The Words of the Saunders Family

Embracing the Teenage Years

June Saunders
August 2008

"Your child is constantly watching you, modeling who you are, and testing it all out. In other words, our kids confront us with ourselves. -- Michael J. Bradley

In his sermon "From Emotion to Action," Rev. Moon Hyung-jin enjoined us to remember that our children are blessings from God. "It's so important," he said, "that we understand the power of the blessing and that we realty see our children with those kinds of divine eyes; that we see them as the real blessings that they are. When we call them -- to encourage you, even when we are a little upset with the kids -- to call, 'Oh, blessings, come over here.' Always call them blessings."

If our children are teenagers, there may be times when calling them "blessings" sticks in our throats. The teenage years can have their trials -- for our children and for us.

Even if our teenagers are relatively easy to live with, we parents go through a period of grieving over the loss of them as little children. In those long lost days, they never talked back to us, never disobeyed, never had an idea or opinion that contradicted ours, and they loved us as if we were God incarnate. We couldn't sit down without one of them clambering onto our lap; at night they wouldn't let go of our necks as we leaned down to kiss them good night. We were their whole world and could do no wrong. Their purity and innocence made them seem, as St. Augustine said, "fresh from God." It was easy to see them as divine gifts and to bask in the heavenly joy of loving and taking care of such wonderful, pure creatures.

Enter adolescence. Our displays of affection may be rebuffed. They'd probably rather be with peers -- full-time, if possible -- than with us. They likely listen to music or play video games that give us pause. We worry about that new friend they have become so close to at school. We worry about what the teacher said about homosexuality. They may want to pierce various parts of their bodies. They have plenty of opinions of their own, and what is more, they have concluded that we don't understand their world at all.

This last point is crucial. Even though it is frustrating to hear our children say, "You just don't understand!" it's actually true. We don't understand the world they are growing up in. The world has changed radically since we were young. Our children are exposed to an unbelievable amount of corrupted culture, even if we are vigilant and try hard to monitor what they see and hear.

Michael J. Bradley, Ed.D., the author of Yes, Your Teen Is Crazy: Loving Your Kids Without Losing Your Mind, asks parents to understand that our parenting skills, borrowed from thirty or so years ago, are hopelessly inadequate for parenting children in today's world. Dr. Bradley says, "You were trained on a Boeing 707. Do you really think you can safely fly the Concorde? ... Successfully parenting an adolescent in today's world requires levels of skill, endurance, wisdom and strength that make piloting an aircraft pale in comparison." Parents, he says, need new training to deal with exigencies of raising a teenager in today's world.

Parenting styles

Part of this new training calls for accepting that the parenting style we learned from our parents or from other authority figures is likely out of date. Researcher Diane Baumrind found that parents tend to fall into one of three basic orientations or styles. The first -- and this is definitely the old model -- is "authoritarian" parenting. Children are disciplined through displays of power on the part of the parent. Shutting the kid down verbally, refusing to brook any opposition, grounding, punishing. threatening. lecturing, putting down, browbeating. coercing -- "Or else!" parenting. Sometimes, most unfortunately, authoritarian parenting is accompanied by uses of physical force.

Authoritarian parenting produces obedient children. They will be good -- but only up to a point. They will not internalize goodness; nor is it guaranteed that they will be good when the threats of punishment are no longer active -- like, say, when they go off to college. Authoritarian parenting develops fear, but it does not develop the conscience. As long as the parent is there to bark and scold and punish, the child will -- grudgingly -- be good. The resentments may last a lifetime, however, and the good behavior will often last a much shorter time.

The opposite of this kind of parenting is "permissive" parenting. Permissive parenting seems modern, but it too is dated. In America, it came in during the 1950s. With permissive parenting. anything goes. Allow kids get their way so that the parents can have peace. The parents trust the children as if they were adults already, giving them far too much decision-making power -- indeed, too much power altogether. Immature people, of limited ability to make good choices, are given all the choices in the world.

Children raised in such a way tend to implode from the reversal of dominion. While the parents and children may appear close, harmonious and loving, permissive parenting is the least effective way to parent, and it leaves children feeling insecure. Children raised permissively have few moral moorings.

The most effective style of parenting is "authoritative" (as opposed to "authoritarian") parenting. Authoritative parents are calm in their authority They know what they think and why they think it and are willing to explain as best they can. If the child cannot understand, the parents simply wrap up the discussion and assert -- respectfully -- their parental authority and carry the day. Authoritative parents are assured in the strength of their position -- there is no need to browbeat the children. They are in control of themselves and therefore in control of their children. While setting firm limits and reasonable rules and being open to discussions and explanations, they still realize that the final authority is theirs, and it is exercised benevolently for the ultimate good of the child. The authoritative parent might have as his or her motto Buddha's saying "You are right, so why be angry?'

