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Unconditional Love Does Not Equal Unconditional Acceptance

I've had a variety of snippets of interactions going through my head over the last few days, which have led me to a certain conclusion. So let me share my thought process with you, and see what you think.

Exhibit A: I talked with a woman whose live-in boyfriend is becoming upset because her teens do no work around the house. He can't make them; he's not their father. But he gets sick of their laziness. She says, "they're teenagers!"

Exhibit B: An 18-year-old hasn't gone for his licence yet--even though he could have two years ago--for no apparent reason. I think he's just too lazy. When he's not at school, he sits around and watches TV. And that is his whole life.

Exhibit C: A youth group is attracting unchurched kids, but losing a lot of churched kids, because all rules have gone out the window. It's okay to swear, wear whatever you want, play whatever music you want, and doubt all you want. Church is about feeling accepted. Now the churched kids don't feel accepted.

Exhibit D: A high school student with bright, accomplished parents is suspended again. He is just skating by. He puts no effort in. They don't know how to motivate him.

I looked at all four of these stories, which hit me within a 24 hour period, and it seemed to me that the common denominator was a lack of expectations combined with unconditional acceptance. Everyone in these stories loves their children. There is no danger of that. But none of these parents or leaders are willing to put actual expectations of behaviour on their children--and the children are responding by simply not putting in any effort.

I look at the parents and leaders in these stories, and they're wonderful people. How is it that such wonderful people can be raising and leading such kids who are, for want of a better word, leeches?

Let's deal with the church situation first. I have spoken to some of the churched teens who don't want to go to the youth group anymore and their response is that it doesn't feel godly or safe. The message is, "church is what you want it to be". "God loves you no matter what". All of which is true. But it's also true that God has certain standards for behaviour, and that saying the F-word nonstop is not godly. The occasional swear word is not going to bother anyone; but no one wants to step into a church and have it feel like one is watching an R-rated movie. But more important than the swearing is the attitude towards faith: it's not something that is essential or that is something you have to work at; it's just what you want it to be.

If kids were being transformed, it wouldn't be an issue. But most kids aren't being transformed. It's become a "cool hangout". And the problem is that for Christians to grow, we need community--a community we will belong to even when we don't feel like it; in fact, especially when we don't feel like it. We must keep ourselves plugged in, or we risk going off track. And if a church doesn't teach that you must keep plugged in, then you're not really raising disciples. If it only teaches you should do what's fun and you should come if you enjoy it, then what's the chance that these kids are going to keep going when they're 23?

Now let's go to parents. A parent's job is not to get their child to love them or to give their child a good life. A parent's job is to raise a child who can live independently while also showing compassion and love. Letting a child skirt by with no chores and no responsibilities and letting them get away with everything is not compassionate and it's not good parenting. It's failing them.

It's hard to turn things around when children are teens, but you can prevent this from happening by one simple thing: have expectations on your children. Expect that they will do chores. Expect that they will speak and dress appropriately. Expect that they will do homework. Expect that they will succeed in life. Expect that they will love God. And communicate these expectations. When they start to move away from the expectations, change something in your family life so you promote it again.

What I have found is that it is the expectations of the parents so often that determine how the children turn out. Those who say, "teens will rebel. They won't enjoy church. They'll struggle in high school" tend to have teens who rebel, who hate church, and who struggle in high school. But I know other parents who expect that their kids will love God, and will try hard, and they do.

Now there's more to it than just expectations, of course. Those with these expectations set up family life in certain ways. They give chores, they make time for homework, they demand that kids act perhaps more maturely than age would expect. But the reason that they do these things is because they expect that their children will fulfill them and live up to them. And lo and behold, the kids tend to.

On the other hand, those who expect that, as moms, they will have to do all the laundry for everyone in the house until the day they die will tend to do all the laundry in the house until the day they die. Those who expect that, as moms, their kids will never do homework on their own but will always need a lot of help will tend to raise kids who sit passively waiting for mom to tell them the answer.

So I have a simple idea: encourage your kids to be independent, even in small things. Encourage them to pick out their own clothes. Encourage them to figure out 5 x 4 in their head without telling them what it is. Encourage them to pour their own milk or get their own cereal.

Stretch your kids; don't stretch yourself. Don't do everything for your children; encourage them to act responsibly, even in little things, when they are very young. They do have brains and arm muscles, you know, so they are capable of learning to tie shoes or of putting their coats on a hanger or a hook by themselves.

