On today's broadcast, Barbara Curtis, mother of 12 and author of the book Dirty Dancing at the Prom, tells Dennis Rainey about the challenges that teens face today in the average American high school.
On today's broadcast, Barbara Curtis, mother of 12 and author of the book Dirty Dancing at the Prom, tells Dennis Rainey about the challenges that teens face today in the average American high school.
Barbara: It's kind of like the proverbial frog in the water kind of thing – coming into high school as a freshman, they would be shocked maybe by seeing gay people making out or the things that were going on. But the upperclassmen were all not concerned with it. But coming in as freshmen, they just wanted to fit in, and so they became unconcerned.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Tuesday, March 28th. Our host is the president of FamilyLife, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine. We'll hear today how powerful peer pressure can be to reshape the values of a generation.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today, thanks for joining us on the Tuesday edition. You know, how parents get tax credits for children – you get a tax break for the number of children you have. I'm thinking that parents also ought to get some kind of incentive pay, you know, some kind of hazard duty pay if you're raising teenagers. You know what I mean? I mean, it just feels like you're in a battle.
Dennis: You know, I think if you ask the teenagers, they might as for some pay as well.
Because where they're living and the culture they're having to grow up in is not an easy culture for them as well.
Bob: That's a good point.
Dennis: When you were growing up in Kirkwood High School back in St. Louis, Missouri, if you were walking down the hall, what do you remember seeing back then?
Bob: Well, just kind of a normal shuffling between classes, going to your lockers …
Dennis: You bump into somebody …
Dennis: Somebody says, "Excuse me."
Bob: I remember that I would typically try to walk a certain route so that I could see certain people, usually girls, on my way to class, but it was pretty innocent stuff back then.
Dennis: It was. You felt like school was pretty safe?
Dennis: Didn't you?
Dennis: I did. I don't remember feeling like I was in danger there at school. Well, teenagers today, according to the author of a new book called "Dirty Dancing at the Prom and Other Challenges Christian Teens Face – How Parents Can Help," according to Barbara Curtis, walking down the hall can be a time of feeling unsafe, the very opposite of what you and I described.
Dennis: Barbara Curtis joins us again, welcome back to FamilyLife Today, Barbara.
Barbara: Thank you very much for having me.
Dennis: Barbara knows a little bit about parenting teens. She has 12 children ages four to 35, is that right?
Barbara: That's right.
Dennis: She lives, along with her husband, Trip, in the Washington, D.C. area, so we know that there's a little bit of pressure on her in terms of the pace of life and sheltering her children. But in writing this book, Barbara, you actually did some research that took you to teenagers – I think you went to Kansas City, Missouri, is that right, to talk to some teens?
Barbara: Yes, we kicked off the book with a focus group in Kansas City – some from public school, some from Christian schools – to find out what was really going on in their lives. We sat down and talked for about five hours, and then I finished the book, as I finished writing the book, I corresponded with Christian teens all over the country about their experience in school and the kind of pressures they were facing.
Dennis: Now, when you interviewed these students, some were from public schools and some were from private schools?
Barbara: That's right.
Dennis: Even Christian schools – so are the kids in Christian schools exempt from some of this behavior?
Barbara: Well, they're a little more protected – and I did interview some home school kids, too, and, of course, they're more protected, but they still deal with the same pressures. Sometimes they can come up at church, it can come up if they have friends who go to public school, and they want to attend the dances there, or any other kind of interaction between the public school and Christian school kids.
Bob: What you're saying is that ungodly influences in adolescent culture will find a way to your teenager whatever school choice you've made, right?
Barbara: That's so good, Bob. How'd you do that? That was really good.
Bob: I'm just sitting here realizing that you do your best as a parent to try to make sure that your kids are safe. You don't want them completely isolated, but you also don't want them having to swim through the sludge. But the sludge has found its way to them no matter where they are.
Dennis: We home-schooled, and, you know, home-schooling can forestall some of this upon the younger children but, sooner or later, your kids are going to engage the culture because we live our lives in this culture, and so you have to train them to know how to handle it.
Bob: Then you'd like to make sure they've reached a maturity level to where, when it comes at them, they've got the maturity to deal with it.
Dennis: Yeah, both an emotional maturity level and a spiritual maturity level. One of the things I found especially fascinating, because we've raised all six of ours through the teenage years, and I wish I'd read this, frankly, because this would have helped me. But as you observed and listened to these high school students and how they handle the sludge, swimming through the sludge that Bob was talking about, they used a word of how they coped with it all.
Barbara: They themselves used the word "desensitization" to describe the process they went through. They took me through it kind of like coming into high school as a freshman, they would be shocked, maybe, by seeing gay people making out or the things that were going on, but the upperclassmen were all just unconcerned with it, and so they became unconcerned.
