Parenting Teens: Grace or Consequences?

I used to tell my sons that the one phrase they would never hear out of an adult’s mouth was, “Man, I wish I could go back and do junior high again!” It is all right for a parent to handle the early teen years with a little extra grace. (Just don’t give grace when consequences will help more.)

It’s important for our children to understand that love is unconditional but respect is earned. I think that road goes both ways. Many parents feel their teens moving away from them and often try to keep them close by becoming more like them. Teens are supposed to wean themselves from a child-like relationship with their parents. Parents shouldn’t wean themselves from their role.

I heard stories during the high school years of parents who provided alcohol and a safe place for their children to “party.” Their justification was that they knew their kids were going to drink and they wanted to make certain they were safe and not driving afterward. Underage drinking is against the law. Those parents were teaching their children to function outside the law rather than obey it. Those parents were “popular” with their kids’ friends, but not respected. Even as I type these words I am thinking about the mess some of those kids made of their lives. Many of those parents are still providing for their grown children’s wrong choices.

Teens have to learn how to make choices. Some of the best lessons will come from having made wrong ones. The parenting challenge is deciding which choices deserve discipline and which should receive grace. Usually, parents will need to dish out a little of both!

I made a choice, early in parenting, to only punish those things that I was certain my children chose to do wrong. It seemed to be the closest thing to God’s parenting style with us. Romans 5:8 teaches, “But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” God gave us everything we needed to choose a blessed life—and then gave his Son because he knew we wouldn’t always choose his blessings. Our teens will need that same grace.

When our children were toddlers and had accidents, we didn’t punish them for being clumsy. When our teens make a decision that in retrospect was poor judgment, we should be thoughtful about our response. What did they choose to do wrong and what wrong did they simply fall into? Usually, if we take some time to think and pray, those answers will lead us to our parenting solutions.

One of my sons had a car accident because while he was leaving McDonalds, he pulled out too far and scraped an oncoming car in the other lane. A mom had stopped and motioned to him that she wanted him to pull out. My son, obeying the mom, pulled out and a dad in the next lane, who didn’t stop, is the car my son hit. My son was wrong to pull out and the accident was his fault. Thankfully, everyone involved had grace. The mom apologized for waving him out. The dad apologized for not stopping. My husband and I paid for the damages. And my son drove around with a bent fender and a mirror that was duct-taped to the side of his car. There was consequence for everyone’s choices, but grace as well.

Paul was writing to the Corinthian church, which by the way, was not filled with people who had grown up with a great knowledge of God! They were doing their best to become “adult” Christians but still had a long way to go. Paul had grown up with a vast knowledge of God’s word, but, as a young man, had become a terroristic persecutor of the early Christians. He was teaching the Corinthian church about the power of grace, even as he struggled with his “thorn in the flesh.” Many theologians believe that the blinding light Paul had seen on the road to Damascus caused him to suffer migraines and other head and eye pain for most of his life. Paul said he had begged the Lord to remove that consequence from his life. In 2 Corinthians 12:9 he wrote God’s response to that prayer: “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’” Verse ten is the truth every parent can teach their child. Paul accepted his consequences but learned to receive the grace he was offered. He wrote: “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” Our mistakes and our weaknesses are often the best way to understand our great need of God’s love and direction.

Your children’s mistakes will be one of the best ways for them to realize how much you love them and how much they need God’s grace and power in their lives. Don’t live in fear that your child will make wrong choices—expect them to. Then use each moment to help them understand a little more about you and, more importantly, about God.