How do we tackle our teenagers?

A new book suggests the answers lie in the Bible – specifically the book of Proverbs. Alison Hull took some tough questions to author Ann Benton

Q  What would your advice be to new Christians who have teenage children and are now suddenly trying to bring them up along godly lines?

A My advice to any parent of teenagers is work first and work always at strengthening the relationship. This is especially true for new Christians who may become increasingly aware as they read their Bible and grow in faith that the world looks different now. Their own priorities will be undergoing a radical change, but their children have had many years under the old regime and their hearts have not (yet) been changed.

It would be unhelpful and unrealistic to expect your children to suddenly embrace your new priorities. You have to win them and the way to do that is through a warm relationship in the context of which they are more likely to be responsive to Christian influence and the Gospel message itself.

Q Do you think (ideally) women should stay at home to look after their children rather than returning to work?

A I spent about 30 years of my life bringing up children. The two oldest, both boys, are only 19 months apart. Then, after four years, our daughter was born and after another six years our youngest son. It sounds really old-fashioned, but I left work to have my first son and I never really went back, apart from two temporary stints to help out. I studied psychology at university and worked as a primary school-teacher, but most of my adult life I have been a full-time home-maker.

My children say now that they were the undoubted beneficiaries of my being at home. When they came in from school, I was there and the house was warm and lit, and the kettle was on. Teenagers still need mothering, although perhaps in a more subtle way. I believe so much depends on just being around your children. This is what strengthens the relationship: plenty of opportunity for warm, informal contact, eating together as a family every day. I am not saying it is impossible to do these things while pursuing a full-time career outside the home, but I think it is very difficult. My own short-term stints at teaching taught me that, which is why they were only short-term.

The whole work/motherhood thing is a minefield and I don't want to add to any woman's guilt, because guilty parenting (whether the guilt is real or imagined) is generally not very good parenting. But I think a woman who decides to invest the major part of her time and energy into home and family is making a choice which is good for her children, and good for society as a whole. The contribution of such women has for too long been undervalued at every level.

Q Christian children are not immune to many big issues – what do you say to parents whose children, despite being brought up in Christian homes, and having been part of good churches, nevertheless smoke cannabis, get arrested for doing graffiti, sleep with their girlfriends? How much should parents make their disapproval known? And how?

A It is important for parents to remember that children are responsible agents. They make choices and sometimes, despite all the advice and training, they make poor ones. Parents should not be afraid to make their disapproval clear, but that will probably not be necessary. Their children will already know what their parents think and it will not help to be bad-tempered or to nag. Having made their point of view on the behaviour clear, parents should work at keeping the communication door open.

Parents should try to be unchanging and unflinching in their love, like God, while not in the slightest compromising their standards. This might mean watching your teenager get into trouble of her own making and not protecting her from it. But you still don’t give up on her. Remember the story Jesus told about the lost son (Luke 15).

Q There seems to be a strong anti-learning culture that exists amongst boys. What can parents do to combat this?

A My own sons met this and our eldest son in particular was susceptible to it. But most teachers will tell you that home culture beats school culture every time. Our saying at home was “Pay attention to your teacher and learn all you can” (Proverbs 23:12 paraphrased) and we were always positive about school and learning.

I read stories to my children for many years after they were able to read for themselves; it was a daily pleasure which they recognised and imitated, so this countered the anti-learning thing. When they were lazy and neglected homework, I never nagged them or covered for them (it was their responsibility!) but let them learn that it is no fun to fail when you know you could have done better.

Q Do you think the church offers parents enough support, or it is often the case that the emphasis is on the outward and parents feel their children have to conform and they cannot be honest about their struggles?

A Most churches I see are terrifically pro-family and child-friendly. However, it is true that parents are very sensitive about their children and fear the censure of other parents. That may make them less inclined to be honest about the struggles they face at home. We need to keep preaching the Gospel to ourselves and to remember that it is a Gospel of grace. Then we might stop pretending to be perfect.

Q When our children are born, they are entirely dependent on us. At 18, technically, they should be entirely independent – if they so wish. How do we get them from one stage to the other in a measured and thought-through way?

A There has to be a staged approach. And as a child proves that they can handle independence in small things, they can be entrusted with more. This applies to going out alone, staying in alone, handling money, managing assignments and many other things. I never give a set time-scale on this because all children are different. Know your child. Work with them on this.

Q What do you say to parents who have given up, who feel it is too late to 'parent' their children in any meaningful sense?

A It is never too late. Being a parent is irreversible and lifelong.

Q In your book, great emphasis is placed on walking by faith when a child does something the parent dislikes – do you feel this is part of the problem for parents, that we feel we must and should control our children's lives and so letting go is very hard? And is it particularly hard in an urban environment, where concern for children's safety can mean that we need to be constantly aware of where they are and who they are with?

A A parent’s instinct is always to protect, and parents now perceive the world as far more dangerous than they ever have before (with some justification). But the Christian is called to walk not in fear but in faith. Good early training is vital, but then you have to let them go off and make mistakes. That is one of the ways they will learn.

Meet our expert

Ann Benton is a teacher, speaker, author and minister’s wife from Guildford. Her book, Teenagers: biblical wisdom for parents is published by IVP (ISBN 978 1 84474 354 4 £&.99).

She explains: “When I was growing up, I felt I always had to get everything perfectly right in order to win my parents’ approval. This made me deceitful and a person who acted to please people rather than out of principle. John and I raised our children under the motto ‘all sinners here’, so that they would recognise their inbuilt moral deficiency and understand why Jesus came. I think this gave them freedom to fail and the ability to be honest about mistakes and to learn. Our big problem is our hearts; outward behaviour counts for little in the end.

"The single most important thing to remember when bringing up a child – drawn from Proverbs – is that the Bible teaches that the default position of teenagers, and indeed all of us, is folly. When parents understand this they know what their job is, ie to impart and encourage the development of wisdom. This is not only a sensible starting place, it keeps you sane.

"For me the most helpful principle I learned from my study of Proverbs is that the clever people are not the ones who never make mistakes, but the ones who make mistakes, admit them, learn from them and change their attitudes and behaviour accordingly. See for example Proverbs 12:1."