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Show me someone who is perfect, and I’ll show you someone who is putting up a really good front. On every person’s résumé of life there are always a few disappointments. Things we should have done, but didn’t. Things we shouldn’t have done, but did anyway. Missed opportunities. Squandered talents. Some bad decisions. A few regrets. Each of us has a list of failures all our own. We may be able to shake our heads at the blunders that have hurt us. But when we think about how our failures have hurt our teens, our mistakes are magnified and we start to feel like failures ourselves. Mom and Dad; we don’t need any outside help when it comes to pointing out our flaws. We do a pretty good job of that on our own, especially when we look at how our teen is struggling and the questions start to pile up. “What did I do wrong? Is this my fault? Was I a bad parent?”
Have you had those conversations with yourself?
Let me offer encouragement to moms and dads who are feeling like failures and wondering if their teens would be better off without them.
DON’T FOCUS ON APPEARANCE
I get it. When teens make mistakes, moms and dads often take it personally. A kid’s bad behavior makes us ask, “Did I teach them well enough? Was I too strict with her? Was I too lenient with him?”
There is a time and place for self-reflection about your parenting style. But when you begin to feel like a complete failure because of the actions of your children, what you really need is a shift in perspective. Sometimes we become consumed with what we’re teaching our teens, instead of what our teens are learning. If our daughter comes home pregnant, we question our instructions on maintaining sexual purity. When our son continues to fail his classes, we wonder, “Did I spend enough time highlighting the importance of education?” We start to believe that because our teens are making bad decisions, the years spent teaching them was a waste. But that’s not the case. In fact, it’s in those mistakes that teens may be learning the most. Just because a teen got the answer wrong, doesn’t mean that you didn’t show them how to arrive at the right answer. Adolescence is the time when kids are flexing their decision-making muscles, developing their independence, and putting what you’ve taught them into practice. Those bad decisions aren’t necessarily evidence that you didn’t teach your kids well enough. Rather, your teens are learning the value of what you’ve taught them.
Kid’s failures are not a reflection on you, mom and dad. In many ways we are responsible for our teens, but in many ways we are not. As our kids get older, they are growing in their responsibility to make choices for themselves. Talk to me in person, and I will give you many examples of great parents who had teens that struggled. In the same way, I know there are some truly bad parents who’ve had upstanding kids. Your child is not a personal mirror. Your teen is a developing adult who needs to learn and grow through the experience of making mistakes. Don’t judge your parenting successes or failures on the short-term behavior of your child. That’s like using a funhouse mirror to try on clothes. It won’t give you an accurate account of reality.
DON’T SUCCUMB TO THE FEELINGS
Feelings are impossible to control. That’s why I never tell parents, “Well, stop FEELING like a failure!” There are moments where our own parental disappointments will hit us full force. We might feel guilty, or discouraged, or depressed. But here’s the key; don’t allow those feelings to control you. You might feel like a failure, but you don’t have to respond to those feelings. Guilt, shame and depression shouldn’t be the driving force behind our parenting. But they will be if we give in to those feelings of failure.
So don’t give up! I know you feel like quitting. I know that you may feel inadequate or underprepared to raise a teenager. Keep going. The fact you are reading this article proves you care about your child and want the best for them. And that means you’re a good parent! You are not a failure; so don’t act like one. This period of teenage transition is hard, no doubt about it. But your teen needs you. You are an important presence in your child’s life. Mom and Dad; don’t quit!
DON’T THINK CHANGING MEANS FAILING
I have sixty kids at a time staying at the Heartlight residential campus, and each parent who sent their teen for help struggled with the decision. They felt that admitting they needed help was an admission of failure. Each parent said they felt like they were giving up.
But the kids aren’t at Heartlight because of parenting failures. They are the success stories! It takes courage and strength to make a big change in your family. It takes determination and vision to go look for help. If you give up what you’ve been doing to help a teen that’s struggling, that’s not failure. That’s an investment in the future of your family.
I had a dad sit down and talk with me recently about his 18-year-old son at Heartlight. He had done all he could to help his son learn responsibility, maturity, confidence and leadership. He coached his son’s sports teams. He spent time in conversations. He modeled being a husband and father. But no matter what the dad tried, his son sunk deeper and deeper into his problems. So he made the decision to send his son to Heartlight and get the counseling and help he needed. “Mark,” he said, “I didn’t want to send him away. But my son is just too valuable to me to simply do nothing.”
Change is not failure, Mom and Dad. Change may be just what your teen needs. Maybe it’s a shift in parental focus. It could mean a different approach to discipline and consequences. Perhaps it means getting a counselor involved, or looking into Heartlight yourself. Those steps towards change are marks of parental success.
Perfect parents are as mythical as unicorns and leprechauns. They simply don’t exist. We all make mistakes in our parenting. But that doesn’t make you a failure. It makes you human.
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 40 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 2,700 teens, has prepared Mark to share his insights and wisdom about parenting pre-teens and adolescents.
For more information and helpful resources for moms and dads, check out our Parenting Today’s Teens website at 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.
Somewhere in North Wales, there is an acre-sized play mecca for children called, The Land. It’s not neat, not organized …and not really all that safe. Among other odd sundry items, the playground consists of old tires, discarded mattresses, a faded plastic boat, wooden pallets, and a frayed rope hanging from a tree over a river. Fires are started by boys in an old tin drum. Because, as everyone knows, boys love starting fires. And with the exception of a barely visible playground worker, it’s strictly “No adults allowed.”
It reminds me of my own childhood. This was an era where adults were “there” if you needed them, but they didn’t hover over or hurry their children into premature adulthood. It was a time when kids were free to face what appeared to them to be “dangerous risks,” allowing them to conquer these obstacles alone. This type of unstructured, self-discovery play was an essential rite of passage that built both self-confidence and courage in children.