If we did this when children were 6 or 8 or even 10, I bet we'd see fewer 18-year-olds sitting on couches like lumps refusing to do anything that would even be beneficial in their lives. I see so many teens who are putting off things that would actually be fun because they can't be bothered. They have become addicted to doing absolutely nothing. They haven't understood the joy of accomplishment or independence or ownership, and so they have no incentive to go ahead and grow up and reach for that milestone.

Teach kids that joy. Teach them that you expect them to reach high, and then equip them for it. It takes a real mindset on behalf of parents, but believe me, you don't ever want to be in the situation where you sit across the table from friends talking about your teenage child, saying, "I don't know how to motivate him." You're right. It's awfully hard when they're a teen.

Of course, no matter what you do, some kids will go off the rails. Some kids will make poor choices even if you do everything right. But don't use that as an excuse not to try, because while some kids will go off the rails, most will not.

So to sum up: we are to unconditionally love our children, but I firmly believe the way to do that is to expect that they will live godly, independent lives. Put some expectations on them! Make some demands of them! It's not being mean. It doesn't mean you don't love them. It means you're equipping them.

An airy-fairy style of parenting where parents do everything for kids, or an airy fairy style of Christianity where we just want to get people in the doors does not serve the goal of growth or maturity. We have to find a middle ground where we love and attract people, but where we also point and motivate towards growth. And I think that middle ground is expectations mixed with encouragement: "You can do it! It's within your grasp! God is there to help you! Now let's get going!"

What do you think? Can you combine expectations with unconditional love? Let's talk!

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At 8:36 AM , Blogger Katy-Anne said…

I agree with you! Although, in story number 1, it sounds like mommy needs to get rid of the live in boyfriend and actually concentrate on the kids. If she wants to keep live in boyfriend, marry him, and then make sure he's the head of the household and DOES tell the teens what to do. I know kids who used to act like this because they were bitter about moms live in boyfriend. When the boyfriend went bye bye, the kids really weren't lazy bums after all. They just didn't like being sexually abused by mommy's boyfriend.

Why should she expect her kids to do right when she is not doing right?


At 3:58 PM , Anonymous Dawn said…

Oh my word, you are so right. My husband and I are actively involved in our church's youth group, and thankfully our youth pastors 'get it'-- that outreaching to kids and being a cool hangout is good, but raising disciples is the whole point. They have a leadership team made up of parents, and another one made up of students, and we actively seek out ways to get kids plugged in and growing.

On the other hand, we also had not one but TWO kids of our own turn 18 without driver's licenses, motivation, or independence. It was a learning experience for us and we aren't repeating those mistakes with our now 16yr old or our younger two kids. Teens think they have to be unconditionally accepted to be unconditionally loved, but that is NOT the case. I love my kids but I refuse to accept laziness any longer!


At 4:15 PM , Blogger Alisdair said…

I don't know that not having a driver's licence is a bad thing -- I didn't get mine till I was 27 -- but not because I didn't want it (but was away often for long periods on short term missions etc. and didn't have the opportunity to practice driving... it was a real hurdle in my life to overcome....

But yes, I agree with your comments about parent's expectations and I have conversations with my siblings about this. My parents just wanted all of us to finish high school (and we did). They didn't pressure us to go into higher education (or offer to help with tuition etc. if we did so). On the other hand, my aunt and uncle expected their kids to do post secondary... the son bombed out of university but they still got him to go to tech school. The daughters ended up as teachers (the youngest with a masters degree).... I know they helped with expenses etc. for these accomplishments...

Anyway, fast forward to today - My brother has a Masters and I have my bachelors but it wasn't easy for either of us... I was 24 when I went to university on student loans and worked continuously from Jan 87 to May of 89 to get a 3 year degree completed. My brother was married with two kids and a wife when he got his Bachelors and a missionary in Mongolia getting his Masters online from an Australian university!!! My youngest brother became a hairdresser (eventually) after years and years of being a waiter. My sister works as a teaching assistant but so many people tell her she should have taken the training to be a teacher but she thinks at 45 it is no use doing it as it would take so long and she would only have a few years left to work prior to retirement...

Anyway, longwinded comment... but I think maybe if Mum and Dad had been more supportive/encouraging towards further education we may have put more effort in to make more of ourselves in that area of our lives.

