Jody (not her real name), one of the most sweet, humble, earnest Christians I know was asking for help lately. She was troubled. She strongly suspected that one of her teenagers had recently lied to her. Jody wanted to know what to do in response. She admitted that she was struggling with hurt feelings. She was tempted to return evil for evil: to withhold her affections, intimacy, and conversation. She felt like her relationship with her teen was broken and betrayed, didn’t feel like she deserved it. She was having trouble even connecting with her teen’s pattern of sin: Jody hadn’t been tempted to patters of lying as a child herself. Unbidden, her mind jumped to “we’re doomed!” as she contemplated a future with little hope if this was how her teen was going to choose to do life. Jody knew that something was off in her responses, but she was stuck.
Jody’s situation is common. Many of us have had our teens lie to us, and have felt these emotions and thought these thoughts in reaction. Like Jody, we want to know, “How should I handle this? What should I do? Should I confront my child? Ignore it? Pray more?” Etc.
As I listened to Jody, what struck me was the nature of the kinds of (normal, honest) questions she was asking. She wanted help with both her own reactions to the suspected lie and with wisely taking next steps in parenting her teenager. However, it occurred to me that she would be better helped by asking different questions. To do this, Jody needed a change of perspective, from the horizontal to the vertical dimension of what was going on.
It is so natural when we have relational conflicts with our teens to look only in horizontal directions. Some of us look in a mirror, for instance. We ask, “What did *I* do to deserve this?” We think about how we are being harmed, or how we’re reacting, or should take action in the near future. In this approach, we stay center stage, and the whole situation revolves around our feelings, reactions, and self-determined course of actions. “What should I do about this? What would be the wise response? How can I stop feeling angry? Is it wrong or right for me to confront my child?” Etc. It’s not that we don’t pray and ask God for help, but it’s that we have ourselves at the center of the picture.
Another horizontal direction to look to is our husbands: “What should he do about it?” Or, “Why doesn’t he confront her?” Or, “Why can’t he be more involved in parenting our child? This wouldn’t happen if…” Etc. This is where we are putting blame or trust in someone else to counsel, correct, or confront our child. While they might really be responsible before God to do this work, and appealing to them may be a good idea, this is not the best initial direction for us to look, usually.
Another horizontal direction: looking at our errant child. Thoughts like, “How can he do this to me?” Or, “What should I say to him?” Or, “What if I do the wrong thing and drive him even further away from me?” And, “How will he ever become a responsible adult if he goes on this trajectory?” Etc. These thoughts center on the child as the thing to be fixed, or the problem to be solved, or the future to be feared.
Let me offer a different perspective. What if you look vertically, at God. What if your first question was not “What should I do?” but instead, “What did He do?”
Jesus Christ came to earth to save sinners. Sinners like your child, yes, but more importantly for you at this moment, sinners like you. The first step to effective parenting (especially of teens) is to identify yourself as a sinner saved by grace. You have to get yourself to the level ground at the foot of the cross of Christ. You can’t stand above your child in order to pass judgment on him and sentence him to some kind of penance. Although appropriate discipline and consequences may eventually be needed, where we start is with a reminder: I, too, have sinned grievously. I, too, need the saving mercy of the God-Man, Jesus Christ, just like my lying child. In fact, in Jody’s case, she could discover quite a lot to repent of before she even went on to the next step.
- Jody suspected her child of lying, but she didn’t know the child had actually lied.
- Still, she judged the child as wicked and became angry, allowed herself to withdraw love, and harbored hurt feelings towards the child.
- Jody lost hope; she believed the worst of her child, and then started reacting to that hopelessness in a downward spiral of discouragement.
Seeing these things enabled Jody to repent and to have a direction for opening the topic of discussion with her teen. She could start the ball rolling by repenting to her child thus, “Brandon, I need to tell you something. Yesterday, I thought that you might have lied to me about where you were after soccer practice. I assumed the worst and judged you. I was angry and withheld my affection from you on the way home in the car after I picked you up. I am sorry. Can you please forgive me?”
Even if she didn’t choose to take this approach openly, confessing her sin to God and reminding herself that she stands daily in need of a Savior (and has a great Savior who promises to be there) gets her to a place where she can parent in light of the cross. She can see her errant teen as trapped in sin, and be for him. She can seek to restore him to fellowship with God and family (Galatians 6:1-2).
