Wooing Your Teen’s Heart
WHO OWNS THEIR HEART?
When your kids are very young, it’s easy to see that you still own their hearts. They look up to you with an adoring gaze, wanting to please you—partly because they don’t want to be punished, and partly because they literally idolize you and believe that you can do no wrong. At that point in your child’s life, he or she has not seen many of your flaws yet. As your child starts to get a little older, however, her gaze of adoration begins to wane. Many times, between the ages of 6 and 8, you’ll hear your child say things like, “I want that toy I saw on TV,” or “Mommy, why can’t I play with . . . ?” or “Johnny gets to do it, so why don’t I get to do it?” All are telltale signs that friends have begun to own your child’s heart a little more than you do.
The change in ownership is not something that happens dramatically. However, there are subtle signs that friends are beginning to hold more authority than you do. Your children begin to respond to the cues they get from their friends about what to wear or what to do, to a greater degree than the cues you give them on the same subjects. They develop a frame of mind that cares more about pleasing their friends than pleasing you. This thought pattern begins in very small ways, but each small thing you see is a sign that your child’s heart is being lured away from you.
Some people would say, “These little things are all just part of growing up.” And it’s true that most parents don’t worry about it. Yet the questions their children ask, based on feelings of peer pressure about why their friends get to do so and so and they don’t get to do so and so, are met with responses like, “Because I’m not Johnny’s parent, am I?” “Just do what I say” or “We don’t do that in our home.”
While these responses are partially true, there is a deeper issue here: Is it really a “natural part of growing up” for our children’s hearts to be given over more to their friends than to their parents? I’m not so sure. It may be a familiar part of growing up, but it doesn’t mean that we can’t stem the tide of the transference of their affections. It doesn’t mean that we’re doomed to lose our children, or that there’s sure to be incessant fighting with the “because I say so!” kind of mentality from now until the time they leave home.
The small changes that signal a pulling away continue as we start to see the “boy crazy” or “girl crazy” years between the ages of 12 and 17. That’s when we tend to hear things like, “I’ve got to have that CD that’s just coming out”; “I’ve got to wear these clothes because they’re the coolest thing ever”; “I’ve got to watch this TV program”; “I want my MTV!” That last telltale statement of defiance shows the formation of the attitude, “I want the culture that’s shaping me to continue to shape me, and I want to embrace it.” Many times, too many parents have acquiesced just to get their kids off their back and silence the relentless complaints. They justify this acquiescence by saying, “It’s really not that bad. It’s just music
television, for crying out loud, right?” “It’s just some new clothes” or “Yeah, it shows a little bit more skin than the clothes that we wore when we were young, but it’s just part of the culture.”
All of these signs—that the culture owns more of our children’s hearts than we do—start when they’re young. What that ultimately means is that the culture has more impact on our children than we do. The culture defines them, owns them and possesses them. After all, when MTV says, “We don’t advertise to this generation, we own this generation,” in many ways, it’s really true. What they say goes. What they put on their network sells. We can say, “As long as you’re a part of my house you’re not going to watch that” or “You’re not going to wear that,” but such parental responses don’t really get to the issue of who owns a child’s heart.
Somewhere in the process of this heart defection—moving from the influence of parents to the influence of peers and the culture—kids are turned into machines that don’t want to hear anything their parents have to say. They don’t want to talk over things with their parents. They don’t want to accept their parents’ instruction. If they do, they do it begrudgingly and with the wrong heart attitude. They’re not willing to embrace the values we’re trying to get them to embrace. Heart defection may be a “natural” part of growing up, but it’s not inevitable if we as parents jump between our young ones and the culture that’s out to claim them. Whoever owns their heart will have the most influence on them.
The Heart Meter
Parents, you are the ones to intervene in your children’s lives to keep them from being pulled away by the culture. To do this, you need to develop a “heart meter” for your kids by watching for the signs—even when they are very young. Watch who owns your kids’ heart and mind, in each stage of growth, and who they get validation from. When you start to see signs that your kids care about their friends or what the culture thinks more than what you think, it should be an indicator for you to “lean into them more.” When I say this, I don’t mean that you should point your finger at them and say, “This is the way it’s going to be.” You have to lean into them relationally. You need to woo their hearts back from
the culture or their friends so that you are their touchstone. You are the one they go to for advice and direction. But it takes constant monitoring of who owns your child’s heart. You can tell this early on by little statements they make.
As our girls were growing up, my wife and I could see these signs show up even sometimes in relation to the kids in children’s church or the kids down the street who played with them. Whenever our girls made a comment like, “Well, she gets to do . . .” we would try to jump in the middle of that. When I say “jump in the middle,” I mean that we became aware of a red flag that somebody or some force had invaded the hearts of our children, and we needed to intervene quickly. The way we did that was by investing time. We jumped in and began to spend time with them, talking about the issues they might be bringing up and why our values were different from what they would like to do. I’m not talking about
giving one lecture after another and hoping that something would stick, but talking and spending time so that an affinity was established through a heart-to-heart connection, resulting in their caring more about what we thought, allowing for more opportunity to impart the values that were most important to us.
