When your teen stops talking

Sometimes I think half the battle of parenting is not to take anything too personally. When your teenage boy goes quiet, for instance, it’s usually not about you.

It can be a hard adjustment, though, because wasn’t it just last week when he was sitting in the kitchen, going on and on while you were browning the ground beef? I once listed everything my 11-year-old son talked about in a 20-minute stream-of-consciousness deluge, at which my only requirement was to nod and grunt. His oration included palindromes, peristalsis (which is why you can drink milk upside down), how his arms were getting stronger (so adorable), and the middle name of Harry S Truman. (It’s “S,” by the way. I know this because he told me.)

But then the chatterbox morphs into the one grunting, and you panic a little: Why doesn’t he talk to us anymore? Is he in trouble? Does he hate us? 

What I learned is this:

  • A bit of silence is normal. Teens are supposed to grow up and separate from their parents. Part of that is talking to you less often.
  • Asking a million questions does not work. Even though you just want him to know you’re interested in his life, it can come off as prying and controlling.
  • It sometimes works to ask about a friend: “So why isn’t Riley going out for choir this year?” That can lead to an actual conversation—about other friends, Riley’s pool party three weeks ago, and maybe even the girl he’s had his eye on. (Mission accomplished.)
  • Respect his privacy. Don’t share the news about that girl he has his eye on with your book club.
  • Don’t make everything a teachable moment. If he tells you he’s going to skip college and take his garage band on the road, just say, “Okay!” Chances are, he’ll figure out how dumb that is all on his own. But if you shut him down now, the next time he has a big dream or crazy idea, he won’t bring it to you.
  • Have adult conversations about adult topics at the dinner table—the latest political question, a home budget issue, something you saw at the store that made you uncomfortable. Let everybody weigh in. Treat all responses, even the immature ones, with equal respect.

Now it’s possible that a teenager’s silence is a warning sign. If he’s hiding in his room all the time or is exceptionally surly, he may be struggling with something bigger than he can handle—a traumatic breakup, guilt over a sin, an Instagram situation that exploded, some kind of violence, even depression or substance abuse.

In this case, although he’s silent, he’s actually crying out for help, and you need to be the parent. Search his room. Check his social media. Ask another adult he trusts—an uncle or teacher—if something’s going on that you should know about. If the situation warrants, talk to a counselor with him.

But that’s the exception. Usually a little silence is just part of your teenager’s individuation—growing up and separating himself from you. (This is the goal, remember? We don’t want to be doing their laundry when they’re 23.)

If you give him respect and love and space, he’ll know he can come talk whenever he wants to. You’ll be browning the ground beef some evening, and suddenly he’ll feel the need to tell you—everything. Whether he’s 11 or 17 or 30, just nod and let the boy talk.

Jesus’ love drives out fear

“It must’ve gotten dinged in the parking lot.”

That’s his story, and he’s sticking to it. But eventually the truth emerges: Your son took the car to the unchaperoned party, indulged in some underage drinking, and backed into a hydrant.

I think lying, like so many sins, is born of fear. When we lie, we’re afraid of being found out, aren’t we? As imperfect. Sinful. Human.

For kids, being found out has consequences. Maybe discipline—time-outs, loss of privileges. Maybe public embarrassment. Maybe our disappointment, which, like a temporary abandonment, can be terrifying.

But that doesn’t mean we dismiss our children’s lies: “Aw, they’re just afraid of letting us down. Let it slide.” Nope. Deceit demands a firm dose of the law. That’s because malicious lying—as opposed to polite white lies or flights of fancy—is so dangerous. Like its father, Satan, lying is insidious. It poisons everything.

Lying poisons relationships. When our kids lie, they need to know: “You’ve betrayed our trust. Everything you tell us now is suspect. We’ll have to check up on you. We’ll need to see your phone. Everywhere you turn, we’ll be hovering. We’ll have to, because your word is no longer good.”

