In Age of Opportunity (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2001, 253pp + study guide), counselor and author Paul David Tripp seeks to encourage parents in the often threatening task of parenting teenage children. In the opening chapter, “Age of Opportunity or Season for Survival?” the author notes: “Parents are afraid of their teenagers. Even as they are enjoying the early years of a child’s life, they are looking over their shoulders with dread, expecting the worst, knowing that in a few short years this precious little one will turn into a monster overnight” (13). The author questions if this is in fact a biblical view of the teenage years, and if this view leads to “biblical strategies of parenting and biblical hope?” (14). Tripp answers these questions stating that: “It is time for us to come out of the bunkers of cynicism and fear and into the light, examining the plan God has for us as we parent our teenagers. This is a book about activity, goals, and practical strategies. This is a book that believes that the truths of Scripture apply as powerfully to teens as they do to anyone else” (19). The author seeks to accomplish his goal in the arrangement of the three parts of the book: “Clearing the Debris” (pp. 13-94), “Setting Godly Goals” (pp. 97-209), and “Practical Strategies for Parenting Teens” (213-253).
In Part One, “Clearing the Debris,” Tripp takes on several unbiblical impressions of teens, asking whether young people are victims of their hormones, or their heart. He recognizes the influence of the former, but argues that the latter is dominant, concluding that teenage insecurity, teenage rebellion, and the teenager’s widening world are “three fundamental doors of opportunity that every teenage parent can walk through” (23). Tripp notes that these are spheres of the heart where parents have unique access to help their children with the biblical doctrines of God’s sovereignty, the fear of man, identity in Christ, spiritual warfare, repentance, accountability, discipline, spiritual giftedness, and many more.
Yet, the author notes that the difficulty of parenting teens is at least in part the consequence of idols in the hearts of parents. Tripp writes: “These years are hard for us because they expose the wrong thoughts and desires of our own hearts” (17), proposing that, “Parents who are humbly willing to change, position themselves to be God’s instruments of change” (19). He notes that this change is the result of a parent’s repentance of their own idolatry concerning comfort, respect, appreciation, success, and control.
Tripp argues that parents need to replace these idols with a biblical definition of the family; it is not an institution for parental gratification, but biblical instruction: “The successful parent understands that the family is God’s primary learning community. It is uniquely positioned by God to consistently and effectively communicate truth” (51). Thus parents need to get to know their children, Tripp argues, and instruct them from God’s Word so that they can have a fruitful relationship with Him. Likewise, the author notes that children need parental instruction regarding horizontal relationships—how they should relate with peers, live well in Christian community, and even how they should treat those who would slight them. As Gospel-instruction becomes central in the home, redemption is soon to follow, notes the author, who states that the family is a social unit of relational restoration within and without.
In all of this Tripp proposes that parents must target their teen’s heart, not just their behavior, so as to reinforce godly desires and attitudes that result from trusting God in each situation of life. The family job description (ch 4) is thus to be a theological community where parents direct their teen(s) to understand their story within the larger story of God. Tripp argues that, “This will give them a reason to do what is right. This will give them hope. This will give them strength to endure what God calls them to endure” (59). The author soberly concludes Part One, noting that parenting teens is not an easy task—as teens have little hunger for wisdom and correction, tend toward legalism, tend to be unwise in their choice of companions, are susceptible to sexual temptation, tend to live for the moment, and lack a barometer of their own heart.
The thrust of the author’s argument is found in Part Two, “Setting Godly Goals.” Here Tripp warns parents that their goal needs to go beyond behavioralism: “The rules-and-regulations approach that focuses on keeping the teenager ‘out of trouble’ will ultimately fail because it does not deal with the heart…We have to work at the level of the heart desires with our teenagers, or we will win lots of battles and ultimately lose the war” (111).
In the first of Tripp’s five goals, “Focusing on the Spiritual Struggle,” he urges parents to help their teen focus on the battle that is unseen. He notes the apostle Paul’s admonition in Eph 6.10-18, and proposes that teens can be victorious in spiritual battle as they have an internalized fear of God, submit to the authority figures in their lives, separate from the wicked, think about daily life through a biblical framework, and grow in biblical self-awareness.
Introducing his second goal, “Developing a Heart of Conviction and Wisdom,” Tripp states, “I am afraid that many of us are so busy making decisions for our children in order to keep them safe that we do not teach them to develop their own set of internalized biblical convictions” (128). The author argues that parents need to model and teach that there is no divide between the secular and the sacred, that God’s truth is applicable to all of life. While stating that parents and teens will need to work toward a biblical understanding in issues that are not directly addressed by Scripture, Tripp proposes strategies for developing a wise heart—including drawing out the heart of the teen, and refusing to make the decision for them.
