I have not met a single parent who does not want to raise great kids. No one intentionally sets out to raise a rebellious, obnoxious, terrible kid.
From the outside looking in, we can often judge other parents as “bad parents” or “good parents” but the reality is that most of us are doing the best we can with the knowledge and resources we have. The truth is, we don’t honestly know how to raise great kids, because, spoiler alert, there are no guarantees.
Your kids get to be individuals. They get to grow up and make all of their own decisions themselves, and you can’t actually control another human being. We can do all the “right” things and our kids can still grow up and make the “wrong” decisions.
Does that mean all hope is lost? I don’t think so. I believe that although we can never guarantee the future success and morality of our kids, there are certain things we can do to improve their chances of growing up to be great teens and adults who make good decisions.
In her new book, “Why I Didn’t Rebel”, Rebecca Gregoire Lindenbach attempts to discover exactly what we can do to give our kids the best chance at “staying on the straight and narrow” as they grow older. Rebecca interviewed a number of young adults who rebelled and those who didn’t and combined that information with lots of current social science research to try to find what works and what doesn’t for raising great kids.
What does it mean to raise great kids?
I think our first question when looking at raising great kids and kids who don’t rebel is to actually define what that means. The reality is that growing up is a difficult time for every single kid. No one makes it through their teenage years making all the right choices, following every rule to a “T”, and never having a bad attitude about anything. Heck, I’m a grown woman and I struggle with having a bad attitude on a daily basis.
In “Why I Didn’t Rebel”, Rebecca defines a good kid as “one who listens to God’s voice and does what he or she is called to do.” I love this definition. When I try to define a good kid, I often try to create a list of all the things that are important. I want a kid who is kind, hardworking, compassionate, self-disciplined, and a whole host of other traits, but Rebecca’s definition encompasses all of that. If our kids are capable of listening to God’s voice and being obedient to Him, then everything else just falls into place.
It’s also good to note what we don’t mean when we are talking about raising great kids. As I mentioned already, even good kids sometimes make mistakes. Rebecca states that “making a mistake is not the same thing as actively living a sinful life.” Our kids might make a poor decision or two or three on occasion, that doesn’t make them rebellious, it makes them human.
Rebecca’s goal in “Why I Didn’t Rebel” was to compare the lives of kids who actively pursued a life of underage drinking, premarital sex, drug use, and the like with the lives of kids who did not engage in these types of activities during their high school and college years. What were the similarities and differences in the families, parenting styles, and discipline methods for these kids and young adults?
Today, I want to share with you an overview of the types of parents and families who raised kids who didn’t rebel. There were some marked differences in the approaches each family took. Again, we can’t guarantee that our kids won’t rebel, but that doesn’t mean we stick our heads in the sand and call it useless. We actually can play a large role in determining the future success of our kids and teens as they grow into fully functioning adults who make great decisions. (Be sure to pick up a copy of Why I Didn’t Rebel to read all the details.)
Relationship over Obedience
The problem with blind submission to authority
When discussing what defines kids as “good” or “bad” many people often turn to the question of obedience. If your kids are compliant, obedient, well-behaved, and good listeners then they are good kids. In my opinion, this is extremely dangerous territory. I actually don’t want compliant children who follow all the rules without question and blindly submit to all authority figures.
There are bad authority figures everywhere, from the workplace to the church to camp counselors to governmental leaders. Blind submission can often lead to immoral behavior. But if we train our kids to always do what they’re told, we train our kids to follow bad leadership down dangerous and at times evil paths. That is not what I want for my kids. I want my kids to have the courage to speak up and speak out when something is wrong, even if it speaks against someone in authority over them.
Rules don’t actually teach morality, they just teach rules
Following all the rules also doesn’t teach kids right from wrong. They know what they are allowed to do and not allowed to do, but if they don’t have an explicit rule or authority figure telling them what to do, how do they know how to make the right choice? When we allow our kids to ask questions and even (respectfully) debate rules, guidelines, and situations, we give them a chance to understand right and wrong. We help them to identify and develop their own opinions and wisdom on moral issues. And we teach them how to make good choices even when there isn’t a rule or an authority figure pointing the way.