Lying poisons the liar too. It seeps into the cells and the psyche and becomes a way of life. Lying children become lying adults. Inveterate liars unconsciously assume everyone lies, hindering them from ever fully trusting another. And sometimes whole families become liars, especially when hiding a family secret: a schizophrenic mother, an alcoholic father. Even if the intent is to protect the family’s privacy, children develop a doctrine of duplicity, always concocting some new tale to keep up the beautiful, brittle family facade.

If our kids lie regularly, we may want to ask ourselves some hard questions: What are they afraid of? Have we set such high standards they feel they’re not allowed to fail? Is our discipline overly harsh? Or are we liars too? Like Adam and Eve in the garden, are we so ashamed of our faults and mistakes that we’re always hiding, always blaming others, never ‘fessing up?

Maybe the most important question is this: Do our children know the truth about the God who lives in our home and hearts? Our Savior is kind. He understands human weakness and fear. He knows why we’re tempted to lie, and he invites honest confession, because no sin is too monstrous, no shame too deep, to be forgiven.

That’s good news.

Jesus’ love and compassion drive out fear. His love lifts the shades and lets the sunshine in. His love—and our reflection of it—makes our home a safe place, where we can air our failures, forgive, and be forgiven. Then it’s absolutely okay to be found out—because we’re loved and accepted just as we are.

Dealing with disappointment

“Disappointed” might be too weak a word. When my daughter was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease at age nine, we were devastated.

Although a simple medication put her in remission, and we celebrated—God answers prayer!—the disease flared, and we nosedived again. Thus began the cycle: FLARE, med, side effects, med for the side effects, remission, remission, FLARE . . . new med, new side effects, new med for the new side effects . . . all playing against a backdrop of endlessly beeping machines and carpeted waiting rooms.

As I reflect on these difficulties now, it’s easy to imagine that a well-meaning parent might unintentionally say things that twist God’s beautiful promises.

We might declare brusquely, “Well, God makes everything work out for good.” Although true, those words uttered too quickly, too formulaically, can be dismissive, even cruel. They can feel like a thoughtless pat on a dog’s head.

The same with, “Suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” That’s certainly true, but the wisdom is lost on a child who can’t see past her pain, who keeps hearing the echo of classmates snickering because her face is puffy with prednisone. The wisdom can be lost on a parent too. Many a night I pounded on God’s chest: Please. She’s just a child. Enough with the character building.

I asked my daughter if I’d said anything helpful to her in those early days and, lacking any confidence whatsoever, threw in: “Please say yes.”

She remembered praying together: “Let this medication work” and “Take away this stomachache before the softball game.”

She remembered me telling her that when others were unkind, it said more about them than about her. Usually some pain inside them caused them to project pain onto others.

She remembered hearing that God loved her and had a plan for her, but since we couldn’t read God’s mind, we couldn’t know for sure what it was. So she could simply focus on whatever he’d placed immediately in front of her. She could divide her life into those things she could act on and those beyond her control that she needed to surrender to him.

That’s what she remembers. What I remember is feeling utterly helpless much of the time. But we can’t protect our children from disappointment. We can’t walk their journeys for them. We can only accompany them in our shared vulnerability, be strong when we have to, rage and cry when we need to, and apply God’s promises like cool cloths on a fevered soul.

My daughter’s 25 now and in a prolonged remission. She sits in waiting rooms mostly by herself. She’s made the journey her own, and she’s also grown into the promises. She knows her strength is in Word, water, wine. She knows God answers prayer, but sometimes—often—the answer is no. She knows that peace is in surrender, not control. And I’m biased, but I think she’s also developed perseverance. And character. And hope.

And if she ever wonders, “Why would God allow this? Where is he in all this?” she knows the answer to that too. He’s right there in the thick of it. Jesus, her Friend and Brother—the one who wept at Lazarus’s funeral, the one whose heart went out to the widow of Nain—he sees her and sits next to her, arm around her shoulders, his sighs matching hers.

