Why Kids Go Wrong

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 Sometimes we struggle to understand how to help our children stay on the right path. This article, the first of two, helps parents identify the pitfalls we can succumb to so easily. 


Well-meaning and loving parents struggle, wondering why their children take a wrong path. Some are riddled with guilt, feeling that they have failed. Others fail to admit that it might be something they did wrong, blaming peer pressure, the schools, or their kids’ falling into the wrong crowd. No right-minded person can discount peer pressure and the influence of today’s secular education. These present significant challenges for any parent, but why is it that some parents are more successful in raising their children than others? Does it come down to luck? A roll of the dice?

Why do kids go astray? Are there factors that can improve one’s chances of raising happy, well-behaved children who grow up to be productive citizens? Are there mistakes that can be avoided?

Over my 45 years in the ministry, 25 of which I worked at summer camps, I have known and worked with many teens and families. I’ve known teens who were guilty of nearly everything: armed robbery, breaking and entering, shoplifting, both male and female prostitution, purse snatching, and more out-of-wedlock pregnancies than I can count. Why? In this first of a two-part series, we will look at five reasons why children go astray.

Cause Number 1: Hypocrisy

There is nothing greater than hypocrisy that will cause a child to disrespect his parents and their values. When we teach one way, but live another, children pick up on this. They are masters at spotting hypocrisy in others, while being masters of hypocrisy themselves. How many parents say, “Don’t do as I do, do as I say”? Parents who threaten to “wash your mouth out with soap if I hear you use that word again,” but let that same word come out of their own mouths, will cause their children to lose respect for them. Teaching a child to display good sportsmanship will not work when the father displays poor sportsmanship on the court, in the stands, or watching the game on television. Children must know that their parents are consistent both in what they say and what they do. To do otherwise sends the message that you don’t truly believe what you say.

No parent is going to live perfectly, but our prime example and way of life must be aligned as closely as possible with what we teach. It is important to understand that there is a difference between a rare parental mistake and a hypocritical life. Everyone will cut us some slack, even our children, when they recognize we did something out-of-character. In other words, those around us know that we normally don’t do certain things, but “lost it” temporarily. Or, to put it another way, one can be guilty of a hypocritical action, but not be a hypocrite in character.

Children must be convinced that their parents, in spite of their imperfections, are genuine—that what they teach is what they truly believe. Sometimes an apology, rather than a justification, from a parent who commits an out-of-character act, will go a long way to building a bond between parent and child.

A consistent non-hypocritical life begins early. I remember seeing a sitcom where the father was reminiscing with his long-time friends about what they did before they were married. A bit later, the father noticed his son sitting dejectedly outside. When he asked what was wrong, his son replied something like this: “You always tell me not to get drunk, race cars, etc., but then you and your friends talk about how much fun you had doing those things.” Point made! Our past sins sometimes come back to bite us when we least expect.

Cause Number 2: Lack of Wisdom

Parents must possess and exercise reasonable common sense and wisdom if they want their children to respect and imitate them. A biblical proverb tells us: “As snow in summer and rain in harvest, so honor is not fitting for a fool” (Proverbs 26:1). No parent can keep up completely with a rapidly changing world, yet to successfully rear children, we must recognize what we don’t know and educate ourselves on critical subjects when necessary.

In the 1960s, the Beatles and other rock groups introduced a drug culture from which our Western world has never recovered. Many parents told their teens that if they smoked marijuana they would become addicted and all kinds of bad things would happen. The facts did not always match the warnings. Not everyone becomes addicted, nor did they all die. Parents were correct in warning their teens not to touch the stuff. They knew instinctively that there were dangers, but sometimes their warnings were not given with proper knowledge and understanding.

Marijuana today is much stronger than it was in the 60s, and for some, it is addictive. One can argue whether it is psychologically or physiologically addictive, but I personally have known those who tried it and gave it up as well as those who truly were addicted to it. The point is, that if our children see that we don’t know what we are talking about, they will lose respect for us. It is far better to admit what we don’t know and then help them research the subject than to try to pull the proverbial wool over their eyes. And parents must guard against acting foolishly in public or private.

Cause Number 3: Unfairness

How often do we hear kids exclaim, “That’s not fair”? Well, most of the time it is fair, but it is important for kids to know you are fair in your dealings with them. This does not mean that fairness equals equality. John Wooden of UCLA was one of the greatest, perhaps the greatest basketball coach of all time. His teams won ten national championships in twelve years and in his book, They Call Me Coach, he made this insightful comment: “I don’t treat my players equally, I treat them fairly.”

