Don’t Be Afraid of the Teen Years with Paul David Tripp

Last month on the Rooted Parent Podcast, Cameron and Anna had the distinct pleasure of speaking with pastor, author, counselor, and writer Paul David Tripp. The father of four children himself, Tripp encouraged us so much on the podcast that we decided to transcribe the audio so you could read and easily refer to the wisdom he shared with us. Give it a listen or read along; we are sure you will learn as much as we did! And be on the lookout for the release of an updated edition of The Age of Opportunity: A Biblical Guide to Parenting Teens later this summer.

Cameron Cole: Welcome to the Rooted Parent Podcast. I’m Cameron Cole and,

Anna Meade Harris: I’m Anna Meade Harris.

Cole: They call me Big C. They call her,

Harris: I am the team mom.

Cole: That’s right. And so we are continuing and kind of winding down the season. We’ve got our fours up, like the fourth quarter. Yeah. Today we’re gonna be talking about, in our fear factor in parenting series, we’re gonna be talking about the fear of teenagers and the fear of the teenage years. And we’re gonna be talking to Paul Tripp. Paul, thanks for coming on the Rooted Parent Podcast.

Paul David Tripp: Yeah, that’s great to be with you.

Cole: We were kind of having a little, you know, chat around the water cooler for a minute and we brought up, we just kinda warned Paul that we are pretty intense Alabama fans and Wake Forest fans. And it turns out Paul has actually gone to an Alabama football game.

Tripp: I have been to an Alabama Arkansas football game. First. It was like a pro team playing a junior high team. So that’s sad. Oh, wait, you tell us that. I just, I have to say, I concluded you people are nuts. You’re crazy.

Harris: Certifiable.

Tripp: I mean, nobody ever would think of sitting down that entire game and the volume of noise was just incredible. I thought, “I don’t think these people have a life. I think they live the fullest when they’re in these stands.”

Cole: That’s true. That’s true. So, you know, we, we do get a little bit over the top on this, but Paul, what you’ve gotta understand is the state of Alabama has literally nothing going for it, nothing going for it. It’s true.

Harris: It’s pretty!

Cole: Its pretty terrible history, poverty, terribly educated. Like we are the worst. The only thing we have is college football. I mean, Alabama and Auburn, both, you know, that’s all we’ve got. Yeah.

Tripp: So, well, I married, I married somebody from South Carolina and I remember the first time she told me we were gonna go to a football game and she said, you need to wear a tie.

Cole: That’s right. Absolutely.

Tripp: And I’m thinking, what, are you crazy? This is, oh, so it’s a whole different world.

Cole: We’re wearing slacks and a button down and I used to wear a blazer, a red blazer.

Tripp: I can tell you for sure. Steve and I laughed our way through that game. We laughed hysterically and I said, Steve, the stands are more interesting than the game.

Cole: Oh yeah, dude. Totally. Yeah. What do you remember? What year it was.

Tripp: It must have been, I would say it’s three or four years ago. Yeah.

Cole: Three or four years ago.

Harris: So the Saban era.

Tripp: Yeah, we were in, we were in Fayetteville.

Cole: Oh, yeah. Fayetteville is so loud. So underrated, incredibly loud. It’s Suey pig, Suey. Yeah, that’s right. Alright. Well, enough, enough idolatry.

Harris: Right, right. On to the important matters at hand. I do want to introduce our listeners to Paul Tripp, although you might not need an introduction. He is a counselor and a pastor, a writer, and a speaker, a husband, and a father of four and a grandfather, I believe as well. You have a granddaughter?

Tripp: Yes. Yes. We have three. And three on the way.

Harris: Oh my goodness. Whoa!

Cole: Wow, man!

Harris: That’s double! Yeah. Yeah. That’s wonderful. Paul is known widely as the author of New Morning Mercies, which has meant a lot to our family. It’s a devotional we’ve all read and enjoyed. He’s also the author of Age of Opportunity, A Biblical Guide to Parenting Teens. Published with P & R and it was first published in 97. Is that correct?