Authoritative parenting is the style Dr. Bradley endorses, as do most modern experts. At the same time, Dr Bradley acknowledges that an authoritative parent has flexibility and self-control that would make a judo master look inept by comparison.

Dr. Bradley says, "Your defining act of love for your child will not be the 2:00 AM feedings, the sleepless, fretful night spent beside him in the hospital, or the second job you took to pay for college. Your zenith will occur in the face of a withering blast of frightening rage from your adolescent, in allowing no rage from yourself in response. Your finest moment may well be your darkest. And you will be a parent."

Dr. Bradley's book is considered by many to be the "gold standard" of parenting teenagers, so I will be referring to it often in this article. His is a comforting, reassuring voice that pulls no punches and walks a fine line between psychology and morality. A veteran counselor of several decades, Dr. Bradley has seen and heard it all He has the profound ability to see the pain beneath the words of an adolescent who is shouting obscenities; to see the soul underneath the green-dyed hair and the pierced nostrils and eyebrows and to help the reader to see that soul too. Thus, even if our own teenagers are not as "crazy" as some of the ones Dr. Bradley describes, his book helps us to see their vulnerabilities and yearnings more clearly and to understand the kinds of pressures modern teenagers undergo.

His values are sound: parents should stay married, parents should set the example of morality by being faithful to each another. parents should not indulge in drugs or drinking, and sexual purity is absolutely the best standard for adolescents. What is more, he maintains that example by parents, in all things, is absolutely the best teacher. If we want our children to he better we must be better ourselves in order to win their respect. Respect, honesty and love are the mantras of good parenting, and the crux of the parenting issue is love: "Love is indeed the most real, most potent aspect of parenting." In this Dr. Bradley is biblically sound and sound from a Divine Principle viewpoint.

The Developing Teenage Brain

Adolescent children are looking for their identities and their very souls in an unsympathetic and dangerous world, he counsels -- a world with which they must interact on a daily basis. Dr. Bradley says, "We've created a world dripping with sex, drugs and violence and plunked our temporarily insane children in the middle of it."

Teenagers are, Dr. Bradley assures us, temporarily "crazy," hence the title of his book. Modern brain research shows that the adolescent brain is undeveloped in was previously undiscovered. In parenting. we must take this into account. Our teens will sometimes act in was that defy all logic and common sense, and reasoning with them may only lead to arguments. "You can't talk to crazy people like they make sense," Dr. Bradley jokes. A teenager is, he says, "suffering from a transient psychosis with an intermittent rage disorder, punctuated by episodic mood swings, but his prognosis is good for a full recovery." In plain English, he's thirteen years old, and he'll grow out of it.

Dr. Bradley invites us to look at our teenager as being brain-challenged. This will help us understand "the one lying in a sea of pizza boxes and dirty clothes, playing air guitar with his toes and listening to earphone music (music?) that you can actually hear out in the hall because it's so incredibly loud and/or because he and/or you kicked in his door last week."

Recent brain research has shown that the prefrontal cortex -- the so-called "seat of civilization" -- does not develop fully until age twenty or so. Therefore, Dr. Bradley says, emotional control, rational decision-making and impulse restraint are things teenagers simply don't have. Even into the twenties, the "corpus callosum" is still developing -- a set of nerves that connects all the parts of the brain together so that they work well in, say, making good decisions.

Simply put, Dr. Bradley says, teens are somewhat like crazy people. You cannot say exactly what you think about every issue to them -- yet you must be honest or they will know it. You need to treat them delicately, with skill, with courage, with love, in order to circumvent the fact that they think they are all grown-up while their brain is still undeveloped in crucial ways.

The teenage years are stressful for our children. We may envy them their time and freedom, but in fact they are under tremendous pressures from within and without. They are struggling to find out who they are, going through the agonizing developmental process of discovering in what ways they are different from us and in what ways they are the same. That there will be some push and pull in our relationships with them during this process is natural.

It may be good for us to remember the psychologically burdensome times we also went through in middle and high school. Talk about being in a pressure cooker! In one movie, a comedy called Hiding Out, a man who had testified in court against the Mafia hid from them by disguising himself as a high school student. The movie's tagline was "There's only one thing more frightening than murder -- high school." If you can chuckle at that, you have some little window into the world your poor adolescent endures on a daily basis.