It's kind of like the proverbial frog in the water kind of thing, but they just wanted to fit in.
Dennis: So what does that tell you as a mom, as you relate to your teens today? Do you need to probe a little bit with some questions, ask how they're processing some of what they're observing at school?
Barbara: I think the amazing thing to me was that kids were not talking to their parents about what was going on in school. I have several possible reasons. One is that I don't think they want to disrupt things or cause waves. Some might want to protect their parents. One of the phenomena that I found in researching for the book and interviewing people was that a lot of what is driven today is driven because there are two people earning money in the family, so there's not a stay-at-home mom. So the family has very limited amount of time together. That works on both sides – that they don't want to cause any disruption.
Parents do not want to have confrontations about bad behavior for that reason, because since the time together is so limited, they don't want it disrupted. Maybe kids don't want to bring up subjects that will cause their parents any anguish. They're keeping their lives very compartmentalized – school in one area, home in one area, church in one area.
Dennis: You know, I think it's really dangerous to allow our kids to do that. I'm reflecting back on a conversation I had with a teenage son at, like, 11:15 at night, and I was about the third stage of anesthesia. I mean, I was on my way out when my son decided he wanted to talk about what he'd observed that day and, I mean, but it wasn't but a millisecond before I was awakened to not only hearing the story of what my son had observed that day at school but in realizing you know what? Even though they look like adults, they're as tall as adults, they're 16, 17, 18 years old, and you begin to think of them moving toward adulthood, they still need a mom and a dad to help them process what they're going through but also to still, at points, at critical points, protect them from a culture that really would abuse them if we allowed it to do so on an ongoing basis.
I think parents today dare not withdraw or retract from our children as they face some of these issues. In fact, I think we need to be asking questions – what are you observing at school? What are you experiencing there?
Barbara: Absolutely, and that's what drove me to write the book was I saw so much of this attitude that people would pour their lives into their kids up until the time they were 13, and then they would kind of step back, like, you know, now it's time for him to make his own decisions. No, it's not. And scientific research itself keeps showing us that the brain does not even become mature until the mid-20s; that even though a teenager can perform well on tests, under any kind of emotional stress, they tend to make bad decisions, and they need us around to help.
Bob: You do have to adjust how you help, as a parent. You have to move from how you treated them when they were eight to now that they're 16; it's got to be a different relationship. But the point is, you've got to stay engaged and, in fact, we found that it often is more demanding during the teenage years to remain engaged and to remain connected. It was simpler when you just told them "No, and that's it and go to your room," right? When they're 16, that doesn't work the same way it used to work, and you've got to engineer things differently as a parent.
Dennis: And sometimes you have to go some places where your kids don't want you to go. We stayed engaged by going to all of our kids' prom parties. Now, that may sound like you're, you know, you're trying to rain on their party but, frankly, as we arrived there, there were other parents who were at the prom.
And the prom, today, I think has become – well, how can I say this so it's appropriate – the prom is no longer just a simple, little school dance like it used to be. It's a cultural event usually connected with an all-night event of some kind.
Bob: And let me just, if I can, because there are some listeners who hear you talk about staying engaged by going to your kids' prom events with them – there are some parents who are going, "Why did either of you go to the prom? Why didn't you just tell your kids, 'You're not going to the prom? It's not appropriate for us as Christians.'"
Dennis: Well, I went to a prom when I was a kid, so I remember what it was like to go to a prom when I was a kid. I don't know what it's like for our teenagers today to go to proms. So when Barbara and I went, we didn't stay the entire time. We would go, and we would inspect what we had already expected from our kids.
Bob: And you made that decision rather than saying "No prom, you're not going, we're Christians, we don't do that stuff."
Barbara: And the reason I wrote this book is because some parents are in doubt about how much to be involved in their children's lives and, if so, how to go about it. So I wanted to give parents principles and very practical ideas about how to be engaged with their children in a way that was appropriate for growing adolescents, because you are preparing someone to become independent and to make their own decisions, and there has to be some room for them to make the wrong decisions.
Bob, when you were talking about the difference between parenting a child before they become and adolescent and afterwards, I think the one thing I heard from the teens that I communicated with was that they respected that their parents wanted and needed to set limits for them – help them establish limits for their activities and to help them to avoid temptation, and they actually welcomed their parents' involvement in those things.
What seemed to be the most important thing to them, they knew that they needed rules, but they did not like to feel that the rules were arbitrary or just concocted out of hand. They wanted to know the rationale for them. So that was the one thing I learned as a parent, too, especially to keep foremost in my mind in dealing with my teens was that it's not enough to just say "You can't go there," or "You can't go there because it might be temptation." You had to be very specific, you know, "We care about you," and that message of caring and love was very important to be woven into any kind of limit that you were placing on your kids' lives.
