The first soccer practice of the season had just ended. The moms were lined up in an assortment of vans and other family vehicles, eager to see how their sons had fared. “So how did practice go?” my friend Emily asked her nearly thirteen-year-old son. She hoped the tone of her voice expressed the right amount of concern, confidence and casual interest that would open up the door for conversation. Ignoring the question, Scott said, “I’ve got to have a soda. Can we go get one right now?” Emily knew it had been hot and Scott probably was thirsty-but after all. it was just a few blocks from home. There he could be refreshed with something much healthier which would actually quench his thirst. “No, Scott. We’ll just go home and get something at home. Anyway, I really don’t want you having soda right now. It’s nearly dinner time.”
“Look, Mom, here’s the convenience store. Just pull in. I’ll just get a bottle of water. Come on Mom. Stop.” Emily continued recalling the incident to me, describing how they both fell silent after she firmly reminded him that they had good cold water at home. Scott had pushed the electric window opener back and forth, raising and lowering the window in abrupt motions. Usually Emily would say something to him, but today she decided to ignore his little habit. She knew he was testing her. wanting her to respond. After a few minutes. he lowered the window all the way, and casually struck up a conversation with her for the rest of the short ride home. She sighed tiredly. “Honestly, sometimes I feel like I’m back at the two-year-old stage again. Except, when they are two, you know it is impossible to reason with them; by now you feel like they should be able to understand good reasons and accept them without a lot of fuss.”
Listening to her last remark, I smiled to myself. Two-year-old toddlers and teens actually do share a number of common denominators. Perhaps it is because of these shared traits that two-year-olds have been unfortunately tagged the “terrible twos stage,” and teenagers have equally disparaging remarks cast their way. Suddenly, newfound independence allows each of them to explore with greater freedom. Further, they have entered into an ability to communicate with their parents and peers on a whole new level. In addition, their lack of maturity combined with a strong desire to test and understand their limits creates frequent opportunities for disaster. Consequently, parents find themselves in circumstances where they feel confused about how they should best respond to their child’s behavior. That confusion is only intensified by the surprisingly negative emotional reaction a parent may feel toward this child who has been such a treasure to them.
Natural curiosity is the mother of the exploration that leads so many toddlers into situations which can vary from annoying to catastrophic. Toddlers have entered into a world where they can now reach those mysterious doorknobs, while previously they were only able to watch “big” people manipulate them. They are no longer limited to the floor for crawling around, but can literally run from one place to another. Their minds, which have been absorbing and categorizing information since the day of their birth, have a whole new level of information to gather and assess. It is a fascinating exercise to sit unobserved by toddlers and watch them for a period of time. What we adults rather glibly call “play” is clearly high-powered intellectual reasoning being applied to problem solving.
Unfortunately, more often than not such exploration does not conveniently fit into the schedules of busy moms and dads. For example, imagine the two-year-old who has appreciatively watched her mother time and again apply that beautiful shade of lipstick. Today, her mom applied some fresh lipstick and replaced it right there in the make-up caddie while she watched, fascinated. If she pulls over that little bathroom stool just so, and leans up on the counter, she can reach that tube of lipstick. Of course, mom has already dressed her for church and applying lipstick for the first time is a little tricky. Since it looks so nice on lips, maybe it would be equally lovely on arms and legs.
While such a scenario may be frustrating, the two-year-old sense of adventure has the potential for an actual catastrophe. As a teenager I baby-sat occasionally for a two-year-old whose insatiable curiosity and lack of fear meant that her parents could never take an eye off her. One day, when her mother thought she was sound asleep in her crib, she climbed out of the crib, slipped out a side door and began to explore the large front yard of their rural home.
Finding herself tired out from her long exploration, she curled up with her ever present blanket on the closest sunny spot available. Shortly afterward, a knock came at the kitchen door. A neighbor on their way to town had seen the toddler sleeping on her blanket in the middle of the asphalt road which ran directly past the large tree shaded front yard!
Similarly, teenagers begin to test out their independence in ways which range from simple exercises in curiosity to experimenting with adult behavior which may have devastating consequences. A friend of mine told me she had discovered a Tupperware lid with the marks of the electric stove burner burned into the top. When she questioned her young teenager about it, he simply remarked, “Well Mom, how else am I supposed to learn if I don’t experiment?”