Of course, we parents are on edge too. Finances may be difficult. Our job may be stressful. Our marriage may also have some stresses: the mother may be in menopause, the father in a mid-life crisis, and both may be acting a little "crazy" too. We may have aging parents who are looking to us for care and support. We are trying to be all things to all people, responsible on many fronts. Amid all this, our bodies are slowing down, and we don't always have the energy we need.

In many ways, it is even harder for us as Unificationist parents. We have a sincere providential consciousness and we want to serve God. And we are particularly concerned with our children's well-being" all the way into eternity Our expectations for our teenagers may be quite high. We really would like them to be brilliant artists, academicians, purveyors of altruism in the world and people who will restore all our shortcomings and redeem our entire lineage while saving the world at the same time. Right? That is quite a bit of pressure to put on a kid, though, especially a kid at sea in a culture that is not only unsupportive of such things but in some cases is downright antithetical to them.

We're purists in a world where our children's peers may be no strangers to sex and drugs, and where on prime time TV semi-nudity and casual sex are touted as the norm, a simple football game is punctuated with alcohol commercials, rap artists depict women as "dogs" to be used sexually and discarded, and children's cartoons are full of innuendo.

Yet we have to raise our children surrounded by that culture. On top of that, teenagers are hardwired to want more independence and freedom to interact with it. We know they need to become more independent, but we're afraid they won't make the right choices. It is an extremely anxious set of years for both parents and children.

Setting the example

Given all the providential and other pressures we feel, it is hard not to react when our children question our values, our wisdom, our experience, our beliefs and our judgment. But when questioning or challenging us, a teenager is just doing his or her job of growing up. If our children don't question us, they will not wind up living their own lives -- including their own lives of faith. Instead, they will become carbon copies of us. That's not authentic, and sooner or later in life, a child will wonder, "Who am I really, and what do I really believe?" It's better they find those things out sooner rather than later.

Dr. Bradley feels that reacting to teenage challenges with anger and over-protectiveness and shutting the kids down with strong punishments and restrictions only prolongs the process of adolescence and doesn't allow a child to grow up. Plus, it erodes the main ingredient he feels parents need from their children in order for the children to inherit the parents' values -- respect. Dr. Bradley advises all parents to repeat ten times, "Respect is the key to teaching values to adolescents." Ultimately, our values will be our children's when we earn their respect.

The biggest influence in adolescent's lives is still and always will be their parents Dr. Bradley says. We have more power than we know. Ultimately, our children will grow up to be like us. Therefore, he counsels, if we want our teenagers to change, guess where we need to start?

One thing teenagers famously hate is adult hypocrisy. If we don't want our kids to drink, we must not drink. If we don't want them to drug themselves, we must not drug ourselves. If we don't want them to smoke, we must not smoke. Example is still the best teacher.

Dr. Bradley warns us not to overlook in our fear of "drugs," the most widely used and abused drug of all -- the one that is tolerated in our society and lauded during every football game on TV -- alcohol. That's the real drug to fear, Dr. Bradley says. Most modern societies tolerate it and wink and look the other way when teenagers indulge in it. Some parents even let their underage children drink at home, thinking it will make them more responsible about alcohol use. The way to counteract this drug, Dr. Bradley says, is for the parents not to drink.

That is the most potent deterrent for our teenagers. Alcohol, he says is implicated in 50 percent of America's homicides, suicides and driving fatalities. "Last year we lost far more of our children to alcohol poisoning and drunk driving than were stolen from us by heroin, cocaine, ecstasy; accidents and illness combined."

Teenagers have built-in, flawless monitors of adult hypocrisy, and blessed children, in my experience, have extremely sensitive "Fallen Nature Detectors." Any whiff of adult hypocrisy; dishonesty; or fallen nature and we fail to make our point to our children.

This includes the way we impart our religion. Dr. Bradley acknowledges that to a parent, religion may be the very fabric of their family; and no issue is more potentially volatile because it means so much to us, Religion is how we met our spouses, how and why we married, and how and why we are raising a family. Our whole lives are imbued with it, and it implies responsibility for generations past and to come. To have our children turn away from the faith is our worst fear.

Not reacting

Here, too, Dr. Bradley recommends that example is the best teacher. If our children see our religion making us patient, kind, charitable, loving, decent, honorable human beings, they are likely to embrace it. If they see it making us crabby angry. demanding, harsh, judgmental and insistent upon our own ways and own ideas, we are putting up barriers between our children and our faith.

Even if a child says something frightening like "I don't believe in God," or "Religion is for weak people," or "I don't want to go to church anymore," Dr. Bradley emphatically suggests not reacting. By not reacting. acknowledging the children's feelings and simply asking questions, we may get our teenager to really start thinking about God in a serious way.

