David Eaton: Engaging Your Teen’s World
By age 15, over 40 million walk away from faith. How can we handle hard, awkward moments? Author David Eaton offers ideas for engaging your teen's world.
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By age 15, over 40 million walk away from faith. How can we handle hard, awkward moments? Author David Eaton offers ideas for engaging your teen’s world.
David Eaton: Engaging Your Teen’s World
Ann: Hey, before we get to today’s program, I want you to know that Dave and I were perfect parents. [Laughter]
Dave: —until we had a child. [Laughter]
Ann: Exactly! We used to think that there were perfect parents. But there are—
Dave and Ann: —no perfect parents.
Ann: That’s why we wrote the book, No Perfect Parents. We’re excited because, now, we have an online video course for you. You can go through it as a small group, individually, or even just as a couple. To get that, you can go to: FamilyLife.com/NotPerfect to find out more. Again, FamilyLife.com/NotPerfect.
David: What would it feel like, when you’re a sixth grader, and you don’t want to go to school because you’re afraid? What would it feel like, when you’re a sophomore in high school, and you hear a chair falls over or there’s a bang out in the hallway—and everyone’s on edge—what would that feel like?—because I didn’t have to experience that when I was in high school; that wasn’t a place I was in. “How do we embrace our kids with that love and that care?”
Ann: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Ann Wilson.
Dave: And I’m Dave Wilson, and you can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on the FamilyLife® app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife Today!
Dave: Let’s talk teenagers.
Dave: When we were parents of eight-, and seven-, and five-year-olds—and the teen years were on the horizon—older parents, who had already gone through the teen years, all said almost the same thing; do you remember what it was?
Ann: Yes! “Wait until you get to teenage years,”—
Dave: Yes, they’re like freaking us out.
Ann: —with this dreaded doom.
Dave: Yes, like it was going to be horrible.
Dave: Was it horrible?
Ann: Teenage years were probably my favorite span of parenting.
Dave: I loved it too.
Ann: Me too.
Dave: It’s weird—I don’t know—we loved it, but it was scary.
Ann: And I feel like today there are some things going on that we didn’t have to face.
Dave: I don’t want to raise teenagers today; I’ll just say it right now.
Ann: I think it’s scary. I think parents are wondering: “How do we do this?” and “We need help.”
Dave: “We need help.”
We’ve got help in the studio today with us. David Eaton flew all night—ended up sleeping in the studio, somewhere in this building—because his plane was delayed.
David, welcome to FamilyLife Today.
David: Thanks for having me on. It’s good to be here.
Dave: Yes, are you really happy to be here?
David: I’m so awake right now. [Laughter] No, I’m ready. Let’s go; let’s do this!
Dave: Well, you’re sort of an expert on teenagers, not just because you wrote a book—I love your book called Engaging Your Teens World: Understanding What Today’s Youth are Thinking, Doing and Watching—but you really have a passion for what we’re talking about today; right? Tell us why.
David: I love the rising generation. For all of you parents out there, with teenagers; all you grandparents with grand teenagers; or if any of you have younger kids or older kids, I just want you to imagine not dreading having a teenager. I just want you to sit in that moment, and just say, “Could it be true? I just heard Dave and Ann say that they really enjoyed having a teenager.”
AXIS, an organization that I co-founded, exists to be a parent’s research assistant. We’re there to be in your back office to help you understand what’s going on in teenage land—whether that’s social media, or cultural trends, or screen time, or mental health, or sexuality—we’re here to research and help you be equipped to have conversations with your kids.
I started it because I had three friends—I have a picture of it—we were on a mission trip to Mexico. It was when I stopped renting my faith from my parents, and I started to own it for myself.
Ann: How old were you?
David: I was a freshman, a sophomore, a junior, and a senior—I went four years in a row for two weeks—mowed yards and did odd jobs; you had to raise money. This was before 9-11; so we hopped in a 15-passenger van, and we drove across the border. It was just an amazing trip, where I saw the Holy Spirit work. We did street evangelism—I feel like [whispering], “Gosh, us even saying that,”—but we were preaching the gospel on the street corner. I have a picture of three of my buddies, preaching the gospel on the street corner. Then, they went off to college; and their faith imploded; they’re no longer following Jesus, to this day.
