We have two teenagers in our house right now, and there are many, many, many conversations we’d rather not have with them. It would be so much easier to just… let it be. They’ll be fine. They’ll figure it out. Maybe if we ignore it, it’ll go away.
There’s a model in the Bible for this exact parenting tactic: King David.
One of the most gut wrenching stories in Scripture is that of Absalom, Amnon, Tamar, and David (2 Samuel 13-18). The number of wrongs committed in this section of Scripture is kind of appalling.
Absalom and Tamar were brother and sister, and Amnon was their half-brother. The three of them were David’s children. Amnon fell in love with Tamar, tricked her into being alone with him, and raped her. Wrong #1.
When Tamar’s brother, Absalom, heard what happened, in the millenia old tradition of silencing violated women, he told her, “Shh, be quiet.” Wrong #2.
When King David heard everything, he was mad. But no one did anything. Wrong #3.
Two years passed. Not two days, or two weeks, or two months. Two years. All that time, David ignored his son’s sin, his other son’s fury, and his daughter’s desolation. Even at the invitation of his son, Absalom, David refused to spend time with him, avoiding a confrontation. Wrong #4.
So Absalom convinced David to send Amnon and the rest of his brothers along for a sheep shearing and coordinated the murder of Amnon. Wrong #5.
David grieved the loss of his son, Amnon. And the loss of his son, Absalom. Chapter 13 ends with these words, “After Absalom fled and went to Geshur, he stayed there three years. And King David longed to go to Absalom, for he was consoled concerning Amnon’s death.”
Absalom stayed away three years. There was no reason why David couldn’t go to Absalom. In the next chapter, Absalom returned to Jerusalem and lived in the same city for two more years without seeing his father’s face. He has to literally light a field on fire to get the king’s attention. The story of Absalom ends five chapters later, when the commander of David’s army, Joab, kills Absalom, even after the king had asked them to spare Absalom’s life.
Perhaps the most anguished cries in the Old Testament come out of David at the end of chapter 18, “The king was shaken. He went up to the room over the gateway and wept. As he went, he said: ‘O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you—O Absalom, my son, my son!’” (2 Samuel 18:33).
What stopped the king from going to his son? Fear of confrontation. Conflict avoidance.
David resisted the hard conversations, and by doing so, he ignored his daughter’s pain and lost both of his sons. Absalom’s anger festered into bitterness and grew into vengeful fury. David’s fear and sorrow snowballed into grief upon grief upon grief.
Brene Brown offers this tactic for breaking through and telling our stories: preface what’s going on in our minds with this statement: “The story I’m telling myself is…” This is what’s going on inside of me.
Desmond Tutu offers a fourfold path to forgiveness in The Book of Forgiving: Tell the Story, Name the Hurt, Grant Forgiveness, and Renew or Release the Relationship. This is what happened, this is how it made me feel, I forgive you, I release you.
David gets stuck in step one. He can’t even look “what happened” in the face.
In our house, the tactic that’s working best for me these days is this introductory statement, “This makes me uncomfortable, but…” and then I ask whatever it is I need to ask, or say whatever it is I need to say. There are so many questions I don’t want to know the answer to these days because of how badly I know it might hurt if the answer is something I would rather not hear.
But questions are gateways to healing, health, and hope. If we don’t go there, then “there” is the untended garden where the seeds of bitter roots and giants go to grow.
As a parent, it’s my responsibility to pay attention to the unasked questions, create a safe space, and then ask the questions. I’ve noticed you’re struggling. I’ve noticed you’re avoiding me. You know I love you and will never reject you. What is going on in your life?
The God of the Universe models this same tactic. In the face of Elijah’s fear, God meets him in a gentle whisper, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (1 Kings 19:12-13).
How can I help? How can I walk with you through your story?
Parenting teenagers is harder than any other stage of parenting we’ve encountered, with far more tears and fears than either of us anticipated. In the midst of those fears, we must not be like David. We must be brave, remind them they are loved, and hold out hope in its brightly lit lantern so they can see it just beyond the terrors and fears they’re also facing. We have a longer view on their future; we are farther ahead on the road. Don’t allow fear of confrontation to wrest those that matter most from your life. Ask the hard questions. Even if it makes you uncomfortable.