On September 10, 2011, St. Joseph Antiochian Orthodox Church in Houston, Texas, hosted the 2011 Orthodox Christian Parenting Retreat. The speaker was Fr. John Peck, priest at St. George Greek Orthodox Church in Prescott, Arizona, and the topic was “Orthodox Christian Parenting in the 21st Century: Guiding, Guarding, and Discipline for Parents, Grandparents, and Godparents in the Orthodox Tradition.”
Having gone through infants and youth, I want to talk now about teenagers, a very auspicious topic to discuss, mostly because anybody that’s ever done work with pre-teenagers and teenagers knows that you pretty much have one chance with a teenager. As soon as they get the idea that you don’t really believe what you’re saying or you don’t know what you’re talking about, the wall goes up and you’re finished, and you don’t get a second chance, because you’re not credible.
Credibility, of course, means a lot with a teenager. We’ll talk about some specific hot topics shortly. I want to start kind of in the Orthodox way. When we look at atonement and salvation, we think not in terms of legal categories like a lot of other Christian groups. We think, “What separates God from man?” And the answer is, “Nature, sin, and death,” all of which have been overcome by Jesus Christ, his crucifixion and resurrection, by the Gospel. Likewise, I want to address what is it that separates a child, particularly a teenager, where everything is much more intense, from God, from you, and from each other.
These aren’t always what you expect. And, by the way, I’m not making this stuff up, according to my own experience or contriving it according to some theory. You can read the writings of St. Theophan the Recluse and some of the things in the Philokalia and John Chrysostom on education and the upbringing of children, St. Basil as well, and you’ll see all of this actually laid out there. Probably the best single book as a guideline, I would recommend—and you’ll see some of the material that I’m discussing—is St. Theophan’s book, The Path to Salvation. It contains a great deal of Christian anthropology and how one deals with yourself to purify yourself to make the energies of God alive in yourself. It’s very significant and important, and it cuts across all the lines.
Recently, I had the opportunity to listen to Fr. Meletios Webber, who’s Scottish. It’s funny to listen to. I love a Scottish accent; it just makes me laugh. He’s a trained counselor, and he said something interesting, and as someone who has studied psychology a lot, both as an undergraduate and at the graduate level myself, and, of course, the psychological environment is very hostile to Christian ideology today, particularly. He said something that really stuck out to me. He said, “You know, people talk about the ego. What is this ‘ego’ thing? What is the human ego? Because it’s a construct that somebody made up; it doesn’t actually exist.” He said, “Unless it exists as clumps of thoughts.”
We have a lot of thoughts every day that we have trouble keeping track of how many thoughts we can have in a moment. I can turn to my wife and say, “What are you thinking?” And she has to stop and recount all the thoughts she’s having at one moment. Either that or she’s humoring me, and she doesn’t want to tell me what she’s really thinking. But he says, “I think the ego is just clumps of greasy thoughts, all clumped together.” I think that’s probably correct, because the ego, of course, is what we really think about ourselves: lots of thoughts about that, how we perceive other people perceive us, how we determine our station in the world. And particularly for teenagers, the thing that teenagers ultimately start to crave is impressions.
Think about this. When a boy or a girl turns 10 or 11 or 12 (usually 12 is pretty late), they start asking a lot of questions. They’re no longer just absorbing information; they’re now starting to connect it. Why? Why is there air? Bill Cosby says, “To fill up basketballs, that’s why there’s air.” Where do babies come from? My answer is always the same: “The stork!” Even in my Latin class, they ask me that question. I always give a safe answer. But what children start to crave is impression, the impression of things.
For those of you that know what teenage boys are like, teenage boys have lots of energy, and if they do not have work, they find something else to spend their energy on, and it’s never good, never healthy. They find trouble! That’s the nature of boys. “I’ve got all this energy. I’m going to do something with it.” That’s true, but what they’re craving is impression.
If they’re not accustomed to, and you’re not accustomed to, directing them toward healthy impressions, or too much into physical or visual impressions, that’s what takes them away from God: the craving for more impression. Think about MySpace or Facebook: “I’m going to use things created by other people to express my individuality.” I love that. That’s what people do, and more impressions, more impressions.