Be your kid’s friend
Instead of making lists of rules for our kids, our best choice is to intentionally pursue a good relationship with our kids. Because relationships lead to influence. If your kids don’t know, like, and trust you, they won’t listen to you, and if they don’t listen to you, you will have no chance of influencing their lives and helping them make good choices. Many people are against becoming friends with our kids, but I think that advice is foolish. I absolutely want to be friends with my kids. If we aren’t friends then how can I possibly expect them to trust and rely on me.
The Bible tells us that we are friends of God (Romans 5:11). It strikes me as odd that people can consider themselves friends with God but work hard to avoid being friends with their kids. Friendship is relationship, open, honest, authentic, vulnerable, and respectful. This is exactly what our kids need from us and when they don’t get it, they search for answers and influence in all the wrong places.
Friendship with your kids doesn’t mean lowering yourself to their level or acting like a child. Developing a friendship with your kids simply means being real with them, allowing them to get to know you for who you are, and you taking the time to get to know them for who they are. Be yourself, share your interests and dreams, admit your flaws and be willing to apologize when you are wrong, be honest, and show your kids that you like being around them. Be curious about their lives, don’t interrogate them or invade their privacy, but make it a priority to give them your attention, take an active interest in their lives, and be genuinely interested in the things they have to say.
Obedience comes through good relationship
We are able to be called friends of God because of the price that Jesus paid on the cross. God understands that, as humans, we will never be good at obeying all the rules all the time. We tried that and it didn’t work out so well. Many Israelites gave up because it was too hard to follow all the rules. Others (the Pharisees), made it their goal to follow all the rules but they entirely missed the spirit of the law trying to follow the letter of the law.
Kids who rebel are the same way. They realize that it is too hard trying to follow all the rules so they give up. Or they blindly follow all the rules given to them as kids and then fail as young adults when they no longer have so many rules and authority figures guiding their every decision.
As Christians, God invites us into a relationship first, and it is in our relationship that He teaches us how to obey. When we spend time praying, listening to the Spirit, and reading the Word we can trust that the Holy Spirit will guide us into making good choices. We begin to view the world and our circumstances in light of the gospel and the holiness of God. We understand God and we want to please Him, so we do what He says, knowing that He has our best interests at heart, even if what He’s asking us to do is hard. This must be our goal and the example we follow when raising our kids.
Make life fun
Another important part of a relationship with our kids is to have fun with them. When our kids realize that life can be fun and vibrant and joyful without sex, drugs, and alcohol, they are much more likely to say “no” when the opportunities arise (and they definitely will). Make it your family culture to spend lots of time together, do fun things, be silly, laugh, and truly enjoy one another.
Teach Instead of Punish
Remember how we learn
We learn our letters and numbers not because we were spanked when we misidentified a letter or forgot a number when counting, but because a parent or teacher took the time to teach us these things. In our jobs, we learn new technologies and processes not by being scolded and written up when we press the wrong button, but by sitting through training sessions where someone teaches us the steps for the new process and gives us a chance to practice with the new technology.
In every area of life, we are constantly learning new things, not because of threats and punishments but because someone takes the time to explain it to us. They offer us a chance to ask questions until we understand. We are given the opportunity to practice and try things out on our own while someone shadows behind us to gently redirect and correct us if we get off course.
And yet, when it comes to right and wrong, morals, and behavior, we forget all of this and insist that the only way kids can learn how to be obedient is to be punished when they mess up. This baffles my mind. Punishment isn’t actually a teacher.
Natural consequences versus punishment
Consequences can help to teach us. When I click the wrong button on my new phone at work and accidentally hang up on someone, the consequence is that I now have to call that person back and apologize. This helps me to remember not to press that button again when I’m on a call. But if my supervisor were to fire me for accidentally pressing the wrong button on a new phone, I’m sure we can all agree, that would be a little ridiculous. And yet that’s often how we treat our kids.
