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The case for parental influence

From “It’s Not Too Late” by Dan Dupee 

Courtesy of Dan Dupee
Courtesy of Dan Dupee

I had the occasion to have lunch with a top-notch youth and young adult pastor named Kevin. He and I were discussing the disruptive nature of the transition from high school to college or full-time work. With great skill, he zeroed in on root causes and potential solutions. I found myself struck, however, with what Kevin didn’t talk about: not once did he mention the role of parents in the spiritual lives of their emerging adult kids. Yikes! If one of the sharpest youth workers isn’t thinking about parents, those less experienced definitely are not. 

I often run into parents whose thoughts mirror those of Kevin. Sometimes these parents are new to following Jesus, or they lack confidence in knowing how to model a vibrant Christian faith. More often, however, they have unwittingly bought into the cultural message that as children reach their teens, their parents become invisible and inaudible. 

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Based on a wrong assumption, parents backpedal from their involvement with their maturing kids, especially in matters of faith. Sociologist and Notre Dame professor Christian Smith puts it this way: 

Oddly, this withdrawal of parental influence on adolescents seems most especially evident when it comes to religious commitments and practices. Many parents remain at least somewhat concerned to continue to exert some control over things like their children’s sports prospects, educational futures, and choice of marriage partners. But when it comes to religion, many parents seem keen not to “impose” anything or to “shove religion down their throats.” 

In my career at the Coalition for Christian Outreach, I have encountered hundreds of thought-provoking stories and ideas about teens and faith. Even so, every time I read the quotation above, I am stopped in my tracks. Let’s slow it down and look, frame by frame, at what a respected researcher is saying here. 

  1. In the name of individual autonomy. Americans have perhaps become the most individualistic people in the history of the world. We view ourselves as free agents and naturally see our kids in the same way. But this is a cultural rather than a God-created design. 

    Yes, we each have our own identities, distinct from any other human, but we were created to be members of communities. As humans, we are built for relationship, just as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have always existed together in joyful love. 

    Too many parents buy into the notion that they have no right to interfere with their kids, particularly with their kids’ beliefs. If I have to hear one more Christian parent say about their emerging adult child, “Each person has to decide what is true for himself,” I may lose my lunch on someone’s shoes. Human beings, including our kids, should have the opportunity to determine what they believe in the midst of a loving community, populated at least in part by people older and wiser than they are. 
  2. Informed here by a cultural myth that is sociologically erroneous. Stop the presses, people. The whole set of assumptions we currently have about teenagers may not be true! Okay, some of our assumptions are true, but when a leading sociologist says the whole “Get out of my life” thing is rooted in perception and has no real data to support it, he has my attention. Believing the myth, parents create a self-fulfilling prophecy. As parents, we don’t think we have influence in our kids’ lives, so we act as though we have no influence. Voilà! We now have no influence. Our teens lose us at the exact point at which they need us. We may still supply keys to the car, an allowance and help with homework, but we fail to help our kids discover the answers to the most crucial questions a human can face: Who am I? What is the meaning of life? What is my purpose? 
  3. Finally, note the phrase “conversation partners.” Smith picks words appropriate to the changing nature of the adult/child relationship as kids mature. We would not think of being a conversation partner with an eight-year-old, but as our kids grow and can express themselves more fully, conversations begin to sound more like a peer-to-peer exercise. 

    We cannot assume that a teen showing a bit of attitude is not paying attention. We cannot assume that our time of spiritual influence ends when our kids become teens. On the contrary, parents routinely discover years after the fact that a specific conversation or example had a lasting impact. We need to be intentional about those conversations and our example as parents.

Dan Dupee is the former Chairman of the Board for the Coalition for Christian Outreach, a Pittsburgh-based campus ministry working annually with over 32,000 students on over 115 campuses. He brings together biblical truth, sociological research, college transition findings, and focus group work with parents of adolescents to develop principles that are fresh, clarifying additions to a growing body of research on teen faith development. Dan and his wife, Carol, are the parents of four children. They live in the northern suburbs of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. More information about his book “It’s Not Too Late” can be found online here.

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