The Gates Are Open

December 2015

Parental Interlude – Teens and High School Success.

Teenage Girl Sleeps at Her Desk in a Classroom of Secondary School Students

Teenage Girl Sleeps at Her Desk in a Classroom of Secondary School Students

I have a friend who teaches 11th grade at a public high school. Every time they near the end of a semester in his classes, he pontificates to his students on the advantages of studying hard for the upcoming test. He  has told me he sees many of the students with glassy eyes as he tells them how important these last two years of high school can be for their future.

At the end of this standard lecture, he asks the students if they truly see the importance of doing well in their classes. He asks them to write down why they imagine junior and senior years are critical. Then he has one more thing to add:fries

“If you don’t think these final two years of high school are important, then I want you to write down this phrase you will need to learn. Here it is: “Do you want fries with that?

Of course, the students all laugh and he hopes the point strikes them hard. If they punt their final preparatory years of high school, the theory is it will prevent them from getting into a good school, getting a coveted degree, and landing a great job. Though this does not automatically imply that they will be working fast food, he likes the shock value. He hopes the humor gets the point across.

Though my friend is joking, when parents hear this, they get serious about the subject. Parents really do fear their teens will fail at life. It is the most common theme among parents in counseling. This fear has been exacerbated by the economy of the past ten years, where the cost of education has ballooned and the amount of good jobs has diminished. Because of these realities, parents feel they have to continue housing their grown children long after they graduate from high school. Some experts estimate that 60% of adult children are now living with their parents.

This puts even more pressure on parents to push their children to succeed as early as possible in school.

This fear of children failing often leads parents to stop respecting children enough to let them make mistakes. This is also why movements which teach that a parent should control children, manipulate them, focus on rewards and punishments, severely punish them for failing to live up to standards are popular today. Parents fear if they just let teens do whatever they want they will be housing them long after they originally thought they would.

But there are several difficulties with this. First, no one says that it is a parent’s responsibility to house their children forever. You can if you want. You can do anything you want. But if you choose to do so that is your choice. Second, taking a heavy-handed approach toward your teen’s education robs them of their own choices. This approach assumes that most children will not do well unless they are pushed.

But this begs another question: What is going to push them when they are no longer in high school? The answer most parents give me is this: By that time, hopefully they will figure it out. I propose to those parents that kids need to have it figured out long before teen years.

This is why my wife and I told our small children that they will ultimately be the deciding factor in school, career, marriage and finances. Long before they became teens, they were told that they had to learn to be self-motivated. We helped them with their learning disabilities, encouraged them and taught them about working hard, and found resources and influences that would give them tools to succeed.

For instance, until our children were in grade school, we never had cable television. We read to them and with them every day. And when they reached school age, we bought them all the books we could afford. We made weekly trips to the library and made sure they all had library cards. We limited their time on the Internet and made after-school studying a mandatory event.

We did what a lot of parents do. Perhaps what we added that most do not is the continual discussion on their responsibility. They all knew they would be expected to be responsible for effort and success in high school without our pushing. Though there were times we held them accountable for how hard they worked, we never punished or rewarded our teens for their school results. That is not our role. At some point in life they needed to be in charge of their own life and education. If they had wanted to drop out of school, join the circus, get pregnant, be part of a cult or write computer programs–all of that was their choice and we were not going to sweat over it.

It is their life. It is not ours. Though we love our children, we are stable enough in who we are to let them succeed or fail on their own merits. We continue to give support, both emotional and financial, but their achievements are their own. If they failed it was not our failure. If they succeed, it is not our success.

And when we did inevitably house them for part of their adult life, that was our choice and we made it because we felt it was the right thing to do.

Parents must understand that in order to release your teens to take responsibility for themselves you have to build up to it in pre-teen years. Give them more and more responsibility. Talk to them when they don’t live up to their responsibilities instead of always punishing them. Take away distractions and give them every chance to make wise decisions.

And model this for them by making wise decisions yourself. This is the greatest teaching tool. If you don’t want them to do drugs or drink, both show them and tell them by discussing these things intelligently and then refusing to be ruled by those things yourself.

