no (or phrases like it) to your teen.  You may be surprised how many times that word comes out of your mouth.  A foolproof method to get your kids to shut down is to speak more negatives than positives into their lives.  If you spend more time criticizing than encouraging, judging than training, condemning than approving, it’s time to reassess your parenting style.  Be intentional about finding positive behaviors, actions, and attitudes for which you can praise your child.

Now, you might say, “Mark, you don’t live with my son.  I don’t think I could find one positive thing to commend him for!”  But I have found that even in the most difficult teen, there is always something worth being proud of, even if it’s how your teenager ties his shoes!  No one wants to spend time with people who are consistently negative, let alone heed their advice.  Don’t get me wrong—kids need constructive guidance.  But they also need consistent love and support.  Stress the positive about your child, and watch your relationship grow.

#5: Judgmental Parent

This final dangerous habit is related to the negative parenting style, but it goes a few steps further.  I’ve witnessed parents using their voice inflection, body language, and even Bible verses in a judgmental attitude towards their teenager, only to push their children further away.  Have you rolled your eyes when your daughter came out wearing a certain outfit?  Do you use Scripture as a way to enforce rules and requirements in the house?  Have you withheld hugs or signs of affection when your son disappointed you?  We’ve all done similar actions 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.

I know that kids make mistakes and are prone to do some stupid things.  But that’s all part of growing up and learning.  It’s okay to voice your concern or disappointment, but be careful that your actions don’t belittle your kids or make them feel like they are unworthy of your love.  In every way that we interact with them, our message should be “Nothing you do could make me love you more, and nothing you do could make me love you less.”  It’s that freedom that allows our family to feel safe, secure, and protected.  It makes for great relationships with our kids.

I realize that these are tough words to handle.  It’s not easy to hear that maybe something we are doing as parents is hurting our kids.  But we can all readily admit that we don’t have the parenting gig down pat.  There’s always room for growth as moms and dads.  Great relationships with our teenagers takes a willingness 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.”



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.

From the Zoo to the Jungle: Allowing Your Teen the Room to Make Mistakes

It’s a jungle out there!  The world we live in is dangerous.  As parents, we bear the huge responsibility of protecting our little ones from harm.  But as they get older, it’s also our job to slowly give our sons and daughters the skills they need to to survive in the real world on their own.  We can teach our kids to live in the zoo, but more importantly, we need to prepare them to survive in the jungle.

Living in the Zoo

Life in the zoo is relatively easy.  The animals are free to roam around in safety away from dangerous predators.  They don’t have to work for their food; it’s handed to them on a silver platter.  While zoos protect and care for their animals, everyone knows that you can’t throw a domesticated animal back into the wild and expect it to thrive.  While in that place of safety, the animal has failed to develop the necessary instincts to survive in the jungle.

Ever feel like you are running a zoo at your house?  I know I felt that way many times.  It was my job as a parent to protect my kids from mistakes, keep them from harm and provide for their every need.  Up to a certain point, that’s exactly what a good parent does.  But if we continue to shelter our kids without giving them more control over their lives, we’re not preparing them for life outside the home.  In fact, we’re actually setting them up for future failure.

Discernment doesn’t come naturally.  We aren’t born with the knowledge of how to make the right decision in every circumstance.  Like a muscle, discernment has to be developed and exercised over time.  And the most common way this happens is through trial and error.

Think back to your own life.  Remember all those mistakes you made?  Though we may regret some of our decisions, they formed us into discerning, mature adults.  I would even go so far as to classify a string of ill-advised mistakes as “experience.”  It will feel unpleasant at times, but it’s important we give our teens opportunities to flex their decision-making muscles and make mistakes while they’re still under our roof and care.

Living in the Jungle

So how do you give more control to your teenager without letting chaos reign?  How do you begin training them for the jungle?

Well first, I encourage parents to start early.  The pre-teen years are an excellent time to get the ball rolling.  Every month, pick out one new area of responsibility for your child.  It could be learning to get out of bed with an alarm clock, bringing their clothes down to the laundry or making their own snacks after school.  Will there be days where your child has to wear an old shirt because they forgot to bring down their laundry?  Sure!  But this is all a part of the training program.  These uncomfortable moments are an important way of teaching your child to be independent and responsible.

As your teen gets older, continue to hand over responsibility.  Let them buy their own clothes out of an allowance.  Set the curfew back an hour later.  Have them decide what to make for dinner once a week.  Building a habit of responsible decision-making is a precious gift that you can give to your kids.

It’s only natural that teens will make mistakes.  They will bungle or blunder through bad decisions.  And that’s where one of the most important elements in this process comes in—grace.  When your son or daughter makes decisions that tempt us to gasp, shake our heads or slap our foreheads, it’s our job to consistently respond with grace.  The worst thing we can do is shame our teens, embarrass them or tighten the reins because of a failure.  Instead, we need to instruct and encourage our kids to learn from their mistakes, dust themselves off and try again.

Proverbs 24:16 tells us “the righteous falls seven times and rises again.”  (By the way, this is a good reminder that everyone makes mistakes—even parents!)  Standing back and watching our kids find their way can be a scary thing.  There’s a fear that your child will not be able to handle that type of freedom and completely go astray.  But if you give your teen the chance to direct certain areas of their life, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

I’ve spoken to many parents who told me, “You don’t know my kid, MarkHe can be really irresponsible.”  Or, “I don’t think letting her make those type of decisions is wise.  She’s not mature enough.”  However, those same parents who decided to let go and give their teens room for mistakes found that their kids responded astonishingly well!  Not only did the kids rise up to the challenges they were given, they exceeded even the parent’s expectations!  Most teenagers want to please their parents.  With the freedom to make decisions and fall down, they feel like they have an opportunity to do just that.

