Practicing with Children

…Before She Is Truly On Her Own

by Wallace Smith

I was a youth pastor for more than 15 years. I even enjoyed it! From the epic mission trips to helping youth serve in hands-on ways in the neighborhood and in the church, talks about serious life-changing choices, goofy scavenger hunts, even cleaning up after an (unplanned) refried bean war on taco night – I was like a “youth whisperer,” helping kids grow into young adults, navigating teen drama, helping parents be more patient with the strangers now living under their roof.

Now, we are parents of a 13-year-old girl, and her 10-year-old sister following closely. I am completely out of my league. When it was someone else’s teenager, I welcomed the challenge. Now, I am dumbfounded by the emotional roller coaster, the drama, the hormones! My daughter used to think her daddy was pretty smart, but it seems that from her perspective, my IQ is dropping on a daily basis. And even though I was an A/B student (except for French class), it seems as if we are speaking different languages, and I’m the one that needs to go back to school. When Jesus said the kingdom of heaven belonged to children, he might have been thinking of kids under nine.

This young woman (this child!) under my roof is changing daily. She looks, sounds, and acts different than before. She wants to do everything for herself, and likes to take her good sweet time, especially when I’m in a hurry. She is opinionated, and a little bossy, and sarcastic, and… she’s me! Well, not “me” but like me… In this stranger, I see a familiar reflection. In her, I see traits and personality that are reflections of our values, our teaching, and our example… including some that I (recognize and yet) wish she would not repeat or carry forward.

She is becoming more independent, and she does not “need” me, at least not in the same way she did years ago. Can I learn how to be a parent to this evolving person? How might we adapt to each other and shape the family environment so that we can continue to center our relationships in trust, faith, understanding, and grace? I hope that our daughter will continue to come to her mom and me with her questions, her struggles, and even the “drama” of an eighth-grader’s world. I hope we can renew our relationship regularly, adjusting as needed. Most of all, I hope I can learn how to speak her language, and perhaps mix in some sort of amazing spiritual practice that helps us both flex our patience muscles while creating a serene sanctuary of family peace (please submit ideas!).

We have a limited window of time before she is off to college, or hitchhiking to New Orleans, or whatever nightmare scenario that can make my heart lurch. We have a small opportunity to model the behaviors and values we hope she will freely choose to carry forward (and we have the opportunity to be a little more intentional in not teaching by example the habits and actions of ours that we hope she will not repeat). We have a limited time to pray together, play together, and explore the world together as a family, before she is truly on her own.

Today, we are going to the movies, just the two of us. Tomorrow she might roll her eyes and threaten to never speak to me again, but today, we’re buds. I’m simply going to do my best to enjoy the moment, and to remember: the kingdom of heaven does belong to her – and to all of us! For God is with us on the journey… even as we navigate the teenage years.

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Remember how the Apostle Paul struggled internally with the ideal disciple he wanted to be and the broken human that he actually was? Wallace relates well to Paul. Most of the time he is intentionally present to his wife Christy and their two daughters, as together with friends they have started a new faith community in suburban Kansas City.

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