Children belong in church—mostly

Twenty years ago I wrote a column for Forward in Christ magazine titled Children belong in church. My kids were two and four, and though I believed what I wrote, it hadn’t stopped me from taking those two kiddos out of church. Multiple times. At least once, I remember hoicking one up under each arm—like basketballs, but louder and chubbier—walking right out the door and driving home.

I never found the secret to perfect church behavior. Sometimes crayons and Cheerios—let’s call them worship tools—were enough. Sometimes sterner looks and firmer hands were needed.

It’s hard. Too permissive, and our ruckus ruins the service for others. Too rigid, and the kids start dreading church.

Okay, here’s the sad truth. When three-year-old Phil trained himself to lean against my arm and sleep through the sermon, God forgive me but I considered it a blessing. Phil’s pretty sure he slept through sermons until about third grade, and I’m pretty sure I relished it. That’s some less-than-stellar parenting right there.

As kids get older, it’s the church after church—the liturgy you hold in your car on the way to the bakery—that’s almost as important as the service itself.


Mom: “Today when we confessed our sins, I thought of how crabby I was this morning. I’m sorry. I need to be more patient.”

Kids: “We understand. You were mad ‘cuz we were late again.”


Dad: “That’s one of my favorite psalms. How does that verse go again? ‘I am fearfully and wonderfully . . .’ ”

Kids: “Made!”


Mom: “What was your favorite part of the sermon?”

Kids: “The story about that little boy who thought Jesus couldn’t love him.” (Spoiler: It’s always the story—for all of us.)

Dad: “Did I hear Pastor say . . . ?”

Kids: “No! What he said was . . .”

In the church after church, families review, discuss, apply, even question. Sometimes we get downright Berean. The temptation, though, is to let the discussion devolve into snarkiness:

“I hate that contemporary music. . . . The prayers were so long. . . . That sermon had nothing to do with my life. . . . Did you see Mrs. Jones’s purple hat?”

And of course: “That crying baby! I wish people would keep their kids quiet in church.”

I guess that takes us back where we started. Sometimes, moms and dads, we do need to take the kids out. But mostly we do our utmost to help them stay. Help them sit, stand, bow, fold, sing, pray, listen.

Help them simply be present as the Spirit works his holy osmosis, passing the promises of Christ into the bloodstream of their souls . . . forming their faith, their character, their habits . . . cultivating in them that deep sense of belonging to something larger than themselves—something eternal.

Fear of success

It can happen around age 12.

Your daughter suddenly quits the team. Refuses to enter the music contest. Starts getting Bs when she’s always been an A student.

It isn’t laziness. It isn’t fear of failure. It’s fear of success.

Near the onset of puberty, your little girl who once out-ran all the girls and out-mathed all the boys wakes up one day and says, “I can’t,” when you know—and she knows—she absolutely can. Why?

Because sometimes success brings negative social repercussions, especially for adolescent girls. Insecure boys don’t like to be outdone, so they reject her for the girls who make them feel stronger and smarter. Competitive girls resent her achievements, so they kick her down the social ladder. In a hundred ways, her peers punish her for outpacing them, no matter how humbly she does so.

What’s a parent to do?

It might be tempting to sit that girl down and remind her, “To whom much is given, much is required.” That God demands she use her talents, not bury them.

Let’s not. Let’s not use the law in this way. Even if such tactics succeed and your daughter starts using her gifts faithfully again, she’ll be doing it out of guilt. She may even begin to resent the God whose love, it seems, comes with strings.

Instead, build her up.

  1. Tell your daughter you’re proud of her when she works hard, whether her efforts are successful or not.
  2. Be generous and specific with praise.
  3. Stop saying, “You can do anything, honey.” She knows it isn’t true, and it only makes her wonder whether your other praise is empty too.
  4. Make your home a safe place, where your daughter can say, “It felt so cool to win!” It’s honest, and having permission to say it at home may eliminate that feeling to seek praise in public, which really will hurt her social standing—and rightly so.
  5. When you see jealousy or pettiness in any of your kids, put your foot down. The family is a support network, not a rugby scrum.
  6. When you see jealousy or pettiness in your daughter’s friends, help her recognize it for what it is and try to understand the pain and insecurity that causes it.
  7. Foster humility by helping your daughter recognize that every person is gifted, whether those gifts win plaques at award banquets or not. And some of those gifts—humor, empathy, work ethic—will count far more in adulthood than fine free throw shooting. Your daughter may be gifted, but so is everyone else.

