FamilyLife Today®

The Quest for Freedom

with Lisa Rice, Shaunti Feldhahn | October 5, 2009
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Do you know what makes your teen tick? Find out on today's broadcast when Dennis Rainey talks to Shaunti Feldhahn and Lisa Rice, authors of For Parents Only, a revealing new parenting book that tells what's on the minds and hearts of teens today. Today, Shaunti and Lisa reveal the number one thing teens say they really want the most.

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  • Do you know what makes your teen tick? Find out on today's broadcast when Dennis Rainey talks to Shaunti Feldhahn and Lisa Rice, authors of For Parents Only, a revealing new parenting book that tells what's on the minds and hearts of teens today. Today, Shaunti and Lisa reveal the number one thing teens say they really want the most.

Do you know what makes your teen tick?

The Quest for Freedom

With Lisa Rice, Shaunti Feldhahn
October 05, 2009
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Bob:  What your teenager tells you and what your teenager really believes may wind up being two different things.  Here is author and researcher, Shaunti Feldhahn.

Shaunti:  One of the things that we were fascinated by, honestly, is the same kids who were saying, "I want my freedom, and don't you take my cell phone away," and all that kind of terrified of losing the freedom, the same kids admitted, secretly, like, "I'll never tell Mom and Dad this," but secretly they know they can't handle it yet.

Bob:  This is FamilyLife Today for Monday, October 5th.  Our host is the president of FamilyLife, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine.  We're going to go on a sometimes confusing, sometimes frightening journey today inside the mind of a teenager.  

And welcome to FamilyLife Today, thanks for joining us.  Back in the early '60s, a movie came out – you probably saw this – a science fiction movie called "The Fantastic Voyage," or "Fantastic Journey," which was it, do you remember.

Dennis:  I didn't see it.

Bob: They miniaturized a spaceship, and they injected these people into a human body, and then the space ship went all the way through the human body to try to – there was some kind of a clot or something that had to be dealt with.  You never saw this?  This was big science fiction in the '60s.  You missed this movie?

[Dennis laughs]

Here is the reason I'm bringing this up.  You're wondering why are you bringing this up?

Dennis:  I am wondering why you're bringing this up.

Bob:  Because I was thinking a really – kind of a combination science fiction/horror movie today could be where you take a journey into a teenager's brain.  Now, that's a scary thought, don't you think?

Dennis:  Inject a parent into some kind of space shuttle …

Bob:  … and send them into a teenage brain, and they'd just come running out going, "Aaaaaaaahhhhhhh.  Help me!"

Dennis:  Our guests are trying to keep from laughing.  Shaunti Feldhahn and Lisa Rice join us.  Why don't you just go ahead and laugh.


Shaunti:  That's good.

Lisa:  I'm just sitting here trying so hard not to laugh.

Bob:  The reason is because you've been inside the teenager's brain, and you know what a terrifying thing it is.  I'm absolutely right, aren't I, huh?

Shaunti:  You are, I love it.

Lisa:  You are.

Dennis:  You actually surveyed more than 400 teenagers, asking them questions about what's going on in their brain – their attitudes, their behaviors – is it as frightening as Bob talked about here?

Shaunti:  Well, sometimes.  We must admit that sometimes it is.  It was actually, believe it or not, the survey that we did was of more than 400 teenagers but over 1,200 teenagers ended up providing input.  We stopped everybody we could get our hands on.  We would stop teenagers in shopping malls, and the thing that was so fun is that, yes, sometimes what we heard was really scary but sometimes, actually, there's so much more vulnerability there inside their heart, and there's so much they want parents to understand about them, and so much that maybe parents haven't really heard before because the teenagers are kind of tightlipped.

But, you know, talking to a couple of total strangers, they poured out their heart.  So we really did hear some really fascinating things about what's really going on in those brains.

Dennis:  You've put this together in a book called For Parents Only, and both of you are writers.  Lisa, you've done some screenwriting, in fact, you've got some projects going on that are kind of exciting and, of course, our listeners know Shaunti from her books, For Women Only, For Men Only, and now you've put together this one, For Parents Only.  I have to believe, Lisa, having two teenagers plus another child who will soon be a teenager; you had to have some selfish motives in wanting to be injected into the brain of a teenager.

Lisa:  Absolutely, and now we actually have another child, we have a foster child, so I actually have teenage girls, 16, 17, and 18, and a 12-year-old son.  So this was huge.

Shaunti:  They're busy.