Bob: Now, I've had these conversations with my kids, that's the "Why? I don't understand," and there does come a point in that conversation where I've said, "Listen, I don't think you're going to be able to understand. I've explained it now, and it's obvious that we're just missing each other, and so I don't think it's doing me any good or you any good for me to explain it now the fourth time. You will understand someday. Right now you don't. You're just going to have to trust me on this." And it's frustrating for them, and I just feel like you're being arbitrary, and I go, "I understand, I've tried to explain it."
I do think we ought to be respectful in our relationship with our kids and not simply be parental and autocratic.
Bob: Yeah, but, at the same time, there will come a point where you've explained now 15 different ways, and they're not getting it, and they're not getting it because they really don't want to get it because they don't like what the final decision is.
Dennis: Yeah, they just don't agree with you. One of the things that we found helpful around a big event like prom, and you need to know, we really blew out prom with our kids and for our kids.
Bob: You mean you made a big deal out of it?
Dennis: Oh, my goodness, Mom Rainey, Barbara, my Barbara, she just delighted in the evening for our kids. We have a deck that overlooks a lake, and we would turn that deck into a five-star restaurant. We would carry the kitchen table out there, chairs, a rug, a stereo system, a painting, and we only got rained on one time in, I supposed, five or six special prom nights that we went through with all of our kids.
But the thing that helped us in getting the why is we started about a month out because we knew prom was coming, and we started talking about expectations about the entire event, that, as parents, it was an evening when kids could make some very serious choices that would cost them their lives.
Barbara: That's true.
Dennis: And so we began to talk that through with them and talk about the dinner, going to the prom, what's going to happen after the prom, where they're going to spend the night, what friend and how that's going to occur, what's going to happen the next morning, what time they're going to come home, and in the process attempt to do what Bob was talking about, which is explain the whys. And it's less of an emotional issue if you discuss it before the prom is on the horizon. When you try to have this discussion while you're pinning the corsage on your daughter's prom dress or even when you're shopping for the prom dress, you're headed for trouble.
Bob: In fact, I suggest you ought to start this discussion when she's four. That's really the right time to begin. They can understand it when they're four or five, do you think?
Dennis: That's exactly right.
Barbara: And, you know, the other interesting thing about that, Dennis, is that part of what we're doing as parents for our children is we're preparing them to become parents, too. So when we explain the rationale and why we're doing the things we're doing, then it helps them when they become parents to know how to do it, too.
Dennis: Now, as a mom, you called yourself a permissive parent?
Barbara: Well, with my first two children, before I became a Christian. When I became a Christian, you know, it was an enlightenment to me about everything, but one of the things was how to properly parent my kids.
Dennis: And so you believed in boundaries and began to enforce those boundaries with your kids?
Barbara: Yes, I did.
Dennis: Do you think that is why Ben, when it came time for him to go to prom, decided he didn't want to go?
Barbara: I think so, because he had been raised with such values that they made a difference in his life, and he couldn't compartmentalize and say, "I'm going to be a Christian on Sunday, but I'll go to the prom on Saturday." You know, I don't think that Christians should avoid the prom, and I talk about this in my book – how that's an example of a decision that your teen can make with your input and guidance. Ben had friends who went to the prom. Ben himself didn't go to the prom because he didn't want to take a girl and subject her to seeing the dirty dancing that was going on at the prom. That was his reason.
But we had other Christian friends who did go to prom. There were some bad stories that came out of it. One Christian girl we knew really compromised her values that night. One Christian girl we knew, her date ditched her because she wasn't interested in dirty dancing with him. So there are sad stories, and I'm sure that there are many girls who, the next morning, are pretty sorry for some of the kinds of things that they did under peer pressure or to please their dates. But then there are Christian kids who go and avoid the fray, you know, they stay away from the areas of the dance floor where the dirty dancing is going on. And then in some communities people are coming together and saying, "Let's do something about this problem."
In our community, the school board, after a delegation of teenagers went to the school board and asked for help in dealing with the problem, so the school dances – the school board did come up with a policy for it.
Bob: Teenagers went and asked the school board for help?
Barbara: That's right. There was a delegation of about a dozen teens who went to the school board. The ironic thing was that the school board would not allow them to describe the behavior to them because it was too graphic, and yet the school board was fully aware that the kids were having to look at this behavior at the dances.
But there were a lot of contributing factors. I mean, the lights were off, the type of music that was played, hip-hop music, which lends itself to that, and which is very degrading to women; the passivity of the chaperones; there were some things that really could be addressed and that were addressed when the school board did come out with a policy. In fact, our school board came up with a contract that the kids had to sign before a prom saying that they would stick to the rules of appropriate behavior. And it made a difference in our county with all the schools.
