Where My Kids At?

I refuse to accept the premise that, in modern society, all teenagers rebel. I remember reading somewhere, or maybe hearing, that teenage rebellion is a modern construct, rarely seen in society before the 20th century.  (If anyone has a reference for this, please share it in the comments below.)  That means it is not an essential part of growing up.  Therefore, I am conducting a long-term experiment on my own children.

There’s a really funny YouTube video about the Toyota Sienna. If you haven’t seen the “Swagger Wagon,” check it out *here*.  At one point, they speak-sing, “Where my kids at?  Where my kids at?” Then the husband turns around to his wife and says, “No seriously, honey, where are the kids?”  (In the interest of full disclosure, I was dragged into the purchase of a Toyota Sienna—our second minivan—but I decided to embrace it and ‘own’ this country-singers-cover-Motley-Crue and rap music-sells-minivans state of my life now.  You know what I mean.)

It seems to me that many parents turn around one day when their children are fifteen or sixteen and say, “Where are my sweet little children that used to tell me everything? Why do they seem so closed?  Why do they demand but never give?”  Here’s my theory:  We really ‘lost’ our kids a long time before this.  Stick with me here.  I need to paint a picture.

Back when they were babies, we had to do everything for them. Just in the everyday acts of changing diapers, putting on clothes, giving baths, and feeding green peas, we engaged them in conversation (albeit stream-of-conscience, entirely one-sided, and utterly inane) and gave them significant amounts of attention.  On top of that, we spent one-on-one time reading to them, talking to them, singing to them and whatever else the pediatrician-of-the-day said was good for their cognitive and muscular development.  (Baby yoga anyone?)  We talked to them almost constantly and thrilled to hear them utter semi-coherent monosyllabic words.  “He said ‘Mama’—I’m sure of it!”

When they became slightly more independent, they still required a great deal of attention from us: “Which video do you want to watch?”  “No, you can’t wear your Superman costume to Sunday School, and yes, you have to wear underwear.”  We imbibed the deluge of information propounding that these were the critical years, so we read to them religiously because it was essential to brain development, and we showed education videos in very limited quantities.  (Baby Einstein made how many millions?)  They still needed help with the hard things–like wiping their bums or washing their hair.  And let’s just be honest, they didn’t have a lot of independent thoughts beyond their immediate wants and needs.  “Need-a go potty!” is not a great conversation starter.  If there was a conversation of any significance, the parent started it; the parent controlled it; the parent finished it.  We enjoyed their increasing independence . . . partly because we might actually get to wash our own hair without interruption.  As a matter of fact, Elmo’s World was the background music of my quiet time for at least two years.

But then they started school. Not long after that, they began choosing their own clothes and even (occasionally) blowing their own noses.  They could make choices about what to play.  They could read.  What does a ‘good parent’ do at this critical juncture?  Up to this point, being a good parent meant serving them.  It was a physical, measurable thing.  But now they don’t need us for those things.  So we substitute, staying in that gear where good parenting equals meeting physical needs.  How do we make that tangible?  We drive them to music lessons, ball practice, martial arts, children’s choir, and too many birthday parties to count.  We push them to eat their broccoli and minimize desserts.  We forbid rated-R movies and check their video games at Plugged-In.  We feel like we’re doing the right thing.

Suddenly at this stage, they have things they want to talk about. But those things are BORING.  I do not have and have never had a favorite DC Comics superhero and I have absolutely no interest in debating the superiority of DC over Marvel.  I can’t tell the difference between this Barbie and that one.  I don’t CARE who pushed whom on the playground, as long as it wasn’t my kid.  Plus, they tend to tell the same story over and over.  So we turn them off.  We tune them out.  Now we’re the ones offering mono-syllabic responses at what we hope are appropriate interludes.  Or we interrupt them with entirely unrelated questions such as, “Did you feed the dog?” or “What happened to this homework paper?  Was there a flood at school today?”  It doesn’t take them long to catch on to our lack of interest.  Their fall-back position is naturally selfish, namely, Mom and Dad are here to serve me:  supply my needs, give me everything I want, and take care of my problems for me.  It’s not that we quit talking to our kids.  It’s that we don’t quit talking long enough to listen.  We preach.  Go ahead; admit it.  Even that line above about the flood at school was veering toward the ‘preachy’ side.  So either they carry on one-sided conversations or we do, when what they really need is dialogue, a.k.a. ‘convos’ (my eleven-year-old just informed me of this slang).

