I remember inviting a family from church over to our house for Sunday lunch several years ago. They had many children. They had recently left a Pentecostal Church to join the church we were attending because the Pentecostal Church had had a wild revival that involved too much chaos at the church services. They objected to the suggestion of the pastor that God was “frolicking” with his children during the chaotic worship services.
Some of this family’s children were the same ages as my own. As their children grew up some of them became drug addicted, some serving time in prison for drug dealing. Why? They had grown up in a teetotalling family that attended Bible believing church twice a week. Their parents stayed together. The family ate meals together, prayed before their meals, honored God and home schooled, strictly limiting TV, video games and movies. What happened?
Nothing extraordinary, that’s about normal for fundamentalist and evangelical families. Almost all of the boys in the youth group at our evangelical church were struggling, several were regular marijuana users, one was occasionally suicidal, several boys got arrested once or twice, one boy used kiddie porn, almost all of the boys used regular porn. Several used alcohol regularly. Most of them were having sex whenever they could. That’s what evangelical teens look like in most churches. Those who have had teens understand this and are not surprised, those who have children under 13 years old do not understand this, and are committed to making sure their young teens go to youth group every week so they won’t act like that.
One of the reasons that fundamentalist teens (and to a lesser degree, evangelical teens) have such a struggle in the teen years is that they have not had a foundation for making decisions in their lives. Developmentally, God turns a switch on in teens’ brains that says: “Start practicing making your own decisions before you have to move out of the house and fall flat on your face.” So the teens make their own decisions, often with disastrous results. Teens know intuitively that at age 18 or 19 they are moving out, and will be making most of their own decisions, especially decisions about how to conduct their day to day lives. They know they have to start practicing making their own decisions.
Non-fundamentalist families that are preparing their children for decision making start very young. “What do you want to eat today? Eggs or oatmeal?”
“Would you like to wear this shirt or that shirt?”
“What story do you want me to read to you?”
For more important decisions:
“Do you want to wear your coat or carry your coat?”
“Do you want to do your homework now or in half an hour?”
“Do you want to clean your room with me in the room or by yourself?”
As children get older they have more latitude:
“You can skip baseball practice if you want to, but I’m worried you won’t get to play first base. Have you thought about that? What will happen if you skip practice?”
“If you are rude to me then I don’t want to take you to your friend’s house this afternoon. If you want me to have energy to do you favors, then you have to be nice to me.”
“You can decide not to do your homework, but I’m worried that you are limiting your career choices. What do you think you would like to do for a job when you get older?”
“You can decide to smoke cigarettes, but not in this house. You already know what I think of cigarettes and tobacco companies. What do you think of cigarettes?”
“You can watch the videos and movies you decide to, but you know what I think about things that will drag you down, or movies that degrade people. What do you think of the last movie you saw?”
“I feel very uncomfortable with you using porn or watching those music videos, but it’s your decision. What do you think of porn?”
“You know what we believe about sex, but the final decision is up to you. What are you going to do, and are you prepared for the consequences? If you disagree with me, we could make an appointment for you at the doctor for birth control.”
“You can decide to smoke marijuana, but I just want to know that you have thought through all the consequences. What are the pros and cons of smoking marijuana?”
“It is your decision to go to the party. It’s up to you. Do you want to talk about it? Do you have any concerns?”
“You can decide to skip work today if you want, but I’m worried about the consequences. Are you okay with the consequences of skipping work today?”
“You’re paying for your own car insurance so you can decide to disobey the traffic laws, it’s up to you. Have you thought through the consequences? I don’t like getting tickets, so I try to stay within the law. I hate getting stopped by the police.”
Some people advise saying something a little different:
“We have high expectations of you. We expect you to obey the laws when driving. But of course we’re not there, so it is ultimately up to you.”
I am not saying pre-teens should be making all their own decisions about TV, the internet, smoking cigarettes, and drinking alcohol. What I am saying is that decision-making should be a regular part of a child’s life. And if the parent is open to helping the child sort through their own emotions and thinking, without being too judgmental and pushy, then the child learns gradually to have confidence in their own good judgment. “I can see you made an adult decision about your bicycle. You decided to save up and buy the one you want.”
These are conversations that one can have with a teen one has raised to make their own decisions, but these discussions are not available to fundamentalist parents, or any rigid or authoritarian parent. Discussions that involve disagreeing with one’s parents are not possible in these rigid homes. The parents tend to fall apart when their teens disagree with them or disobey them. Fundamentalist, rigid and authoritarian parents are fragile, easily breakable, and fall apart when their hierarchical system doesn’t work. They rage or cry or threaten or abandon, anything except having a real honest discussion with their teen. In this way they resemble alcoholic homes–homes in which alcohol helps the fragile parent limp along.
The consequence is that the teen has to make all of these decisions by herself, in secret, while lying to her parents, without a calm parent who has confidence in her. One teen in a strict family ran away from home twice. The first time the family thought he had been kidnapped, but his friends said he had two lives: one in front of his parents, and the other in front of his friends. He didn’t like having a split dishonest life, so he ran away to be the whole teen who was making his own decisions. The second time he ran away he joined a gang of wandering teens for a year–just so he could do normal teen development and learn how to make his own decisions. Teens use their friends as a stepping stone away from their parents. It is scary to begin making one’s own life decisions, so they follow their friends. The stricter their parents were at home, the stricter they follow their friends, simply because the stricter their parents were, the less confidence they have in their own ability to make decisions.
How do I know all this? I was a strict home schooling parent. My daughter used to have friends over for sleepovers. Years later she told us she would take the VW Rabbit out for a spin after we were asleep. Her friends would pile into the Rabbit, push it out into the street, and drive downtown to the main shopping district, all without a driver’s license. It’s impossible to follow your teen around all day at school, or stay up all night and make sure your teen doesn’t climb out the window and visit his friends. The truth is that all of the above decisions are already the teen’s regardless of what kind of home he is growing up in. They are making their own decisions in fundamentalist homes as well as in homes that encourage the teen to make their own decisions. But which home is preparing and encouraging the teen to be self-controlled, and mature?
Friends of mine, also conservative and strict Christians, raised teens who stuck to the rules, never coming home drunk, never trying marijuana, getting excellent grades in school, achieving a bachelor’s degree with honors at a conservative Christian college. At 30 years old his overweight son was still living at home, without a girlfriend, working at a big box store for low wages, unable to make his own decisions.
The Main Addict in the fundamentalist family is the parent who is the most religious, the most rigid, the most dysfunctional. Fundamentalist teens develop caricatures to help them cope: One teen becomes the Family Hero: getting amazing grades, helping take care of the younger children and working a full time job while still in high school. A second child becomes a raging punk Scapegoat, ready to punch the world in the face. A third becomes a sickly Enabler, covering up for, and defending, the main Addict, always buying a new supplement and monitoring blood pressure, temperature, tongue color, snot and poop to make sure they have not been poisoned by the multitude of the toxins they are vulnerable to. A fourth becomes a Lost Child, always absent when there is conflict; watching TV or playing video games, cuddling the cat and reading. A fifth becomes the Clown: cute, adorable, funny, always ready to fall off their chair when tensions are on the upswing. A sixth child becomes a Pastor in a Bible believing church, secretly watching porn each night. Each caricature is a cardboard thin role that the child puts on as an actor to help her or him cope. There isn’t a whole person living inside, just a scared kid. The role is needed as armor against relationships that require emotional maturity. [Most of these roles come from literature about alcoholic families.]