Remember when they were trying to outlaw video poker? I don’t know if you remember that people were losing fortunes in an hour because it happened so fast. The impression came up so fast, they dropped in another coin, played it again. Rather than waiting for the cards, it comes up instantly, and you could play a thousand hands in an hour: boom, boom, boom, boom. You could lose your house in an hour! Impressions, always impressions.
The danger of this is very, very clear according to the Fathers. At one point, temptation becomes sin, and not just in doing it. We look at temptation a little bit differently. One of the early questions that I had was when Jesus was tempted in the wilderness and the big dichotomy becomes: if he was God, how could he be tempted to do something evil? And if he wasn’t God, then, of course, that’s a different equation, too. And of course he could be tempted—which is it? Again, it’s a false understanding of temptation.
As the Fathers explain temptation—I won’t belabor this, I promise—there’s several different stages of temptation. First, the first one is there’s a glimmer. It’s just outside; I can’t see my hand from here. Just outside peripheral vision. Can’t quite make it out, but you start to perceive there’s something there. I really can’t see my [hand], just the tip of my fingers right from here. That peripheral experience is the glimmer of spiritual attack, the glimmer of temptation.
You are not culpable for that sin, but, over time and experience, you begin to realize that you’re about to be tempted. You perceive it earlier and earlier and earlier. Then it comes before your mental eye. You form a mental image of the temptation. Now you’re guilty of the sin. You have formed a mental image; you can start chewing it over in your mind, considering it. That’s called “coupling”: you’re dancing with the idea, or you’re perceiving it more clearly.
Then you start to think about it. What would it be like if I committed that sin? I haven’t decided to do it yet, but you’re chewing it over, so to speak, in American-speak. Then enters the decision to actually sin. Then there’s what’s called “pre-possession”: you’re in the habit, you’ve dug a rut from the glimmer of temptation to performing the sin so much that the habit is now firmly established in you. You’re pre-possessed, pre-inclined to already commit the sin without taking some active participation in stopping it.
Then the final one is that you are so ingrained in this habit that, although technically you have free will, the truth is that you are so ingrained in the passion that you no longer resist it, and you’re going to do it every time you’re tempted.
Now, the Fathers tell us that, “Was Jesus tempted? Yes, but he rejected all mental imagery.” He wasn’t culpable for those temptations and sins. He showed us it can be done. The thing about our theology: it’s very empirical. It actually can be done, and these tools exist for all Orthodox Christians.
In my church, after the new member class and the basic catechumen class is over, I have an interior life class, and it’s not long. It’s basically explaining the anthropology of the person, the stages of temptation, and talking about the practice of catching yourself in the temptation earlier and earlier, and it takes a lot of attentiveness. It’s called watchfulness. And then we talk about the techniques of watchfulness.
It helps some more than others, because they apply it. They’re more attentive to it. But the truth is, it’s the purview of every Christian to be wary of sin and to reject temptation. Now, for people, teenagers, who are craving impression, our society gives them a lot of answers. You can spend hours on Facebook doing almost nothing, giving your opinion to the whole world. You can spend a lot of time on television, playing games. Of course, there’s all kind of lewd and inappropriate material on the internet—that’s approximately half of the internet, if you’re not aware of that. Horrible. You can find whatever you want. This is why building up the will is very important, because the seeking of visual and other sensory impression is what is driving teenagers away from God, because there is no impression of God.
You know how we say he’s invisible, inconceivable, incomprehensible? That means that any concept of God is a false idol. It’s a false image of God. Any conception of God. We believe in an invisible God, one you can’t see, so don’t try to see him. Even in the icons of the creation of the world, they’re always images of the flesh of Jesus Christ, because, according to the rules of iconography, you cannot make an image of divinity. As soon as you do that, you’ve crossed the line. No images of God the Father. None. That’s idolatrous, not Orthodox.