Bob:  Wow, I guess you are.  Of course, I remember, all of us were teenagers, and so we all had this confused brain thing going on when we were going through it.  I'm sure when you were talking to these teens; you had flashbacks where you went, "Oh, yeah, I felt like this.  I'd forgotten that I felt like this, but I felt like this."

Lisa:  That's exactly it, and that's actually one of the things that we heard from the teenagers that we interviewed over and over.  It's, like, "My mom and dad went through this.  Why do they not remember?"

Bob:  Yes.  Why don't we remember, do you think?

Lisa:  We blocked it out.

Bob:  For our sanity.

Dennis:  Here's the thing – it was a confusing time, and you don't connect the dots when you're confused.  I think our young people today need adults now, more than ever, to understand what they're going through and to help them connect those dots and help them through the teenage years.

Bob:  This week what we want to do is try to unpack some of those things you learned, and there were six key findings that you pulled out of the research, and the first one you kind of – you put it in a clever way.  You say every teenager is an addict, right?

Lisa:  Yes.

Shaunti:  Your kids are addicted.

Lisa:  Your kids are addicted, really, truly, they are, and what we found, honestly, is that so many parents – I've seen this myself; the listeners probably have as well – this whole idea of, "Oh, my gosh, when my teenager gets to be a certain age, am I more influential in their life or is it their peers who are more influential," and there's all these studies that have been done about that.

What we found, actually, is the answer is neither and, actually, the biggest motivator at this age is freedom; that they have this quest, this burning desire for freedom, and we kept hearing these funny things from the kids where they'd get all upset, like, "My Mom and Dad took away my cell phone, and they can't do that.  That's my phone."

We're kind of, like, "Well, do they pay for the phone?"   When we started hearing that over and over, and we asked a few people who work regularly with kids, "What is going on here?"

This one family psychotherapist actually had this great comment.  She said, "What's going on is freedom, and you have to understand that kids are addicted to it.  It's like cocaine, it tastes insanely good to get that first taste of being able to do things on their own, and they want more and more, they can't get enough, and they're terrified of losing it."

And that quest for freedom explains a lot of behavior that may look like peer pressure or rebellion.

Dennis:  Well, I'll tell you what I remember when I was teenager – the first night I got the car.

Shaunti:  Oh, yeah.

Dennis:  Do you remember that?

Shaunti:  Oh, yes.

Dennis:  But do you know what my dad did?  I could not believe he did this.  He said, "Son, you can go five miles, five miles total."  So great was my addiction to freedom, do you know what I did?

Bob:  You disconnect the odometer.

Dennis:  I did.  I found a pair of wire pliers, and I went and unhooked the odometer.   It was so cool to cruise around the square there in Ozark, Missouri, unlimited freedom.

Bob:  What were you driving?

Dennis:  Bob, it was ugly.  It was ugly.  This was back in the day of high-performance cars, okay? 

Bob:  I know.  And you were driving what?

Dennis:  And do you know what my dad trusted me with?  A four-door sedan, white, stick shift…

Bob:  Is this like a Ford Fairlane or what?

Dennis:  Six-cylinder Chevrolet Bel Air.

Bob:  Oh, my.

Shaunti:  Woo-hoo.

Lisa:  Woo-hoo.

Dennis:  I mean, it was the vanilla of vanilla, all right?

Lisa:  But you had a car.

Dennis:  That's right, and I had freedom.  This addiction goes way back.  How have you seen your 16, 17, and 18-year-old addicted to freedom?

Lisa:  Oh, hugely.  Right in the middle of this research, we had a perfect example come up.  My daughter, Sarah, called me one day on the cell phone and said, "Hi, Mom.  There's just been the tiniest little thing that happened.  It's just a teeny little boo-boo, you just don't even need to hardly come over here.  I just backed up into this lady's car and the front light, it's just like a light bulb thing, and I'll replace it."

Bob:  Warning, warning, Will Robinson, warning.


Lisa:  And I'm still spending the night with Jessica tonight, I just want you to know that, but you just don't even come over, but I'll just do the light bulb thing with the lady, and I'm, like, "Oh, no."  So I race over there and, sure enough, she'd been talking on her cell phone, and she had backed up …

Shaunti:  Which is against the family rules.

Lisa:  Huge family rule – and backed up and, actually, it wasn't just a little light bulb issue, we found out there was $965 worth of damage to the front end of this SUV.

Dennis:  That's about what light bulbs cost these days.


