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What are your teenagers ‘catching’?

Oct 2014    

The family names are different but the situation sounds all too familiar. The adolescent first began to assert himself by pushing the boundaries of certain rules in the home, like how late he was allowed to ‘hang out’ with his friends. Then came an endless series of ‘why’ questions – “Why can’t I get a tattoo?” or “Why can’t I work at a club during weekends?” As each request was rejected, more followed in quick succession.

Then came the pulling away from family activities. Being seen with the family was deemed ‘uncool’. The adolescent began to surface doubts about his parents’ views, and later rejected them altogether. The views that were once sacrosanct now came under question.

In the meantime, the parents felt under attack. Some parents would close ranks, uniting to present a firm and uncompromising stance. Others would wonder where they had gone wrong. Unfortunately, still others end up blaming each other for how their child had turned out. The usual accusations can include either parent being too hands-off, too permissive, or overly indulgent.

A family that consulted me last week also saw their teenager turning away from the faith he grew up with. He felt that the God he heard of in Sunday School was no longer relevant to his needs. Furthermore, questions he had were unanswered. How could a loving God condemn people like his friends, who were not Christians, to a fiery eternal Hell? How could an all-powerful God seem powerless to stop poverty and famine or disease from going rampant?

This story may sound very familiar because many of us may be having or have had similar experiences. Perhaps our teenager’s testing was not as belligerent. Perhaps we drowned our doubts with the words of the hymn “Trust and Obey”. Or perhaps our parents were not as closed to compromise.

In the previous issue of Methodist Message, I raised the question: Whose job is it to shape the values of our young? I placed parents as the people who should be responsible for the education of values in their young. Parents may enlist the help of others like teachers and the Church, to help them transmit some of these values. But ultimately, they hold primary responsibility for this. This responsibility cannot and should not be abdicated to others.

However, it is not easy to do this task well. It begins with the assumption that parents are well-grounded in what values Christians should hold on to. Then, we have to know how to transmit these values. Using the right medium and message at the right time is often an art rather than an exact science.

Furthermore, passing on these values goes beyond speaking about them to demonstrating them in our lives. This is why I believe parents have the main responsibility for this task. In the formative years of our children’s life, parents are usually the child’s constant caregiver. Domestic helpers and even grandparents may be present for some periods of time, but for most families, it is the parents that remain. As is often observed, values are best caught rather than taught. So what are your children ‘catching’ from you?

This does not mean that our children will be free from influences by others outside of the home. That can only happen if we cocoon our children and isolate them from the world. As a child grows, these influences will only increase. But I believe that a strong grounding in the earlier years acts as a good ballast for later years.

For the family I counselled, the teenager saw his Christian parents behaving inconsistently, and also had a troubled relationship with his father for many years. I believe that how our children develop a relationship with their Heavenly Father is influenced by their relationship with their earthly father. Fathers have a crucial role to be a model, albeit an imperfect one, of what it would mean to have a relationship with a Heavenly Father.

Perhaps it was time for this earthly father, noting the current troubled times with his teenaged son, to demonstrate grace, compassion and a willingness to listen to his son instead of continuing to play the role of an authoritarian father. If fathers feel overwhelmed by the enormity of this task, we only have to turn to our Heavenly Father for inspiration, wisdom and strength.

Benny Bong has been a family and marital therapist for more than 30 years, and is a certified work-life consultant. He was the first recipient of the AWARE Hero Award in 2011 and is a member of Kampong Kapor Methodist Church.

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