So teenagers are the primary target of the enemies of the Church. I don’t need to tell you that; you all know it. Hannah Montana, Brittney Spears, Lady Gaga. Some real problems going on there, but they’re all designed for one thing. And by the way, our kids are not oblivious to this. Again, you’re not simply handing them over to the culture and trying to prune it as best you can. They’re aware some of these things aren’t good, but you need to talk to them about it. Listen. There’s a lot of sensory impressions out there. There’s a lot of things that are going to try to get themselves into your eyes, into your ears, into your memory. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it.
Just out of curiosity, I have seen a couple of things in my life that I can’t unsee. One of those “Ugh, oh, please” moments. Have you ever had one of those? You can’t unsee those things. They’re disturbing. Sometimes they’re very funny. What was one I was listening to? I was going through the channels or something, and we don’t normally have television except in the fall when my wife wants to watch Red Wings hockey, but I was going through and I saw something like “My Big Fat Redneck Wedding.” I’m not sure that’s the name of the program, but it was people in the most garish, embarrassing—please, I don’t want to see that again—weddings. Very strange, very bizarre, very disturbing. That was what the whole show was.
You can arm your teenagers against this stuff, but here again, you have to name it. You have to make sure that they hear it. If you struggle with sensory imagery, whether it’s on the internet or not, you have some particular problem with lewd images, deal with it. For gentlemen, let me just say: it’s weakness. It’s weak. It’s not a real relationship, doesn’t make you a real man. It is tough; it’s a temptation, but it’s like every other temptation: excitable; you have to do something about it. And, ladies, it’s not any different, even if you’re playing video poker 20 hours a day, it’s sensory perception that we’re stimulating ourselves with.
The other thing I want to say is that as someone who has to spend a lot of time on the internet myself, the one thing you have to realize about it is that it’s time that has to be culled for one reason: time in front of a screen stimulates the sympathetic nervous system. Children can sit in front of a screen for hours; they’re not hungry, they’re not thirsty, and they don’t have to go to the bathroom, but as soon as the screen goes off—“I gotta go, I gotta go, I gotta go!” They really have to go.
Entering into a state like that is dangerous. I don’t want to overstate it, but it is a form of mild hypnosis. That means post-hypnotic suggestions. As you get older you realize, “I shouldn’t eat some foods before I go to sleep or I’ll have weird dreams. I can’t watch certain movies before I go to sleep or I’ll have bizarre dreams. I cannot talk about certain topics before I go to sleep or they will ruin my night. I won’t be able to sleep, because I’ll dream about them.” We’ve got to be watchful ourselves, but if we do that—again, embrace the struggle—our kids benefit from it.
They’ll learn that this is not something to talk about—“Do as I say and not as I do. Don’t make my mistakes.” They’re going to follow our own footprints, especially the ones we hide, but if we’re embracing it, if we’re struggling and acknowledging it, they’ll get it, that it is something that you work on, not just passively assent to.
What separates a teenager from their parents? This may surprise you. Boredom. When my children were young, I was funny. When they became teenagers, I was not funny. When they become 16, I’m not funny at all, kind of embarrassing and humiliating, right? Nothing new there. The thing about it is there’s two states of boredom. One’s actually not boredom. One is a state of dispossession.
Teenagers are acutely aware of their own shortcomings, and the world says, “Be thin, be blonde, be happy, be successful, be sexy, be rich.” Well, none of us are all of those things, and most of us aren’t any of those things. And that’s the impression that’s constantly pushed on them, so they feel a little bit of dispossession. They’re feeling a little down. That’s not bad. What they need to realize is where they’re really at, and that it’s not a bad place.
But when kids get bored, they’re looking for stimulus for any reason. They want to be entertained; they want to be stimulated. And they’ll find anything to do it. Where before, Mom and Dad were funny and entertaining, now Mom and Dad are neither funny nor entertaining. And it’s not our job, by the way, to entertain our children, but it is our job to raise them up. So… when kids are bored—and this is where I think Christian parents have a big leg up on a lot of others. I see a lot of parents very distressed that their children aren’t perpetually happy. If the happy is depressed, upset, slightly hungry—it must be fixed; let’s go buy something. They can’t bear for the children to struggle.