If your goal was to get wasted every weekend, you should not have had kids. If you did, this is one of the sacrifices you have to make. Give up some television. Go to museums as much as the movies. Read with them. Take them with you to church. Show as many documentaries on the television as movies.

Then by teen years, they will have some good examples to follow.

Discipline of Teens – The Basic Offenses

When I wrote a book on parenting a number of years ago, people made two objections to it. First, there were those who attacked the basic premise of the book. I called it “To Be A Father Like The Father” and my central idea is that in order to parent well we must use God the Father to be our example.

A number of people told me that they felt this was a misguided project. “Human parents can’t copy what God does. Our goals must be different. God does not actively involve Himself in the affairs of humans.” These were the frequent comments made.

But I persevered through that misunderstanding. As I explained in that book, it is the attitude of God toward His children I wanted to emulate. And out of that attitude comes a workable model that may have to be adjusted to the realities of home life and each individual generation. Most people were satisfied when I explained that. For those who were not satisfied, I consoled myself that they at least had bought my book.

The second objection to the book was more laughable. I was continually accused of being a “Permissive Parent”. Because I don’t advocate harsh punishment for some of the more sensational crimes a teen may commit, people assumed I was not for punishment at all–after all, if you don’t whip a teen for coming home drunk, why bother saying anything when they dent the car?  They missed my point altogether.

The point of the book was to show that God understands that the heart is deceitfully wicked and no laws are going to change that. The Apostle Paul clearly teaches that the Law was only created to show us the evil in our hearts; it had no power to remove that evil.

No amount of punishments will correct the heart. And the heart is the only part of us that matters. The “heart” equals that aspect of our soul which chooses and decides. While a teen is at home, a parent’s job is to help them learn to control the inclinations of their own heart. When a teen leaves home, they are no longer under the tutelage of a parent. Unless you plan to follow them to college, career or marriage, they had better learn self-control before they leave.

I was not a “permissive parent”. But long before my children became teens, I established three points of contact with them:

First, we talked a lot. We talked about everything. I was just as willing to share my vulnerabilities and failures as I expected them to be.

Second, I never disciplined them without an explanation. I told them why I was disciplining them. I asked them to be more considerate and thoughtful in the future. I also treated them with respect and allowed them to express their anger in appropriate ways…even toward me.

Third, I did require they be part of everything the family did before teen years. We expected them to go to church with us. They went on vacations, outings, visits, etc. And I let them know that no experimentation or potentially dangerous behavior would go unpunished. But once they hit teen years, I slackened off my firm hand of discipline. Why?

Because I  needed them to know they were now immature adults. If you can reproduce, you are an adult. And you should be treated that way. How would your thinking change if your teens were not your teens but a young friend staying with you? Would you handle their stuff differently? Of course you would. Many times, we show more respect for people outside our family than those inside.

There were things I disciplined my teens for and these are exactly the same things I encourage all parents to discipline teens for. They fall into four simple categories:

  1. Disrespect:  I taught my children from the time they were young that every human being is deserving of respect. I treated my children with respect. I expected them to treat me the same way. I asked that they treat each other that way. I explained that respect meant not stealing, not lying, not gossiping etc. My children, to this day, know that nothing makes me more angry than when one of them is disrespectful to another human. Yes, my children saw my anger. I don’t think a parent should hide their anger. But neither should they let anger be their controlling factor.

    I have a friend whose son broke a neighbor’s car window with some neighbor kids as part of a practical joke. When my friend found out the details from an onlooker, he was mortified. He also practices the type of parenting I espouse, so he sat his son down. He asked him to see the situation from the neighbor’s point of view. Of course, the teen made excuses and rationalizations. But my friend interacted with him as he would with another adult. He carefully dissected each rationalization calmly. In the end, he told his son three things: You are wrong because you disrespected our neighbor’s property. You have disappointed me because you tried to cover it up with excuses instead of owning up to it like a man. And you will go over and admit your role and offer to pay back twice the value of the window. The boy never did anything like that again. As an adult, this young man shows respect to people without thinking. That is because he was forced for many years to think about it.