Tripp: Mm-hmm.

Harris: It’s a gospel centered parenting classic and we highly recommend it for everyone listening. This summer P & R will re-release an updated edition, which I understand includes a section on social media and some new questions. Is that correct?

Tripp: Yeah. All the current kinds of things, gender and all kinds of things that are afloat now, that we added material to speak to those.

Cole: That’s great.

Harris: That’s gonna be an even more valuable resource for today’s parents. Well thank you for joining us on the Rooted Parent Podcast. So we’re, we’re so excited to have you here, and we wanna start since we’re in our Fear Factor Season of the Rooted Parent Podcast talking about why parents are afraid of having teenagers. Cameron’s been in youth ministry for 17 years, and I’m currently leading a neighborhood Bible study. Most of them are very young moms and all they can say to me is, oh, I wish they could stay little forever. I don’t want them to be teenagers. Why are parents so afraid of having teenagers?

Tripp: It really goes back to the reason that I originally wrote the book. When we were in those years with our children, as a father of teen, two teen boys, I was hurt by the way other people talked about teenagers. I’ll give you a couple classic examples. Somebody would be holding a newborn at church. And they’d be talking about, oh, that’s just so sweet. They’d say, you just wait. You just wait till they grow up. It was, it was just planting these negative, scary expectations. I’ve heard so many people just say that you, you hope to survive the teen years with your sanity in place, none of your teenagers pregnant, and nobody in jail. I think there’s a reason for this, and it is the reason why believers should not buy into this view of teenagers, because this view of teenagers is 100% biologically driven. And this is gonna take a little bit of an explanation. It’s the view that teenagers are mentally undeveloped and they’re just a collection of raging hormones encased in skin.

Cole: Well said.

Tripp: And, and so what the culture believes is: biology is dominant. You do what you do because of your biology. And because of that, because this period of time, all you can do is put on your crash helmet, fasten your seat belts, and hope you survive the ride and your teenager survives the ride. And I think that is horribly dehumanizing. Imagine if we would say any, any other class of human being, if we look at them and say for this period of life, you can expect nothing good to happen in the life of this human being.

Cole: Wow.

Tripp: If you apply that to a woman, oh, I mean, you just, we can [say that about] either sex, everybody would be up in arms, but we’ve been able to do that with teenagers and get away with it. What the Bible says is that we live out of the heart, that we are, we are actually not slaves to our biology. Our behavior is controlled by the heart.

What is the heart? Well, the Bible says it’s the causal control center, a control center of your personhood. It’s the seat of your will. It’s the seat of your emotions. It’s the seat of your thinking and because it is, what controls your heart will then control your words and behavior. And what’s exciting about the teen years, the reason it’s such a wonderful moment of opportunity, is because the more the responsibilities of a teenager get widened, the relationships they have get widened, the geography they travel gets widened, the opportunities they have in life get widened, the more their heart gets revealed. And in the revelation of the heart of that teenager is all the opportunities to get at things that you wouldn’t have been able to get at younger in life and that prepare the teenager for the rest of his life. I know this is a long answer, but I wanna say one other thing.

Cole: That’s alright.

Tripp: The reason parents push against that is because our parental idols are in the way. We want life to be predictable. If you want a predictable life, you should have never had a child. Because we just don’t write the story of that child, that child, somebody else is writing that story.

They want life to be comfortable. Parenting teenagers is not comfortable. They want life to be pleasurable. Walking into a room of a fourteen-year-old boy who has his socks spread out around the room is not pleasurable. That’s some weird biological experiment. We want respect and we want appreciation and we want control.

And so we’re asking … Our parenting of the teenager is not driven by what the teenager needs, it’s driven by what we think we need in our lives. And teens are in the way of that. And when someone stands in the way of what you want, you get angry, you get irritated, you get impatient. And I think that’s the struggle. I think it’s very, very important for parents of teenagers not to start with the heart of the teenagers, but to start with their own heart.

Cole: Ooh, that’s good.