Fr. James was mentioning earlier that I wrote an essay about the Orthodox Church of tomorrow, and it made a lot of noise; not everybody was happy was about it, and that’s fine. My bishops treated me very equitably, but it was a moment in my life where I was completely helpless. I didn’t do anything wrong, and I still had gotten in trouble for it. But that’s the moment where I found out who I really was as a priest. That’s one of the moments I found out who I really was as a man. When we stop entertaining our children, stop worrying that they’re upset—life is up and down; it’s triumph and catastrophes, and they’re both—what does Rudyard Kipling say?—they’re imposters, because the reality is always in the middle.
But when you’re a teenager, everything is drama and drama and up and down. You don’t even have to have girls; I have dramatic boys, too. It’s the drama that’s the hard part of teen life; it really is. The reality is that they’re bored, and when they’re bored, the answer my parents gave me: “Boring people get bored. Don’t be boring!” Thanks, Mom. That wasn’t much help, but it made me realize that I had to be responsible for myself. Nobody was going to entertain me. Nobody was going to coddle me so that I could be a perpetual infant.
Then there’s the third thing: what separates teenagers from each other? Again, you might be surprised. The desire for close contact. I would almost say the desire for emotional intimacy, but because teenagers are just learning how this works outside the family, they often default to what’s called familiarity. Do you know what I mean by the difference? Intimacy is that close bond when you’re talking to someone and you’re opening your heart. You might even say that the souls are meeting, because the soul doesn’t measure time, only growth. That’s why you can hit it off with a friend, and within a week you could feel like “We’ve been friends forever. I’m closer to this person than I’ve been to anybody in my life.” That’s a true friend. That’s how I felt when I met my wife. “We really connect.”
But there’s also that moment, in that desire to be close, that we settle on familiarity. You tell the off-color joke that wasn’t funny, and you’ve blown it; you know you’ve blown it. You say the thing in an attempt to be relaxed, but it was inappropriate, and it has the opposite effect; it repels people. Teenagers are sorting this out very, very harshly. It’s very hard for them to figure it out. That’s why the home life must be consistent. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but if it’s consistent, we know “We fail at this; we’re good at that. This is what it’s like, and this is how we deal with it.”
I don’t mean to be continually thinking in generalities, but think about the issues of our day. Thirty years ago or so, the American Psychological Association removed homosexuality as a mental problem, and nobody would have imagined that people would be forced to recognize the marriage of homosexuals as a legitimate marriage. It’s ridiculous. Now those same people are being lobbied to remove pedophilia—you’ve seen it in the news—as a mental illness, to normalize it.
Perversion is perversion. We don’t bless it, especially when it could be the result of sin, the result of someone else’s suffering. We don’t bless that. We cure it. We heal it. Our kids have to deal with non-scientists telling them scientific fables as reality. They have to deal with struggling over supporting somebody that they like, knowing that they don’t have any Christian moral backing on that person, and that’s a conflict within them, because, like most people, teenagers do what they want, and they find a reason to do it.
Let’s face it: I’m a priest; I hear a lot of confessions. Fr. James will back me on this; so will Fr. Joseph. Here’s the dirty little secret about confession: they’re all the same. They’re the same. You want to know why we can’t remember what you say? We’ve heard it a million times before. We can remember the spiritual direction we’ve given you by the grace of God, but honestly, since I’ve been a priest I can’t remember a single thing that anyone’s confessed to me. And I’m grateful for that. I’m very happy for that.
When I send my kids out to school every day, or my son off to Boston—that one was a tough one for me and my wife, because it’s far away—we know what’s going to happen to them. We know what they’re going to do to them. I said my strongest desire is that my son will stand up even when he knows the people who should reward him are going to punish him, and I want him to say, “Bring it on,” because it’s the right thing to do. That’s my prayer; that’s my desire. And I can die happy.
But you know, this is the thing: people love to drag the culture wars into the Church. They love to drag the thing about global warming into the Church. They love to drag homosexual marriage into the Church. They love to drag abortion into the Church—and make it a Church issue. By the way, I’m not against moral issues [or] the Church taking a stand on these issues, but the Church’s job is to be the conscience of society, not the other way around. That’s our job. It’s against canon law for a clergyman to take office in government, except in extraordinary circumstances in other countries, but it’s against the law. We get defrocked if we do that. Why? Because that’s not the job.
