Laying the Groundwork for the Teenage Years

by Ann Marie Gidus-Mecera

If your children are young and you think you have plenty of time before worrying about the teenage years, think again! Preparing our child (and us) for the rigorous teenage years isn't something to address when they're teens, but years earlier. Both parent and child will need an arsenal to face the critical stages that lead to adulthood. There is a great deal parents can do to minimize the challenges, maintain a healthy relationship, and produce young adults who have a true love for their Faith. An experienced gardener knows that if she attempts to grow plants in poor soil, she will have minimal luck producing beautiful plants. The plants will grow slowly and usually yield small blossoms or fruit. The experienced gardener knows she must properly prepare the soil with peat moss and other nutrients to enrich the soil and ready it for planting. The results are worth the extra effort at the start.

The same goes for our children. Parents begin laying the foundation for their family as soon as the children are born. Children must be "prepared" just like soil is primed, with an "enriching" lifestyle. Waiting until they are actually teens to put a plan into effect can be too late. The groundwork must be laid years before. Here are some ideas for "preparing" for the teenage years so they might be as fruitful as possible.

Parenting 101

Every parent should understand the need for discipline and how to discipline. Parenthood is one of the few professions where training is not mandatory. But it should be. Discipline is a must for raising healthy children and keeping parents sane. Parents need to be in charge and children need parents to be in charge. Effective parenting techniques are formed early on when children are toddlers. Good parenting skills are easy to learn and can supply parents with effective communication and discipline skills they can use at every stage of their child's life. Many parks and recreation centers offer parenting classes. The local Chamber of Commerce is another good source. Community and daily papers also list events and classes. Both spouses should ideally attend for the most effective results. There are also many good books available on parenting. Reading some of these books would be a good way to enhance a parenting class. Parents should keep in mind that they may be exposed to a variety of philosophies and ideas, and will need to discern which ones are appropriate not only for themselves, but are in sync with the teachings of the Faith. Scripture tells us that our role as parents is to discipline and "train" our children in the way of the Lord. "Train children in the right way, and when old, they will not stray." Proverbs 22:6"O my People, hear my teaching; listen to the words of my mouth. I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter things hidden from of old-things we have heard and known, things our fathers told us. We will not hide them from their children; we will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord, His power, and the wonders He has done. He decreed statutes for Jacob and established the law in Israel, which He commanded our forefathers to teach their children so that the next generation would know them-even the children yet to be born-and they, in turn, would tell their children. Then they would put their trust in God and would not forget His deeds, but would keep His commands." Psalms 78: 1-7

In a recent mailing from Fr. Ted Bobosh, Director of the Religious Education Department of the Diocese of the Midwest, Fr. Ted quotes from the book Because I Said So by Ken Myer [Kansas City: Andrews and McMeel, 1996, $14.95]:"Because these parents don't know how to command their children's attention, they wind up constantly demanding it. Their children comply subserviently in order to avoid punishment, but are never genuinely obedient in the sense of wanting, out of love, to please. This is nothing short of tragic, for a child who is not properly guided by his parents toward wanting to please them arrives at adulthood without precedent for wanting to please God. It's not that he will never be able to make that choice, but the decision, difficult to begin with, will be considerably more arduous.

"No matter how much training we have as parents, an important point to remember is that God has the ultimate authority over the children He has put in our care. As parents, we cannot think our role is an end in itself or that we have ultimate influence over our children. This shows a lack of faith in God and demonstrates an unrealistic perception of our role as parents. Teaching our children to love and obey us not only makes for an orderly life, but prepares our children to live a life pleasing to God when they are adults.

Regular Church Worship

One of the first steps in successfully dealing with the teenage years is regular Church worship. A family grounded in the commitment to their Faith attends Church regularly. This sends a clear message to our children of where our priorities lie. Our attendance is a gift to our children-the gift of the Holy Spirit. Receiving the Holy Eucharist on a regular basis is a gift to our children. When they become used to this Sunday after Sunday, they also become accustomed to the accompanying General Confession [Editor's Note: a practice in some Orthodox churches] and Private Confession. This discipline is not something just for our children, but necessary for all of us. In a recent article on raising successful teens appearing in the Better Homes and Gardens magazine ("Six Secrets to Raising a Successful Teen," October 1998), the author noted that the teens interviewed mentioned religion as one of the greatest influences in their lives, second only to the influence their parents.

Establishing a rule for worship when children are young can provide the stability and discipline they need in all aspects of their lives. If children realize that attending church is something the family does together on a regular basis, and it is not a negotiable issue, they will be more apt to accept it as they become older. If our children don't attend Church regularly when they are young, they will surely resist going to Church when they are teenagers! If we have placed Church worship as a top priority in our household, then when they do resist attending Church with excuses ("I stayed out too late last night." or "I don't ever get to sleep in!"), we have a stronger case because of the examples we set throughout their childhood. Raising our children with a consistent rule of worship doesn't mean they will never complain about going to Church. Their job as children is to challenge us; our job as parents is to meet that challenge!

God is a Parent's Boss

A truth children should learn early on is that as parents we are accountable to God. God has given us the job of raising our children in a way that is pleasing to Him. If we fall short of His expectations, He will not be pleased with us as parents. Children need to hear this message many times in their childhood, and especially during the challenging teenage years. The perfect time for this lesson is when they resist a rule or decision. If there is any crutch we can use in defending our parental actions, it is this one!

