One of our practices, while milady &
I were raising our kids, was to have a “date night” every week,
so we engaged a young lady from our church, named Bella. Bella knew
that every Thursday, she had an appointment babysitting our three
young kids, while Mrs P & I went out on a date together.
(Comment: the date night is not for business, household or otherwise; it’s for maintaining and strengthening the relationship. Sometimes we had dinner, sometimes it was just a walk in the park, but the business of bills or work or leading our church was off limits. However, “I love you!” was permitted, even encouraged!) (’Nother comment: Date night was an outstanding investment we made in our marriage; got us through some ugly seasons.)
Back to Bella. Bella was a great young lady. She was the oldest daughter of a couple who were “pillars” in our church, and she was amazing, and the whole church knew it. She was active in the youth group, earned good grades, and didn’t hang out with the scruffy kids at school. Her parents were real proud of her. She was at our house every Thursday evening for several years.
One Thursday, we came home after a quiet dinner, and a police car was in our driveway. It seems that Bella had left our kids alone in the house, and gone off to a quiet place to make out with her (hitherto unrevealed) boyfriend; someone had reported the trespassers, so the police showed up.
Bella had told the policeman who arrested them about our home and our kids, so a cop was parked in our driveway, making sure nothing happened to our kids until we got home.
We had some difficult conversations that evening. In a couple of months, we attended Bella’s hastily arranged wedding.
there was Bennie. Bennie was an Eagle Scout. He was squeaky clean:
good looking, short hair, bright eyes, had memorized hundreds of
He was the oldest son of one of the church’s elders, and the whole community was proud of him. He led worship, taught Sunday school, and was making plans for Bible college when he snapped.
His parents were completely undone when he went missing. “He’s such a good boy! He’d never do something like this to us!” they wept.
Three weeks later, Bennie showed up, covered in poorly-drawn tattoos and addicted to methamphetamines. His parents wept some more, and tried to “fix him,” but he disappeared again, this time for the better part of a year.
I know more of these stories, but you probably know some, too: good kids, kids who seem to have everything going for them, and then one day, during that terrible transition between youth and adulthood, they snap, they go off the deep end. Most of them don’t really come back.
My kids were coming up on their adolescence, so I was intensely interested. I grieved for Bella and for Bennie, and for their parents, but I wanted to do what I could to keep my own kids from this sort of flaming crash-and-burn. I talked to God about it. A lot. Hours, weeks, months.
One night, I was sitting next to my campfire, praying for my kids, when he began to unveil some things. Now, the unveiling took a lot of time, weeks, probably months, and I don’t have time for that whole story, so let me cut to the chase.
It seemed, in at least these two cases, that these kids felt immense pressure. They carried the heavy weight of expectation of sainthood, of perfection, from their parents, from their extended families, from their friends, from their churches, from everybody they knew.
It was overwhelming, stifling, constraining them while they were young, and they grew more aware of these expectations as they grew, until the weight that nobody knew they carried crushed them.
I think there were three factors to this.
The first was that eventually, as they touched on adulthood, they realized that they didn’t have to choose to wear that weight any longer. But they didn’t know how to lay it down, didn’t know how to get help, so they just threw it off and ran screaming from anybody that they associated with that crushing burden.
The second factor was that they were heroes as children, showpieces as youth and adolescents, but now they were facing that great unknown: adulthood! They had no idea how to be heroes or showpieces as adults, in fact, adulthood in general was overwhelming, so they cut and ran, away from adulating, away from responsibility, away from perfection.
And third, he showed me that these particular kids were living on their parents’ faith, not their own. And when the pressure of looming adulthood got to them, they couldn’t live on their own faith. They were making the physical transition to an adult body, but not the transition from their parents’ relationship with God to their own relationship with God.
Father showed me that I was similarly proud of my amazing children, and I was setting them up – particularly my all-star firstborn, for the same sort of implosion.
He gave us a few strategies to protect our kids. Fair warning, these things did not make our church elders happy, nor did the kids’ grandparents always approve. But we have healthy adult kids, and we’re still friends, so something went right.
• When they were younger, we built a great big treehouse in the back yard so they and their friends could do that thing that all kids need to do, but church kids don’t usually get to do: play. Be kids. And they could do it in our yard, under our oversight. We had water fights there (I bought the balloons, and loaded them, while milady chased screaming kids with a Super Soaker and maniacal laughter!)
• For the same reason, we bought a bunch of video games (we chose which ones we spent our money on, but we sought their counsel). For birthday parties, we rented a projector, invited the friends, and had a 16’ wide videogame on the wall. We played some of the games, but never as well as they did.
• We encouraged them to do things, to stretch their experiences, with their friends. Go camping with your teenage friends (here, use my sleeping bag, my tent; this is how you set it up), make a fancy dinner with friend (here, use our kitchen, we’ll go somewhere else that evening). We ignored it when they snuck out of the house at night, but we did ask the next morning how their midnight walk had gone. Sometimes, we walked together in the dark. Often, I bought chocolate milk for us at the 7-Eleven.
• We made an under-the-rose deal with them. If ever they got an invitation to go somewhere or do something and they didn’t want to go, or didn’t feel safe, we would be the heavy: “No honey, you can’t go to that. We have a family event that evening,” even if the family event was just dinner and a movie at home. (And we’d always come and get them, any time, any place, if they called and said, “I want to come home.”)
• Since “rule-keeping” was part of the heavy burden that had broken Bella and Bennie, we practiced breaking the rules together. We’d go off the trails when we went hiking (waaay off!), and I’d show them the edible plants, and we’d eat them! We learned how to start a fire rubbing sticks together, and then we put it out in a great big hurry because we were in the garage when we finally figured it out. We’d play hide and seek in the grocery store and in the mall. We took off our coats and hats in the spring rain and sang silly songs as we jumped in puddles. We played Frisbee golf on all the important government buildings.
• When they were approaching age 18, the age of legality, some of them made plans to get tattoos. Since I had no authority to prohibit an 18-year-old from getting a tattoo, I contributed to the “tattoo fund,” and discussed designs and colors with him. (The final choice was an ancient family motto, in Latin, no less! It looks great!)
I have a handful of things in my mind as I come to the end of these very fond memories.
1) Please don’t make the mistake of thinking we got it all right. We surely did not. But we actively loved them. We stayed in our kids’ lives, we stayed in communication together, we stayed in prayer. In the end, they’re still our friends, they’re still excellent people, though they sure turned out to be different than the good little church kids we’d originally (and ignorantly) envisioned.
2) I’m offering some perspective here, some opinion: There’s a reason why some kids blow up when they approach their majority. A lot of it has to do with how the generation before them handles the expectations they lay on them, how they train youth to become adults, how they give hope for a mysterious transition. Maybe with some understanding, we can choose wiser paths to lead them down. Every kid needs understanding. Like adults do.
3) I offer these as testimonies. There are some people who are facing similar situations and they don’t know how to respond, and these stories will give some folks hope, give other folks ideas. Your kids are every bit as worth saving as mine are. Every family needs hope.
4) In these, I’m offering a worldview that you can borrow, a worldview that says “people are more important than their reputation,” or “not every rule is for obeying.” You see, there’s more life outside the lines that everybody is coloring inside of than there is inside them. Wherever you want to exercise your right to color, that’s an excellent choice! Everybody needs freedom. Decide for yourself. Teach your kids to do that too.
5) If nothing else, here are some excellent ideas for prayer, for your kids, for your grand-kids, for the kids of your co-workers.
Every last child you know – every one of ’em – needs prayer.