Lisa:  So my husband and I, we're like, "Oh, boy, what is the punishment, what is the discipline option here?"  We were doing all this research on how kids all have their own freedom thing and my daughter's was definitely cell phones.  Other kids were the wheels or the MySpace, so they all have their big thing that represents their freedom, but my daughter's was definitely the cell phone.  So we talked it over with her, and she made the choice to work for four straight months at her little part-time job and pay off this damage.

Shaunti:  And take no pay home for herself.

Lisa:  Absolutely, it all – 100 percent went to this damage rather than having us take her coveted cell phone away.  So we just went ahead with that.  And it didn't breed any resentment or rebellion in her because she was in on the decision on how we were going to handle this, and she still had her phone.

Bob:  Yeah, here's the thing – when we hear, as parents, that our kids are addicted to freedom, and they want freedom, we, as parents, know you're not ready for some of the freedoms you want, and to give them to you would be irresponsible.  I mean, we still have to guide, we still have to direct, we still have to put some boundaries around you whether you like it or not.

Shaunti:  Well, one of the things that were fascinated by, honestly, is the same kids who were saying, "I want my freedom, and don't you take my cell phone away" and all the kind of terrified of losing the freedom, the same kids admitted, secretly, like, "I'll never tell Mom and Dad this," but secretly that they know they can't handle it yet.  They know that even though most of them really think of themselves as being good kids …

Dennis:  That's right.

Shaunti:  … those good kids sometimes still do really stupid things.  Actually, we're doing some of the clinical research, some of the brain science that's come out, really, just in the last three or four years, that has actually shown that their brains actually aren't completely developed yet. 

Now, I know that's a big surprise to any parent out there, but it used to be thought, honestly, that the kids' brains stopped developing at age 10, 11, 12, and now they actually have found, no, it's more like the early to mid-20s and that the frontal lobe of the brain, which is what helps kids process consequences isn't really developed yet.

So in the absence of a fully functioning frontal lobe, their brains automatically rely on the emotion centers, and the impulse is what takes over because, really, truly, their brain isn't completed developed yet.

Bob:  Let me ask you about this tension between the kids' desire for freedom and the parents' responsibility for protection and guidance.  How do you handle that as a parent?  Is there a way to allow a child to have some freedom and feel satisfied in that without just handing over everything to them and saying, "Here, you're on your own."

Dennis:  Well, freedom has to be earned.  I think one of the most important things a parent needs to understand is something that I think Shaunti just mentioned.  Teenagers are going to act like they really need their freedom, and they deserve it, and they're going to believe everything they say to be the truth.

You know what?  They're bluffing.  Many times, they are absolutely blowing smoke at you, as a parent, and they are telling you they deserve freedom; that they are worthy of freedom, but they know, deep down inside, they know they're not ready for it.  And they're railing against the very boundaries that you, as a parent, need to set for them.

And so in order for them to get freedom, first of all, you have to set the boundaries, they have to earn your trust.  After they've earned your trust, you move the boundary out a bit, and what you have to be careful of, as a parent, is not letting the boundary move too quickly, too fast, to give them more freedom than they're ready for. 

I like what you said, Shaunti, because you said the front lobe is not yet developed, and I didn't know about that research.  I've not heard that, but after raising six teenagers …

Shaunti:  You've seen it.

Dennis:  I've seen it.  I mean, truthfully, Barbara and I would say to our teens, "Look, we want to help you go through the process of finishing growing up, and what we're trying to do is protect you from making a tragic choice that is going to damage you for the rest of your lives."

What our teenagers desperately need today, and I can't tell you how strongly I feel about this – they need parents who are parents.  They don't need parents who become buddies.  Teenagers need parents to let them know they're helping them grow up. 

Secondly, they don't need to believe everything the teenager says because even the teenager doesn't believe it.  But, third, they need to establish the boundaries and, let the line out, like a kite.  Let it out slowly, and if you let it out slowly, it was gain altitude, but if you let it out too quickly, what happens to the kite?  It falls.

Bob:  Yes.  And, Lisa, you would say that it's wise for a parent to make sure you are allowing some areas of freedom; that you are letting the line out, and that your teenager needs to know, "Yes, you've got some freedoms in this area.  You can – that addiction can be satisfied, it's not necessarily an unhealthy addiction.  In fact, we want to get you to a point where you are independent and free and can make these choices on your own."