Tripp: Why, why? I mean, think about this. It’s 11 o’clock at night and the teenager that is either to be in bed or should be on his way in bed, [and he’s] messing around his room. And you just know he’s not paid any attention to the fact that he needs to start heading to bed so he gets a good night’s sleep so he can get up in the morning, go to school. And you march down the hallway, feet heavy on the floorboards. You’re probably not saying to yourself, thank you God for giving me this wonderful opportunity to parent my child tonight. How much I love him and love your gospel. You’re not. You’re saying to yourself, how dare he? Doesn’t he know what I do for him? I do, and I do, and this is the thanks I get. Now at that moment, this is, this is convicting, you’re extra angry because you have someone in your house who needs parenting.

Cole: Oh, this is cutting. It’s true. It’s good though.

Tripp: Yeah, here’s what’s actually true. If your eyes ever see, your ears ever hear, the sin, weakness, and failure of your teenager… Let me say that again. If your eyes ever see, your ears ever hear, the sin, weakness, and failure of a teenager, it’s never an accident. It’s never an interruption. It’s always grace. God loves that teenager. He’s put him in a family of faith. He will reveal their needs to you. So you can be part of God’s rescue in that child’s life. It’s always grace.

Cole: I think we can just stop right there. Paul. Thanks for coming on. That was brilliant. Wow. So helpful.

Harris: Thank you.

Cole: So in your book, a quote from the Age of Opportunity, it says “the working theology that hides behind that dread of teenagers is that the truths of Scripture, the power of the gospel, biblical communication, and godly relationships are no match for the teenage years.” That’s a, you know, that’s a statement that packs a punch. So can you take us through a little more, some of the theology, the bad theology behind our approach to teenagers?

Tripp: Well, I think, you know, let me use a physical illustration. I’ve got this pallet that is 4 by 4 feet wide, and it’s loaded with 10 layers of concrete block. And I’ve got a little car that I’m looking at. I’m thinking this load will never fit in this car. I’m gonna abandon the car. If you look at your teenager and you say the things that he’s dealing with in his development at this point, whether it’s the biological things inside of him or the cultural things outside of him, are so big that my little gospel thing can’t handle this, you will abandon the gospel.

And parents do it all the time. If you abandon the gospel, what you resort to is being a jailer of your child, instead of believing that God can work in his life, develop him, bring him to the place where he’s ready to face the world. You’ll do everything you can to keep him from the world because you don’t actually believe the message that works for everybody else will work for a teenager.
You’re looking at the car, and the car is too small. And I think when parents do that, the parent doesn’t know they’re doing that. A parent doesn’t get up in the morning, say I’m just gonna throw away the gospel in the life of my teenager. But we do. Listen, if you believe that change is the work of God’s grace, you don’t try to scream your child into change.

Cole: Wow.

Tripp: You don’t think that if I ground him for 10 years, he’ll rise out of those 10 years holy. You’d see if you abandon the gospel and you actually still care about your child, you’ll always revert to the law.

Harris: Yeah. Mm.

Tripp: And if rules and regulations alone had the power to change the heart of anybody, Jesus wouldn’t have come. Now do your children need rules? Of course. We don’t abandon God’s law. Do they need regulations? Yes. Do they need parent[al] authority in this world? They do. But those alone do not have the power to create the change that we would want in our teenagers.

And so I think that as I walk toward my teenager, what I need to be asking is what has God exposed right now? What is God doing right now in the life of this teenager? And how could I be part of it? Not just, what has the teenager done and what is he gonna get? See the difference? Often, because we don’t think that, “my eyes have seen this and my ears have heard this because God wants me to represent him in the life of my teenager” – all we think is “what did he do? And what is he gonna get?” There’s no gospel in that. Now, I’m not arguing there won’t be consequences for behavior, but I’m asking a wider, deeper question. What is God exposing right now? What is God working on right now? And how can I be part of that?

Cole: Wow.

Harris: That’s a beautifully redemptive way to frame parenting. I have to say, I often become overcome with fear even as I’m grappling to hold on to the gospel and you know, give that to my child. And I do, like you said, resort to the law because it seems safer almost, right? Like it’s a protection. And what I’m actually doing is abandoning the protection of the gospel. So that’s really helpful.