Now, I don’t want parents to get the wrong idea.  I am not recommending you throw your son or daughter into the deep end of the pool and shouting, “Swim!”  What I am saying is that we cannot keep our kids in the shallow end and expect them to navigate the larger end of the pool on their own.  Teaching our kids maturity and life skills involves taking them into deeper and deeper water gradually, so they feel comfortable leaving your care one day.

No one wants to see a son or daughter get hurt, fall down or make a mistake.  But those experiences are the necessary building blocks of a responsible adult.  Begin teaching your kids now how to make the most of each opportunity, and give them grace when they fail.  If you do, you will not only teach your child how to function in a zoo—you’ll give them the skills to thrive in the jungle!



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.

Fighting Fair

Most of us will do anything to avoid a showdown between parent and child.  We don’t like conflict of any kind.  It goes against our nature.  When there’s a flare-up in the home, it’s uncomfortable for everyone involved and usually escalates to places we don’t want to go.

But conflict can be the open door to growth.  When a skirmish begins, we can make the choice either to engage or avoid.  If you’re a peace-at-any-price person, avoidance may seem like a good solution in the moment.  However, when you dodge the conflict, you’re actually dodging the relationship.

Your teen is walking through a dramatic time of transition in his life.  He’s evolving toward adulthood in his role with you, his friends, and his engagement with the culture.  He needs to know that even when he’s at his worst, you are going to move toward him.

Conflict is a precursor to change.  In fights, each person is trying to move the person to another place.  Most of us think that if you get into a fight, you lose the relationship.  That’s not necessarily true.  When you fight with your teen, you have an opportunity to show him that you care about him more than you care about the issue.  Yes, you have a stance that you are taking on the issue; but you won’t sacrifice the relationship just to make a point.

Conflict only happens because you care about your teen.  If you didn’t care about his life, you wouldn’t bring up issues that cause momentary discomfort.  You would just let him live out his mistakes and then face the consequences – no matter how severe.  Though it may not seem like it in the midst of the battle, by taking a strong position you are showing your teen how much you really care.  But every parent needs to learn how to have a good fight.

Real love doesn’t mean that you hide what you are feeling.  It’s okay to disagree with another person, as long as you know how to work through that conflict.  There are going to be differences, especially as your teen begins to examine his life and tries to figure out whether or not he believes the things he was taught as a child.  He’s struggling to define and determine his personal worldview, and because of that, there’s a strong likelihood that it will manifest itself in a struggle with you.

Because you know this is natural, you should decide beforehand how you’re going to respond.  In the midst of the fight, you don’t want to have to come up with a plan.  When the emotions are running hot, it’s tempting to shut your teen down, or try to convince him with compelling arguments against his meanderings.  When your child is becoming an adult, you need to leave room for his exploratory process.  If you make a plan in advance, you will think more clearly and calmly about how to deal with the conflict.

In the middle of these tense moments, keep your eye on the current issue.  Try not to bring up all sorts of other stuff that will only confuse and incite your child.  Stay focused.  The more you let your arguments stray into other areas or other patterns of behavior, the less power you have to come to a conclusion that will allow you and your teen to make progress on the issue at hand.  As a parent, it’s easy to throw in “you always” or “you never” statements, but once those are out there, the argument has shifted into patterns of behavior instead of one specific circumstance.  And the only way we can change behavior is one decision, one conflict, at a time.  We don’t have power over a pattern.  We only have power over the next decision we make. Then, over time, a positive pattern in our child’s behavior is more likely to emerge.

Open lines of communication are crucial to resolving conflict.  If we don’t have that communication open long before conflict comes, we won’t be able to create that privilege when the emotions are running high.  In preparation, even when you don’t see conflict on the horizon, you can continually enter into discussion with your teen.  Talk to him.  Take time for him to discuss his day, what he’s dealing with, and what he’s interested in.  When you give him the time when things are going well, you’ll have the solid relationship in place to be able to support those times when conflict comes.

It’s easy to treat a conflict like a tennis game … lobbing insults or arguments back and forth.  But with every smack of the tennis ball, the game continues without progress.  With this kind of banter, there isn’t an easy way to slow down and catch the ball without someone getting hurt.  Instead, allow the tennis balls to go by you.  Don’t give in to the temptation to hit them back by throwing another insult out there.  Even if it feels good, it’s not going to help the relationship at all.  Instead, listen to your teen.  Try to understand his issue well enough to say it back to him.  Keep the lines of communication open and stay calm.

If you’re in the heat of battle with your son or daughter right now, I know it’s a painful and confusing time for you.  Hang in there.  Stay engaged in a relationship with your teen.  Move toward your son and daughter and assure them that it’s okay to explore and formulate their own worldview, and that you enjoy helping them struggle with the tough issues of life.

Your poise and unflappability during moments of conflict will serve you well on the other side of the conflict.  Set the stage now for those inevitable moments with your teen that arise out of nowhere, so that your relationship remains intact and healthy.  Someday, your son or daughter will speak words of gratitude for your composure when they raise children of their own.



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.