Tripp’s third goal, “Teaching a Teenager to Understand and Interact Redemptively with His Culture” (159), involves raising teens who can interact with their culture while resisting its idols. While some families choose to isolate their children from culture, and others seek to assimilate culture into their lives, Tripp argues that parents should encourage their teens to evaluate participation in culture in light of what pleases God. Since culture is such a shaping force in the modern world, Tripp proposes that parents need to be aggressive and prepare their teen for relating with culture, set up strategies for teens to test culture objectively and in light of God’s Word, identify elements of culture that illustrate biblical themes, and use culture as an opportunity to redeem those lost under its sway.
The fourth goal, “Developing a Heart for God,” includes the teen having “an independent life of personal worship and devotion” (180), “a desire for corporate worship and instruction” (181), a pursuit of “fellowship with the body of Christ” (182), an attitude that is “relaxed and open to discussions about spiritual things” (183), and a biblical perspective when making decisions. Tripp notes that parents who model these, and practice them with their children, provide an atmosphere where teens will naturally learn of God’s worth—and hunger for Him.
Tripp’s final goal involves “Preparing Teenagers for Leaving Home” (193). Here he analyzes Col 1.9-14, observing six characteristics of Christian maturity—elements which, if observed regularly (although imperfectly), should reassure parents that their teen is ready to make their way into the world. The six include: “Sensitivity to God’s revealed will” (199), “Functional godliness” (199), “Progressive spiritual growth” (199), “Perseverance” (200), “An appreciation of God’s grace” (200), “Kingdom awareness” (201). While these standards may seem high, Tripp proposes that they should be; “Don’t give in to any perspective on parenting that convinces you that the promises and goals of the Gospel are beyond your teenager’s reach. Believe that God is able to do more than you could ask or think, through you and in them” (201), he writes. Accordingly, the author returns to his theme of parental responsibility, noting that, “we need to once again face the fact that we cannot give our teenagers what we do not have ourselves….we, too, need to look intently into the mirror of the Word of God” (208). If parents follow God’s Word for themselves and for the work of parenting, Tripp argues, then the teen years will be a time of preparing young people to face life in fellowship with God. The tears of saying ‘good-bye’ will be prompted by joy, not disappointment.
In Part Three, “Practical Strategies for Parenting Teens,” Tripp continues to identify steps parents can take to maximize their relationship with their teen. Here the author lists three strategies for implementing the Godly Goals of Part Two. The first he calls, “Project Parenting” (215). Tripp notes at the outset of Age of Opportunity that because many parents think raising teens successfully is impossible, they simply give up and let ‘fate’ run its course. By introducing the concept of Project Parenting, Tripp intends that parents see their work as a project—a task that is worthy of attention, planning, evaluation, and adjustment, just as the project of remodeling part of a home, or a new endeavor at work. The goal of the goal of the project is to help teen(s) learn to “be wise and do good” (218).
The next strategy is “Constant Conversation” (222). Here Tripp argues that on-going dialogue between parent and teen is a catalyst for the Godly Goals mentioned in Part Two. And according to the author, these conversations cannot be taken for granted; he writes: “As parents of teenagers, it is important to realize that these conversations don’t just happen. You make them happen by a daily pursuit of your child” (223). Here Tripp cites Heb 3.12-13 as a biblical directive in the matter: “See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.” Deep questions, thoughtful reinforcement, and listening provide an atmosphere for spiritual development during the teen years.
In describing the third strategy, “Leading Your Teenager to Repentance” (226), Tripp notes that parents have been placed in a unique position that allows them to help their teens see areas of life that are not under the Lordship of Christ. Thus parents can help teens confess their wrong, commit themselves to God and His resources, and change.
In the final chapter of the book, “Small Steps to Big Change” (233-253), Tripp provides encouraging themes for the journey of parenting during the age of opportunity. Age of Opportunity concludes with a helpful study guide (255-291), which includes discussion questions for use in small-group settings.
Tripp’s work is remarkable for its clarity and helpfulness. As a parent and pastor I can find little substantive disagreement with the author. His use of Scripture is sound, his insights can be easily employed, and each page sounds of grace. I recommend Age of Opportunity for every parent (to be read before their children enter the teen years!), youth worker, teacher, grandparent, and adult who has a mentoring relationship with a teen—this book will aid your work of discipleship, and give you joy.