Tripp: Well, so if you’re going to not respond out of fear, and then the legalism that follows, you have to preach the gospel to yourself.

Here’s what I think happens to parents of teenagers particularly. They get up in the morning and they load the entire welfare of their young people on their [own] shoulders.

Well, that’s a crushing burden. The welfare of my children is not in my hands, it’s in my Lord’s hands. Now we know he has already moved redemptively in their lives because by sovereign grace, by his choice, he placed them in a family of faith.

So we know he’s already at work. And so I don’t, look, I don’t carry the welfare of anybody on my shoulders. I don’t even carry the welfare of myself on my shoulders.

Harris: That’s good.

Tripp: God carries that. And, the fact of the matter is, when you are in that room with your teenager and you’re upset about something, please hear what I’m about to say: the great wise heavenly Father is parenting everybody in the room. He’s parenting you too. He’s exposing your impatience and your irritation and your idolatry. He’s working on everybody.

And so you gotta start by preaching the gospel to yourself. Now to get used to doing that, as you’re walking down the hallway, you’re praying, “God, give me eyes to see what you’re doing here. Give me eyes to see how you want to use me. Help me to really believe that mercy triumphs over judgment. And not just to turn this into a cycle of punishment, of misbehavior and punishment that never gets to the personal work of the Lord Jesus Christ and all the helpful wisdom of the gospel.” But you gotta preach that to yourself as you’re going down.

Sometimes it means you wanna deal with it spontaneously, but you’re too riled up. And so you go someplace, you pray, you preach the gospel to yourself, you cry out for God’s help. So you’re more ready to ask that question. What has God exposed here? What is God working on here in the heart of my teenager and how can I be part of it?

Cole: Yeah. And I think just some of the things that you’re saying, theologically speaking, that are so helpful, is one, just that affirmation of the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit in all things. To redeem and to restore. And then two, like, it’s just so amazing. You know, I’ve been like preaching and teaching law/ gospel, the powerlessness of the law. You know, there’s a function of the law, but the powerlessness of the law compared to grace, grace is what transforms. But man, when you get into live combat, it’s amazing how much confidence we have in the law, the law and control and judgment. And you’re right. It’s just, it’s a continual repentance and a continual remembrance of the gospel of grace.

Tripp: So, lemme speak to that. Let’s speak goal orientation. So what I want for my child is that he would live, once he’s emancipated from my home, a responsible, moral, loving, life in the eyes of God, a life that would be pleasing to God. Now, how do I get there is the question. If all I do is control behavior by threat and by punishment, my child hasn’t grown morally. In fact, he’s just learned to negotiate this system of law and judgment. So what he’s actually become is a smarter sinner because he learns I just gotta avoid getting in trouble.

So I mean, think of that phrase “I have to learn to avoid getting in trouble.” That means I don’t have moral consciousness. I just wanna be immoral and not pay the price for it. Because you… have just set up the system of law and punishment. When he gets to college, he has nothing. No wonder that thousands and thousands of young people this next September, who we think are believers, who have been raised in Christian families will go out, go to residential universities, and will forsake the faith.
If you forsake the faith, you didn’t have it in the first place. It was the faith of your parents, but it wasn’t yours. It wasn’t internalized by you because that wasn’t the way parenting worked. I mean, it’s amazing to me, …how many parents of teenagers exercise discipline: “This is what you did, this is what you get” with no conversation, no gospel talk, no trying to appeal to the heart of the child. No holding out the beauty of God’s way. None of that. And instead of something that should take 40 minutes is done in 45 seconds.

Because it’s all law. Well that child, he’s not growing in a willingness to surrender to the Lord, in the love of God’s wisdom, in a willingness to confess his own weaknesses, and a thankfulness for a Savior who meets him in his needs. None of that’s happening because that hasn’t been the system. And so of course, when he gets out of the house, he’s unprepared. Because there hasn’t been internal change in him. All of the forces have been external on him. I mean, we know that from prison. The recidivism rate of crime is a scandal because the guy sits in prison for 10 years and the problem is his character remains the same. And he comes out with the same character. I mean, some of these studies say for a lot of these guys, it’s a matter of hours before they’ve committed the next crime, because they’re the same people.