    The major area of respect that children must learn is with other siblings and parents. So for this to work, parents need to teach this daily before children become teens. Starting with this teaching at age 14 is a fruitless endeavor.

  2. Harming Others:  In lock-step with respecting others is the concept of doing no harm to others. This is often the context I explain sexuality to teens. I let them know there are many ways that casual sex can cause harm to yourself and others. I explain STD’s, teen pregnancy, rape, coercion, sexual manipulation, sexual taunting (making fun of another person using sexual language), etc. I also explain how casual sex can cause a spiritual sleepiness to happen when we break relationships off. I told my children that if they experimented with sexuality and the result was someone got hurt, they would be disciplined severely. If they chose to be sexual in a way that was careless, I still counted that as an action worthy of discipline. I never included self-pleasure in that for I taught there was no harm in it and no reason to be ashamed. But, if pornography was involved, then I did discipline. I consider porn to be very harmful to the developing psyche of a teen.
  3. Not Fulfilling Obligations:  There are promises made by teens that they often discard very flippantly simply because they don’t want to go through with it. I never allowed my kids to break their obligations. If they joined a team, they finished the season. If they joined a club, they followed through. If they made a financial commitment, they went through with it. I refused to bail them out or let them off the hook. That applied to pets as well. If they begged for a pet, they  had to live up to their end of the bargain or lose privileges.
  4. Lying: the rule in our house is that it went better for you if you did wrong and told the truth than if  you lied. This is my rule for anyone, not just teens. If friends of mine lie to me, I will have to think about excluding them from my circle of trust for awhile. If they do it again, it will be a long time before I entrust anything to them. My teens all knew this, though they still occasionally lied. I told them clearly that as a teen, I lied all the time, I was, unfortunately, addicted to lying. I believed there was nothing worse than people finding out the truth about me, even in small matters. As God worked in me to change my inner heart, I came to see that the Truth is always the right course, even if people do reject you for it.


These are the four areas that I would discipline teens for and they are the areas that I advise parents to discipline their children for.

After I wrote the first article, two different people asked me why I wouldn’t react if kids were using drugs, sleeping around or leaving their room like a disaster area. I never said I wouldn’t react. I did react. One of my kids brought drugs into our house one time and when the smell reached my nostrils, I went running 100 miles per hour downstairs. I demanded the drugs be taken out of my house. I demanded an explanation for the behavior. We spend many hours talking about the implications of drug use, lying and poor decision-making.

In short, we dialogued. We discussed, I lectured, I demanded respect. I set boundaries on what would happen in my  house. But I did not discipline for experimentation. i disciplined for disrespect and lying. I am pretty sure that same child continued to experiment off and on for several years, but it was never a problem for our household.

I remember a day when two parents dragged their 16-year old daughter in to see me. She admitted to her parents she had become sexually active. Their answer was to shame her in front of me and to tell her that they were disgusted with her and that she would never be allowed to date again. I met with her alone after all this and we talked. This was her first sexual encounter and she had  no idea what was happening. Her parents had never explained sex to her. In addition, as she described what happened, it was obvious she had been date-raped. Because I’m a mandated reporter, I enlisted her parents and the pastor of her church to confront the young man and hold him legally accountable. We found out he had done this to several other girls as well.

After all the legalities were settled, I sat the parents down and asked them three questions:

  1. Why had you never taught her about sex?
  2. Why did you feel you had to shame her in front of me?
  3. What are you afraid of with your daughter?

When we worked through all the issues, I realized mom was ashamed of her own teen years and she wanted something different for her daughter. Her rationale for not teaching about sex is that it would just encourage her daughter to act like she did.

That young girl started to talk to another counselor about sexuality and has grown up to be a person who handles her life well. She is a rare success story. There are more failures because parents are not aware of the most important actions to discipline for. Hopefully this article gets you rethinking your own approaches.

In the next article, we will be looking at how to deal with teen crises–drunkenness, teen sex, thievery, etc–in ways that do not primarily focus on discipline, but rather, restoration.