One of Satan’s favorite tools is to shut down Christians’ talents. He’ll tempt our daughters to make themselves smaller than they are, to sabotage themselves, to feel guilty when they faithfully use the gifts God gave.

Let’s not let that Liar win. Let’s help our daughters humbly and faithfully say, “I can do this. For my Savior I can do this.”

Helping children understand heaven

When my Grandma Pearl died, a cousin wrote a letter to the family that started like this: “Well, the fourth chair is once again filled. The pinochle cards have been shuffled and dealt, and Alvin has the manhattans already mixed.”

He was talking about four Christians—his parents and my grandparents—who’d been friends for decades, bound by blood, marriage, and serious card playing. Pearl had been the last of the four to go to heaven, so he imagined them reuniting at the card table.

Are we all scandalized? I hope not. The letter writer’s a pastor, and he was doing exactly what Jesus did—using the finer things of earth to help us see the unseeable and imagine the unimaginable.

We can help our children understand heaven in the same way—especially those plagued by fears and questions. I have one child like that. This child worried that angels would be scary, that the daily routine would be dull, that if they got to heaven first they wouldn’t know where to go.

Realizing it’s impossible to capture the infinite bliss of heaven in finite earthly terms, I tried anyway, saying things like:

  • You won’t be alone in heaven. Even if you die today, you’ll blink your eyes once and we’ll all be there together—because in heaven there’s no such thing as time.
  • Heaven isn’t boring. You won’t float on a cloud, playing the harp. What’s the most fun you’ve ever had? Were you swimming or laughing so hard milk came out of your nose? Multiply that by a million, and that’s what heaven will be like.
  • In heaven you’ll still be you. You won’t walk around in a trance, chanting to other identical floaty beings. You’ll be yourself—but the best version of yourself! No sickness. No sins. You won’t get the flu. You won’t be tempted to hit your brother.
  • Best of all, Jesus is in heaven. And Jesus is all love all the time. He’ll call you by name, and you’ll run into his arms, and it’ll feel as if he’s known you forever. Which he has.

Death is still horrible. Contrary to Disney’s Circle of Life, death isn’t a natural part of the life cycle. It’s an intruder in God’s perfect plan. So when someone dies, it’s good to cry. Jesus himself cried at his friend Lazarus’s funeral, even though he knew he’d be raising him from the dead in about ten minutes.

Death is hard. But heaven? Heaven is amazing.

My cousin finished his letter like this: “At this very moment, Pearl is more alive than any of us. . . . Pearl has already seen the Master’s welcome smile, his outstretched arms, and has heard him say, ‘Well done, thou good and faithful servant. Your sojourn on this earth has proved a blessing to many. Welcome to the joy that has been prepared for you from eternity.’ ”

Be kind

It strikes me lately that we moms can be really hard on each other. We veteran moms can be the worst. My kids are almost grown up, and I know how easy it is to forget the infant and toddler years. I need to remind myself how excruciatingly long those days could be, how hard I tried to be the perfect mom, how guilty I felt when I failed, how tired I was, how overwhelmed, how bored.

Truth is, we veteran moms tend to romanticize and sanitize our memories so much that we forget all about our kids’ tantrums at Target and the Cheerios that lived under the sofa cushions for years. Years.

We need to ask God to help us be kinder. Which brings me to that famous saying: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

That woman whose kids are a little naughty? Her dad was far too quick with the paddle when she and her sisters were little, and she’s trying very hard to break the pattern. She may be more permissive than you’d be, but considering where she comes from, she’s doing great. So let’s be kind.

