I remember two thoughts I have had in my life that now haunt me.
The first was when I was about 15. I remember clearly thinking how much better job I will do at raising my kids than my parents did.
The other was when my beautiful kids were all under 5 and I was in my late twenties. I remember thinking how complicated little kids were and how much I was looking forward to having teenagers, because as a trained youthworker, I would find that stage of life so easy.
So… I now say publicly to anyone who is interested: I was wrong, and it has taken me a long time to start to work out why.
It was actually a passing comment in a meeting this week where a very basic idea started to become a working understanding for me.
The idea is this: that raising teenagers is fundamentally about a clash of kingdoms.
While this language is a little medieval, it is the best description I can come up with, and as I have lived with this idea I have come to see that the same is true of all groupings of people everywhere.
What I mean by this idea is that every person has a sphere within which they can make decisions (for which the most accurate one word description is a “kingdom”). For a little child this is a small sphere, but it is still there. As a child grows the sphere of decision-making also grows (or is meant to grow). Working out how to appropriately allow this sphere to grow is a major part of the complexity of raising children into teenagers and then into adults.
At some point kids need to start choosing what clothes they wear, how to spend the money they have, what they watch on television, and how much time they will devote to study versus play. Negotiating these shifting boundaries of decisions making is one of the most complex aspects of being a parent, particularly when other families draw the lines in different places.
I realised this week however, that the gradual movement of the spheres of personal decision making responsibility is not the most complex part of the task of parenting teenagers, or even the task of leading a team. The most complex part of raising teenagers, or of any relationship is when the spheres overlap.
I remember the shock of realisation in the days following my wedding that I was going to end up with a much “prettier” bedroom and living-room than I would personally have chosen.
Marriage is the complicated process of two spheres of decision making becoming one shared sphere. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t decisions that are mine to make, and decisions that are Leeanne’s to make, but in a healthy marriage, the kingdom is a shared one and choices are made with the other person in view. This requires a constant process of dialogue and apologies after mis-understanding.
I now have two adult children (which is an identity crisis all on its own), and I love both of them very much. They are both very different and currently they are both continuing to live at home (although at least one of them is preparing to leave).
I am only now starting to realise that while marriage is a process of spheres coming together, parenting is a process of spheres separating. There is a challenge though, as kids increasingly become independent and want to make their own decisions but still live at home.
There is a phase of life where your kids are legally able to make their own decisions but have to live in your household which is governed by the values you believe to be important. This is a recipe for conflict of Kingdoms, and potential chaos.
I know one approach to parenting young adults would be to let go completely, but I’m pretty sure that approach never works out in the long run. The Old Testament book of Judges (17:6) talks about a moment when everyone did what was right in his own eyes, because there was no king in Israel. Every household still needs a decision maker (or where there is a married couple, decision makers).
I remember a point as a pre-teen, when I was arguing with my Dad that I didn’t need to go to church because it was a waste of time. He just said “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” My Dad was quoting Joshua 24:15 which says:
But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord
As a 12 year old those words didn’t make much difference to me, or my frustration with a boring church service, but as a 44 year old I can see how profound a choice Joshua, and my Dad were making. They were drawing a circle and saying “everyone outside of my household is responsible for their own decisions, but I am responsible to determine the values for everyone in my household.” It’s a big call.
I have learned over the past 22 years of marriage that it is the task of the parents in a family to define the values of the household, and give the kids in the household something to define themselves either for or against.
Our kids have to work out who they are, and they have to push against the boundaries. Getting rid of the boundaries does them a disservice. Henry Nouwen, in Reaching Out, talks about the importance of being an “unambiguous presence” as fundamentally part of hospitality:
When we want to be really hospitable we not only have to receive strangers but also confront them by an unambiguous presence, not hiding ourselves behind neutrality but showing our ideas, opinions and life style clearly and distinctly. No real dialogue is possible between somebody and a nobody. We can enter into communication with the other only when our own life, choices, attitudes and viewpoints offer the boundaries that challenge strangers to become aware of their own position and to explore it critically.
If offering boundaries that challenge is important for our engagement with strangers, how much more important is it with our kids?
I realise that the current societal norm is that people should be able to do anything they want. There is an extreme value placed on the personal sphere of decision making. The problem with this societal norm is that it only can ever work in isolation, because it is only in isolation that your decisions have no impact on anyone else. Everywhere else, kingdoms collide.
The collision of kingdoms is actually a very good thing and is an important part of growing up. Proverbs 27:17 declares that:
As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another
I am realising that part of my job of being a parent of young adults is still to declare the values of my household and invite my kids and others to define themselves with or against those values. I realise this is the right ideal, but the actual work of managing healthy conflict is not easy at all.
For Leeanne and I, from our wedding day onward, we wanted our primary household value to be “Seeking first the Kingdom of God” as Jesus commanded in Matthew 6:33. While most Christians would agree with this sentiment, the actual out-working of this primary value is not simple and has led our family on all kinds of adventures.
It is interesting to see our kids working out how they feel about the decisions we have made, and speaking up about how some of those decisions have been painful for them. It’s not an easy thing to hear as a parent, but I know they have to find a way to make sense of our lives and begin to make sense of their own.
I also know that while they are still part of my household, I need to take a lead in defining what values “me and my household” will live by, and that my young-adult children won’t agree all the time.
They will have to live with that.
When it finally comes time for them to leave, the responsibility for their own kingdom is fully their own. I just hope they find their way to handing that responsibility to the one person who truly understands what a Kingdom actually is.