Eventually, they become teenagers. (Okay, this is where I have to combine the overheard experiences of others because we’re not quite there in my house.  Like I said, this is an on-going experiment.)  The fact that they are learning to think for themselves is GOOD.  We want that.  It’s kinda the point of growing up.  And we give them more freedoms because that’s what you’re supposed to do.  However, they have been operating more-or-less independently for a few years now—at least emotionally and relationally—with Mom and Dad functioning as little more than stagehands while the kids “strut and fret their hour upon the stage” (sorry, Shakespeare).  But now, the consequences have increased.  They can drive.  They can get pregnant (or get someone pregnant).  They have access to all sorts of not-good-for-them things.  And sometimes, even the good kids make really bad choices.

Where are we, the parents, when something happens? We say, “What were you thinking?  Why didn’t you talk to me about that first?  You know you can talk to me about anything!” And we mean it.  We really do, but for years we have inadvertently judged their conversations as irrelevant.  Thus, our words carry no weight . . . or worse, they sound hypocritical.

If the teenage child could really voice what is in his heart, he might say this: “Oh yeah?  You haven’t listened to me since I was eight.  Why should I think you wanted to hear about this?  I thought your job was to take care of me and drive me around while I figured all this out by myself.”

At this point, we must all resist the temptation to say, “Well, I wiped your dirty butt!” because that fact is not a valid reason for him to listen to you now.  Sorry.

We CANNOT let our children think that they have to figure out the world on their own! How horribly lonely and scary for them . . . how parentally disappointing of us.  Perhaps some of what we call rebellion is actually their ignorant (in the best possible sense of the word) attempts to wrangle their tempestuous lives.

I heard Josh McDowell say, “Rules without relationship lead to rebellion.” (I don’t remember where I read this, and someone else said they heard it from another person, so I don’t know the actual source of the quote.  Again, happy for someone to clarify in the comments below.)  In David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell observes, “People who are asked to obey authority have to feel like they have a voice—that if they speak up, they will be heard.”*

My hypothesis is this: If I can stay conversationally and intimately engaged in the lives of my kids through these not-so-interesting years, perhaps it will pay off in teenagers who are used to talking to me about their lives . . . and listening to me.  Maybe that will help.

So, for the record, my favorite DC superhero is Black Widow; I have my reasons, if you want to hear them sometime. I prefer NERF Elite weapons over Zombie Strike (because I don’t like anything having to do with zombies).  And I can tolerate exactly two episodes of Madagascar Penguins before I feel like my brain is melting.  When the day-to-day thought processes of my eight-year-old become too ridiculous for me to fathom, I think back to that night last week when we had this really great conversation about how God was never born and has always existed.  I WILL stay engaged in his life so that, when the challenges increase and the fingers of independence begin to squeeze on his heart, he has someone to walk beside him and help him “figure out” this crazy world.



*Full quote: “Legitimacy is based on three things.  First of all, the people who are asked to obey authority have to feel like they have a voice—that if they speak up, they will be heard.  Second, the law has to be predictable.  There has to be a reasonable expectation that the rules tomorrow are going to be roughly the same as the rules today.  And third, the authority has to be fair.  It can’t treat one group differently from another.”  from David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants by Malcolm Gladwell. New York:  Little Brown, 2013. 207-208.   Gladwell points out the application for parenting.


Some languages are harder to learn than others because tone or inflection change the meaning of the word.  A friend of ours tells a story about trying to say ‘pardon’ but actually saying ‘cheeseburger.’  Yeah, inflection affects meaning.  Take the word ‘okay’ for example.  It’s one of those ubiquitous American words that (frustratingly) can serve as an adjective, adverb, interjection, noun, or transitive verb.  (Thank you, dictionary.com!)  Sometimes we shorten it to ‘ok’ or ‘o.k.’   We even have a hand signal for it (which, by the way, you shouldn’t do if you’re ever in Brazil.  It means something totally different there!)  Just look at all this:

Okay?  =  Do I have your permission?  Do you mind?  Is this agreeable for you?

