Preparing kids for college

Rick Mattson Uncategorized 13 Comments

Depending on which statistics you believe, the rate of Christian students losing their faith in college ranges from 40-80%. Whatever the exact figure, I can tell you what I’ve seen in my 28 years of campus ministry: it happens “a lot.”

Going AWOL from God in college often happens in two ways:

Kids from strict backgrounds start partying. They’ve been waiting a long time for their moment of freedom, and now they’re off to the races! They may also experiment with nonChristian belief systems in college, due (at times) to lack of intellectual engagement during their high school years.

Secondly, kids from more permissive homes. . . start partying. Never well-grounded in a biblical faith, they just drift away with the postmodern tide. You never see them at campus ministry meetings or in church. They just vanish.

Within evangelical circles, I find a spectrum of parenting styles, ranging from permissive to strict, and everything in between. What do you think are some of the benefits/dangers of permissive parenting and strict parenting for getting kids ready for college?

Comments 13

  1. Ooo…may I be the first to offer a comment on the new blog? Good stuff, Rick. I'm looking forward to future posts.

    Good presentation here, too. And while I promptly need to make the disclaimer that I am not a parent, I would think there's much more involved than the strict/permissive dichotomy. Doesn't it seem like sending one's child off to college can sometimes be a bit like the father releasing his (prodigal) son? From all evidences given in this parable, the father isn't portrayed as particularly strict, nor permissive. His true love is only known as he showers his returned son with affection, forgiveness, generosity, kindness, and celebration.

    Ideally, I suppose, parents should not just be the disciplinarians of the household, but also the instructors of the value of the good. Then, hopefully, the new college student will seek out venues to grow in faith and goodness on her own because she clings to it. Something like the proverbial (not formulaic) spirit of “Train children in the right way, and when old, they will not stray” (Pro 22:6 NRS).

  2. Right now I am trying to give my son a combination of both. He is only 16 months. I let him explore and climb and get into things. If there is something that will actually hurt him then, of course, I will tell him “no”.

    Children of strict parents will become rebellious because they want to explore new possibilities, yet they too may become strict parents.

    Children of permissive parents won't know how to live in a setting with rules…like in the workplace.

    Just a few thoughts.

  3. Rick,

    I left the Christian faith during college without ever going to a single party! I think the loss of a young adult's faith during college often has to do with the intellectual honesty (or lack thereof) of their parents, and of the church they attended, when they were growing up. Whether the issue is theological, political, or simply the fact that drinking and sex can be fun, churches and parents are often intellectually dishonest with young adults.

    Good to see you in the blogosphere!

  4. I'm not sure about whether one type of home is more effective than another, because I know fabulous people that grew up in both kind of homes. I do think that the issue seems to be identity formation. This is the key job of all adolescents. Discovering who they are in the world can be done through opposition “I am not that” or through identification “I am that.” Usually adolescents do some mixture of both. Maybe what is most helpful for parents is to develop a profound curiosity about who this person is that I call my son or daughter. Parents can fall into the trap of seeing their children as projections of themselves to fulfill their dreams or manage their image through. There must be a way to uphold the values and boundaries of the home, while encouraging a child to discover and to share with the family who they are. Maybe then the level of structure in the home becomes less important. Just an idea.

  5. I've seen this very thing often and it's disheartening. It's virtually a given — kids away from home in college stretch their wings and, sadly, often crash to the ground.

    Aside from my own ideas about why this happens, let me cite an idea offered by Pastor Rob Bell, author of Velvet Elvis (Zondervan, 2005). He says that children raised in Christian homes have often been taught that Christianity is the only thing that’s true, or that there is no truth outside the Bible. So when they get to college and hear truth in other forms through various classes and professors, they face a dilemma: believe the truth they are learning in class or stay loyal to the Christian faith they were brought up with. Put another way: it’s either intellectual curiosity or Jesus. It’s a false choice, because the whole world is God’s and the earth’s people who are not Christians may seek and speak the truth as much as Christians do.

    Bell writes, “They (college students) are experiencing truth in all sorts of new ways, and they need a faith that is big enough to handle it. Their box is getting blown apart, and the faith they were handed doesn’t have room for what they are learning.” He adds, “If you come across truth in any form, it isn’t outside your faith as a Christian. Your faith just got bigger. To be a Christian is to claim truth wherever you find it” (p. 81).

