Preparing Teens for College (And Adulthood)

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Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children of one’s youth. (Psalm 127:4)

Raising teens to be faithful Christian adults has never been easy. Like us, our children enter this world as sinners whose hearts must be transformed by the Holy Spirit. As parents, pastors, teachers, and mentors, we seek to be God’s instruments in this process.

And while we pray and instruct them about the kingdom of God, we also prepare them to live fruitfully in the kingdom of man. The two are not disconnected: Academic, professional, and relational success flow primarily from character and maturity. And as Christians, we know that character and maturity flow most readily from a God-mastered life and soul, from the hearts of men and women who have bowed the knee to Jesus as Lord. We’re not saved by good works, but we are saved for them (Ephesians 2:8–10). Good trees bear good fruit, for the glory of God, the benefit of others, and the adornment of the gospel (Titus 2:10).

A Bad Combination

But modern society poses unique threats to the development of our children. America’s young-adult culture is increasingly narcissistic, captivated by superficial interests and instant gratification. Many teens today prefer to linger in the no-man’s-land of adolescence, rather than complete the journey to adulthood. They’re less resilient in the face of difficulty, more dependent on their parents, and more distracted by digital and visual media than former generations. And values such as honesty, industry, and the connection between sowing and reaping can seem like relics of a distant past.

In a survey of more than 2,000 high school seniors in the Chicago area, sociologist James Rosenbaum found that almost half of them (46 percent) agreed with the statement, “Even if I do not work hard in high school, I can still make my future plans come true” (Beyond College for All, 59–62). This while the 2009 High School Survey of Student Engagement found that 77 percent of respondents spent five hours or fewer per week “doing homework,” and 50 percent spent one hour or less per week “reading and studying for class.”

As you might suspect, arrogance and an undeveloped work ethic are not the best foundation stones for post-high school ventures. If you think you’re better at something than you really are, you expect it to come easily. This makes you less likely to work at it, less likely to succeed, and more likely to be surprised and disappointed when you don’t. We send more teens to college than ever — and spend a fortune doing so — only to lose one in four of them before their sophomore year, while roughly half fail to graduate. (Pathways to Prosperity, Harvard Graduate School of Education, February 2011, reports that 56 percent of those who start at a four-year college complete their degree in six years, and 29 percent of those who begin at a two-year college complete their degree in three years.)

Parents Make the Difference

The good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way. What makes a difference? Training. Modeling. Disciplining. By parents. In homes. Before they go. What we impart to our children — in our speaking, listening, and by our example — makes a huge difference. If we teach them to see every aspect of their lives under the lordship of Christ, to take initiative, assume responsibility, accept correction, work (and study) unto the Lord, persevere in commitments, live from biblical convictions, nurture faith-sustaining friendships, and be faithful stewards of their time, talents, and treasure — and do it all with the deepest joy and richest laughs — our teens can thrive in college and beyond.

Our teens’ first years outside the home don’t need to be a period of spiritual apostasy and professional wandering. With God’s help, we can set them on a God-honoring trajectory. College can be a time when they continue of the path we’ve cleared to clearheaded thinking and lifelong learning, “careful to devote themselves to good works” in ways that are “excellent and profitable for people” (Titus 3:8).

As our children move through high school, our role in preparing them for what comes next is absolutely crucial. May God strengthen and equip us for this vital work.