That woman with the detached look on her face while her toddlers are rubbing mud all over her yoga pants? God made her an introvert, and if she doesn’t get a few minutes of alone time soon, she’s going to implode. So let’s be kind.

That woman who’s always late? She’s low in Vitamin D and can hardly walk down the steps in the morning. She feels emotionally and physically tapped out before she even starts the day. So let’s be kind.

That woman who’s gained so much weight? She’s not lazy. She’s not overeating. Cortisol is coursing through her veins because of stress at work, her gut bacteria are all out of whack, and the doc put her on a new med for her fibromyalgia—all of which led to extra pounds. So let’s be kind.

That woman whose house is dirty? God put music in her, and every time she starts dusting, the dusting turns to dancing and melodies fill her head. She puts down the dust cloth, sits at the piano, and scribbles on staff paper. So, yeah her house isn’t the cleanest, but—know what?—when she sits at that piano, that’s the moment she’s doing what God gifted her to do. So let’s be kind.

We need to pivot.

What would happen if we reminded ourselves that just because we all have two X chromosomes doesn’t mean we have the same gifts?

We have different levels of cooking, cleaning, and organization skills—and frankly, some of us don’t care that much about the surfaces at all.

We have different levels of patience and empathy. Different ways of communicating love.

Some of us are naturals with babies, and some of us fumble around until the kids can clearly express their desire for peanut butter in English. Some of us love dealing with the drama of adolescence, and some of us enjoy kids best when they’re adults. Honestly, some of us are uncomfortable at almost every stage of the parenting process.

What if we just stopped analyzing and comparing? We’re all human, and that means the calluses on our feet are not always buffed off, our bathrooms are not always swished and swiped, our e-mails are not always read, and our hot dishes are not always hot.

We lose our tempers. We’re a little frayed at the edges. We cry when no one is looking.

And we’re also amazingly gifted by God—every single one of us—some as administrators, some as teachers, some as healers, some as creators, some as communicators.

God made us, and he declares us gifted, precious souls through his Son, Jesus. That same Son forgives our failures and, being human himself, completely understands our weaknesses. He loves us and accepts us as we are.

Maybe we can try harder to do the same for each other.

How do we talk about divorce with our kids?

You’ve been friends for years. You and your passel of kids sit together at church potlucks; carpool to school; go camping; and share all the requisite happies and sads, from diapers and discipline to report cards and prom dates.

Then your friends make an unbelievable announcement: They’re getting divorced.

The ground shifts, and you have no words for awhile—until you and your spouse look at each other and say together: “What are we going to tell the kids?”

The answer depends on the ages of your children, but I think every kid needs to hear these three points in some age-appropriate form:

  • “The breaking of the marriage vow is a sin. God intends marriage to be for life.”
  • “We’re still friends with all of them. We still love them.”
  • “Don’t worry—your mom and I are not going to get divorced.”

That won’t be a one-time conversation. It will come up again and again, and you’ll continue to find the words your kids need to hear.

But some children will want more. They’ll want details. Do you tell them? If they’re young, no. More knowledge will only be a burden. These are adult issues. Kids don’t need to carry them.

But if they’re older and the story already is going public, then maybe it’s better they hear it from you. Keep it simple, and be ready to answer any questions they have as honestly as you can.

You might start like this: “Here’s what I know. This is heartbreaking, but Mary broke her marriage vow. She had an affair. Now John has filed for divorce. Mary has repented of her sin, but the divorce is still going forward. John and Mary are both still our friends, but, honestly, we don’t know what our friendship will look like now.”

It becomes more difficult when the reason for the divorce has not been made public. Maybe there’s an addiction or some abusive behavior that’s been hidden behind closed doors for years. Maybe the person filing for divorce is trying hard not to expose the sin of the spouse who broke the marriage vow. Then you might say something like this: “I’m not sure why they’re getting divorced. But we’re going to be kind to both of them, and we’re not going to gossip or speculate.”