Our Home as a Little Church

Our faith is not compartmentalized. We don't leave it at the door when we leave the Church. As husband and wife, we were crowned king and queen of our kingdom. Our home is where we live out that kingdom. Our children should have a clear understanding that the home they live in is an extension of the Church in which they worship. Here are some ways we can develop this "little church" and ultimately create the unconditional sense of security and stability our children need:

Daily family prayer - Creating a stable environment for our children is one of the first requirements for raising healthy, well-adjusted teenagers. One of the most important tools for creating that environment is a regular rule of prayer for the family as well as a personal prayer rule for ourselves. Praying together is an extension of the larger Church as well as a critical function of our "little Church" at home. The family should choose a time that is most convenient to pray together. That time may be before everyone goes on his or her way in the morning, or it may be in the evening when the schedule is more relaxing. Before the family leaves for school or work: A simple selection of prayers can take as little as a couple of minutes and is an ideal way of starting the day and sending our children on their way. If it is not practical to gather the entire family, then at least one parent can pray with the children before they begin the day. Sometimes prayers may even have to be said in the car on the way to work or school.

"Do What I Do" - parents need to set good examples for their children to follow. Regardless of what our children say about us, it is what they are thinking about our lifestyle that really matters

What do we welcome into our "little church"? The TV shows, friends, music, and language we allow in our "little church" greatly influence our children's growth and personality.

Daily Prayer for our Children-As parents, there is only so much we can do for the good of our children. Once we've done all we possibly can, we must prove our faith in God by putting our children's lives into His hands. Praying daily for our children is the most powerful thing we can do for our children. It should be a regular part of our personal prayer rule. Perhaps our children will be the reason we actually establish a prayer rule for ourselves!

Daily Scripture Reading - Another tool for preparing our children for living "in the world" is reading scripture together. Particularly during the years prior to adolescence, daily scripture reading offers a powerful opportunity to discuss the expectations God has for us as Christians. What better way to teach our children the valuable lessons of Christianity than by following the daily scripture readings. The church calendar available from nearly every parish at the beginning of the year can be tucked into the family Bible so that readings can take place along with daily prayers.

Evening can be a good time to gather. The family can offer up prayer, read the scriptures, and briefly discuss them. This needn't take more than a total of 15 minutes, but can be indispensable in preparing our children for daily life as Christians who are pleasing to God. The amount of time spent discussing the readings should be adjusted to the personalities and ages of the children involved. For younger children it may be appropriate to read the Scripture selections and concentrate on one message from the passage. For older children, it can be appropriate to discuss the passages more fully. This may need to happen privately, so as not to frustrate the younger children. By reading Scripture together, parents can teach their children important lessons such as that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19). This reading can be invaluable in explaining the Church's stance on drug and alcohol abuse, abortion, eating disorders and the overall sanctity of our bodies. Other readings can help us teach valuable lessons about issues of morality, character, adultery and integrity. The practice of daily Scripture reading from an early age also helps get our message across at a time when our children tend to be more open to what we have to say. During the pre-adolescent years our children still value our ideas and thoughts, as opposed to the teen years when they become more independent of us, and more dependent on the attitudes of their peers, eager to establish their own identity. The pre-adolescent years give us a block of time to ingrain the teachings of the Church. Imagine bringing these issues up for the first time when they are teenagers. Our efforts at that point could very easily be futile!

A Daily Dose of Affection

As our children grow, there is less of a need to nurture them in a physical way. But this physical display of affection is necessary particularly in the pre-adolescent and teen years. Parents should make a habit of making some physical contact with their children every day: a hug, pat on the back, or back rub. If we aren't giving them affection, where do you think they will turn for it?

A Safe Place Called Home

Besides needing physical affection, our children need a safe, peaceful haven to call home. This should be a refuge they can retreat to and be themselves. It should be safe, peaceful, fun and full of love. Home, regardless of its physical characteristics, should encourage our children's presence. We, as their parents, should give them a reason to want to be home as much as possible.

Support from Our Spouse

Finally, parents should dialogue regularly with each other regarding their children and discipline-related issues. This is paramount to the success of our relationship with our teenagers and their success in surviving the teenage years. Planning ahead is also important. Parents should be prepared for resolving problems and conflicts with their teenage children, as well as helping them resolve problems among peers and adults. Parents may also want to discuss between themselves how they plan to handle important issues such as jobs, dating, driving and unsupervised time. Because parents are "training up their child" to successfully go "into the world" it would be wise to include teenagers in problem solving and policy-making procedures. Making them a part of the dialogues suggests that their input is valued and respected. This also helps train them to make wise decisions on their own.

Like the gardener who carefully prepares the soil before planting a single plant, parents must prepare their children to handle the teenage years. By relying on the Church to guide us in her wisdom, we can do a great deal to minimize the challenges of the teenage years and raise children who have respect and love for their Faith.

Ann Marie Gidus-Mecera, an advertising consultant and writer, is married to Gust Mercera and mother of Juliana, age 14, and Justina, age 8. Her family attends St. Gregory of Nyssa Church (OCA) in Columbus, Ohio. Ann Marie has authored A Way of Life: Introducing Your Child to the Orthodox Faith, a teaching manual for pre-schoolers designed for use by parents and Church School educators, I Go to Church, a book about Liturgy for preschoolers, and The Storm and the Sea, on the life of St. Nicholas. She has also been involved in parish administration, has served on the Diocesan Council for the Midwest Diocese of the Orthodox Church in America, and has offered presentations on family life and parish renewal.

© 1999 by Orthodox Family Life and the original author(s).
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