White Paper on Punishing Teens

I do more and more counseling with teens and their parents and the majority of the parents all want to know one thing: how do I punish my teens when they do wrong?

And my answer is always the same: That’s the wrong question. If you know the right question to ask, the other question almost answers itself.

The right question to ask is “What offenses should be punishable offenses?” Once you answer that question, then the query about the type of punishment will hopefully resolve itself. Since I believe the consequences for anyone doing something unethical, immoral or evil should always fit the crime, this applies as much to teens as anyone else.

If you can determine what things should be punished and what things should not be punished, then you can tailor the consequences to the crimes. I personally believe there are many things not worth punishing a teen for. And most, if not all, of you reading this are going to disagree with at least some of my personal list. That’s your choice, and I respect it. And I say that because that principle is at the core of my list. I believe in personal choice, even for my own teenagers. I don’t think it is the job of a parent to enact consequences for actions of their teen that hurt no one else. In this, I believe I am copying God’s example. God does not bring justice upon our heads immediately when we sin. God allows us to sin and will talk with us as we wrestle with what we’ve done.

But, going along with the principle of not punishing for actions that hurt no one else is the principle of not jumping in to rescue them when their actions cause them troubling results.

Therefore, let me give you the list of things I now believe we should NOT punish teens for. After each one, I have given a brief explanation.

  1. Bad Grades, missing assignments, poor test results:  In this case, the consequence  is built into the result. At the same time, it is equally inappropriate to reward a teen for good grades etc. Let them handle this stuff themselves.
  2. Drug and Alcohol Use:  There are exceptions to this–and I will cover that in a later article–but I believe that a child who experiments with drug or alcohol use in such a way that does not immediately hurt other members of the family should not be punished. Neither should they be rescued and defended when the experimentation goes wrong.
  3. Not going on Family Outings:  if they don’t want to go, that is their choice. As with all of these, you can negotiate, discuss, challenge and set boundaries on teens all you like. But punishing them for not doing what you want them to do is not appropriate. God doesn’t do that.
  4. Sexual Activity:  Once again, there are exceptions to this one, especially if their actions have hurt others or shown no respect for societal laws and values. But if a teen chooses to be sexual, and they have not broken laws, hurt people or put others in danger, then punishment is not appropriate. If a parent has a good relationship with a teen–which includes telling them they are free to live their own life–then you have opened a good door to help your teen evaluate their moral and sexual choices. If you haven’t a good relationship, punishment won’t accomplish anything.
  5. Messy rooms: Oh my. I could base an entire counseling practice on just helping teens and parents cope with the inevitable messy rooms. Don’t bother punishing a child for this. It’s a meaningless punishment. It needs to be their space where they learn to cope with clutter. It is their space and their choice. Let them live in their filth.


I can see some parents looking at this list saying “what do you discipline a teen for?” Good question. And that’s the subject of the next article.

I can also imagine some of my own children reading this and calling BS on me. Full Disclosure: This is what I have come to believe about parenting. It does not mean I perfectly kept to these principles, especially with the older kids. But, as with all of us, I did learn a thing or two by helping other parents work through these things.

In the next three articles, here is what we will cover:

  1. What you should discipline teens for:
  2. How to deal with teen crises (alcohol, sex, drugs) when discipline is not appropriate
  3. How to choose a punishment to fit the crime
  4. Building a solid relationship with pre-teens that will pay dividends when they reach teen years.

The Logical Impossibility of Proposed Solutions to Violence

gunsAs we ponder where and when the next mass shooting will happen, let’s talk about the logical nature of the most common proposed solutions to the problem of gun violence in our country and this world. There are four common solutions proposed, and each of them falls apart under scrutiny:

  1. Regulation of Guns:  the most widely proposed solution to gun violence in our country is a more comprehensive system of checks and balances related to who can purchase guns, where they can be purchased, what kind of guns can be purchased, and what ammunition can be bought. Here is the problem with this proposal (actually there are many, but let me give the most obvious one): Even the simplest gun can kill a lot of people. So unless you can figure out a way to eliminate all guns, this solution is not logical. Those who propose this solution keep making it more complex, hoping that eventually a tipping point will be reached and the gun violence will fall. We have not yet come close to that tipping point, nor does logic tell us we will ever reach it.
  2. Eliminate all restrictions on guns and arm the populace: Proponents of this solution like to point to places like Switzerland and Israel where most people own a gun and which have a very low rate of gun violence. But setting “neutral” Switzerland aside (and there are many reasons why the Switzerland solution is skewed and untranslatable), let’s look at the logic of the situation. Increasing the amount of guns available will not deter fanatics, extremists and crazy people from killing others. For one simple reason. They’re not afraid of dying. It may cut down on home invasion robberies and side-of-the-road muggings, but it may also increase the deaths associated with domestic assaults, road rage, jealousy, drive-bys and financial disputes. This solution, at best, is a zero-sum game.
  3. Disarm everyone: This is the radical idea being proposed by some Outliers. Just get rid of all guns everywhere and the violence will decrease. If you could do it, it would work. But you can’t do it because criminal enterprises will not give up their guns.  And nor will any government allow it. Society will still want police officers, military and private security to carry weapons. That would make the commensurate power of those authorities even greater and would inevitably–as human history assures us–lead to totalitarianism.
  4. Education Programs: This solution says if we teach people more about guns, encourage them to use their guns in a morally responsible and ethical way, teach them about the dignity of life and the necessity of a respectful society, then people will stop killing each other. There is a huge problem with this. Who would do the teaching? Every interest in this battle over guns has their own slant. Who is the neutral party? Besides pacifists, there aren’t any–and pacifists can’t be bothered or trusted to teach anything about responsible gun use. And the groups most responsible for killing large groups of people–extremists, mentally ill, disgruntled employees, etc–aren’t interested in this kind of teaching. They don’t have respect for the life of others, and therefore, this teaching is casting pearls before swine.


So what is the answer to gun violence? There isn’t one that has ever been shown to work.

Sorry you had to get to the bottom of all this to find that out. History shows us that human beings are selfish and will continue to be that way until history ends.

The Bible tells us that the heart of mankind will get increasingly violent and wicked the closer we get to the end.

So come up with all the ideas about how to solve gun violence. Logically, none of them work. But take heart. God has overcome the world. In the midst of this chaos, we do not have to give in to fear, violence, envy, jealousy or bitterness against our enemies. The Spirit of Christ has a solution for all of these. But it only works for individuals, not for society as a whole.


The American Church’s Culpability in Gun Violence

pacifismOver the past 20 years, do you know who had the most effective reaction to gun violence in America? The Amish. When Charles Roberts, on October 2, 2006, went into a school in Pennsylvania and shot ten girls (killing five), the world waited to see how this pacifist enclave would react. And they did! They publicly forgave the shooter. They took care of his family. They paid for his children to be sent to college.

Not coincidentally, it was the last murder of any kind in their county. You can’t tell me it didn’t have an impact.

For 11 years, I was a pacifist pastor in Montana, the state known for its Wild West attitude toward gun ownership and usage. The 2nd Amendment has many champions in that part of the world. Yet they didn’t fire me, shoot at me, or publicly ridicule my personal stand and teaching on violence. Why?

Because I was not against guns per se. Instead, I followed in the great theological tradition of Anabaptists worldwide who oppose the killing of another human for any reason.

My problems were never with the gun owners in Montana. I am not just a pacifist, but also a libertarian. I believe everyone should be allowed to make their own choices in life and by not rescuing them from those choices, have to face the consequences of choices. I believe this is how God treats us also, so I have a good example in this. I also believe in mercy and grace, knowing if someone hurts me and asks me to forgive them, I need to do that also.

So if you want to own a gun, that’s fine with me. If you want to point it at me, that’s fine with me. (I have had two people point guns at me and threaten to kill me, and I talked them out of this foolishness both times). If you fire that gun, that is not fine with me, but I’ll deal with it. If you want to fire it at another human, I am against that strenuously and will never support it.

