Have 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.
Be a Blessing to Your Teenage Boy
“(Tell your teen) I’m proud of you. I love you. I enjoy watching God shape you into a man.” There’s special power when those words come from the mouths of fathers, and even the toughest teen guys admit they long to hear approval from their moms and dads.”
— Michael Ross & Susie Shellenberger, from What Your Son Isn’t Telling You
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.
Have a great Father’s 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 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.org. You 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.