When you allow your daughter to drive the car at age 16 and don’t give the same privilege to your son, you will likely hear the complaint, “That’s not fair!” Rather than dismiss his protest, it is important to explain why you have made that decision. “Your sister has proven herself to be responsible. When you prove you can act responsibly, you will also be given the keys to the family car.” The fact is that we cannot set arbitrary dates for our children unrelated to their maturity and character, but it is important that they hear why we make certain decisions. This will not stop their protests, but it is important to state the case as to why our decisions are fair. There is no need to “prove it to them,” as this is often not possible, but deep down inside they may recognize the truth.

At the same time, we must not always dismiss their cries about fairness. I remember a family with two children. The younger one could get away with just about anything, but the older one could seemingly do nothing right. She understood that she was not being treated fairly and the damage done was tragic. It is good to be introspective when we hear, “That’s not fair!” Stop and think. Maybe it isn’t fair, and if that is the case, make a course correction. A parent must not be duped or intimidated by such complaints, but must be introspective, wise and, yes, fair.

Cause Number 4: Lack of Exposure

We really don’t need to be told the importance of spending time with our children, whether toddlers or teens. This must be a top priority. How easy it is to become occupied with other pursuits. Selfishness is a sign of our times. Many couples choose not to have children simply because children will cramp their freedom and fun. Others have children but live the childless lifestyle.

I’m reminded of the time when my wife babysat a neighbor’s toddler. Sometimes, when the mother came home from work to pick her up, the little girl would cry, not wanting to go home. This should have been a warning to the parent, as most toddlers want to spend time with their mothers—even clinging to them. When a small child is more attached to a different adult—or as the child grows older, to his peers—than he is to his parents, this is a danger sign. Small children can try our patience with their “whining” and their constant questions about how everything works in their little universe, but time with them is important. The old argument pitting the “quality of time spent” against the “amount of time spent” is a foolish one. Both are needed.

Several decades ago, the popular Harry Chapin song “Cat’s in the Cradle” carried a powerful message. It begins with a boy who comes into the world and whose dad is too busy “with planes to catch and bills to pay”—which meant the boy “learned to walk while I was away.” Verse two has the ten-year old wanting to play catch with a ball, but Dad replies, “Not today, I got a lot to do.” “That’s ok,” the son replies as he walks away thinking, “I’m gonna be like him, yeah. You know I’m gonna be like him.” Each verse of the song is followed by variations of the same refrain as the song progresses:

And the cat’s in the cradle and the
silver spoon,

Little boy blue and the man in the
moon,

“When you coming home, Dad?”
“I don’t know when

But we’ll get together then.
You know we’ll have a good time then.”

But “then” never comes. It is not until the son comes home from college that the dad has finally found time for his son, but by that time his son has his own agenda and has no time for Dad. Only after he is retired does he realize his son has grown up just like him—too busy to spend time with his family. How often we hear, “They grow up so fast! Where has all the time gone?” Time lost can never be recovered, and decent well-meaning parents sometimes get too busy to spend precious time with their children until it is too late.

We understand that teens want to spend time with other teens. This is normal, but have you ever noticed that some teens only want to spend that time away from their own homes? When your children want to spend more time with others than with you, the antidote is not to give in, but to increase your exposure with your children. You take them fishing. You take them shopping at the mall. You play games with them and take them to their favorite fast-food joint. And you find a project, such as a garden or sport, to work with them together. Even if they don’t appreciate it at the time, the time will come when they will.

Cause Number 5: Lack of Instruction

The book of Deuteronomy instructs parents on how to teach God’s commandments to their children. “You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (Deuteronomy 6:7–9).

Teaching must be diligent. Sometimes formal and sometimes casual, it must be relentless, and it must be appropriate to the occasion. I’m reminded of a story a dear friend told me one day. When he was about six years old, he was in a restaurant with his father having something to drink. His father took a five-cent coin out of his pocket and stood it on its edge. He then looked at his son and asked, “Who does this belong to?” And his son replied, “You, Daddy.” The father then asked his son: if he took it without his father’s permission, what would that make him? “A thief!” the son replied. The father then gave some powerful advice: “Son, when you take something that belongs to someone else, whether it is a thousand dollars or five cents, that makes you a thief.” And the man remembered the lesson the rest of his life. He benefitted from having a father committed to actively teaching his son.

In part two of this article, we will explore five more causes for children going astray. In the meantime, if you have not read our publication, Successful Parenting: God’s Way, please call, write or visit our website for your own free copy.

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