In my experience, older children often feel a need to sort it out in their own heads—to find a black-and-white explanation they can be comfortable with. Maybe there is an obvious explanation: an affair, physical beatings, or an addiction to drugs or alcohol that’s led to emotional desertion.

But other times the matter is too nuanced for children to understand, especially if it involves emotional abuse or some kind of online addiction, which can lead to emotional desertion. Truthfully, these psychological tangles are too nuanced for most adults to fathom. Then you can just say, “I don’t understand what happened.” It’s honest.

Your kids may also wonder what to say to the children of the divorcing couple—their friends. What an excellent opportunity for you to massage your children’s hearts, nurturing their empathy and compassion.

  • Ask your kids to dig down and think about what they might like to say to their friends.
  • Urge them to take their cues from the friends. If the friends want to talk, listen. If they want to go swimming and forget about it awhile, go with them.
  • Tell them what you think their friends might ask about: whether they’re partly to blame (no!), whether they could somehow have prevented the divorce (no!), whether they’ll lose their parents’ time or love (no, no, no!).
  • Remind your kids that they and their friends are allowed to feel all the feelings: sadness, anger, confusion, worry, relief, happiness. Feelings aren’t wrong, and kids especially need to express them, not keep them in.

When divorce arises in your circle and your kids are looking at you with wide eyes, you know you’re on. You want to clearly express God’s will and also show compassion. You want to be truthful but not encumber your kids with too much information. You want to express your own sorrow but not scare them.

Mostly you want to hug them and reassure them that although this event is rocking their world, some things will never shift: Their mom and dad will always be there for them, and God their heavenly Father loves them more than they know.

How busy should kids be?

We parents of a certain age have the same conversation about 12 times a summer: “Remember when we were kids? Our moms pushed us out the door after breakfast, and we didn’t come back in until the streetlights came on.”

You can hear us rehearsing this back-in-the-day shtick while sitting at our seventh soccer game of the week, trying to figure out who can take the boys to swimming tomorrow so we can get the girls to dance. Childhood is just different now. Parent-scheduled. Parent-coached. Parent-spectated.

I’m writing this mid-June, in the interlude between my stepson’s morning baseball practice and afternoon basketball camp. He’ll just have time to eat lunch, play 10 minutes of piano, change from cleat to court shoe, and leave a quarter-cup of the baseball diamond on the carpet before we head to the gym. After basketball, he’ll eat dinner in the car as we drive an hour to a baseball game—one of his three leagues this summer.

As you’re reading this, school is starting, and I bet your schedule’s even crazier. Choir. Band. Math team. Forensics. Soccer. Oh, yeah—and school.

Having only one child to transport at the moment, I shake my head in wonder at the family of eight. Many questions come to mind, all of them variations of, “Is this crazy?”

Story: This summer I asked why Billy Schmidt wasn’t playing baseball. Someone explained that the Schmidts went camping on weekends. I’m ashamed to admit that while my mouth said, “Oh, that’s nice,” my mind said, “But Billy’s such a great hitter!”

Another story: Years ago, a dad brought his daughter to her first flute lesson with me. He said, “She probably won’t practice much, but that’s fine with us.”

I concentrated on keeping my eyebrows in place. What? They’ll pay for lessons and a fine musical instrument, but they don’t care whether she practices? What about self-discipline? Commitment? Stewardship of God’s gifts?

Years later I think those parents were onto something.

How busy should kids be? Depends on your view of childhood. Which of these sound right to you?

  • Kids should dip their toes into many activities—from music to drama to sports to chess.
  • Kids should choose just a few activities and fully commit to them.
  • Kids should be busy and challenged.
  • Kids should just have fun.

And more specifically about each of your kids:

  • This kid needs reining in, because she’ll sign up for everything and then whine all year.
  • This kid needs a nudge because he’ll play Xbox all day if left to his own devices (no pun intended).
  • This kid’s a dabbler, not a committer, and that’s wrong. (Or is it?)
  • This kid only likes the social aspect of teams, which makes sports a waste of time and money. (Or does it?)
  • This kid would do nothing but read, so we need to get her out more. (Or do we?)