Lisa:  Absolutely, and that's a tough line as a parent to know that balance.  We are always walking that line.  The other night I actually saw Paris Hilton being interviewed, and they said, "What went wrong in your life and with all these other" – they named all these other stars.

Bob:  This was back when she had just gotten out of jail?

Lisa:  That's right, and she said this, she said, "Well, I call it TMTS, too much too soon.  We're given too much too soon."  She says, "I was, these others were," that's a formula for disaster.  I thought that was interesting and insightful, and that's true.  We don't want too much line too soon, do we?  We've got to constantly know where they are, and if we see them acting responsibly, let out a little more line, and if they're not, pull it on in.

Shaunti:  Well, and, you know, the other thing that we were really fascinated by in this research because, you know, you guys are the parenting experts, Dennis.  I mean, you guys have done this for years and years and years, and you've seen all of this, and you've had all this wonderful advice, and one of the things that we felt like we could do here was actually help the parents hear from the kids, you know? 

Not from the parents' side but from the kids' side, and it was fascinating to hear that inside the kids' heads and hearts, they know everything that you just said.  They know that they need the kite line, you know, they know they need to be tied; they know they need the boundaries. 

They will never tell you, and let's just make sure that we say right here, right now, you will never hear this from your children when you're in the middle of a discipline situation.  But they told us secretly they know they need it.

Dennis:  And they know it sooner than you think they do.

Shaunti:  Yes.  The problem is that because some parents don't really realize that, and they try to hold on a little too tightly and not allow that kite string out, the kids all told us, you know, really, and we hate to say this, but we really will do what we want to do.

And so we're, like, wow!  You know, it's true.  You know, they really physically, they can sneak out of the house if they want to.  They can do the things that we're telling them not to do when we're not around, and so one of the things that we realized early is that parents have to be guiding their kids before that quest for freedom really hugely kicks in so that they want the right things, and that sense is built into them not – just as Lisa often says, it's not just fear of Mom and Dad but the fear of the Lord, and we were really encouraged to find out that kids who had no church background whatsoever, that two-thirds of the kids said that they thought about whether God sees everything they do when they're making a choice.

Dennis:  Am I the only one that snuck out of the house, here at the table?

Lisa:  No, you're not.  As a matter of fact, we dealt with this just last week in our own home, and our kids are so not perfect, but …

I – that's so funny.  Yeah, I would like to sneak out away from my teenagers.  I'd give anything to have my own pad.


Bob:  But you actually had a teen who snuck out last week?

Lisa:  We do.  We went to the beach and on the way home – this is so cool what Shaunti is talking about.  We're switching the fear of man to the fear of God.  We were listening to a tape by a pastor in Atlanta, Andy Stanley, and the kids – we didn't even know if they were really listening.  It was on choosing the right path and how God sees everything you do.   That night our daughter came to us, and she was crying because the Holy Spirit had so convicted her through this sermon tape, and she said, "I have to tell you, I snuck out while we were at the beach.  We met up with some friends on the beach at midnight, even though our curfew was at 11."

Shaunti:  And not friend even – just people they had just met.

Bob:  Just strangers, yeah.

Lisa:  Just met – strangers.  And so imagine how terrifying, as parents …

Bob:  And were they boys.

Lisa:  Yes, they were boys.

Bob: Yes.

Lisa:  And they said, "We didn't do anything, but we just snuck out, and I have to let you know God's really convicting me," and I thought, you know, we would have never known that and, like Shaunti said, they can do these things. 

They know they can find a way around your rules, but when the fear of God takes over, it's just, like, so freeing for a parent to say, "Wow, Lord, you got them, you helped their hearts, and you got them," and so she did get punishment.  She had two weeks of – we call it "no screens" – anything with a screen – no TV screen, no texting friends.

And so she said, "I'm going to take it.  My life is going to be horrible for two weeks but I know God's going to honor this," and it's so fun to see that that switch is actually being met.

Shaunti:  We do have to say here that we say in the book, you know, that one of the things that we sometimes have to realize is that we can have what is to the kids a nuclear bomb of discipline, of taking away freedoms, without realizing that that is a nuclear bomb of discipline.  When to the parents they ask "What's the big deal about losing your cell phone for a few days?"

But to the child, just recognize that there are some of these things that truly, in some ways, if it's not matching in their mind, the crime, there might be something that is just as appropriate in your mind.  You might have five different discipline options to choose from, and you've just sort of randomly picked the loss of a freedom that means the most to your child.  And it's, in their mind, a huge punishment.  So just be aware that is one thing we found that is very surprising to us. 