Well, all of this just says we can do better. We have the tools in God’s Word to do better and the gospel. We don’t need a model for parenting teens. The gospel is our model. God declares how he creates change in human beings. You just apply that to the situations, locations, and issues of a teenager’s life.

Harris: So as we’re parenting through the gospel, our child’s heart. … That’s what you’re saying, is we are actually parenting to the heart, not to the behavior, but to the heart. How does the gospel, walk us through how the gospel helps us parent the heart?

Tripp: Sure. I had this in the Age of Opportunity book. Here’s five questions that you can use again and again and again. They’ll guide the conversation. The first question is what is going on? So that’s just to get a retelling of the situation. Don’t worry about if it’s biased. Every human being, every story, every human being has ever told is biased because we look at it from our perspective. Don’t worry about that.

Second question. Now, listen to this. What were you thinking and feeling as it was happening? Where does that look?

Harris: It’s trying to get at the actual heart.

Tripp: That’s right. See, often when you ask a child about what he did in a situation, the camera is going outside of him. Well, he did that. They did that. This happened. So we’re directing the camera toward him asking him to think about things (or her) that she or he would not think about themselves.

Okay. Third question. What did you do in response now? I want you guys to respond again. Why is that the third question, not the second question?

Cole: Cause we’re looking at how it is that the heart drives behavior.

Tripp: So, even if you don’t get a good answer from your teenager, you’re teaching him a way of thinking. That the situation didn’t force me to behave this way, because you can get a group of two people in the same situation, they respond in marvelously different ways. My response came out of my heart. So that’s, that’s teaching a child that connects me to heart behavior and teaching him to own responsibility for his actions.

Even if you don’t get great answers, you’re teaching a way of thinking. Okay. Fourth question. Why did you do it? What were you seeking to accomplish? That goes after values, motivations, goals. I like the Matthew six word treasure. We all live for some kind of treasure.

So treasure — if Hebrews four talks about the Bible cutting through layers and exposing, judging the thoughts and intentions (there’s the word) of a person’s heart. That’s the motivational word. So. We want the child to realize, because he’s made the image of God, he’s goal oriented. God created us to be purpose-oriented beings. That sense of value and purpose was meant to drive us to God. It’s the ultimate purpose for our existence. So everything in his life, everything he does or she does has a reason behind it. They’re after something. And, we know that we can ultimately put those in two categories. Our behavior is the result of worship and service of the creation or our behavior is a result of worship and service of the Creator. That’s where you begin to see the true idols of a teenager’s heart.

Maybe he’ll say, “Mom, I lied to you about going to that party because I knew if I didn’t go my friends would make fun of me as being some kind of religious nut.” Now wow. That conversation is worth $10 million. Yes, it is. Because now you’ve gotten the heart and this kid is living under this idol of the fear of man. I mean, he listens to that idol, it will hurt him. Because he’ll do all kinds of things he knows he shouldn’t do, even things, not that you ever, your regulations are his own convictions, he’ll cross over that border because he is living for the acceptance of people. So you, I mean, these questions get at those deeper things.

And then the fifth question is what was the result? The biblical concept of harvest. What you sow, you harvest. And so there’s a direct connection between the thoughts and desires of the teenager’s heart and the consequences that he’s now bearing. The roots are in the heart. The plant is all those behaviors, and whatever fruit are the consequences. And so that’s a very simple set of questions. Anybody can ask those, you could ask those of a five-year-old and begin to get answers. Or you could ask them of a married couple and get wonderful things about their marriage. The gospel’s not something weird, “wooo” the gospel gospel “woooo” teach the gospel to the children… it’s very practical, right. Because God’s practical, you know. The Bible takes situations, the Bible takes situations seriously, that we live in a fallen world. That’s groaning, that’s waiting for redemption. This world’s a broken place. It won’t function the way God intended. Our children are gonna have tough times out there. We don’t mock situations. We wanna know about those. We wanna know the things they’re struggling with.