Okay!  =  Let’s get started!  Sounds great!

(firm ending) = I understand. I hear you.  I accept or agree.  Yes.

Okay. (dragging on the end) = Fine, not great, acceptable but reluctant.


Pardon me while I now remove my English teacher hat . . . deep breath . . .

‘Okay?’ (as a question) does NOT mean “do what I just told you to do” and yet I hear parents saying it to young children all the time.

Mom:  Johnnie honey, don’t stick your finger in the electrical outlet, okay?

Child:  [no response]

Mom:  Sweetie, I need you to remove your finger from the outlet.  Okay?

Child:  Mama, I don’t want to.  Can’t I just finish this?

What are you trying to say here, Mom (or Dad)?  Are you asking for permission to be the parent?  Are you giving them permission to agree or disagree?  Is the finger-in-the-outlet something they can choose to do or not do?  I hope not! Most parents, when they finish their sentences with ‘okay?’, really mean ‘Do you hear me?’ and I get that . . . but I’m not sure the child does.  In every other situation, ‘okay?’ means the listener gets to make a choice.  Whether it’s an issue of danger or simply the practice of obedience (such as cleaning their rooms), children need to hear your confident authority.  Be the parent.  They will have plenty of chances to make choices when they are older.  For toddlers, preschoolers, and even elementary-age children, communicate with a firm but kind command followed by the expectation of a response.  The ‘okay’ should come from their mouths, meaning that they hear and accept what you have said.  Save the ‘okay’ question for situations where they really get to make a choice. If the expectation of a response hasn’t been the pattern in your house, it may take a little training.  Ideally, it looks like this:

Mom (firmly but nor forcibly) Johnnie, take your finger out of the electrical outlet now.

Child:  [no response]

Mom(putting down whatever she is doing and giving full attention to the child)  Johnnie, I told you to do something.  What was it?

Child:  I don’t know.

Mom:  I told you to take your finger out of the outlet.  When I tell you something, I expect a response.  I say, ‘Take your finger out,’ and you say what?

Child:  Okay, Mama.  or  Yes, Mama.

Mom:  Thank you.  Now, what can you play with that is safe?

Notice I said that this is an ideal scenario.  It will take some re-training.  At first, you may need to finish the command with “Do you hear me?”  or “Do you understand?”

I realize that this approach counters those who think a child’s self-esteem is so fragile that it can’t handle a command, but I promise you that speaking this way is actually kinder.  Making suggestions to your young child, giving him or her the impression that they can obey or not obey . . . well, that’s just confusing.  The parent follows up by getting angry or disciplining the child for disobedience or disrespect.  Then, the child is confused because he or she never understood that a command was issued in the first place.  Let’s help our children obey by being clear about what is a command and what is up for debate.

Deep breath.  Okay!  Try it for a week.  Just take ‘okay?’ out of your vocabulary and see what happens to your child’s obedience level.  Then let me know in the comments below, okay?    

Mission Statement

**This post first appeared on Not About Me in August 2012.  The author moved it to this blog.**

We recently developed a mission statement to help us focus on what God has called us to do.  We didn’t notice until we finished that it’s really all about His glory.  Does your family have a mission statement?  Please share!


Attitude – servanthood, self-sacrifice:  Your attitude should be the same as that of Chist Jesus . . . to the glory of God the Father.  (Phil 2:5-11)

Love – agape, tangible:  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.  (John 13:35)

Light – noticeably different, draws attention:  Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.  (Matt 5:16)


Intentional – living life on purpose, thinking:  . . . It was for this very reason I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name!  (John 12:27b-28a)

No excuses – bold, risk-taking, absolute surrender:  I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death.  (Phil 1:20)

what to read, what to read

My children love to read.  They devour books, and both of them read well above their grade level, with large vocabularies and excellent comprehension skills.  I’m not bragging; I’ve met many children in this same situation.  The temptation with children like this is to let them read any book they are willing to crack open.  After all, reading is good for them, right?  Not always.