That got my attention. I was just out of college, and I said, “What can I do to help to figure out a way to reach my generation?” AXIS does something we call “Culture translation.” If you just imagine—if C.S. Lewis and MTV—if they made a baby, they would name their baby AXIS. [Laughter] It just means that we’re looking at the timeless truth of Christianity, and theologians, and philosophers—and then, also thinking about:
- “Hey, what’s going on [with] TikTok right now?”
- “What does the word, ‘chueged,’ mean?”
- “Harry Styles: how should I think about his album? How should I think about him being very masculine, but wearing girls’ clothing?”
- And “How do I have these conversations with my kids, where I don’t freak out and they’re non-anxious?”
The thing that I’m so excited about AXIS is, when we started, it was just like traveling and speaking at schools and churches. I do that a little bit now, and our teams do that a little bit now; but really, we realized that we are not the hero the next generation needs. Parents are the hero. We’re not the missionary, at AXIS, to the next generation. Parents and grandparents are the missionary. We used to think we were the hero; but we realized, “Oh, the influence is just so small.”
Ann: David, do you think parents realize that they are the ones that have that influence?
David: Parents have told me:
- My friend, Brian, has told me/he says, “I just feel like I’m always losing, and I’m tired of losing.”
- Or I had a mom, named Sarah, who said, “Man, when I just come across something, it’s another thing that I’m behind,” or “…I’m embarrassed about,” or “…it’s dangerous.”
- Or in your kid’s backpack, you pull it out—and “Oh, this looks like a little thumb drive,”— and you’re like, “Oh, wait; that’s a vape device.” You’re like, “I’ve seen things on the news—my kid’s going to die—their lungs are going to explode.” Yes, that might happen if they’re vaping aftermarket vitamin E acetate; but your kid’s probably not doing that.
You always are living in these different levels of feeling like there’s an emergency.
Sarah’s like: “Whenever I come across something that I’m embarrassed about, or I’m scared about, or I’m angry about, I have two options.” She says:
- “I either feel silent, like, ‘I’m just going to ignore that.’” Actually, the phrases that comes out a lot is: “They’re a good kid. I turned out okay; they’ll turn out okay.” It’s just like, “I’m tired of this fight, so I’m just going to ignore it.” That’s the silent response.
- Or the violent response, which is like: “Give me that!” “Give me your phone!” “Give me your laptop!” “You’re not going anywhere! You’re shut down; no more video games for you!” It’s just this war.
At AXIS, we say, “What if there’s a third way? Instead of just feeling silent or violent, what if you felt confident?—what if you felt ready?—what if you felt prepared?” That’s what the team I work with does.
Dave: You and Lindsey have a nine-year-old; right?—
David: Yes, Shiloh Abigail.
Dave: —and a five- and a four-year-old.
Dave: So you’re not there yet, in terms of teenage years.
David: Yes, yes. “We’re not experts on parents,”—that’s what we’ll tell you—"You’re the experts on parenting; you’re the experts on grandparenting.”
Dave: Yes, we’re the experts, honey—
Ann: [Uncertainly] Yes.
Dave: —ask our kids.
David: I’ve got books that other people have written that are experts on parenting.
Dave: But I mean, as you think about Shiloh turning 13, 14, 16, 17, you’re not afraid; why?
David: Of course, I’m afraid. [Laughter] There’s just multiple times, even just thinking about mental health; thinking about: “She’s only as safe as her friends’ phones”’ thinking about: “Maybe, back in the day…”
This is like I was talking about the silent/violent dichotomy—one of the silent ideas is ignoring culture and just says, “We’re just going to raise our kids like it’s the 1950s,”—had a mom say that to me; it’s like, “God has given us our kids, not in the 1950s; it’s 2022—it’s 70 years later/after that—so we have to raise our kids for that world.”
On one level, I feel that level of anticipation, and also, “What is the world going to be like four years from now, when she’s an official teenager?” But at the same time, I know that Shiloh is surrounded by a great community at our church; and Lindsey and I are thinking about her; and that I have started an organization that exists to be a research assistant for me, as I’m traversing the mine fields; but also just the incredible joy of having a precious daughter that I get to be the father to.
Ann: I think what happens is we, as parents—I feel this even now, sometimes—you just feel dumb, like, “I don’t even know what’s happening in the world. My kids are talking a language; I don’t know half the things they’re talking about.”
