Photo of a teen holding a globe
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Giving Your Teenagers the Keys to Be Successful at Anything They Do

“It has been said that there are only two lasting bequests that we can leave our offspring–one is roots, the other wings.”

Dr. John Santrock

I can vividly remember the heated conflict my mother and I had about college the summer after my high school graduation. “Why won’t you fill out your college applications?” my mother demanded. “Do you realize that it might be too late? I can’t believe you are doing this!”

“Get off my back!” I screamed back at her. “I know what I’m doing!”

I had no idea what I was doing. However, I quickly discovered how foolish I had been. All of the schools needed transcripts, letters of recommendations, and minimum SAT scores. Somehow I thought I could simply “show up” and begin taking classes. After all, that is what I did in high school.

“Sorry, the freshman class is already at full capacity” the admission clerk stated in a not so gentle manner, “You can always go to a junior college and apply next semester.” My mother had been right.

The news sent shock waves throughout my entire body. I felt like going outside and beating myself up, but I reasoned that they would probably “frown” on that kind of behavior. Instead of a state college, they'd recommend a state hospital!

Fortunately, my sister introduced me to the person who was able to get my application approved. I started that week on academic probation—but I didn't care because I was grateful just to be in college.

As I so eloquently illustrated, without a clear direction and purpose it can be very easy for teenagers to make poor choices regarding their future. During later adolescence, many teenagers will begin to wonder about their future. This can be a time of great fear and anxiety. Some teenagers will begin early to decide about education, dating, and a career. Others will wait (like me) until the last minute to make these major decisions. Many parents may be wondering if they can be helpful with these decisions. YES! As parents, although we cannot make the major decisions for our teenagers, we can teach them the “art” of making wise life-decisions. I believe that this process begins by asking a teenager two foundational questions:

What is your MISSION in life?

Christ has commanded us in Matthew 22:37-38 to, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” Then he added the second greatest commandment: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Therefore, the question becomes “What specifically can I do to serve God and others? The “what” question determines our mission in life. There are literally thousands of “what” things to do for Christ and others. My mission is to help people resolve conflicts within their most important relationships (e.g., spiritual, family, marital, business).

What teens will find by choosing their own “what” to serve others, is a higher degree of motivation in life, greater desire to find a school or training institute to start learning the knowledge necessary to serve others skillfully. When motivation to study in school is low within a teen, it's usually because the teen has little or no idea of what he or she wants to do later in life. Help your child choose the serving question to determine what gets him or her excited, and you'll see a much more intense and motivated son or daughter.

The “What” question is not the “how” question. It's very important to choose these two areas separately and in order. The “What” or mission is an over-all theme or broad area like “helping people who are sick.” The “How” is any one of hundreds of ways to get our mission accomplished. If our mission in life is to help people who are sick, the next question will help in choosing the method or specific way of getting our mission accomplished.

What METHOD will you use to accomplish your Mission?

Here is where we get much more specific. Here is also where we choose the type of schooling or specific training we need to accomplish our mission. For example, if our mission is to help people who are suffering physically, we may like to choose any one of many vocations: doctor, dentist, nurse, physical therapist, hospital administrator, pharmacist, or relief worker.

The list can be a mile long. But with a clear mission in our mind, our motivation to find the best place to learn how to get our mission done greatly increases. Our ability to listen and learn increases, our intensity, our creativity, our enthusiasm, and whatever it takes to succeed increases. The joy of serving comes alive with a clear mission and method to accomplish our mission.

Examples of Life-Missions

  • Helping others with their physical pain…
  • By helping people find shelter like a house that they will enjoy…
  • With selling products that protect people’s eyes, ears, etc…
  • By protecting others from world enemies…
  • By building places for people to live or work, like, homes or offices…
  • By making products that ease others’ load in some way…
  • By planting food to feed people or selling food…
  • By designing or creating products that get others where they want to go…
  • By selling products to maintain a person’s house or business…
  • By bringing others enjoyment and encouragement, like being an actor or speaker…
  • By helping people figure out how to love and honor each other more.
Greg Smalley, PsyD
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Dr. Smalley previously served as the director of Marriage Ministries for The Center for Healthy Relationships. He is the author or co-author of twelve books concerning marriages and families, and currently serves as the executive director of Marriage and Family Formation at Focus on the Family.

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