Are You Raising an Absalom?

Posted on January 21, 2011 · Posted in Gospel, Teenagers

Power struggles are a common theme among parents of teenagers. Even teens who appear to be mild and compliant to others can engage in hard-fought battles at home. At the root of many of these battles is a deep-seated perception that they, the teens, are being treated unfairly. We see this dynamic in the life of Absalom. It is abundantly clear from his narrative that Absalom did not seek God in his distress and troubles. He took matters into his own hands. His outrage over Tamar turned into vengeance towards Amnon. His bitterness at his father’s failure to deal with Amnon’s sin yielded a life devoted to the overthrow of David’s kingship. We see Absalom’s anger, his planning, his obsession with justice, his treachery, and his quest for power, but we never see him reaching out to God. In this sense, we should have compassion for Absalom. Without God, we are lost. This only led to a life of bitterness and discontent.

The same is true for a teenager caught in a power struggle. A battle of wills ensues when pleasing God is not the primary consideration for one or both of the parties involved. Even if there are legitimate concerns about a lack of just treatment, the way to peace is not primarily in seeing justice done. In Christ alone are things made right. When a teenager, or anyone else, focuses only on the injustice that has been done (either real or perceived), his way to trusting God is blocked. Christ took punishment intended for us so that we would not have to be concerned with being mediators of justice but of grace (Matthew 18:23-35). This quality is unique to Christianity.

Struggling with unjust treatment tends to leave anyone, but teenagers in particular, weary and burdened. The weight of injustice is more than we can bear in our own strength. Absalom bore this weight alone and we see how it eventually destroyed him. Teenagers who bear this burden by themselves may appear intimidating, even menacing. Or, they may be sullen and withdrawn. But at their core, there is fear and loneliness. Modern teenagers are no more equipped to deal with the weight of unjust treatment than Absalom was. Christ appeals directly to them when he says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest…and your will find rest for your souls (Matthew 11:28-30). This is the message of hope and restoration that your teenagers need to hear from you.

Too often, parents also become locked into the battle for power. Instead of waging the battle in the power of the Spirit, the battle is waged with the inferior weapons of the flesh (2 Corinthians 10:3-5). A power play on the part of the teenage is met with a similar display of power from the parent, and the contest of wills is on. When this happens, the results are not pleasant.

Let’s take a step back for a moment and see how such a battle of wills began. You will recall that one of the foundational principles from Shepherding a Child’s Heart is that children progress through three age ranges, and a different emphasis is needed in training for each range. With young children, ages 0 to 5, the greatest emphasis should be on God’s authority. These early years should not be a time of cajoling, pleading, or manipulating your children. During this time, it is important for them to see that God is Lord of the world, and that he must be obeyed. This teaching is summarized in Ephesians 6:1-3. A child who does not see the importance of God’s authority at a young age will be prone to think that he can always maneuver around a situation and get his own way. Please make no mistake about the power of the sinful nature and its lasting influence on the flesh. What the flesh wants directly opposes what the Spirit of God wants. This influence is deceptive, not only to the child, but also to the parent. Playful back-and-forth banter with a young child about whether or not he will obey quickly can seem cute and amusing at the moment. But in reality, seeds are being sown for battles of will—battles of power—that will yield bitter results in the future. A similar impact can also result from a parent who is arbitrarily authoritarian and harsh. Neither of these two patterns faithfully models God’s authority. Young children need to be gently, but firmly, confronted with the reality of God’s control and authority. A young child who learns that he can manipulate parents by holding out for his own choices, either by cuteness or angry defiance, has the potential to become an Absalom—a teenager committed to getting his way, whatever the cost.

For example, when a child uses a ploy like pretending not to hear an instruction, he is really honing his skill of manipulation. The same is true when a request for obedience is met by giggles and cute smiles, all while the child continues not to comply with the parent’s directions. Similarly, a child who immediately becomes weepy or sad when asked to obey is learning to play the power game. You must not let this happen. One crucial way to avoid these early patterns is to make sure that your child obeys your directions immediately, exactly, and with a cheerful spirit. Unless all three of these components are present, true obedience is not being practiced.

Give this some thought and we will revisit this in a future post.

Jay Younts
John A. (Jay) Younts is the Shepherd Press blogger, and is a ruling elder serving at Redeemer Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church in Moore, South Carolina. He has written Everyday Talk, Everyday Talk About Sex & Marriage, Finding the Right Track, the In Touch With Paul stewardship series, and What About War. He has studied and taught about biblical childrearing for 30 years. He and his late wife Ruth have five adult children.