Parenting Teens Within Broken Systems: Interview with Dr. Chap Clark, Pt. 1

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
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Speaker and professor at Fuller Theological Seminary and founder of ParenTeen and Hurt seminars, Dr. Chap Clark has over 30 years in youth ministry, including 15 with Young Life. He is the author of many books, including Disconnected: Parenting Teens in a MySpace World and Hurt 2.0: Inside the World of Today’s Teenagers and serves as senior editor of Youthworker Journal. Dr. Clark has a B.A. in communication from the University of California, San Diego, a master of divinity from Fuller and a Ph.D. from the University of Denver. In other words, he’s a pastor. He’s a teacher. He’s a scholar. He’s also a parent.

Dr. Chap Clark has a message for parents of teens: You don’t understand.

Forget everything you learned from your teenage years because it no longer applies to today’s kids. Besides the Internet, smartphones and select soccer, what’s changed?

Systemic abandonment.

What is Systemic Abandonment?

Now, Dr. Clark did not say systematic abandonment. That would be a situation in which adults formed a conspiracy to abandon teens. What he described is systemic abandonment—how the systems we trusted have abandoned our teens. Systems like schools, churches—even families.

Dr. Clark said that in the past, parents saw their role in collectively raising all kids to become productive, healthy members of society. In the last 50-100 years, however, that’s eroded. “We’d watch out for all kids together,” he said. “Now it has dissolved into parents being on their own.”

“It’s so much more difficult to grow up in this culture where fewer adults know your name and your story,” he said. Today, each of wheel of society turns independently. Church does its thing on Sundays and Wednesday nights. School has its own agenda (whether it’s public or private or homeschool). Parents do their best, but they’re pulled in a hundred directions at once. And each of these systems expects the proverbial 110 percent from kids. All the time. Every day. No matter what. Teens feel they are under a “tsunami of expectations,” Clark said.

A Problem to Be Solved or Person to Be Nurtured?

Dr. Clark said adults share a good deal of blame for this development. We may think we’re supporting our kids, but most adults are busy and fragmented. Children are drawn in when and if they can meet adults’ expectations. “Whether it’s sports or music or church or dance or school, when and if the kid complies or performs, then they’re blessed and embraced. When they don’t, when they push against, they’re seen as a problem to be solved, not a person to be nurtured,” he said.

To explore the dynamics between parents and teens, we presented Dr. Clark with three fictional families loosely based on real-world scenarios. Each includes a failing system along with specific struggles today’s families face.

First, we meet the Duncans.

Duncan Family: School System Abandonment

The Duncan family has a freshman boy, age 14, and a seventh-grade girl, 12. The grandparents live nearby and help a lot, which is good because this single mom is worn out. She was recently laid off. She’s frustrated with her kids’ public schools. Accessing online grades, she discovered her son is struggling in algebra. When she called the teacher to find out why he hadn’t mentioned her son’s struggles, he said, “I stopped calling parents. It’s not worth it.” Meanwhile, her daughter is miserable from middle school girl drama. She’d love to send her kids to a private, Christian school, but the money just isn’t there.

Dr. Clark said these kinds of examples are almost right out of his book Hurt 2.0 in the chapter called “School.”

“Whether that’s sports or music or school, we expect that these systems are going to serve us well and serve our kids well instead of expecting them to be broken,” he said. Some teachers, coaches, and administrators “forget why they’re there. Education is supposed to be a partnership.”

He recommended that the Duncan mom go to the algebra teacher in person.

“Never call a teacher. Go visit a teacher. Make an appointment. Go ask good questions,” Clark said, adding that parents should work with the schools as much as possible.

“If we have the option, what we need is a school where the leadership is committed to people being kind and careful with families. We have to work with the systems our kids are in in order to help those systems get better. Then if it’s really bad, we change the environment, but that rarely works,” he said.

Clark cautioned this mother against thinking that sending her kids to a Christian school will solve all the problems.

“[Christian schools] often are worse than public schools in terms of systemic abandonment.” Some, he said, “expect the same kind of conformity with a spiritual cloak over the top. They put God’s work on top of excellence, so God’s disappointed in you, not just your teacher. They force kids to have a faith that’s external instead of an internal kind of experience.”

And what about the Duncan mom? She’s doing the best she can, but she’s not always at her best.

Be the Adult

Dr. Clark warned that even though her circumstances “may be extremely difficult, the last thing we can and should do is to apply that as a rationale for us not living up to our responsibilities to raising kids.”

He continued, “We as adults have responsibility to order our own life, not use that as a way to say, ‘Listen, kid. I have got to deal with my stuff, and you just need to understand.’ That’s the essence of systemic abandonment. Our job is to be the adults to kids and not to get them to buck up because our lives are hard,” Clark explained. “We need to have great compassion as parents. We need to make sure we’re all in good community. We just do not have the right to burden our young people with our own stuff. That’s why we so desperately need to rebuild some semblance of community.”

Build Community

He urged the Duncan mother to find more ways to build community in her life—not solely relying on grandparents—so she will have the tools she needs to show compassion to her kids in their difficult situations at school.

Like the fictional mother, Dr. Clark has experienced this tricky balancing act first-hand.

“I have four stents in my heart. Lost both parents. We’ve got addiction in our extended family,” he said. “The point is, does that get in the way of creating the kind of structure and system where our kids have the chance to thrive?”

“Historically,” he continued, “people realized you can’t make it through life on your own. Society has changed and become more precarious with mental illness, depression, addiction, unemployment, death of a family member. We’ve got to have community so we can be a source of light and health toward kids.”

Read Part One: Parenting Teens Within Broken Systems: Interview with Dr. Chap Clark, Pt. 1

Read Part Two: Parenting Teens Within Broken Systems: Interview with Dr. Chap Clark, Pt. 2

Megan Willome is the managing editor for the WACOAN magazine. She blogs at about poetry and other things, always with a cup of tea.

Image by Helmut Hess. Used with permission. Sourced via Flickr.