Similarly, encourage the young to be self-controlled. In everything, set them an example by doing what is good. – Titus 2:6-7
In a world which seems more rotten every day, it can be overwhelming to think of steering our children through the rocky years of adolescence. But if we have established a relationship of honesty and trust with our children early on, we will have firm ground on which to proceed, and it will be impossible for our children to resist us.
Many children slip easily through their early years, rearing their horns only once they are teens. But parents who hold back until there is conflict in the house may gain outward obedience only – and not the respect necessary to solve problems like lying, sexual impurity, mockery, and stealing.
Some young people simply will go through more difficult periods of development than others, and then we must be careful not to be too harsh and judgmental towards them. But even if we are big-hearted, we should not gloss over sin, especially when it involves sex. Sexual experimentation can scar young people for life, and we do them a disservice when we excuse it as "youthful indiscretion." All the more, young people who have sinned in this area must be led to repentance and to a conversion.
This can never be achieved through hard punishment – nor by persuasion or intellectual discussion. Rather, we must protect and nourish any flame of conscience that remains, even if it is small. My father always maintained that if a person followed his conscience, he could not go on living without bringing it in order. He compared the conscience to an Old Testament prophet. When the people of Israel went wrong, a prophet arose and called them back to God. When teens lie, steal, use drugs, get drunk, or have sex, the conscience in that child says, "This is wrong; now you have to be punished." The conscience demands action because God demands action. In other words, it is a guide – a rudder – and we must teach our children that it is not their enemy, but their best friend.
How to instill such a living conscience is no small thing. We must prepare the hearts of our children so that they become good soil for the Word of God. Preaching, however, does not make good soil; it hardens the heart. Still, all teenagers can understand that they are made in the image of God, and if they can see this as an obligation – as a calling, a task, and a responsibility – they can develop a self-discipline that will serve them in all areas. Those who learn to respect their bodies as temples will also be better equipped to resist the temptations of alcohol, drugs, or sex.
Like us, our children will still fail at one time or another, and then we must remember that just as God is not yet finished with them, he is not finished with us, either.
My own teenage years were difficult because my parents were often gone on long trips. What encouraged me then was to remember the stories about Jesus that my parents had told me when I was small. Later, my wife and I raised eight children of our own, who also went through rocky years. But it was the positive memories of our own childhood that gave us the courage to persevere and try to give a good childhood to them.
All of us want to pass on our values to the next generation, but we often fail to see that it is our actions, and not our words, that our children will carry with them – and that the only thing we can really pass on to our children is a living faith. Blumhardt, the nineteenth-century German pastor, lived in a time much more pious than ours, but still admonished parents who rushed their children to church: "As long as Christ lives only in your Bibles, and not in your hearts, every effort to bring him to your children will fail."
In many homes, a great deal of strife might be solved if parents were able to let go of their children and not fret over them, or pressure them with plans for their future. My mother, a teacher, used to tell parents, "The greatest disservice you can do your children is to chain them to yourselves. Let go of them!"
This advice can be hard to follow when our children are misbehaving – when they are rebelling and turning their backs on everything we have taught them. But just especially then, we have to pray rather than talk, and commit their souls to God. And we must take care not to pile too much blame upon ourselves, or to become bitter and despondent. Instead, we must believe. Saint Augustine lived a sinful life as a young man, but his mother, Monica, did not stop praying for him until he broke down and repented. Later he became a pillar of the church, and has influenced countless people in their search for God through the centuries.
Those who are tempted to dismiss an entire generation as dissolute or degenerate should stop and look at themselves: much as we hate to admit it, our children always mirror us.
Parents today rightly wring their hands over texting and sexting but then spend hours on their smartphones themselves; they are aghast at the sexually explicit material their sons and daughters are viewing but then leave pornographic magazines scattered around the house. There is no question that as parents, we can and should make rules about all of these things, but at the same time, we must also be good examples.
It is a privilege to lead young people to Jesus, to show them how marvelous God's world is despite the terrible impurity, corruption, and darkness of our age. And we can be comforted and encouraged along the way by the words of James: "Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death, and cover over a multitude of sins (Jas. 5:20).
From Why Children Matter by Johann Christoph Arnold.