I also agree about the doing laundry for eternity thing --- I am realizing if I ask my kids to help (they are 11 and 5) they usually are willing to do so, and sometimes they have fun helping and it is a bonding thing ... so not sure why I used to feel I had to do it all myself or it didn't get done! Still a long way to go in this area but I can see why they should help...

Denise in Saskatchewan


At 4:15 PM , Blogger Alisdair said…

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At 4:15 PM , Blogger Alisdair said…

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At 4:19 PM , Blogger Alisdair said…

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At 4:51 PM , Blogger Sheila said…

You're right, Denise. There's nothing particularly wrong with not getting a driver's licence. The thing is, though, that this guy actually WANTS one--but he can't be bothered to go get it. That's what amazes me. How kids will actually want something, but just won't put in the effort required to go get it.

Dawn--I'm sorry that you're going through such a hard time with your older ones! But I'm glad you're turning it around with your younger. Of course, as I said. sometimes you can do everything right and things still don't turn out well. But I think it's better to put in the effort anyway!

And Katy-Anne, I'd agree wtih you about ditching the boyfriend. Unfortunately, that's not on the radar screen for her.


At 7:09 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said…

A must - read on this topic for teens and parents is "Do Hard Things" by Brett @ Alex Harris- I think I got their names right; I leant out my copy so I couldn't check. These are Josh Harris' younger brothers, and their book is all about the ridiculous low expectations we place on teenagers. It challenges them to rebel against these low expectations and do something greater. I made my teen read it twice:)


At 12:58 AM , Blogger Laura said…

I'm also reading that same book "Do Hard Things" and now I can't wait to pass it on to my daughter to read.

I've always expected great things from my kids but to some it comes across as being too hard on them. I disagree and feel that the reason my daughter loves to learn and excels in school is because those are the expectations set for her and like you said she has risen to the challenge.

Great post Sheila!



At 11:43 PM , Blogger Ellen said…

I don't have teenagers yet, but I just wanted to share an experience I've had with my 3yr old daughter. I had told my daughter that I expected her to do something (or that she was to do something), she did not obey and there was consequences. You know what my 3yr old little girl told me, quite emphatically? "You're not my friend anymore!" To that I responded firmly, "That's fine, but I am your Mother and I expect you to obey me!" She is only 3! Now if I were to let her statement change my resolve, in 15yrs I can see that we would have major problems!! (well it wouldn't even take that long to have problems!)

I enjoyed your post!!


At 4:29 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said…

Without knowing more, my first thought is that the kids in B and D could be depressed, or there could be an underlying cause to their problems.

I think some general expectations are good, but the more detailed and specific a parent gets, the more they are setting their children up for failure.

I am mainly speculating when I say this, b/c though my parents did have certain expectations for their children, I was very self-motivated.

Nurse Bee


At 3:42 PM , Anonymous Kimber said…

I loved your article.
I was the evil Mom. I expected a lot, and was there to ensure things were done, like homework.
I felt that the world worked hard against me though...especially with my two stepchildren.

I expected chores to be done, and was very involved in their lives to make sure I knew where they were, and what they were doing. They hated that I always "busted" them and found out when things were not as they should be, and it caused a huge family rift with the other relatives in the family.

Interestingly, one child moved out to the ex in laws, and one to a sister in laws, because they are lax, listened to the woe is me stories, and allow the children to do as they please.

These people have not only condoned unconditional acceptance, they have enabled it.

The biggest shame is, that we refuse to be bullied on the topic, and have lost contact with most of the family.

Funnily enough, there were a lot of stories about what would happen if anyone interfered with their raising of their own children.

Bitter, but sticking to my guns, working hard with the Lord on forgiveness because it is ongoing.


At 11:16 AM , Anonymous J Parker said…

I am a mother of a 19 year old girl and an 18 year old boy. I agree totally with what you have written. Our children know our expectations for home, church and school. They have grown into self-motivated responsible young adults. Their teen years were by no means easy or perfect, but we stuck to our guns and they agree with us (now, not at the time) that we were right to have have rules and consequences.

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Name: Sheila

Home: Belleville, Ontario, Canada

About Me: I'm a Christian author of a bunch of books, and a frequent speaker to women's groups and marriage conferences. Best of all, I love homeschooling my daughters, Rebecca and Katie. And I love to knit. Preferably simultaneously.

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