We feel like we must punish them for every mistake. There must be a serious consequence every time they make a bad decision. But often it just makes us the bad guy. Kids aren’t dumb. If my boss was constantly hovering over my shoulder waiting for me to make a mistake and then telling me I’m not allowed to go to lunch today because I said the wrong thing, I would die of starvation, and hate my boss. I’d quickly be finding a new job where I could be more respected.
This isn’t to say that kids should get away with everything. But what I’m beginning to realize is that if we are constantly searching to come up with a punishment to “fit the crime” we are trying too hard and completely missing the point of parenting and discipline. Our goal is to help our kids learn to make good choices. Punishment puts all the focus on the bad choice but doesn’t help teach the right choice at all. If we want kids who make good choices we have to actually teach them about good choices, not simply what happens when they make the wrong ones.
Rebecca says that “parents who try to bring out the best in their children rather than just suppress the worst, end up with much better relationships – and ironically, far less need for discipline.” When we believe in our kid’s ability to make good choices and let them know that we believe in them, they will usually rise to our expectations.
What discipline really looks like
All kids make mistakes and make bad choices, so do I, every single day. But I don’t learn by beating myself up or allowing anyone else to beat me up. When our kids make a wrong choice the very best thing we can do is to talk to them about it. Not shout at them, not degrade or demean them, but simply to have an open and honest conversation about the situation. What they were thinking and feeling, what did they feel their options were, and then help them brainstorm other approaches for the future.
It’s also extremely important to give kids information over rules. Knowledge really is power. It’s good to give kids guidelines. You are welcome to call them rules. But be careful not to pass out rules without explanation. Kids have to know and understand the reasons behind rules. Not just because they are obnoxious kids who ask too many questions, but because they are thinking humans who are trying to figure out how to navigate this complex world. Telling them the why behind the rules instead of giving a pat “because I said so” allows our kids to understand and “buy in” to the rules we put in place.
You can’t make a rule about every single situation your kid will come up against. But you can teach them guidelines and reasons and ways to make good decisions. You can teach them problem-solving, creativity, and critical thinking. This is what helps kids grow into adults who are able to make good decisions without any input or guidance from their parents. Discipline is teaching, not punishment. Spend more time as a teacher and less time as a punisher and your kids will actually learn how to identify right from wrong.
Raising kid’s who follow God
In some ways I feel like raising “good” kids is one battle, but raising good Christian kids is a whole other war. This is why I loved that Rebecca defined good kids as kids who listen to God and do what He says. But as many of us know from personal experience, just because you are raised in a Christan home doesn’t mean you are guaranteed to be a Christian for life.
In many churches, life is all about appearances over authenticity. Kids can see right through this. In our modern world where kids can find out what’s happening on the other side of the world in a matter of minutes any time of the day, we have to be real, honest, and vulnerable about our faith and our world. We have to be willing to open the doors for conversation, push back, and debate. We have to stop worrying about what everyone will think and instead take the time to point our kids to Jesus.
Instead of putting all the focus on rules and proper behavior we have to put the focus on the Gospel. The Gospel is love. Love that is so intense that in the midst of our worst sin, God sent His Son to die so that we could live. He didn’t send His Son to punish us first and make us learn all the rules so that then He could die. He simply loved. He opened the door that made a way for us to be in relationship – intimate, close, friendship relationship with Him. And it is only through that relationship and because of that relationship that we can walk in holiness and righteousness and obedience to what He calls us to do.
This is what we must teach our kids. And we teach this by example, not by micromanaging our kid’s faith. We make faith a normal part of our daily life. We model good faith and relationship with God. We encourage and equip our kids to seek out God’s voice and let the Holy Spirit be their guide. Not through rules and expectations about how we want them to live out their relationship with God, but simply by showing them the way and trusting God to take it from there.
Today’s Action Step
I highly encourage every parent to pick up a copy of Why I Didn’t Rebel. I have a digital copy on my kindle and I literally have pages and pages of highlighted passages that I plan to keep and refer to often. She doesn’t provide a step by step plan for parenting, instead, the book is filled with stories and inspiration that can act as a guide and an encouragement on the hard days of parenting. No one said that this parenting thing is easy, but there is hope. We can raise good kids who don’t rebel.