    Hope this provides some food for thought. John Prin

  6. Rick,
    You kind of promised “radical” in your invitation. I suppose that will come later?
    The older I get the less sure I am of any prescription along the lines of “permissive” or “strict”. I've watched some children of stricter families succeed famously (so far) and some crash and burn. I've seen the same thing for what you might call permissive families.
    My four post-high school children have followed various paths, probably none that could be directly tied to how I parented them. Two follow the Lord, one not, one – who knows? One has completed college, two not (yet), one probably won't attempt it. All have partied to a greater or lesser extent.
    The point is, they all came out of the same “style” of parenting – which was just me acting out of my own personality. If I've been intentional at all it has been to insist they think for themselves in all things – which all four do fiercely – and try to keep them grounded in reality.
    And God will make of them what he will.

  7. Kids have to learn how to make choices. So if a house is permissive or strict, there must be opportunities for children to make ever increasingly important decisions for themselves. When they are still at home, you can walk with them and help them learn from their mistakes. Then when they get to collge, they have some fundamental skills for living on their own.

    But we religious parents have to face the fact that our children will need to make the faith their own. How many new college students have actually lost their *parent's* faith?

    Put these two things together and we see that parents have to start letting the children make faith decisions for themselves *before* they leave for college. Easier said than done – trusting God for our children is the hardest thing we ever do as parents.

  8. I remember my sophmore year and there were two roommates. They were similar – both raised in 'Christian' homes. One ended up partying and the other became more deeply grounded in her faith. Perhaps the key difference I noticed was their choice of friends. I do not hold this out as the solution, but I know that to survive as a Christian you need brothers (and sisters) in arms. How much more so when you enter a new environment that challenges all that you have been taught?

  9. I wonder if its as simple as you state – permissive and strict parents correlated with expressed and/or demonstrated belief/faith in children during college.

    There are so many variables involved in faith decisions, including experiences and choices beyond parenting control, that I would have to see some evaluation that suggests your premise is valid, your personal experiences aside.

    Not to mention the wild cards of the Holy Spirit and God's predestination, our free will – I thought I'd throw that in, just for fun. And, since I've been reading the old testament lately, maybe the sins of the father, 4 or 5 generations ago.

    And then, of course, there's the whole issue of time. College years may not necessarily define future belief (though I'm aware of the statistical realities of stated salvation past the college years).

    Cheers old friend – love this idea of a blog.

  10. Rick, What can youth ministries of churches do to prepare students so that there is less erosion of faith in college? Do you recommend more apologetics for teens? McDowell's book More Than A Carpenter was revised and is very readable. I have been buying them in bulk for about $3 per copy to give to people. Maybe teens should learn about post-modernism etc before going to college. Paul Nyhuis, Care Pastor, Crossroads Church

  11. HI Rick,

    Nice blog. You've listed two options: strict and permissive…and mentioned a lack of intellectualism. What if parents (regardless of their parenting style) discussed the tough issues with their kids when they were still home?

    Have you seen Answers in Genesis/ Ken Ham's new book called “Already Gone”? He claims that we lose kids in middle school, because we tell them Bible stories in Sunday School and treat them like fairy tales.

    We have been trying to avoid that mistake in our family by having lots of AiG materials available to the kids, which use science and logic to reinforce the truth of the Bible. We also talk to them about how the stories in the Bible aren't just stories…they are true and really happened. We attempt to talk about the tough issues, and are enjoying working through them with the kids, keeping God's Word central.

    Take care! –Mary and Dale

  12. Wow Rick –so much to say –so little space!

    I think part of the issue is how a parent sees their task. I never had the idea that my kids should “discover who they were”… I knew who they were..depraved offspring of their mother.

    I saw my task as a parent to instill two things: values and life skills. I was and still am amazed at how different each of my boys are — right from the delivery room on. So each kind of needed a different style of parenting, altho I suppose most folks would put my entire spectrum on the “strict” side.

    One value we worked to instill was intellectual honesty, along with reasoning skills,so they could handle all the different views and options they would encounter. Plus I exposed them to people who lived the consequences of their own life decisions, mostly via prisioners who lived with us.

    I knew along the way they try different things, like seeing if one really did see visions after eating the worm on the bottom of the tequilia bottle. The two that tried it both waited until they were out of the house before they did that experiment, mostly out of respect for their parents.

    But they had the values and intellectual aptitude in place to handle what came after — so they fact they did some experimenting really wasn't much of a concern to me.

    So perhaps the core issue is less “strict” or 'permissive”–but how a parent understands what the goal and task of parenting is

    Greg Hull
    The 10 fingered sawyer

  13. Paul Nyhuis asked for suggestions in helping to prevent erosion of faith in college. Anything I say here will be woefully inadequate, because there's so much that could be done.

    Quickly, I would suggest 1) apologetics for kids. This takes a church culture committed to intellectual honesty and development–not common, that I can see. 2) Figuring out who this young person is, and integrating Jesus into their specific activities, abilities and interests. This requires a kind of “sacramental” spirituality that I will write about soon, that should stimulate more discussion.

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