February 6, 2015 | 03:00 pm

Telling Your Teenager Who She Is

During youth worship hour two weeks ago, I asked my students to call out some temptations that students might face in middle school. Their list ranged from laziness to chocolate to social media to suicide, demonstrating the full range of the adolescent experience. As we compared their temptations to the temptation of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, we discussed Jesus’ ability to resist temptation. Jesus knew who he was as a Jew, as a child of God, and as the one with whom the Father was “well pleased” in Matthew 3. When faced with an opportunity to do something against his identity, Jesus refused. So how does an adolescent, a person who is still establishing her/his identity, resist the temptation to do things that are not healthy or safe or wise?

As Gen Xers and Millenials are raising today’s teenagers, we know better than to tell a young person what to wear or what kind of music to prefer. We leave wide spaces for our children to pursue their unique interests, careers, hobbies, and affiliations. We would never be caught telling our child what instrument to play or what book to read or what person to love. But as we create a safe environment for our children to cultivate their own identities, we must not stop telling our children who they are:

You care about people.
You care about yourself.
You care about learning.
You are a kind person.
You are generous with those in need.
You are good with animals and all of creation.
You respect people.
You are healthy.
You are safe.
You are wise.

Of course this feels like wishful thinking. We would rather say, “You are a selfish, spoiled teenager!” and it would be totally true. But when we affirm these statements we are calling into being the identity that is often drowned by all of the other messages that our teenagers hear. We are being prophetic parents, who look past the pimply present and see a future of wisdom and kindness. If you tell your child that she is kind, then in that moment of temptation, in that moment when she must choose between bullying or stealing or glaring or belittling, she may say in her mind, “That’s not me. That’s not who I am. I am kind.”