The parents seemed really in the dark about what was going on before I wrote a column in our local paper. That's how this book came to be, by the way, was I wrote a column in our local paper, and then my son's friend, Christian Amundsen [ph], went to the school board with his delegation of teens and it brought about change in our community. Well, people who act as agents of change in the communities don't get thanked for it. We get hit by a lot of rotten tomatoes, and I caused an uproar in the community, and became the bad guy for a few months, and I was telling my editor about this, and she said, "Oh, well, you should write a book about it." I did not want to write a book about this.
Dennis: You know, there's a reason why I really liked your book, because it just reinforced three things that Barbara and I attempted to embrace when we raised our teenagers. One was anticipate the issues before they become an issue. It's back to that principle from the Book of Daniel where he made up his mind in advance what he was going to do before he faced the temptation and helping your teenager come to some convictions, hopefully, their own convictions, about the issue before they face it.
A second thing is relationally to stay connected with your teenager. They desperately need adults in their lives to love on them, hug on them, but not disengage from those temptations when they desperately need adults there to help bring perspective to their lives.
And then, third, establish boundaries – good, clear boundaries that your teen can look at and say, "You know what? I can feel safe, I can feel secure, because my mom and dad love me enough to establish this boundary." Now, talk about rotten tomatoes, parents who establish boundaries aren't always going to be embraced by their teenager. The teenager may throw some rotten tomatoes like what Bob was talking about who is still raising some teenagers. They're not always going to embrace your boundaries but you know what? You have to be the parent. You're not running a popularity contest.
Barbara: That's true.
Dennis: You have to be the parent, and you have to firmly stand on what you believe is best for your child and then trust God to help them finish the process of growing up so they can make a few failures but so that it won't damage them permanently.
Bob: And one of the things that will give you courage in this process is to hear the counsel of other parents to get a copy of a book like the one Barbara has written or to read through the book that you and your wife, Barbara, have written, Dennis, called "Parenting Today's Adolescent." To hear you guys share about what you've done with your teenagers, it will help you to kind of take a deep breath and go, "Okay, I can do this."
We've got copies of both of your books in our FamilyLife Resource Center, and, I'll tell you, parents who are facing these issues today with their teenagers need all the help they can get.
You can go on our website at FamilyLife.com for more information on how you can order Barbara Curtis's book, "Dirty Dancing and the Prom." The book, "Parenting Today's Adolescent," by Dennis and Barbara Rainey. We have other resources that are available for parents of teens, and if you order both of the books we've talked about today, we'll send you at no additional cost the CD audio of our conversation this week with Barbara Curtis.
Again, get more information by going online at FamilyLife.com. In the middle of the page, you'll see a red "Go" button, and if you click on that button, it will take you right to the page where you can get more information about these books. You can order online, if you'd like, or you can call 1-800-FLTODAY. That's 1-800-F-as-in-family, L-as-in-life, and then the word TODAY. Someone on our team will be available to answer any questions you might have about these resources or get these books in the mail to you. Again, the toll-free number is 1-800-FLTODAY, and you'll find us online at FamilyLife.com.
You know, in addition to trying to help you as a parent of a teenager, work your way through some of these issues, we want to help you build a spiritual foundation in the lives of your children, and one of the tools that we have found that helps children begin to understand the Easter story, maybe for the first time, is a resource we call "Resurrection Eggs." These are a dozen plastic eggs, each one containing a different symbol that highlights an event that took place in the last week of Christ's life on earth, and it helps you tell the story to children in a way that they can remember it – about Jesus coming into Jerusalem on a donkey and about the palm branches that were laid down in front of Him, and about His betrayal, His crucifixion, and ultimately His Resurrection.
During the month of March, we are asking FamilyLife Today listeners to consider making a donation of any amount to the ministry of FamilyLife Today. We are listener-supported, and those donations are critical to keep us on the air in this city and in cities all across the country. And when you do make that donation in March, you can request a set of these Resurrection Eggs. We'd love to send them to you as a way of saying thank you for standing with us financially. You can donate by calling 1-800-FLTODAY and just make sure you mention that you're interested in a set of the Resurrection Eggs as a thank you for your donation. Or go online to make a donation at FamilyLife.com, and as you're filling out the donation form, when you come to the keycode box, just write the word "eggs" in there, and we'll know to send you a set of Resurrection Eggs and, again, it's our way of saying thank you for your financial support of this ministry. We appreciate it, and we're thrilled to be able to be on the air on your community. Thanks for your help in making that happen.
Well, tomorrow Barbara Curtis is going to be back with us, and we're going to continue to look at how we are challenged as parents in this culture to raise children who will embrace biblical values and standards. It's not the popular thing at school, is it? We'll talk more about that tomorrow, I hope you can be back with us for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. We will see you next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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