Maybe the ultimate question is this: What’s our goal—raising healthy, successful 12-year-olds or healthy, successful 35-year-olds? And how does our answer to that question change our perspective on today’s baseball game or piano recital?

What if we asked the kids? Maybe on that hour-long trip to the game, we could have a discussion—one where we don’t give our opinions at all; we just listen to theirs.

  1. What’s your favorite team or club? What do you like about it?
  2. What’s your least favorite? What do you dislike about it?
  3. Are you doing any of these activities because you think other people want you to do them—your friends, teachers, or parents?
  4. Do we support you enough—driving, watching, cheering, encouraging you, etc.?
  5. Do we ever embarrass you at an event? How?
  6. Do we ever pressure you too much? How?
  7. If you could make one change to your schedule of activities, what would it be?

Our kids are pretty insightful. Their answers might surprise us.

Truth is, I don’t know what’s right for your family. I seldom know what’s right for mine, so I’m not going to judge you.

Maybe the important thing is, whatever we decide, we do so consciously. We don’t thoughtlessly sign every form that comes home in the backpack. And we don’t project our own childhood fantasies onto our kids—not to mention our dreams for their Division I scholarships or the New York Philharmonic.

I’d like to say more, but it’s time for basketball camp. And that quarter-cup of baseball diamond on the carpet won’t vacuum itself.

Bullying: Kids will be kids?

I have stories. True stories.

Seven girls cherry-pick an eighth and assail her with a torrent of texts prominently featuring the b-word.

Sophomore boys taunt a classmate with a clever little jingle about his dental issues.

A fifth-grader hijacks a slumber party, taking half the guests—and all the cake—into another room, deserting the birthday girl.

An entire third grade channels a boy’s lisp into a nickname that echoes into his adulthood.

Cheerleaders criticize the awkward girl on the squad so relentlessly her mother shows up at practice, calling out their cruelty, questioning their Christianity, crying herself through it all.

I sympathize with that mother—watching helplessly as her daughter shrinks before her very eyes, wondering whether she really is stupid and ugly.

I have no easy answers for bullying.

It’d be great if kids monitored themselves, rallying around the victims and standing up to the aggressors. But this doesn’t happen often enough. In fact, that first example I offered? It started with just four girls cherry-picking one. Then three others, who purported to be friends of the victim, got scared, turned tail, and joined the bullies, making it seven against one.

So what do we offer our kids as solutions to bullying?

  • Praying? Of course.
  • Turning the other cheek? Unfortunately, it usually invites more abuse. Some might even say it enables the sin.
  • Reasoning with the bully? Let’s just say they’re not renowned for their conciliatory spirits.
  • How about reasoning with the parents? I’m afraid that even the most well-intentioned parental tête-à-tête may backfire. Parents of bullies may deny the behavior, out of embarrassment if nothing else. They may hint that, surely, there are two sides to the story. They may agree to talk to their children while secretly being relieved that in the inevitable power struggles of childhood, their darlings are on the top, not the bottom.
  • How about fighting back? A Christian psychologist told a boy to punch his bully in self-defense, and—voila!—the sinful behavior stopped. Is that the answer? This is difficult. We all know there’s a Christian ethos that elevates victimization—as if, because our Savior gave his life for us, we should let anyone hurt us in any way they want. But I’m wondering whether the Fifth Commandment says otherwise. Its protection of human life and well-being includes our own, doesn’t it? If I were mugged in an alley, I’d surely fight tooth and nail to defend myself. So why would I tell my child that if someone is hurting them, they should just take it? On the other hand, you do hear stories of kind old ladies loving on the thugs trying to steal their purses, and that kindness stops the thugs in their tracks and changes their lives. I guess I’m saying I don’t know.
  • Finally, some just throw in the towel from the get-go: “Kids will be kids. Sensitive kids just have to toughen up.” Sadly, there’s truth there. We can’t make people behave. We can only decide how to respond.

This is where we parents come in.