Teenagers are in that terrible state of no longer asking, “Why?” but starting to connect the dots. Let me give you an example from my Latin class. In ancient Rome, candidates for political office wore a special kind of toga. It was bleached, bright white; it wasn’t just sort of the normal, unbleached toga. Bright white, it was even rubbed with chalk so it was super white. If you’ve ever heard that saying, “He’s chalked with ambition,” that’s what it comes from. Well, it was called the “toga candida”; it’s where we get the word “candidate” from, because he is wearing the candida.
Likewise, when a candidate was elected for political office, he was inaugurated. Now, there’s a funny word. When someone is inaugurated, we mean they’re being ushered into office, but that’s not what it really means. An augur was one of the priests of the Roman religion, the pagan religion. Get a load of this: best job ever! People would come to you and say, “I want to know if this marriage or this business deal is pleasing to the gods.” So the augur would take the money and, get a load of this, he would look at birds. Based on what the birds were doing—he didn’t even have to touch them—look at the birds and say, “The gods are smiling on this deal”—because you gave him enough money; he’s very happy now, see? I could make so much money doing that; that would be so awesome. “Yes, God is smiling on it. No problem.”
But this is what they did. They looked at what birds were doing, and they said, “The gods are smiling on this enterprise. Congratulations. Well done.” So before a candidate for political office was inaugurated, the augurs showed up and told them whether or not the gods were smiling on it. That’s what inauguration is. It’s weird. It’s very strange.
Likewise, one of my favorite pet peeves—anybody that knows my Latin class will know this—one of my absolute favorite pet peeves is reading the newspaper and realizing that journalists are idiots. They don’t know grammar, they don’t know punctuation, and they don’t know what words mean. Take, for example, the famous, easy one to point out: “Half the village was decimated.” “Decimate” means reduce by one-tenth. December, tenth month originally, right? What the Roman soldiers used to do is they’d line up all the men—they didn’t know who was doing the crime—and they’d count them off: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine… number ten gets it, and they’d start ten again. So they’d kill off every tenth guy. That’s decimation. You can decimate half the population, but what they mean is “annihilate”: to reduce to nothing. That’s what they mean.
When teenagers start to realize, “Hey, I know something that this guy ought to know,” it’s empowering. Teens particularly need to be told, “You’ve got the right to ask a question.” The average teacher today, who comes out of college—you know the average amount of time they spend in teaching? Four and a half years. Why? They’ll tell you, “Augh, parents. Parents harangue us endlessly, because little Joey or little Jimmy isn’t doing something right and he needs to get straight As, and they actually try to bully us into giving them a good grade, rather than joining with us into forming this brat into a real person.”
Because I’m an adjunct instructor at the school I teach at, I get away with stuff I think the others don’t get away with. I make all the boys sit on one side of the room, and all the girls sit on the other side of the room; they’re not allowed to talk to each other. If they ask me, something’s not fair, I always say the same thing: “What’s that sound? It’s the sound of me not caring. I don’t care about your feelings. I love you all, but your feelings are up and down and back and forth. Who cares? Not me. When you’re no longer my students, I’ll care about your feelings.”
By the way, that’s all true. All my Latin students will tell you that. But I expect them to use words properly. I expect them to think carefully about things, not to make ridiculous statements. Like, one of my students briefly came to me and said, “Columbus landed in Haiti. They killed 20 million people.” I was like, “Yeah, look. I don’t know how many people live in Haiti, but I’m pretty sure the natural ecosystem, without technology, could not sustain 20 million people.” Now, I haven’t checked, but I’m just saying that’s a lot people, considering ancient Rome, which was vast, had, what? two million? And half of those were slaves that ate porridge every day?
So I’m a little skeptical of such things like that. I just want them to carefully think, because teenagers are going to spiral off the things that they hear without thinking about it, and they need to get to just stop and think about it. They’ll think for themselves, and that’s what I want. That’s what you want.