In watching my children grow, I have discovered that there are three aspects to reading ability.  The first is functional:  vocabulary, sentence structure, grammar, and things like that.  Can they convert letters into words and words into sentences?  The second is mental:  following a plot, keeping up with multiple characters, understanding imagery or foreshadowing and other subtleties.  The first time my daughter read The Secret Garden, she could read all the words, but she couldn’t really follow the story.  Same thing happened with a Nancy Drew book.  Now, of course, she loves both of those because her mental reading skills have increased.

The third aspect of reading is more social or emotional.  And more difficult to gauge.  It involves understanding the situation, social context, or implications of the story.  Early-reading books revolve around loosing a toy or getting your feelings hurt by a friend.  More advanced reading exposes the reader to some of the uglier things in the world:  injustice, abuse, prejudice, witchcraft, death.  Or sometimes just more mature topics:  relationships, sex, struggles with money, eating disorders, mental illness.  Even books like The Diary of Anne Frank require a certain level of social and/or historical understanding.

We do a fairly good job of measuring the first aspect of reading.  It’s easy to see if our children have the functional ability to read a book.  And in a brief conversation, we can know if they have achieved the mental ability to understand that book.  The challenge arises in measuring their social/emotional level for reading the same book.  Just because they CAN doesn’t mean they SHOULD.  Like Paul said,  “I have the right to do anything,” you say–but not everything is beneficial.  “I have the right to do anything”–but not everything is constructive (1 Cor 10:23 totally out of context, but it’s the same idea).  If we won’t let them watch ‘R’-rated movies, if we protect them from explicit song lyrics, if we instruct them to think on whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, etc. (Phil 4:8), why do we put overly-mature books in their hands without a second thought?

As parents, it’s our job to guard our children’s hearts.  Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it (Prov 4:23).  There’s an incredible scene in The Hiding Place, by Corrie Ten Boom.  She and her father are on a train, and she asks her father about sex.  Instead of answering, he asks Corrie to pick up the heavy suitcase sitting between them.  She can’t.  He tells her that some subjects are like that suitcase:  too heavy for her right now, but she will grow.  She must trust him that, when she is able to “carry” the information about sex, he will give it to her.

It’s not about sheltering our children from the world.  It’s about protecting them against things their hearts aren’t ready to manage just yet.  For a long time, we didn’t let our first-born read the Harry Potter series.  (Not judging here.  I read and loved every one of them; we just didn’t think she was ready.)  When all her friends read them, we talked about guarding her heart and thinking about things that honor God.  I asked her to trust me to know when she was ready.  I told her the story about Corrie Ten Boom and her father.

For now, there are SO many excellent, challenging books for my tween-ager.  Sure, she reads some “fluff” (she especially likes girl secret agents like Ruby Redfort), but we’re also working on the Newberry Award Winner list.  Have you read Carry On, Mr. Bowditch or The Witch of Blackbird Pond?  Do you remember Caddie Woodlawn or A Wrinkle in Time?  I’d forgotten; these are fantastic books!  In general, the Newberry winners are not at all childish (a complaint we sometimes hear from our double-digit-aged kids), but they handle mature topics in a way that’s appropriate for younger readers (think The Scarlet Letter without adultery for The Witch of Blackbird Pond).  They generate fantastic discussion topics; they help us engage with the world, and they supply a big dose of American history without any grimaces or complaints.

Also, it’s important to read questionable books before or at least alongside our kids.  This includes “Christian” books (e.g. Ted Dekker).  If I’ve already read the book, my child knows she can talk with me about anything she doesn’t understand.  I can even broach topics or scenes that I think need more light shed on them.  Let’s not allow literature to parent our children.  That’s our job.

If you were to finish all of the Newberry winners and honor books (which date back to the 1920s, so it should take awhile!), you can start on the AP English reading list.  This list, of course, is far more mature, but by the time they get to it, they should be ready.  I plan to read these books alongside my child too, so we can filter everything through our faith as she learns to knowledgeably engage the world around her.

By the way, my daughter is going to read Harry Potter this summer.  She can handle it now.  We’ll talk about it as she goes, and I know she’ll enjoy every minute!