Bob:  You know, we're not going to have time to unpack this, but one of the other findings is really a cousin of this freedom-finding, and that is that children really do want a mom and a dad to be a mom and a dad, right?

Shaunti:  Oh, my gosh, we were so surprised, and it sort of goes with what we were just saying, but when we sat the kids down, you're anonymous, we don't know who you are, your parents will never hear this, would you rather have mom and dad let you do what you want to do, not hassle you about homework, let you hang out with whoever you want to hang out with, or would you rather have mom and dad who set the rules and enforce them who do hassle you about doing your homework, who do follow-up on who you're with and where you are going?  Secretly, which do you want?

And 77 percent of the kids said, "I'll never admit it to mom and dad, but I want the parent not the friend" – seventy-seven percent of the kids.  That was huge, and that was an enormous encouragement, sort of, for the parents.  The next time that they do enforce those boundaries, and they do hassle about the homework, and the kid is kicking and screaming and whatever – remember this quote from the one of the kids who said, "We know that love makes decisions in the best interest of the kid, no matter how much we kick and scream, we know that."

Dennis:  The interesting thing is, and I don't understand this – they get it at some kind of teenager boot camp that they call go to secretly.

Bob:  In the middle of the night, they sneak out.

Dennis:  They sneak out, Bob, you nailed it.  That's exactly what – this explains it.  But they all get the same training, and they somehow can spot the glazed look of a parent in their eyes, and they can see the parent doubting himself or herself, and they can go, "I've got them.  I'm pushing back, I've got them."

As parents, it's in those moments that I think, Lisa, we have to go and become screenwriters ourselves – actors, and not actually express what we're feeling but instead hold our shoulders back and look at the child and say, "I don't believe you.  I believe you need me to be the parent, and I'm going to be the parent."

Bob:  I can almost see a mom or a dad in their bedroom in front of the mirror practicing those lines and those moves.  But before they make that speech, maybe they ought to get a copy of the book that Shaunti and Lisa have written called For Parents Only.  I think this is a helpful book, for us, as moms and dads, to begin to better understand what's going on with our teenagers.  That doesn't mean we allow it or excuse it or let them control the home.  But a little understanding isn't going to hurt, and I think this book does a great job of helping us do that.

We've got it in our FamilyLife Resource Center.  You can go to our web site at  Let me also encourage you to get a copy of Dennis and Barbara Rainey’s book, Parenting Today’s Adolescent.  These two books together give moms and dads.  These two books together give moms and dads the help they need to navigate what can sometimes be very challenging teenage years.

Again, our web site is, and you can order it online, if you'd like, and we want to encourage you to get a copy.  You can also call 1-800-FL-TODAY to request a copy.  That's 1-800-358-6329, 1-800-F-as-in-family, L-as-in-life, and then the word TODAY.  Someone on our team will let you know how you can have either or both of these resources sent to you.

Anytime we think about the subject of parenting I always reflect on a conversation that Dennis and I had not long ago with our friend Dr. Tim Kimmel.  He’s written a great book called Grace Based Parenting.  We need to look at how God parents us as a model for how we are to raise our children and Tim has done that in the book Grace Based Parenting.  We sat down and had an extended conversation about the themes from that book and this month if you can help support the ministry of FamilyLife Today with a donation of any amount we would be happy to send you the 2 CD set that features this conversation with Tim Kimmel on the subject of grace based parenting.

Again the CDs are our thank you gift to you when you support the ministry of FamilyLife Today.  We are listener support and we depend on donations from folks like you to continue this program on this station and other stations all across the country.  You can donate online at FamilyLife and if you do that and you’d like to receive these CDs just type the word “PARENT” in the key code box on the online donation form or call 1-800-FL-TODAY.  You can make a donation over the phone and just ask for the CDs on parenting.  We are happy to send them to you and we do appreciate your financial partnership with us and the ministry of FamilyLife Today.

Tomorrow we want to encourage you to be back as we continue our conversation with Shaunti Feldhahn and Lisa Rice on the subject of parenting teens and finding out what is really going on inside the heart and mind of your teenager.  That’s 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'll see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.

FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas.

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Episodes in this Series

Teens Day 2
I Am Not You
with Lisa Rice, Shaunti Feldhahn October 6, 2009
Today on the broadcast, Dennis Rainey talks with best-selling authors Shaunti Feldhahn and Lisa Rice about their book, For Parents Only.
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