Parenting the Social Activist Teenager

I admire today’s young people. As a teen in the 1980’s, I preferred to skim the surfaces of things without peering too closely at the suffering and injustice that surely was in the air I breathed. We heard that girls just wanna have fun, so we cruised the mall, hotly debating the charms of Rob Lowe versus Judd Nelson. We moonwalked through our teen years in our Members Only jackets, only momentarily pausing when the Challenger disaster, Chernobyl, and the fall of the Berlin Wall reminded us there was a deeply troubled world all around.

Not so with today’s youth. In 2021 teenagers are passionate, informed, and invested in the issues of our contemporary moment. Not content to stuff their mouths with popcorn while watching Driving Miss Daisy, they are likely to read, and watch, and then act on what they learn from Just Mercy. Today’s teenagers feel the pain of the world and they are motivated to respond.

We parents would do well not to let this passion catch us off guard. By virtue of their youth and inexperience, teenagers are uniquely susceptible to disinformation and unbiblical worldviews. We must keep in step with what our kids are learning, even if their explorations and opinions make us uncomfortable. Sometimes their responses to the issues of the day are insightful, even profound; sometimes they may be poorly informed or highly emotional.

When that happens, we are wise to be “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry,” because in that moment we are teaching them the seemingly lost art of communicating respectfully over controversial subjects (Jas 1:9).

Deal with your own fears first.

Christian parents fear their children will reject the faith. A powerful cultural undertow threatens to pull our children away from the safety of orthodox beliefs, the teaching of the church, and the authority of God’s Word. When we hear our child express a viewpoint that runs contrary to Scripture, we rush to correct them instead of remembering that God is their Father too. Certainly we have a responsibility to instruct our children, but we cannot forget the oft-repeated biblical command to “fear not” as we lead them. The Word that we have shared with them will not return void; the Jesus who died for them will not release His grip on them. Pray diligently to combat your own worries for your children so that you remain available to listen well and to engage controversy without fear.

So when a child drops a hot take into the supper conversation, don’t choke on your peas. Chew your food, take a sip of water, and then offer something like, “Tell me more.”

Sometimes our kids say things just to see how we will react. Often this is a face-saving way of fishing for our opinion without actually coming out and saying, “Mom, what do you think?” At other times, the provocative opinion is a bid for conflict. Teenagers need to differentiate from their parents – this is normal and healthy – but when we overreact to their provocations, we fuel rebellion, and they will clutch ever tighter to their confusion.

Demonstrate the authority and relevance of the Bible.

Alongside our children, who are simply our younger brothers and sisters in Christ, we continue in what we have learned from the Bible. Cultural trends do not render the Bible obsolete. We teach our children from the sacred writings, which are able to make them wise for salvation. There is no authority greater than the God-breathed Word. Scripture is profitable for teaching, reproof, correction and training- all of which we are doing constantly in our homes. The goal of discipleship in the Word is that the man (or woman) of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. God’s word is sufficient to complete us for everything God has called us to do, in every age and circumstance. (see 2 Tim. 3:14-17)

At the same time, invite them to investigate multiple sources for their information.

While the Bible supplies every paradigm we need, it does not have specific facts about our current cultural moment. Our kids are so passionate because they are so informed, but they may not be as aware of the manipulative power of algorithms. Talk about the term “news feed” and make sure your child knows how to make choices in their media diet. Mindless scrolling ensures that they will remain childishly passive in their news consumption – and in their opinions.

The Bible is the lens through which we view multiple media sources to discern where God is moving and how we might respond to the news. Have intelligent conversations about media bias. Teach your children to evaluate various news outlets. Have them read bios on the reporters of the stories they consume. Where were they educated? Which experts do they quote? If they claim Christianity, does their Christianity reflect the teachings of the risen Christ?

Paul’s words to the Colossians might well be our words to our families: “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ” (Co. 2:8).

Find common ground wherever you can; show them how to disagree with respect.

Say, for example, you have a child who is militant about climate change. She views forest fires and hurricanes as evidence of impending global doom, and you are not so sure that humans have affected the environment that much.

Find the common ground. You’ve made years of family memories together on camping trips. She gardens with you on the weekends. Her Instagram features more sunsets than selfies. This girl loves God’s creation because you taught her to.

So while you may disagree about the future of the planet, you have a starting point for a conversation that matters to both of you. Listen respectfully as she shares what she has learned. Ask her to send you articles and videos that demonstrate her point of view, and share a few of your own. Resist the urge to correct her but make it clear that you expect to be shown the same respect you are showing her. Her passionate opinions do not excuse immature behavior; her care for the environment does not mean she can be thoughtless to her parents.

Your goal is not to change her mind. Share what you believe and trust the Lord to show her where she is wrong. Help her become a woman who knows how to listen well, to disagree respectfully, to express herself with dignity, and to occasionally modify those strong opinions.

Celebrate the young person who cares deeply.

The child who won’t eat your cookies because you didn’t know to use fair-trade chocolate chips is a child who feels the suffering of the world and wants to do something about it. This is a good thing. Jesus felt our suffering and did something about it. Celebrate your compassionate child and help him develop mature ways of thinking about and expressing his deep concerns. Our compassionate, activist kids are yearning for the kingdom to come; we adults just might have something to learn from them.

Anna is a single mom of three young adult sons. She is the Senior Director of Content at Rooted, co-host of the Rooted Parent podcast, a member of Church of the Cross in Birmingham, AL, and the author of God's Grace for Every Family: Biblical Encouragement for Single Parent Families and the Churches That Seek to Love Them Well (Zondervan, 2024). She also wrote Fresh Faith: Topical Devotions and Scripture-Based Prayers for College Students. In her free time, Anna enjoys gardening, great books, running, hiking, hammocks, and ice cream. She wants to live by a mountain stream in Idaho someday.

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