There are a number of recognizable, and almost universally acknowledged, milestones in the human journey from conception to adulthood. Among them are birth, the first tooth, the first steps, the first words, learning to ride a bike, going to school, teenage, driver’s license, age 18, high school, and age 21 – to name some of the more obvious ones.
When trying to identify the most significant milestone among all of these, most people will settle on age 18 (at which time you can vote and make your own legal decisions about cigarettes, alcohol, and other things) or age 21 (the age often considered full adulthood). Some people would choose high school graduation (which roughly corresponds to age 18) or college graduation (which roughly corresponds to age 21) as that most significant milestone – the dividing line between the time when your parents are responsible for you and the time thereafter when you are responsible for yourself.
In our day, people seem to be graduating from college later and later – often well past age 22. Also, they are getting married later and later. Because of this, even the age of 30 has come to be considered something of a milestone in terms of full transition to adulthood – especially if accompanied by marriage or having children. Young people – especially males – are said to mature later, contributing to this timeline extension.
Identifying the most important milestone in the process of human maturation is particularly important for Christian parents because they have a goal, and achievement of that goal is marked by milestones. That goal, of course, is that the child love and serve the Lord. Therefore, knowing the milestones, and especially the most important milestone helps you pace yourself – helps you manage your efforts as a parent. The milestone become closely associated with the goal toward which you’re shooting, because you know after that time – that is, once adulthood occurs – your job must largely have been completed. This is therefore the point which divides all parental time where that child is concerned. Before this point, you are responsible for the child; after this point, the child is responsible for himself or herself. This point – wherever you place it – is, therefore, “the great divide.”
It is normal for parents to think of the great divide in the child’s life as the transition from childhood (or teenage) to adulthood. As we’ve said above, this divide is considered by most people to occur sometime around the age of 20, give or take a few years. Therefore, most parents think, “I’ll raise my child toward adulthood and then let go; I’ll still have some parental responsibility once adulthood is achieved, but not nearly as much.” There’s nothing wrong with this way of thinking…except that it misses the great divide by about 7 years. In fact, it places the great divide about 7 years after it has already occurred.
The great divide in human maturation is age 13 – give or take a year or two. Though I’m using age 13 as the reference point, I’m not meaning the thirteenth birthday per se. I’m meaning that general time in a person’s life. And I’m not even meaning puberty, though certainly that is an important part of the great divide. What I’m primarily meaning by saying that the great divide occurs around age 13 is that before this time children are more affected by what their parents think than by what the children’s peers think. After the great divide, children (i.e., adolescents, teenagers) care more about what their peers think than what their parents think. You only have to think about this for a minute to realize that there could be no point in a child’s life more signficant for a parent to notice than this one.
Let me state it again for emphasis: this great divide is the most important milestone a parent will see in a child’s life. This is the age you must remember – more than 18, more than 21, more than any other age. Some people call this time the onset of peer pressure, and indeed it is. It is the onset of puberty and peer pressure that are driving this change in the parents’ status for the child. It is not that the child chooses to distance himself from his parents; rather, it is the natural progression of growth. Parents who don’t allow for it, or resent it, will only make life after the great divide that much harder.
Gradualness is an intrinsic aspect of growth, so it’s not like a switch is thrown one day. It’s not as if not as if peer pressure doesn’t matter one day and the next day it does. Nevertheless, even though you may not be able to pinpoint the specific instant in which your child begins fearing his peers more than he fears you, this transition will occur – just as surely as night transitions to day, and summer transitions to autumn.
This fear – whether of you as parent or others as peers – is the fear of man. And it is a fear with which we are all born. That is, we’re born with the fear of man. Everyone is bigger than we are. We can’t help but be intimidated. We will eventually become as big as everyone else, but along the way the fear just takes different forms. As a result, fully-grown human beings can be driven in every aspect of their lives by the fear of man.
To become a disciple of the kingdom of God is to begin to fear God more than man. When you became a follower of Jesus, you did so by exchanging your fear of man for a fear of God. Of course, it is possible in your Christian walk to stumble and to fall back into the fear of man. Sadly, many Christians today are as motivated by the fear of man as a non-Christians. Nonetheless, I’m going to speak to you as someone who, if he fallen, has returned to his first love (Revelation 2:4).
Here’s the importance of knowing about, and paying attention to the great divide: your goal as a Christian parent is to transition your children from a fear of you to a fear of God before the great divide occurs – that is, before they transition from a fear of you to a fear of peers. I’m not saying that there’s no hope of transitioning your children from their fear of man to the fear of God after the great divide – I’m just saying that the job will be much harder and much different. This is primarily because your influence over the child’s life will be diluted by the presence of peer pressure.
