Here’s One Way Young People Make Decisions–and How it Affects You

I only remember one or two real arguments with my dad, and this was one of them. As a freshman in High School, we were both adjusting to the new version of ‘me.’ I said something he didn’t like. He got frustrated, and then threatened consequences. I pushed back. It escalated. We both got angry. We spoke words in frustration. Then we both went to bed.

And so it goes, in thousands of homes around the world everyday.

What is it about teenagers that is so frustrating?!!

(Photo by mdanys at Creative Commons)

(Photo by mdanys at Creative Commons)

What is it about adults that is so frustrating?!!

Why do some parents succeed at parenting children but fail with young people? Why do others thrive?

Lawrence Kohlberg gives us some answers in his theory of stages of moral development. (Click here for a brief intro to stage developement). According to Kohlberg, there are 6 stages of moral development, which can be broken into 3 levels. Here, we’ll only look at level one and part of level two:

Level 1: “Something is right or wrong based on its consequences.”
Up until about high school (stages aren’t only dependent on age, but it’s a relative starting point), people decide right or wrong based on punishment or reward. My son, Caleb, believes if he is rewarded something is morally right (“Ooh, chocolate”). If he gets punished, he believes what he did was morally wrong. The worse the consequence, the ‘badder’ it was. Although parenting is far from easy at this stage, in time, most parents learn to use rewards and punishment to achieve the behavior they want. With effort, they end up with socially responsible, spiritually strong children.

Then everything changes.

Level 2, Part 1: “Something is right or wrong based on the opinions of those closest to me.”
As adolescence begins, so does a new stage of moral thought. Suddenly, consequences and rewards have very little impact upon moral beliefs (and behavior). Sure, the teenager will still try to avoid consequences if possible, but only if it is convenient. Far more important is the opinion of those closest to them. To be clear, this is more than mere peer pressure. At this stage, young people actually embrace the opinions of those closest to them as their moral framework. In other words, they aren’t going against their convictions to follow their friends. They are changing their convictions to match their greatest influencers.

You’ve likely seen this difference in discipline at youth group. If a 6th grade boy has done something wrong, you might pull him aside and say, “Adam, I’ve very, very disappointed in you.” And he’ll look at you and think, “So, am I trouble or not?” (Meaning, “Are you going to give me any consequences?”) But if a high school junior whom you know very well does something stupid, the most painful thing you could say to them is, “I’m very, very disappointed in you.” They’d rather you give them physical consequences then break the relationship.

What does this mean for us? If you’re a parent, it means you need to be the most important person in your child’s life. You need to be their best friend. Not by buying them whatever they want, or gossiping about their latest crush, or learning all their slang words. That’s all external stuff. You need to be their best friend by listening. By empathizing. By engaging their heart, not just their behavior. By apologizing. By being real. By valuing the relationship over anything else—yes, even over their behavior. Because it’s your relationship that will have the greatest impact on their behavior.

My dad understood that. So the day after our argument, he knocked on my door. He said, “Rob, I want to apologize for arguing with you last night. I was wrong. I realize that you’re 15 years old now. You’re a man. You could leave this house today and never come back. You could make it on your own. I respect that.” (I wasn’t so sure, but I nodded, just to see where this was going.) “So I’m not going to tell you what to do anymore. You can make your own decisions.” (And then he paused.) “But,” he continued, “if you’ll let me, I’ll partner with you to help you be everything God wants you to be. I’ll partner with you to help you be successful. Because I love you, and I want what’s best for you.”

He was true to that promise. He never again told me what to do. He didn’t have to. Because he had my heart.

I look back on that conversation as one of the most important conversations of my high school years. In that moment, I owned my own convictions. It was brilliant parenting–and it was genuine.

Anytime I thought about doing something stupid—getting drunk, sex outside of marriage, cheating on a test—I thought about how my parents would respond when I had to tell them. I knew they wouldn’t get angry. I knew they wouldn’t break relationship. It would be far worse. My mom would start to cry. So would my dad. They would both look very, very old. And then they’d hug me. And it would be the most painful hug I would have ever felt. And I couldn’t bear the thought of that ever happening. Their friendship was too important to me.

Thankfully, that never happened. Because my parents were the most important relationship in my life, my beliefs reflected their beliefs. If you parent teenagers, or lead them, this is a moral reality you must accept.

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