The mother of a blessed teenager told me recently that she had nearly panicked when her son told her he gets very little out of Hoon Dok Hae readings. He said he was usually tired and bored, and the words didn't sink in and change anything about him. In spite of her arguments that the word gives us life even if we can't feel it, the boy grew more annoyed.

The mother said, "I thought I saw my whole world crumbling before my eyes." She tried to react calmly, though, and quietly ask him questions, without trying to win the argument.

"How does one know right from wrong without the word?" she asked him, trying to make it an actual inquiry rather than something leading to her triumphant verbal besting of him.

The boy said he knew plenty of kids who knew that it was wrong to steal, yet they frequently swiped candy bars and other items from local stores. They'd received the word. At home, they were taught, "Thou shalt not steal." Even more than the word, he said, what really counted was a person's conscience.

Hope began to steal back into the mother's heart. "Tell me more about the conscience," she said.

The teenager spoke of the conscience as his greatest reality -- right in line with Father's teachings. He said he spoke to God all the time -- and God spoke right back to him, guiding him and telling him what to do through his conscience. His conscience, he said, stopped him from doing wrong.

A conversation that seemed fraught with peril wound up with the mother feeling a sense of peace. She explained, "I thought, "He really is a blessed child. He really has a strong relationship with God. He is more guided by conscience than anything else, the way we are supposed to be. He even received a little bit from me that the word could strengthen the conscience. He grunted, but he did receive it."

The mother's not reacting even to such an emotionally-charged issue led to a discussion that supported this boy's growth in faith rather than shutting it down.

"Be cool, not the fool," Dr. Bradley counsels, when dealing with our children. To him, not reacting is the crux of the parenting task. For example, it a teenager says she wants to drop out of school, the parent shouldn't react and say, "Nonsense! You need to finish school to succeed. You don't hate school at all. And if you drop out, there will be consequences like you won't believe." The teenager might then just secretly vow, "Okay. I won't drop out. But I'll let my grades drop out." Instead, the parent would do well to sympathetically agree that school sometimes can be rough and ask what school is like for the teenager. Having vented a bit, the teenager may already feel better and be willing to talk. The real problem may not be dropping out of school. The real problem may be a relationship with a peer or a tough teacher or not having made it onto a team or succeeded in the auditions for a musical.

Keep the faith -- and a sense of humor In the very last line of Dr. Bradley's book, he advises us to keep a sense of humor.

It is vital to raising adolescents. I often think of the words of our own Larry Moffitt. At a leaders' conference, he stood up and announced, "Remember when we got married and blessed under that big banner that read, 'Ideal Family'? The way I interpret 'Ideal family' these days is whatever happens -- I deal -- with it."

There are articles of faith we need to keep too. One article of faith to keep is to believe that we ultimately are the greatest influences over our children's lives. Another parental article of faith Dr. Bradley asks us to have is that to the degree that we long for a connection with our children, they will long for a connection with us and have deep reservoirs of love and respect for us.

"The greatest of these is love"

No matter what our parenting dilemmas, fortunately, the solution is always the same. It is love, unconditional love. If our children have left us, fallen. married elsewhere or picked up and left for the Himalayas in search of another religion, spitting in our faces as they went -- or if they are just struggling to make it with their blessing partner, juggling how to serve the church and complete college and raise a new baby and be a spouse at the same time as well as make those car payments -- what they need in their lives and what we need in ours is something we all believe in and live for -- unconditional love.

Unconditional love goes to "Sodom's foul and wretched streets" bearing the word with love. Unconditional love believes that Hitler and Stalin will someday be in the kingdom with Mohandas K. Gandhi and Mother Teresa. Unconditional love believes that Israelis and Palestinians can embrace in brotherly love -- someday, somehow -- and goes to Israel amidst suicide bombings and bull-dozings in order to promote the idea. Unconditional love walks on blistered feet to ask one last person before the van comes if he or she would like to buy a flower or a piece of jewelry to promote our church's mission. Unconditional love thought the Berlin Wall could come down, marched in front of it to prove it and watched with streaming eyes when it really did.

As Unificationists, we have already participated in acts of unconditional love to an enormous degree. As to parenting teenagers, we can do this.

To close, let's look at the beautiful biblical definition of love that St. Paul gave in I Corinthians 13:4-7. Let's take this as our motto when dealing with the beautiful "blessings" God has bestowed on us as we help pilot them through what may be trying teenage years.

Love is patient and kind;
Love is not jealous or boastful;
It is not arrogant or rude.
Lave does not insist on its own way:
It is not irritable or resentful;
It does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right.
Love hears all things, believes all things. hopes all things, endures all things. 

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