Since transitions in life are gradual, you do not want to wait until age 13 is just around the corner before you try to effect the transition from fear of man to fear of God. You want to have accomplished your goal well before that. You want a “buffer” period of time during which you can continue to reinforce the transition before the great divide actually occurs. This buffer period will also be a “margin of safety” for you – giving you time to make up for lost time if you’ve stumbled along the way and gotten delayed in putting Jesus on the pedestal you’ve been occupying in your child’s heart.
If your children have already passed the great divide, you can still win them to kingdom of God when they stray, but your approach will have to be much different. The old methods won’t work. You can no longer demand obedience and expect to get it after the great divide. Peer pressure after the great divide works as powerfully as parental pressure before the great divide.
Parents who think that the teenage years are a seven-year interim phase separating childhood from adulthood are seeing the child’s life in three periods. Yet there are really only two: before the great divide and after. That is, childhood and adulthood. Again, the two periods of a person’s life to be considered when it comes to parenting are 1) the period of time when you are the primary influence (that is, the first dozen or so years), and 2) the period of time when you are no longer the child’s primary influence (which is the rest of his life).
Am I saying teenagers are adults? Yes, I am. Immature adults, to be sure. They still need nurturing, they still need guiding. They can still revert to childish behavior at times. But they must be guided as budding adults, not as non-adults. They must be guided as you would guide a younger adult friend, not as you would guide a child. There is no middle stage called “teenager.” That’s just a reference to how many years they’ve lived. Nature has made them adults and they are struggling to get the hang of it. The least helpful thing we can do is act as if they haven’t been through something incredibly profound. Aside from physical changes, the most notable aspect of this transition is that their fears of other human beings have come alive in all sorts of forms – some of which they, or you, may not even be recognize as fears. Our job as parents is to help them negotiate this frightening and existing new world into which they’ve been thrust – and to do so as advisors and not as authoritarians. For they’ve come to see that, unlike the past, our parental authority is not going to go very far in this world they now have to navigate. They are going to have to go where we cannot help them. (That’s why the presence of Jesus as Lord in their hearts is so critical.)
Once again: there is no middle stage of life between childhood and adulthood we can call “teenagerhood.” Oh, we can call it that if we want to, but we’re just misrepresenting reality. There is only childhood and adulthood, and those in their teenage years are living on the adult side of that dividing line. They will need time and our help to get to the stage where they can be fully responsible for themselves, but let us not treat them as less than they have become. Nothing is going to happen to them at 18, 21, or any other age that will match in magnitude what happened to them at 13.
Now if your children make the transition from the fear of man to the fear of God before the great divide, your parental job will be easier (note that I didn’t say “easy”) through the teenage years. This is because their fear of God will cause them to respect your opinions much more than they would otherwise. If, however, they pass the great divide still in the fear of man, they will begin to regard peer opinions more important than yours and you will have to work much harder to convince them of anything. And by working harder, I don’t mean yelling more or even demanding more. After the great divide, such methods become counter productive. The human heart is very complex, and these teenagers (that is, young adults) will develop personal strategies of all sorts to cope with you and keep you at bay while they are simultaneously negotiating in their hearts all the fears they have about interacting with their friends the next day. They won’t even be able to comprehend all the complexity going on in their hearts. These deep machinations of the human heart can lead to all sorts of predictable – and unpredictable – behavioral issues.
So, whether your children are before or after the great divide, you still want to insure that they are walking with the King…just as you are. Therefore, what’s most important – both before and after the great divide – is that you yourself are walking with the One with whom you want your children to walk. If it’s “do as I say, not as I do” then all bets are off. None of what I’m saying will help you. But, as I said above, I’m going to continue speaking to you as to someone who knows the greatest joy of life is to love the Lord Jesus Christ and you want to share that joy with your children. You want them to embrace Him freely, just as you have embraced Him freely.
My wife and I have raised four children and the youngest is almost 30. I have noticed many milestones in their lives, and I have noticed much growth, many phases, and change of all kinds. Yet there is no comparison between the great divide and any other milestone of their lives. More changed at the great divide than changed at any other milestone they crossed. When you consider all the changes that a human being experiences in the course of life (all those ones I mentioned at the beginning like “first tooth, first steps,” and so on as well as all those that come later like first job, marriage, first home, first child), it is saying quite a lot to say that “the great divide” is the most significant. It is the transition from child to adult. What could be more profound?
Note that I am not saying that the great divide is the most important milestone for the child. They may not see their lives that way – at least not yet. Rather, I’m saying that it is the most important milestone in the child’s life for you as parent. You occupy one place in their lives before it and a different place in their lives after it. Your place in their lives is central before the great divide…and something other than central afterward. Seek to have Jesus become central in their lives before you lose your place as central. That is, give Him your place while you still have it, because it won’t be yours to give after the great divide.
There is, of course, a lot more to effective Christian parenting than just being aware of, and navigating through, the great divide. However, ignoring this monumental phenomenon is just asking for extra trouble in your parenting responsibilities that you don’t want or need. Therefore, always be aware of where each child is with respect to the great divide…and adjust your efforts accordingly.