I don’t get the newspaper anymore. Actually, I get a free one. Does anybody here actually subscribe to a physical newspaper anymore? Not as many as there used to [be]. But they’re fun to go through, because you can always find a grammatical mistake or a word used wrong or a Latin phrase, like “status quo” or “pro bono” or something. The question isn’t even are they using that correctly, but it’s always fun to go through and find out people who write for a living who don’t know how to write.
Empowering kids to ask questions. You have the right to ask questions. You have the right to ask your teacher. Rather than running to the teacher… One of my sons had a really rough experience. Again, I think it was formative for him, and I feel bad about it, but I’m going to share it with you. He had a teacher who was an idiot. They needed an extra math teacher, and they brought in this guy from the university who just got fired from the university—obviously not a good teacher.
Joseph was working very hard on some math, and his grade was a B or a C, and he got a B on the test, and his grade went down. I said, “Look, I may not be a mathematician, but I know that’s impossible!” So I said, “Joe, go to him, and tell him that that can’t be possible.” It’s not possible. Well, he didn’t answer him, and I said, “Go to the principal.” I’m trying to get him [to act]: “Joseph, go defend yourself.” My son, Joseph, is a pretty mild-mannered kid, but he likes heroism, too. Anyway, the long and the short of it was the principal basically said, “Look, he’s the teacher. He’s not going to bend on it. There’s nothing we can do about it.” I said, “Okay. Fine. We learned a lesson.” Sometimes things can’t be changed.
I should have gone and seen that teacher. I don’t like getting in teachers’ faces about things, because I want to help teachers do a good job—but that wasn’t fair. And although life isn’t fair, you and I all know that you can’t make it fair for yourself, but you have to try to make it fair for someone else, and you have to defend your own kids. So I’m confessing to you. He’s not scarred for life; don’t worry. One of my parishioners is the math teacher at the school right now. She’s an outstanding math teacher. She’s removed a lot of his math anxiety, I’m happy to say. He’ll have a wonderful life of incredible fulfillment, blah blah blah. The thing that Joseph does understand is you don’t just cast problems away because you don’t understand them.
Make sure your teenagers—those of you that have teens—know: you’ve got the right to ask. You don’t have to sit back passively and take it. Even if you don’t get your way, the person who’s doing something better be able to defend it—reasonably, I hope.
Kids, when they are getting to be teens, need to be around other teens, because although there’s a lot of peer pressure, peer interaction is what they crave. Like I said, they desire contact, they desire some intimacy, but they often default to familiarity. And we do this, too. We need to get away from familiarity, the awkward, inappropriate jokes that we hope will bring us closer just make us feel bad, and desire real intimacy, which is listening. Teens have to be listened to when they want to talk, but likewise they can’t simply be ignored at church. I’m not accusing anybody of this, but…
Working with teens is hard work. There’s no way of getting around it. They’re dealing with tough issues. Sometimes they’re dealing with addictions that they’re horribly embarrassed about, and they need to be asked the question. Remember I said that earlier? What question? “Do you want to be a Christian? Do you want to follow Jesus Christ?’ You’ve got to ask them.
I want to tell you a story. You’ll love this. This is a true story, also. In one of my parishes, a young woman who was teaching Sunday school came up to me and said, “Father, my husband and I have been invited to a tent revival. My husband never goes to church and he wants to go. Can I go?” I said, “Yes, you can go. Just be Orthodox.” Gave her a very significant look. She comes back, because it’s a five-day event, and I said, “So, Gina, how’d it go?” She says, “Oh, it was wonderful. First night, lot of singing, lot of dancing. The pastor at the end said, ‘Now if you want to make a decision for Jesus, stand up!’ So she stood right up.” I said, “Oh, good. What did they do?” She said, “They were happy. They said, ‘Oh, we got one! We got one!’ ” This was good, really happy-clappy, very excited, and they were all happy: “Come lay hands on her, pray on her,” all that stuff. Fr. James’ll talk about that.
So she goes back the second night, and they’re singing and dancing and having a lot of fun. The pastor says, “Okay, if you want to make a decision for Jesus, stand up!” So she stood up, and it’s like, “No, no, honey, no, no. You already…” “No! I’m deciding for Jesus right now.” Well, she did it every night. I looked at her, and I said, “You know what, Tina? That’s Orthodox.” We decide every day to follow Christ. We have to be converted every single day.