Sure, today in America, we understandably want to protect our children from danger. But sometimes I wonder if we’ve gone too far to protect our kids from even the hint of risk. Failure to supervise has become, in fact, synonymous with failure to parent.
Yet many experts now believe that this
over attention to “safety” has resulted not only in the ubiquitous government-regulated,
sterile pre-fab playgrounds—but also in parents becoming hyper “regulatory” in other
arenas of a child’s life. As a result, studies show that today’s children are
less creative, less able to think for themselves, less able to connect
seemingly unrelated ideas, and … less courageous. In other words, more risk
The Thrill is Gone
And that’s lamentable, because growing up should be a thrilling experience—filled with lots of risk taking! The truth is, parents cause their children harm if they don’t create a family atmosphere that allows for mistakes. As Mark Twain said, “There are no mistakes in life; there are only lessons to be learned.” Yet under the banner of “good parenting,” many parents are just simply overprotective. In the process, they are isolating their kids, denying them the opportunity to fail, suppressing their teens’ desire to make decisions, beating down their spirit if they make a mistake, and withholding opportunities for learning. When we allow our children to take risks—by allowing them to explore the world on their own against the backdrop of the Biblical values we instill in them early on——it makes them far less risk averse. In other words, far less fearful. As actor John Wayne once said, “Courage is being scared to death and saddling up anyway.”
I’m not saying that you throw your children into the deep end of the pool (metaphorically speaking) and, yell, “Swim!” to teach them to keep their heads above water. I am saying you start in the shallow end and gradually let them go farther out as they show responsibility, maturity, and wisdom. Will they go under at times? Yes. Will they go too far at times? Yes. That’s where you come in. Just like the designated “playground worker” at The Land, you’re always nearby, watching for impending accidents, but otherwise letting the children figure out lessons about life on their own.
It’s a Marathon, Not
Growing into adulthood should be a gradual process— not a sprint to the finish line. Many parents today are concerned that their children are growing up too fast. But I wouldn’t exactly call it “growing up.” It’s more like they’ve become adept at mimicking the look and habits of adulthood. In times past, children gradually took on adult responsibilities … year by year. As Roger Hart, a university professor whose groundbreaking research into how children play resulted in a BBC documentary, said, “Their pride was wrapped up in competence and independence, which grew as they tried and mastered activities they hadn’t known how to do the previous year. But these days, many children skip these milestones. They spend a lot of time in the company of adults, so they can talk and think like them, but they never build up the confidence to be truly independent and self-reliant.”
So what does gradually transferring responsibility to your child look like … practically? Here are a few helpful guidelines. When your tween beings turning into a teen, start flavoring your conversations with comments and questions that transfer you making decisions and placing responsibility on them. You can say things like:
“Where do you want to go to eat tonight?”
What do you think you ought to do?”
“I’ll stand with you, but I won’t bail you out
of this one.”
I’m talking about helping a child
make decisions at an early age where they learn to choose between a Big Mac and
a tofu burger … all the way up to choosing the college they’ll attend and the
person they’ll marry. In between those two points are plenty of opportunities
to exercise that decision-making muscle. So, let them make as many decisions as
The Shame Game
And they will make mistakes. Sometimes small scrapes … sometimes big
boo-boos. Some of them will even embarrass
you as a parent; however, when your kids do
make mistakes, here’s what you don’t
want to do: play the “shame game.” When you shame them for their mistakes, it
can cause them to shut down, make them explosive in their response (shame upon
shame), or worse, make them shut you out. At all costs, avoid using derisive
told you so.”
should have listened.”
hope you learned your lesson!”
Your kids already know they made a
mistake. Think of it this way. You wouldn’t like it if every time you screwed
up (and we certainly know it when we
do), God wagged his finger at you, and said, “What is wrong with you … why can’t
you ever learn?!” The Bible tells us that “It’s the goodness of God that leads us
to repentance” … not the harshness.
The key to having your
children actually learn from their mistakes is to allow the consequences of
their poor choices to have a full impact. Just keep your cool. You’ll appear Yoda-like
and your child will be like Luke Skywalker … ultimately respecting you for
allowing him to learn a lesson from the mistake. “As Proverbs 17:28 says, “Even
a fool who keeps silent is considered wise ….” Trust me, this will strengthen
your relationship. The reward will be
your child coming back at you with comments like:
were right, Dad.”
should have listened, Mom.”
never do that again.”
Risk Has Its Rewards
These are all comments
that reveal a child is learning. She’s practicing what she’s been taught
because she was given the freedom to try. And it’s in those attempts, that her character—the
essence of who she will become—is formed.
If you don’t allow her to fail, you’ll share the same lament as one
parent I read about who said, “ Above all else, we taught our daughter to fear
failure. And that fear is what destroyed her love of learning.”
I find that sad, because isn’t learning what life is all about? As Ellen Sandseter, a professor of early-childhood education at Queen Maud University College in Norway noted, “Children have a sensory need to taste danger and excitement; this doesn’t mean that what they do has to actually be dangerous, only that they feel they are taking a great risk. That scares them, but then they learn to overcome the fear.”
So, give your children the
gift of allowing them to take risks. In
so doing, you’ll greatly increase their chances of becoming confident, imaginative,
emphatic and resilient teens that are ready to take on the world head on. And
believe me, the world is waiting for people like that!
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, two llamas, and a prized donkey named Toy. His past involvement as a youth pastor, Young Life area director, and living with more than 3,000 teens has prepared Mark to share his insights and wisdom about parenting pre-teens and adolescents.
For more information and helpful
resources for moms and dads, check out our Parenting Today’s Teens website at www.ParentingTodaysTeens.org. It’s filled with ideas and tools
to help you become a more effective parent. There 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