If our kids are being mistreated, we can shore up their battered psyches: “God made you amazing! Those boys cannot tell you what to do. Those girls cannot decide who you will be. Let’s pray—that the bully will stop, yes, but that no matter what happens, you’ll find ways to rise above this. And while we’re at it, let’s pray for the bully too.”

We can also discuss what drives the bad behavior: “Bullies don’t know they’re bullies. They don’t rub their hands together each morning, planning the day’s nastiness. They’re scared—scared they won’t get the acceptance and applause they feel they deserve. So they fight for it—with fists, with words, with manipulation so subtle even we adults sometimes can’t see it.”

And more: “That bully can’t keep up with you on the court or in the classroom, so she has to reclaim her power position by tormenting you.” Or “That bully’s father has a short temper, so he’s just paying it forward.”

By exploring bullies’ motivation, we cultivate our kids’ empathetic imaginations—a quality bullies lack, incidentally. And it’s possible that this will help our kids find a chink in the bully’s armor—a sliver of vulnerability, a speck of human decency, maybe even a way to the tormenter’s tormented heart.

There’s also a flip side: “Is my kid a bully?”

This one takes some humility and maturity to consider.

There are signs. Are they obsessed with popularity? Quick to mock and sneer? Belligerent or physically aggressive? Frustrated when they don’t get their way? Pouty when they don’t get attention? Do they blame others—teachers, coaches, classmates—for their lack of success? Do they roll their eyes at authority figures?

Have they never mentioned any bullying? Then maybe they’re the bully.

If we’re inadvertently raising little tyrants, we need to make some changes, don’t we? Otherwise they become grown-up tyrants—browbeating their spouses, frightening their children, manipulating their colleagues.

How do we do that? We start by taking away the little bullies’ insecurities. We help them feel safe and loved and valuable. Borrowing from Maslow a bit, I’d suggest . . .

  1. We make sure we’re dependable parents. We provide hot food, clean jeans, on-time rides to practice and lessons, and general tranquility at home. We keep them safe.
  2. We show we love them—just as they are. We have time for them. We listen to their stories. We allow them to ask questions and to disagree with us. We take them seriously as human beings. They belong in this family, and they always will.
  3. We remind them they’re loved by someone even larger. Their heavenly Father formed them in the womb. Jesus demonstrated his deep love by shedding his blood and dying for them. He understands their pain, their weakness, their strengths better than they do themselves. They’re very special in his eyes, and—this is important—so is everyone else.
  4. We nurture their empathetic imaginations by calling attention to others’ needs: “Did you notice Owen sitting by himself again?” “What would it feel like to always be picked last, like Amber is?” And going in another direction: “Seems like Emma’s good at everything—do you think her life is easy in every respect?” “Nick is always cracking jokes—why is that?” We can nudge our kids out of their egocentricity and open their eyes to see the hearts of their fellow human beings.
  5. We teach them common courtesy. Unless everyone is invited to the party, handing out invitations at school is unacceptable. Though they’ll have special friends, being unkind to anyone is unacceptable. Social media is great, but being nasty online is unacceptable.
  6. We supervise them without apology. This is our job. We won’t tolerate criticizing, marginalizing, or hurting others—including their siblings. We check their texts, their Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, and Whisper accounts. It’s not an invasion of privacy—it’s parenting. When they sin, we dole out consequences. And as their maturity increases, our supervision decreases.
  7. We teach them resilience. When things don’t go their way, when they fail, we remind them they can’t blame others. They’re not victims. They’re responsible for their own lives. They can dust themselves off, make different choices, harness the gifts God gave them, and try again.
  8. Maybe most of all, we model kindness—the kind of kindness Jesus showed to us. Our kids need to see us not being bullies—not mocking or criticizing people, not marginalizing those who aren’t as together as we think we are, not losing our tempers at the drop of a hat, not manipulating people to gain sympathy or power.

Kids will be kids? I’d add, “Parents need to be parents.”

God help us be wise ones, whether our kids are the victims of bullies or the bullies themselves.