David: Yes, just go to AXIS.org—A-X-I-S dot org—and every Friday, we send out an email called “The Culture Translator.” It is parenting gold.
Dave: It is; I get it.
Ann: It is.
Dave: It is gold.
David: It just says: “Here are three things that are happening in your kid’s life this week.” I say, “Read it twice a month,” “Read it every other week.” If you read that, you will be, eye to eye, with your kid; may even be ahead on some of these conversations.
Ann: Give us an example.
David: I’ll give you a couple of recent examples. One is we’ll do a slang term of the week or a song of the week. We talked about: “What is a chueg?” and “What does it mean to be chuegy?” It’s a way for Gen Z, which is the current generation, to make fun of older Millennials and older Millennials’ styles. There’s jeans that are chuegy; there’s clothing that’s chuegy; there’s things you can like that are chuegy. You know, Millennials are old now; [Laughter] so Gen Z has got to let them know.
Dave: If Millennials are old—oh, my goodness—I should get a T-shirt that says “I’m chuegy.”
David: No, you don’t want to be chuegy.
Dave: I know; but I could, at least,—
David: Yes, actually you should.
Dave: Yes, I should.
David: “World’s Cheugiest Grandpa.”
Dave: Let’s say I’m a parent of a teenager—and I get this email, and I read that—do I go have a conversation?
David: You actually do two different things. You either go in full spy mode, and pretend that you just know these things; all of a sudden, they’ll be like, “Mom, how’d you know that? Unbelievable!” Or you say, “There’s this thing called “The Culture Translator.” I love you, and I want to understand your world; so I read it, every now and then. It helps me understand what you’re feeling, and thinking, and doing.”
Another one is:
- Harry Styles came out with an album—you just go; you listen to the tracks.
- Or the Roe v. Wade thing happened. “Culture Translator” actually spent an entire email, talking about how that is being talked about in culture.
- Or there was a giant school shooting; heartbreaking. Normally, we talk about three things that happen each week. That week, we just talked about one thing.
Honestly, anyone who is going to read “The Culture Translator” probably has a good idea what they think about gun control; so it’s like, “Do we need to talk about that?” No, I’m sure you’ve talked about that with your kids already and had some thorough debates. Instead, we want you to empathize:
- “What would it feel like, when you’re a sixth grader, and you don’t want to go to school because you’re afraid?”
- “What would it feel like, when you’re a sophomore in high school, and you hear a chair falls over or there’s a bang out in the hallway—and everyone’s on edge—what would that feel like?”
Because I didn’t have to experience that when I was in high school a couple of decades ago—that wasn’t a place I was in—how do we embrace our kids with that love and that care?
Also, this is the most hopeful thing that I can say—here’s the punchline—"Culture translation is great; that’s cool—C.S. Lewis plus MTV/all of that—but what’s really great are you moms and dads out there.”
We had this young lady—she said to us—“I only had one real conversation with my dad.” We heard that; we were like, “Ooh; that’s not good. You’re having a thousand conversations a week on TikTok. How can you only have one real conversation with your dad?” The young lady smiled—I’m like, “Oh, why is she smiling?”—she said it again; she says, “I’ve only had one real conversation with my dad, and we’ve never stopped having that one conversation.”
Ann: That’s good.
David: It’s one conversation that’s continuous/that lasts a lifetime.
I had a mom—actually, she said this; her name was Tonya—she’s like, “My teenaged sons are leaving the home really soon; they’re moving out. They’re starting to say things that make me really concerned that they don’t share the same faith commitments that I have/the same beliefs. I’m scared.” She says, “My window—it feels like my window’s closing—how much longer do I have?” There was a dramatic pause; I said, “Tonya, you have a 60-year window with those boys; you have a 60-year window. You are the most influential person in their life, period.”
Scripturally, that’s true; sociologically, it’s true. You get to have that one conversation. If you feel behind, that’s totally normal—I feel behind; most parents feel behind—culture’s changing rapidly; that’s going to be a challenge.
- But know that there’s no one, who’s going to be there, driving through Chick-fil-A®, getting that spicy chicken sandwich before the volleyball game, and talking about sexting. Okay; that’s a scary conversation.