Much more alarming are the attempts by teens to mimic adult behaviors which they are not prepared to handle. Recently I heard the story of a teen whose parents were out of town on business. He figured no harm would be done if he just drove his father’s Porsche a couple of miles through their quiet suburban neighborhood…after all, he’d watched his dad maneuver it around thousands of times. Having never driven any vehicle, however, he was totally unprepared for the power surging beneath the hood of this little beauty. It was not long before he lost control, crashing violently into an ancient oak tree by the roadside.
Toddlers and teens constantly stretch the experience and limitations of parents. Consider the interaction between the nearly teen Jesus and His parents. The annual celebration in Jerusalem was ended and His family had begun their long journey home, “unaware” that Jesus had stayed behind. Once they realized He was not with them, they immediately returned to the city and spent three days searching for Jesus. Meanwhile, Jesus was stunning the teachers with His questions: “Every one who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers” (Luke 2:47). Finally, Joseph and Mary returned to the temple and found Jesus there. Mary becomes the peer of all mothers in her reaction to Jesus. How many mothers of teens would have reacted similarly, cutting immediately to the heart of what she thought was the issue: “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you” (Luke 2:48b). It was unimportant to Mary at that moment that Jesus was sitting there among the teachers carrying on an impressive conversation. Rather, she expressed the great frustration which had built up during the last four days, frustration which boiled over in the presence of the watching crowd. Thus the astonishment she experienced when she saw Him sitting there was overpowered by her own personal inconvenience, worry, and propriety (“Why have you treated us like this?”). Jesus responded in a matter of fact way: “‘Why were you searching for me? Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?’ But they did not understand what he was saying to them.” Like Joseph and Mary, it is so easy for us to live together, eat dinner together, fill days of busyness together, go on trips together, and yet not even begin to comprehend the depths of our children.
“Quality, not quantity” has been the great pacifier which has been preached for the last twenty years to soothe the guilty consciences of parents whose schedules are filled from morning to night with activity. The monetary demands of an increasingly materialistic society is only matched by cultural and social demands to give your children every possible experience. Family life has been fractured by colliding schedules so effectively that recently a cellular phone company used the resulting loss of communication as the entire basis of an ad series, promising to serve as the link to bring families together. The fact of the matter is that if we are going to understand our teens, if we are going to react appropriately to their need to experiment with independence, it is critical that as parents, we do not limit our time with our children to slots of convenient “quality” time.
One day I was traveling with my children for several hours in the car when they began, “Remember the time that…” As I listened to them exploding into laughter again and again, and then sometimes growing contemplative and quiet, I realized how frequently what I thought were the “quality” times with my children, were not what they remembered as the best times. For a young child, snuggling with his mom or dad into a warm corner with a tattered book that has been read over and over may well be the memory that brings joy and comfort to them many years later, far more than the trip to Disneyland. It may not be the dinner at the expensive restaurant that a teenager remembers nearly as much as the fact that his parents were there, waiting at the airport gateway when he returned from his first trip away from home alone.
From the time our children first begin to practice new-found skills in communication and independence, we parents must begin to build a foundation with our listening ear, and our presence. By observing the unique spin with which each one of our children begins to approach life in those early stages of communication and experimenting, we begin to build a bank of information from which to draw later as they reach their teen years. Parenting has never been an exercise of convenience. Thus, the responsibility of parents becomes setting our own personal comfort aside and ministering, rather than reacting, to our children throughout those early days of independence. As a result, we will begin to develop a solid relationship with our children which will bear great fruit as they enter their teen years. The unique person that is developing before our eyes at two, eventually grows into a teenager still needing the same patience, the same security to return to when one of their adventures takes them way over their heads.
Additionally, if we adopt the perspective that practicing independence is a necessary step toward eventually becoming healthy adults, we can rejoice with our children as they move from stage to stage. Thus, toddlers lose the “terrible twos” misnomer and become fascinating little people whose desire to learn and experience is unquenchable. Later on, we celebrate with our teens to whom we gradually grant greater and greater areas of freedom and responsibility.
Following Mary’s reaction to Jesus in the temple, Luke records: “Then [Jesus] went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. But his mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:51, 52). Like Mary, we must learn to treasure the God-created uniqueness of our children, valuing each tiny step of independence,
Certainly, as parents we will still be susceptible to reacting inappropriately and even angrily to the escapades of our children, whether they be toddlers or teens. Nevertheless, what we desire most is to see our children growing, as Jesus did, in wisdom and in favor with God and men. Ultimately, like Mary, our goal should be to stand together, parent and child, at the foot of the cross.
Cornelia Ruth Ruff teaches at Valley Christian High School in Dublin, CA. Her husband Lewis presently serves as the Regional Coordinator for PCA church planting in the 13 western US states.