Having had her heart softened towards her teen by the realization that she and he stand equally sinful and equally loved and welcomed nonethless, Jody was more able to ask the next good question: “What is God up to?” Centering in on the gospel enables us to love an errant child as God loves us. Full of the love and forgiveness of God, we can seek to understand what God is doing in the life of our child when He allows this situation to arise. Kids may lie for so many reasons! Here are five off the top of my head:
- They are fearful of your disapproval.
- They want the approval of their friends.
- They are self-righteous and don’t want to be found out as sinners.
- They are attempting to get something that they know they shouldn’t have.
- They want to impress a girl (or guy) and puff themselves up.
The good news is that God looks on the hearts of our teens. He knows what’s really going on, even when we are clueless. When we look to Him and ask, “What are You up to, Father?” we tune in to the fact that the situation is well in His control and being worked out according to His plan. He loves our children more than we do, He is all-wise, and all-loving, and doesn’t make any mistakes. Whatever He’s up to, He’s doing it well and at the perfect time. Here are scenarios that relate to the above possibilities:
- Perhaps you have been hormonal or pressured financially in the last few months, and unnoticed by yourself, have grown habitually more impatient with your teen. Could your loving Heavenly Father be using this situation of a lie discovered to show you that you need to repent and work at being kinder to your child?
- Perhaps the trajectory that your teen is on involves people pleasing. Father knows that your child will not become the man or woman that He wants them to be if sh/e continues to give into the social pressures of peers. As you talk with your child as a fellow sinner looking for Father’s hand in the situation, you discover how much your child has come to be influenced more by her friends than she is by righteousness and serving God. Thus, you are enabled to come alongside and instruct and protect your child from man pleasing instead of God pleasing.
- Or, perhaps you have a pharisee in the making. Your child is a “good Christian kid” and really doesn’t ever put a foot wrong. As a matter of fact, you are apt to praise this child in front of others, and s/he knows that you think a lot of his or her right choices. Now, a wrong choice as been made and, through either pride or fear of losing your precious regard, this child is more concerned with his reputation and standing in his own eyes (or yours) than he is in doing good, loving righteousness, and going to Christ when he’s found to be a sinner. As you talk with your child, drawing him out as to the reasons he has lied, you see this pull in his heart, and you can restore him with love to a right relationship of dependence upon a needed Savior (and maybe adjust your own tendencies to tempt him to self-righteousness by praising him instead of giving glory to God).
- Covetousness is a deadly sin for our children and for their communities. If your child is attempting to gain what he wants when he knows he shouldn’t have it, and gets away with it, he’s bound for trouble. The lie discovered in this setting is God’s kindness in exposing a sin now, while the consequences are not great, and while you can–in love, not fear, as a fellow forgiven sinner–come alongside and tell him of the fruits in your own life when you sought to obtain forbidden fruit, and what happened next. We all sin in this way at one time or another, and the result is always sorrow of some kind. How good of God to give you the opportunity to minister to your endangered child!
- Sexual drives are strong in the teenager. Strong and new. Most of them don’t know how to handle them, or what they’re looking for in a mate. Exacerbating the scene is the cultural norm of early dating way before children are ready for marriage, and the permissive, immodest nature of media, worldly friends, and even some church youth group cultures. If the lie was a result of the normal pressures that the entrance into puberty brings, what a blessing you’ve been given to look into the heart of your son or daughter and see there a struggling, confused sinner just like you were 20 years ago! Father is giving you the opportunity to love your child, and come alongside them. You can help them understand their physical drives, the traps that surround them, and the truths that can direct them to safe paths through a murky swamp that we call adolescence!
Can you see how a change in perspective can make all the difference? When we are cross-eyed parents, we start with our own hearts so that we can love our teens as God loves us. Then, we can look again upward and ask, “What is Father doing here? How is He seeking to do us good and not evil? What blessing is He seeking to give me as He gains my attention through this situation?” With hope, with confidence, we can draw near to the Throne of Grace and look for good and perfect gifts, because God loved us enough to send His Son, and has promised with Him to graciously give us all things.