- There’s no one, who’s going to be there, when your kid is like—it’s 11 o’clock at night and, all of a sudden, they’re chatty and they want to talk—you’re like, “I just want to go to sleep.” The light’s off in the room—you sit on the floor; you lean against the wall—and they open up their heart, and they just say, “I don’t know if I want to be a Christian.”
You’re like, “Ahh! That’s so scary,”—but you hold onto it—you realize you have one conversation. You practice your “I’m not shocked” face, which doesn’t even matter because you’re in the dark; right? Then you say, “Let’s talk about that. There’s nothing wrong with having those doubts. Let’s figure it out; let’s chase those doubts, as a family.”
Dave: One of the cool things is we’re old enough—we’re making fun of it—but we’re old enough to know that what you’re saying is true: “That conversation doesn’t end.” Our oldest is—
Dave: —36; I was going to say 40—oh, my goodness—and we’re still having the conversations that sort of began when he was 8 and 9/really, began when he was 3 but all through boyhood. Don’t you think it’s like, “Yes, you’re right; that conversation doesn’t end if you stay engaged and intentional.”
When I hear you say this, I think a lot of us, as parents—and I had a tendency to maybe go there, naturally—it’s like: “Oh, I’m just going to pull back; I don’t want to step into this crazy world they’re navigating.” I sort of wanted to stick my head in the sand and pretend: “They’re good kids; they love Jesus, and they’re never going to struggle,”—rather than—“Let’s walk in their bedroom, at midnight, and have a conversation.” Do you know what I’m saying?
Ann: Yes; because you, Dave, would have this tendency—where I would say, “I think they’re struggling in this area,”—and you would say, “No, they’re not; they’re great kids.” I would say, “I know they’re great, but I really think they’re struggling.”
Dave: She was right 1,000 percent—every time—she was right.
Ann: But I loved your belief in them; because I would tend to freak out, like, “What are they doing? What could happen?” But I think the reason we love the teen years is exactly what you’re describing, David—those conversations, where they say something; and you hear and feel their fear, or their insecurity, or their hope, or the fear of the future—and then, to have that conversation.
I think what I would tend to do more than you, Dave, is I would tend to become fearful for them.
I think, as parents, we have this line of asking that question, as they’re starting to share, to say: “Tell me more; tell me more of what you’re feeling. Tell me more of what the kids are feeling at school.” What I could do, sometimes, is I could get all judgmental about it:
- “Well, you shouldn’t feel that,”
- or “What do you mean you’re talking about that?”
- or “…doing that?”
That’s the part, as the parent, I really had to hold that back—as you said—“Don’t show your shocked face,” “Don’t freak out.”
Dave: We would go in the other room and just go, “Whaaattt?!” [Laughter] We didn’t do it in from of them; but later, we would be like, “Oh, my goodness!”
Ann: But you’re saying, as parents, we’re important; and the kids do want to know us and talk to us.
David: You are the most important person in their lives. Fear is totally normal, but what you have to do is you have to hold that fear—pretend it’s like a volleyball or something; this is your volleyball of fear—and you hold it in your hands, and you visualize it, and you invite the Holy Spirit into it. Because if you are parenting out of fear, your kid is not getting the best version of you.
If you’re parenting out of fear, you’re going to do some things that are reactive:
- You might become silent or violent.
- You might, all of a sudden, realize, “Wow! They’re making some of the same mistakes I made. I’m a bad parent,” or “I’m a bad person,” and start shaming yourself. And then you’re parenting out of shame.
Those are places that we need resurrection—we need reconciliation; we need God to speak in that spot—let us know that we’re forgiven, let us know that that’s not going to be held against us, and that we don’t have to be the parent that parents that way—and invite that in.
Now, as far as parents being important, you have to hear this—all you parents out there, you have to hear it—I’m going to say it out loud because I need to hear it for myself. There is a man named Christian Smith, PhD, at Notre Dame, endowed chair of sociology; got his masters and his PhD from Harvard. He has studied teenagers for the last two decades; he ran the National Study for Youth and Religion.
He wrote a book recently; it’s called Handing Down the Faith. I want to let you know: “It’s a rather boring book.” [Laughter]
Ann: Yours is better.