You’ve got to ask yourself the question every single day. Every day: every moment of every day. We can’t spend our whole lives but going in our heads to the question, the question, the question, but we can go on through our day reminding ourselves: “I’ve got to decide. I’ve got to decide, because if I don’t decide, I’m defaulting. And what am I going to default to? Probably not the Lord.” Real simple. Real simple, but that’s a profound difference of worldview. I’m not intimidated, I’m not afraid of heterodox Christians or of Mormons or any other goofy cult, Scientologists—what are they going to do to me? If they kill me, I don’t have to worry about my pension. Don’t laugh.
It’s not a worry. The thing is that sometimes you have to say like David, “You know what? This fight is the Lord’s. I’ll throw the rock, but he’ll take care of the rest.” And you have to realize, also, like when they were two, also when they’re twelve, and fourteen, and sixteen, every two years, you’ve got to control you, because you’re out of control. But that’s because in your mind, they’re still four years younger. You’re treating a sixteen-year-old like in your heart they’re still twelve. Why are you acting like this? They’re just being teenagers. They’re trying to figure out adulthood, which, again, is a very important thing. They want to be good adults. That’s the other secret: they actually want to be good adults, most of them.
I’ve seen kids who were real screw-ups suddenly turn into caring, wise friends to their acquaintances, saying beautiful things, things that I’ve wanted to write down because they were so good, so heartfelt, and so profound. The difference between kids who are troublesome and kids who are good—there’s no difference; they’re the same kids all the time.
There’s one boy from my Latin class, a real cut-up, great kid, I mean super-bright, super-bright intellect. He loved to provoke people intellectually, he’d poke them and they’d react. He loved doing that. But he was a really good comedian. I said, “This kid’s going to marry a model, because he’d get her to laugh.” Guys, if you get your wife to laugh, you’ve got her, right? That’s how it worked for me, anyway. For sure.
This is another part of dealing with a teenager, because a lot of times they’ll say, “How did you know this was the one? How did you know this was what you had to do? How did you know this was the right choice? How did you know this was what you wanted to do in life?” “Where do babies come from? Why is there air?”—but it’s coming from a much different perspective. Here’s the key, in my opinion—I said “my opinion,” so I’m not culpable for that, see?—you don’t have to have the answer. You’ve just got to be honest, because if you’re like me, you want your teenagers to grow up as men and women who think but wonder, who pray but hope, and can stand looking up at the sky and know that it’s going to be all right, and still have questions. It’s a good place to be.
We still have to be the guardians of the door. The children, because they’re still children, will fight us about guarding the door, but here’s my theory on that whole thing: I don’t want home to be too nice a place. I don’t want it to be so comfortable that they can stay there till they’re forty. I don’t! I love my boys, and I would love to spend all that time with them, but then I would turn into the parent that never wants my children to be unhappy, and I’m not doing my job as a dad. “How come I don’t I have any privacy here?” “Because you’re living in my house.” “I hate you!” “Good! That’s the way it should be! Now you will get out.”
Don’t get me wrong. My boys and I are very close. We love each other a lot; we laugh about stuff like this, but they get tired of me checking on them, checking their cell phone, things like that, but they know it’s going to happen. So they just punish me as much as possible for having to do it. It’s a little game we play, called “Make Dad Lose More Dark Hair.” Again, I try to pay that price because I don’t want them turning into perpetual adolescents.
Let me give you an example of perpetual adolescents. The latest craze, the flash-mob: those aren’t all teenagers; those are adults. And what are they doing? They’re acting like ‘hoods. They’re teens. They’re babies. And they’re getting away with it. Our culture would love to keep people as perpetual teenagers. That’s what they want, so that you constantly seek impressions, and they will give them to you. But the reality is that growing in Christ prohibits that. Taking enough care to know that you’re going to have to answer for your children’s actions on Judgment Day makes you swallow the hard pill. And it pays off, because when they’re 18, you don’t know anything; by the time you’re 21, they’re constantly amazed at how much you’ve learned in those three years.