We have had more gun murders involving the deaths of more than one person in America in 2015 than there have been days this year. The gun lobby is advocating for stronger vetting of foreigners and those with mental illness. The anti-gun concerns advocate for tougher gun legislation. I think both groups are missing the point completely, but I’ll give most of them a pass on this one. Many of them don’t know God and don’t know what the Bible says about the human soul.

But I cannot give the Church that same pass. We do know God and we should know what the Bible says about the human soul. I believe that our world is becoming increasingly violent for the same reason it always has: Human Beings are selfish and the human heart is deceitfully wicked above all things.

My contention is that the Church in America–apart from the Amish and other Anabaptists– must be held accountable for failing the American people on this issue of gun violence. I have a number of reasons I feel we have failed:

  1. By and large, preachers have not taught against killing other people. My observation is that preachers are afraid their constituents will think they are unpatriotic if they teach there are no qualifications on the commandment “Thou Shall Not Kill”. In today’s church, most Christian leaders will allow for a certain measure of exception to the murder rule:  Self-defense, justifiable war, capital punishment, to save the lives of others who are threatened, to protect property, to overthrow bad governments, to preemptively attack those who would attack us later, maybe. All of these rationales are given tacit approval by the church in America. What is interesting is there are few churches outside of America that agree.
  2. Evangelical Christians have adopted the 2nd Amendment as an apocryphal commandment. There is nothing biblical about the 2nd Amendment. It is fine if you want to agree with it–that is your prerogative as an American citizen–but it doesn’t make it a biblical mandate. The pulpits of America glibly support the right to bear arms and never challenge the wisdom of bearing arms. Isn’t the church supposed to stand up against those things that destroy a nation? Isn’t the reason God left Christians on earth to state the minority opinion when things get out of hand?
  3. Liberal Christians have supported measures to limit gun ownership when every rubric and study shows that this is not the problem.  I have never owned a gun, but even I can tell you that whether I had a gun in my possession or not it would not alter my decision to kill another person. A gun is a tool that a violent nature uses to express itself. Timothy McVeigh used a white van and fertilizer. My issue with liberal and progressive Christians is that they march in quick-step with slogans that do not have basis in fact. Michael Moore is not a Christian prophet.
  4. Conservative Christians are in lock-step with anyone who advocates the freedom to own however many guns and whatever types of guns you want. They advocate open carry policies. I don’t mind if a Christian believes in those policies. But as a Christian, this is never to be our primary focus in life. We are about preserving life, bringing salvation, being Salt and Light and being the Beacon of Hope in a dying world. Conservative Christians have made gun ownership way too high a priority for themselves AS A GROUP.
  5. We have not taught enough on non-violent alternatives. I listen to sermons all the time, and what I hear from the most popular preachers on the subject of non-violence is … very little. One very popular preacher advocated the castration of all effeminate Christians because they were polluting the manliness of “Real Christian Men.” He was applauded by so many. What bothers me is the amount of people in other religions who advocate for non-violence and put their lives on the line for it, while American Christians do the opposite.
  6. Christians in America keep buying more guns. Most of my Christian friends own non-hunting guns. When I have personally asked my friends why they are purchasing guns, the answers, when boiled down, all revolve around Fear. The Bible tells us that “perfect love casts out fear.” But I will also say that intense fear blocks love. Love and fear cannot co-exist. You will choose one or the other.


I hope I am getting an emotional reaction from you with this article. It is only when you are emotionally engaged that you will continue to think about something. I am fine if you disagree with me. But there need to be voices that cry out when everyone is falling into two camps. There is a third way. This way will not prevent gun violence. It would not have stopped the violence in Southern California this week. But when violence does happen, if all American Christians had abhorred violence, people would run to churches when this world falls apart. Now, the non-believing world is right to ridicule and despise us and see us as part of the problem.

I am sad for the wasted time and money we have spent on such foolish arguing over hardware that could have been spent educating.

If you want to boil down all I am saying to one statement it is this: Guns are never the problem. Believing in violent solutions to human problems and not embracing non-violent solutions is the problem. From Cain and Abel to today, this has always been the case.

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