It’s sort of like the jockey riding a horse. As he rounds the corner, he leans a certain way. He watches cautiously. That’s what parenting is— watching our kids for the signs of who owns their heart and making the necessary course corrections. Watch for little indicators—phrases or slogans they use, quotes or songs from movies or from advertisements. Then start looking at where the signs are coming from and see if they’re spending too much time with the wrong friend or with the wrong media. You’re already curbing their media intake, as a good parent will, but even so, never go on autopilot.
When kids say things like, “I don’t care what you say,” and we say back, “You’d better care, because this is the way it’s going to be in my house,” we might succeed in controlling their behavior while they’re in the house, in that moment, but we’re not going to succeed in wooing their heart when they’re not around us 24/7. What are they listening to when they’re at school? How are they dressing when they’re at school? The world is rife with kids who dress a certain way at home, but as soon as they get to school, they peel off a layer of clothing to dress as suggestively as they’d like to. Are they being obedient according to the letter of the law or according to the spirit of the law when you’re laying down guidelines for behavior?
When it comes to matters of the heart, you can’t command the heart; you’ve got to woo it. It’s our job as parents to woo the hearts of our kids so that they want to listen to us. If we allow the culture or their friends to overpower them, it becomes incredibly difficult to regain their respect, but it can be done.
Wooing Your Child’s Heart
When my girls were growing up, even when they were only one year old, I would spend time with them by taking one or the other of them with me when I traveled on weekends to events for teenagers in arenas around the country. We did fun things. For example, when I had a break, we would sneak out in the middle of a busy preaching itinerary to go to an amusement park or to a children’s museum. When they got a bit older, we would go to a concert in the town where I was speaking, or go out to a nice dinner.
Through their teen years, I would regularly “date” my girls. When I saw signs of their pulling away or that their hearts were not fully engaged, I would “lean back in” and say, “Hey, let’s go grab some coffee” or “I’m going to get up early and take you to school so that we can grab breakfast or coffee on the way and talk.” What that meant, literally, was that I got up earlier, by a couple of hours, in order to make room for that time together. It took sacrifice, but it’s called being a parent. I’ve also done the same thing with my son. We look for new adventures where we can bond and build memories that begin to draw his heart toward me.
Whether the adventure is a late-night coffee, even when I don’t feel like it because I’m tired and I know I’ve got to get up early; or whether it’s a late-night 2- or 3-mile run with my daughter Charity at the end of a busy day (when I’ve preached my guts out at a Monday night service and just got home at 11:30 P.M.), part of wooing my kids’ hearts means spending that time together. I call this time “leaning in.”
Leaning in means finding creative, relational ways to spend time together so that you’re not just sitting in a room, with nothing else to say but “Hi, how are you?” Leaning in hard requires that you spend lots of time together doing fun things. Your initial conversations with your child might be a little bit awkward. You want them to share their heart; you want to get close to them, but their attitude and non-response may be shouting, “I don’t want to talk to you. I don’t want to be with you. What are you doing this for?” Just remember that this is part of your job as a parent.
If you’ve found that your kids don’t really talk and share their heart with you, well, all the more need to lean in. Don’t try to probe and
provoke them to talk to you right away; just be there doing fun things with them. Eventually, they will talk. And they really do want to talk; they just want to make sure that you’re the one they want to talk to.
Men, start doing things with your sons. Make a “date” (or a “budgrub,” as some call it) each week or every other week to go out to breakfast or just do something that they like to do, even if you don’t like it. You could do paintball or some other kind of adventure sport, or go see some monster trucks or something else where they’re not expected to talk all the time. Why not do something way out like make dinner for the women of the family? You’ll have a great time of laughter and bonding, and you’ll thrill Mom!
When you lean in hard, your kids will soon get the message that “Wow, Dad cares about me; he wants to listen to me.” It may not happen during the first week or the first month. It may not even happen after the first three or four months. But if you keep doing it, what’s going to happen naturally is that they’re going to open up; they’re going to start sharing their heart.
If you’re tired of asking, “How are you doing?” and hearing, “I don’t know”; or asking, “What do you want to do?” and hearing “I don’t know,” just keep leaning in. I know it can be discouraging. But don’t give up. Even though those answers are a kid’s standard response, to indicate that he or she is not interested in sharing much with you, do not give up. You can’t force intimacy, but you can woo it successfully. Depending on how hardened your kids are, or how controlled and manipulated by the culture and by their friends, it might take you some significant investment of time to win their hearts back; but it’s not impossible.
Remember, it’s our job as parents to woo our children’s hearts, to keep their hearts and then to influence their hearts. When that happens, they will become the God-honoring people we’ve always dreamed they would be.