David: Well, I think they go, hand in hand, because what he does is he establishes the importance of one conversation with your kid; he lays the groundwork. Whenever you’re in that moment, saying, “I just want to quit,” you can, at least, say, “Intellectually, I know that I’m the most influential person in this kid’s life.” This is what he said in an interview. He said, “After spending two decades studying the religious life of American adolescents, among all possible influences, parents exert, far and away, the greatest influence.”
The empirical evidence is clear—no institution comes close to a parent—not churches, not youth groups, not faith-based schools, not mission trips, not summer camps, not Sunday schools, not youth ministers. What makes every other influence pale into virtual insignificance is parents, followed closely by grandparents; and if you live close to them, aunties and uncles.
The best kind of parents—and it’s always kind of scary to say “best”—but the kind of parents that we all aspire to is to have high expectations. You can have high expectations and just be such a stone wall and not emotionally available—so when your kid does come across something, instead of saying, “Man, I would like to talk to Dad about this,” or “I wonder what Mom thinks,”—“Oh, no, Mom’s going to freak out on me,” [or] “Dad’s going to take away my phone again, so I better just shove that one down and ask my buddies what they think,” or “Maybe I’ll just go to Google®,” or “Maybe, I’ll see what’s trending on TikTok in this area.”
That’s what we don’t want, because everyone is going to disciple our kids—that’s just the truth—it’s just: “Who has the loudest voice?” "…the most influential voice?”—or, maybe, even—“…the quietest influential voice?”—it’s parents.
Dave: You know, it makes me think, if Christian Smith/if he’s correct—which I tend to agree, 1,000 percent, and he’s got research to back it up—you said, earlier, so many are going to walk away from the faith. “What are we, as parents, doing wrong—because we are the most influential—and our kids are walking away?”
David: You know, it’s very tempting to outsource—we live in a world, where it’s awesome—we can outsource everything! Want our kids to get better SAT scores?—“Let’s do training for that”; you can find all kind of tutorials online.
“Man, parenting is hard; so let’s just outsource it to the youth pastor.” The youth pastor wants to do it—but even more—“What does the church want?” The church wants you to do it, parents; and they want to equip you, and to be in your corner, and help you out. That’s not what the model looks like; but I think everyone, deep down, knows that parents are the way.
Shelby: Yes, it’s a partnership between all of us. That’s Dave and Ann Wilson with David Eaton on FamilyLife Today. Listen, stay with us; we’ll hear an encouraging word for parents, from Dave and Ann, in just a minute. But first, David Eaton’s book is called Engaging Your Teen’s World: Understanding What Today’s Youth are Thinking, Doing, and Watching. You can get your copy at FamilyLifeToday.com.
Man, is David speaking our language here today? We know that FamilyLife, in and of itself, isn’t going to change your family or your kids—that’s God’s responsibility—but He wants to do it through you. That’s how you’ll see change start to happen. FamilyLife exists to come alongside families to point families to Jesus and to remind them where hope comes from.
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Okay; now, back to Dave and Ann with an encouraging word for parents.
Dave: I would just add, as an older parent now/a granddad, I would say to the dad and the mom, who’s listening, “Don’t outsource it,”—just what David was saying—I mean, the church can help; you are the biggest influence on your kids.
Here’s what I would say: “You’re walk with God is more important than anything else that happens.” It’s more important than the three Bible verses you share with them this week. Are they seeing an authentic man or woman really walk with God? Because here’s what we’ve learned, as grandparents now, they’re going to copy what they see. If it’s real, that gets transmitted; if it’s fake, they sniff it out. I mean, our kids sniff it out better than anybody.
My biggest admonition would be: “Look in the mirror right now and say, ‘What’s my walk with God look like?—because that’s going to be passed down to my legacy.’”
Ann: I remember saying to our sons, “Do you guys remember some of those great devotionals we did or some of the Bible verses we memorized?”
Here’s what they said: “No.” [Laughter] But here’s what they did say—they said—“Mom, I remember, every day, you had your Bible out; and you’ve got all these books out. I remember you being on the deck, praying on your knees, when I would come out sometimes.” And they said, “We knew that you depend on Jesus for everything; that’s what we remember.”
Shelby: Now, coming up tomorrow, the Wilsons are joined, again, by David Eaton, where you’ll hear more about why we react in the ways that we do, how to restore trust, and how to show understanding with our teens. That’s tomorrow; we hope you’ll join us.
On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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