Raising Teenagers | Fr Steve Rice

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Over the past months I have had several parents approach me with some anxiety about the relationship between their teenagers and the church. With few exceptions, the parents have expressed anxiety about their teenager’s lack of enthusiasm about Church attendance and service and an additional anxiety about ‘forcing’ their kids to come to church. Providentially I happened to stumble across a book I bought years ago on raising children by, and I’m not making this up, St Theophan the Recluse. The priest who wrote the introduction asked the same question we are all asking, “How can a recluse know anything about raising children?” Shockingly, the answer is a lot. 

St Theophan was a Russian monk who died in 1894, yet his reflections on children and youth are spot on. He was writing about infant baptism and how it is a good and holy thing that we baptize infants but that we also must ensure they are able to assume the responsibilities of their baptism when they mature. It is with this in mind that St Theophan describes the inner life of a teenager. 

Listen to what he says

A youth lives in his own world, and who will investigate all the movements and inclinations of his heart? This is the same thing as investigating the path of a bird in the air, or the course of a ship in the water! The bubbling of a fermenting liquid, the movement of unlike elements when mixed together – this is the heart of a youth. All the demands of so-called nature are in active arousal; each one speaks up and seeks satisfaction. There is present a disorder in our nature, and so the coming together of these voices is like the disorderly cries of a noisy multitude. 

The state in which we emerge out of the years of youth depends a great deal upon the state in which we enter into them. Water falling from a cliff foams and swirls below, but then it goes its quiet way in various courses. This is an image of youth, into which everyone is thrown as water into a waterfall. From it there come out two kinds of people: some shine with virtue and nobility, while others are darkened by impiety and a corrupt life.

He may have been a 19th century recluse, but he has quite the insight on the modern teenager. St Theophan goes on to say that one of the teenage tendencies is the thirst for impressions.

The thirst for impressions gives a certain impetuosity, and uninterruptedness, a variety to the activities of a youth. He wishes to constantly test himself, to see everything, to hear everything, to be everywhere…But this is not enough for him. He is not satisfied with an actual testing of himself, but wishes to assimilate and, as it were, transfer what others have felt, how others have acted by themselves of in circumstances similar to his own…A youth becomes bored with reality because it somehow binds him from the side: it ties him down and encloses him too much within definite limits, whereas he is seeking a kind of freedom. Thus he often tears himself away from reality and goes off into a world he has created for himself, and there he begins to act in glory…When he returns from a state of distraction, the youth finds that everything in his soul has become distorted. The most important thing that has happened is that everything good has been covered by a kind of veil of forgetfulness, and in the first place stand only those deceptive things which have left their impression on him. Consequently, what was before and should always be in no longer present; one’s inclinations have changed, and new ones now take the first place. Why, after returning to it after some kind of distraction, does the soul begin to grow bored? Because it finds itself robbed.

All persons test boundaries. That’s what we do. We test the boundaries in the same way we might test a ladder or rope – to see if it’s sound. Will it hold me? Will it keep me safe? Will it help me get to where I need to be? Children, youth, and adults will test the boundaries given to them to see if they really matter. If Sunday worship has been established as a boundary, our youth will test it to if it is really important, and more specifically, is it important to us as parents. If it becomes an arbitrary boundary then it’s not a sound one and if it’s not a sound one, it’s not worth having.

What they desire is stability and consistency. Setting the boundary of faith is not child abuse any more than that setting the boundary that they will go to school and they will brush their teeth. These are non-negotiable because we know they are important, whether they like them or not. Most teenagers recoil at homework and, heaven help, basic hygiene. If we waver on faith, we demonstrate it is not as important as brushing our teeth. Requiring church attendance is not forcing religion upon them. We cannot make anyone pray, but we can ensure they are in a place of prayer. 

If we made church attendance mandatory simply because we said so will hurt our cause. They will recoil at authority without reason. Show them why faith is important. Demonstrate a life a prayer and how your faith influences your decisions and how it rightly orders our lives. 

St Theophan understood over a hundred years ago what social sciences would later demonstrate. The greatest spiritual influence in the lives of teenagers is the parents. 

It is true that the Lord is merciful to the innocent; but there is a tie which we cannot understand between the souls of the parents and the soul of the child, and we cannot define the extent of the influence of the former to on the latter. 

Parents, keep the faith. We are all in this together. The water may be rough at the moment, but with God’s help and our perseverance, it will smooth out.

General, FormationFr. Steve Rice