From age three onwards, they get interesting and remain like that until around twelve, when the dark mists of hell envelop them. Unbelievably, they emerge again as semi-civilised human beings around the age of twenty, you stop thinking you are a bad parent or there is a genetic delinquency in the family, and realise they are still your children and you love them.

Tony Blair on bringing up children, (taken from A Journey)

What are we to make of the teenage years? For many, Tony Blair’s description of ‘the dark mists of hell’ enveloping twelve year olds and not lifting until the age of twenty resonates. Harry Enfield captured the idea brilliantly in his character Kevin, who turned from a hyperactive child obsessed with SuperMario Kart to a grunting teenager (I hate SuperMario, it’s sad!) at the stroke of midnight on his 13th birthday[1]. The teenage years are a period for parents to endure, to get through with whatever it takes, in the hope that they will emerge as ‘semi-civilised human beings around the age of twenty.’

Paul Tripp, in his book Age of Opportunity encourages us to take a different view. A father of five grown up children, experienced counsellor, lecturer, author and former youth worker, Tripp encourages us to reject the ‘dark, foreboding cynicism of our culture’ in favour of a more biblical view of the teenage years: ‘these are years of unprecedented opportunity’.[2]

Tripp sets out his case in three parts. In part 1 ‘Clearing the Debris’, he argues that we are too quick to let our culture shape our expectations of the teenage years, and slow to realise the role that God has for parents in these years. At the heart of this is a challenge to parents about their own hearts and the idols we worship. As Tripp says, ‘if our hearts are controlled by something other than God, we will not view the golden parenting opportunities of the teen years as opportunities at all. Instead they will be a constant stream of irritating hassles brought on by an incredibly self-centred person who is neither adult nor child, but has the uncanny ability to make even the most unimportant areas of our lives chaotic.’ Tripp challenges us to rethink our definitions of what a family is and what it is there to do in the light of scripture.

In Part 2 ‘Setting Godly Goals’, Tripp considers what our main aims for the teen years should be, arguing it is not about regulating behaviour and avoiding the ‘big three vices’; drugs, alcohol and sex. Focussing on these leads to attempts to control behaviour, choices and activities, using guilt as a motivation. Those who aim for this end up ‘more like police than parents.’ Rather, the aim of these years should be to see change at the level of the heart, teenagers that love and serve the Lord Jesus: ‘we must pastor the hearts of our children with the kind of faithful, watchful care for their souls that we receive from our heavenly Father.’ With this in mind, Tripp suggest the goals of ‘Focussing on the Spiritual struggle’, ‘Developing a heart of wisdom’, ‘Teaching a teenager to understand and interact redemptively with his culture’, ‘Developing a heart for God in your teenager’, ‘Preparing teenagers for leaving home’.[3]

Part 3 considers some practical strategies and tips for achieving these goals.  Perhaps the main strategy that comes through most of the book is ‘constant conversation’. Tripp has made a habit of visiting each of his teenagers every day in their rooms after he has finished work, to see how they are doing. He asks them open questions. He doesn’t settle for non answers. He encourages parents to make conversations happen by ‘a daily pursuit of your child.’ He argues that developing such a relationship with your teenager is possible despite the grunting teenager stereotypes we often hear.

Age of opportunityAge of Opportunity presents a daunting challenge to parents. It sets the bar for parenting teens high, which is no bad thing in a culture which generally sets the bar extremely low. Some parents may feel overwhelmed by this book and wonder, having not had Tripp’s training and experience, how they could respond to their teens as he responds to his. But the aim is not to become like Paul Tripp. The aim is to make the most of the opportunities God has given to parents to bring their children up in the knowledge of the Lord, and this book will help us to do that.

 

 

Written by Rich Adam (June 2014)

 

[1] You can see the clip here. Warning – contains some bad language. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dLuEY6jN6gY&index=2&list=PLGVYI6RLE55B4Gr4QsZmoR5p35xedXGwh

[2] I should make a disclaimer at this point. I am someone who works with teens, but am not yet a parent of teens, and there is a significant difference between the two, as Tripp himself implies in his preface. I believe this book offers a helpful and biblical challenge to parents. How it works in practice, I will have to leave to others to comment on while I wait to find out.

[3] One criticism of the book is that Tripp’s children seem mostly happy to go along with their parents’ faith. There is little discussion of what to do when a child turns their back on Christianity altogether. I don’t think that makes the book irrelevant to parents of such teens, but may make it a more frustrating read.