The term “rumspringa” inspires images of Amish teenagers running amok. The Pennsylvania German term actually does mean “running around”, but they use “rumspringa” as a simple reference to adolescence–the years between puberty and responsible adulthood when young people are free to select a mate and choose for themselves to be baptized into their faith and community.

I’ve witnessed a similar phenomenon among homeschoolers. Like the Amish, homeschooled kids tend to grow up as part of a very conservative sub-culture with lots of parental oversight. Why, then, do we see young people from both cultures sometimes seize the reins of their buggies and steer their lives right into a ditch?

Let me say right up front that I love teenagers with a tenacious passion. Some people go ga-ga over babies, others are like pied pipers to the elementary crowd, but I enjoy that age when young people start to think for themselves and speak out about what they care about. That’s when you begin to see what they’re made of and what they stand for…and that can be a problem. You see, if we don’t notice a heart issue before it takes obvious form, we’ve got a really big problem! During 25 years or so in the homeschooling community, I’ve seen parents take great pains to protect their children from the lure of the world and make sure they “grow up right.” Many hope that by avoiding public school they’ll be able to avoid the shallowness, promiscuity, and rebellion they see there. Yet as much as I love teenagers and respect their parents, I must confess I’ve known homeschooled teens who were foul-mouthed, who drank and smoked and used or even sold drugs, who slept around, flunked out of college, or spent time in jail. We could say the same for any group of teens–even the Amish ones. At least 10% will break the hearts of those who love them and of God, Himself.

Why?

I won’t be able to unpack the whole issue in one post, but here are some thoughts:

As much as we long to protect our children, keeping them away from the world’s influence won’t be any more effective than black clothes, bonnets, and buggies in causing them to revere their faith and lifestyle. Strictly insisting that people do what we tell them is right is about as effective as tying plastic apples onto a dead tree. The problem with sin is that it’s IN us. Our souls aren’t “sin-sick”; our hearts are dead unless Jesus rules and reigns there. Our task is not to somehow cajole our children to “be nice” and “act right”. We have the far greater challenge of praying for our children and leading them to truly love God and desire to please Him.

Let’s face it: babies want what they want when they want it, and they don’t care if it is wise or inconveniences others. I’ve sometimes joked that babies are bundles of proof that man comes into the world a carnal and selfish creature, desperately in need of salvation. Until they make a personal commitment to follow God, our children are cute-but-fallen human beings. Like Adam and Eve, we should expect that they will be curious about the world–tempted, even. Temptation tests our mettle and shows us what our hearts truly desire…and sometimes it’s ugly. (That “Always follow your heart” thing? Yeah…not so much!) It’s not hard to choose to obey God when we don’t know there’s any other option, and Satan is as crafty as ever when it comes to making evil look enticing. The Amish raise their children to be obedient to God and godly authority, but they do not necessarily expect their children to make a lifelong commitment until they understand their options and the consequences. Contrary to pop-culture movies, books, and memes, that does not mean that they expect their children to sample the world with wild abandon, but they do expect that a degree of curiosity is a necessary part of making a fully-informed commitment. Having done their best to lead their children to the Lord, they wait prayerfully while their offspring make the transfer to become personally accountable to God’s authority. They may be onto something.

A part of the problem we often don’t like to acknowledge is that our children will reflect our own attitudes. Kids have a dismaying ability to perceive hypocrisy and to love us in spite of it. If we say we trust God, serve Him, and put Him first in our lives but live in fear, complaining about the life He’s given us, and tolerating our pet sins, our kids will notice the disconnect and learn to wink at hypocritical behavior.

Another attitude our kids will reflect is our opinion of them. A story here–I was standing in line at a Christian book store, admiring the baby of the lady behind me when an older woman walked up and asked how old the child was. When his proud mother answered the question to the month and day, the older woman said, “Well, enjoy these days. He’ll be a teenager soon enough, and then you won’t be able to stand him.” Before I could rein in my tongue I cried, “Oh! Don’t say that!” What do we think it does to a child’s heart to hear that, the older he gets, the less we expect to like him? That we expect him to be rebellious and that we fear a seemingly-unavoidable day when we can barely stand his presence? I have heard moms at church say in their children’s hearing that they “can’t wait until school starts again. These kids are driving me crazy!”  Would you long for an intimate, trusting relationship with someone who said such things about you? It would absolutely crush my heart if my husband introduced me by saying, “Well, I guess I have to confess she’s mine, though she sure is lazy these days and half the time I don’t want to be seen with her”…but I’ve heard parents say the same and worse. Then they wonder why their children distance themselves. If we don’t want our children to shield their hearts from us and act out our worst predictions, we need to call out their best selves encouragingly, praise at every opportunity, and live as if we loved God, our spouses, and them more than anything else in the world. They will reflect what they see in us.

One final thought–respect is tricky. We talk about the need to “respect authority”, but authority flows in one direction while respect must be a two-way street. Authority without respect is tyranny. Respect implies boundaries, and every wall or fence has two sides. Certainly our children need to respect our authority because God has placed them in our care and charged us to teach them to walk with Him, but we also need to show respect by acknowledging that our children are who He has made them. We cannot claim credit for their temperaments or talents, nor can we remake their identity if it’s not to our liking. I’m not talking about insisting that our children learn to speak politely, hold their temper, exercise self-discipline, and be kind to others. They can learn to do those things in their own way as they grow into God’s image. But we should not, I don’t think, criticize them for being shy or enthusiastically friendly, nor pressure them to excel at sports or a musical instrument we longed to play. Proverbs tells us to bring up a child in the way HE should go–to fill the purposes God had for him.

Ultimately our children will make their own choices in life, and our end goal must be to prepare them to walk wisely with God.