The Bible emphasizes the heart. We gotta emphasize the heart and the Bible. Emphasize the fact that you live out of the heart. We wanna connect the heart to our child’s behavior. The Bible says you’re always serving something– said by one of my favorite theologians, Bob Dylan– all of this is just a logical extension of what the Bible teaches about why human beings do the things they do and how change takes place.

Harris: This set of questions strikes me as something that would be really valuable for us to go through as parents on our own behavior, explaining our behavior to our kids too, when you apologize or repent, or when you have to explain something to them that you’re listening to God and they’re not gonna understand it, you can still walk through these questions.

Tripp: Well, that exposes another thing I think is important to say. I think… one of the keys to success in parenting teenagers is parental humility. I mean, if you march into the room and say: “In my day, I would’ve never thought of doing such a thing.” First of all, it’s a delusion. And secondly, what does that say to the teenager?

Imagine – I think I used the illustration in the book of a teenager delaying a science project till it’s impossible for it to get done. Now you can have two conversations. One is: I would’ve never thought of doing that. In fact, in my day, we didn’t have science projects. I made up my own. I was such a good student. You know? Where’s that conversation go? You haven’t. You’ve beaten up on that kid. But you have given him no insight, no direction to do better. None.

How about if you stand next to a child and say, you know, Sam, I know exactly how you got into the situation because I’m like you. I tend to prioritize the things that I find enjoyable and put off the things that I find despicable until I get myself in trouble. Because there are calls I needed to make, that I should have made, that I didn’t make, because they’re hard to make. So I get, I get why you’re here. And so I wanna say a couple things to you.

First, I’m not gonna write a magic note to your science teacher to get you off the hook. You’re gonna have to go in tomorrow and be honest to your teacher and face the consequences. The second thing is I want, you know, there’s help for us because there is one who is wisdom, who meets us with mercy and forgiveness. And this is your opportunity to step toward that forgiveness because you gotta, you gotta admit with me, and I’ll admit it: sin just turns us into fools.

Now who wouldn’t want that person to be your father? I mean, you, that seems like a man you can talk to.

Harris: As you’re talking, I’m thinking of a son, I have to go apologize to this afternoon and redo the conversation. This is so wonderful.

Cole: Yeah. You know, Paul, this has been incredible. For those of you who are listening to this, it may be worth watching the video on YouTube to see Anna and I taking notes. We’re like, that conviction, the conviction of like, oh, oh man, that’s me. But the good news is there is so much, you know, he takes us back to the gospel… there’s grace for us in our failure.

And I’ll tell you, it’s a freeing and empowering thing, for us to hear that the best thing that we can do, the best foot forward we can put, is to remember just the lavish generosity and mercy that God has poured down on us through Christ.

Tripp: Amen.

Cole: And that’s the, the spirit of the age that we live in, is the age of God’s grace upon us through Christ.

And so Paul, we just can’t thank you enough for this book, The Age of Opportunity. I tell you, I’m not saying this as like a hokey salesperson, really any person who has a pre-adolescent, I just think that this book, in terms of having a vision for the teenage years, I think this book is instrumental in how you view it.

Tripp: Well, praise God.

Cole: And we thank you for it. And we thank you so much for your time with us today.

Harris: Yeah. I’m gonna take it a step further. All my kids are in their twenties and I’m grateful to be reading it. I hadn’t run across it before, earlier in my parenting. And it’s a little tempting to say, oh, I’m past all that, but I’m absolutely not. Like I said, I’ve got a 20 year old to apologize to, so I’m not.

Tripp: I’m not past it, and my oldest son is 45. You never stop being a parent and you never, you constantly need these principles.

Cameron Cole: Amen. Amen. Well, hey God bless you, man. You have a great day and thanks for listening to the Rooted Parent Podcast.

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