From age 25 to age 30, I worked as a youth minister. It was my job to stay on top of youth culture. Sometimes I became an important link between teenagers and their parents. At times I felt like an interpreter, helping parents understand teenagers who didn’t seem to speak the same language or helping teenagers understand their parents who didn’t seem to understand their teenager’s growing need for independence and space.

Now I’m 45. I have sons who are 19 and 17. There have been times we’ve needed an interpreter. Some things about youth culture remain unchanged, but other things are different now from when I was a teenager or even when I was a youth minister.

As I’ve aged, the world around me has changed. Some things about the current youth culture have left me behind: I don’t own a MP3 Player. I’ve never played Xbox. I’ve never bought a shirt or a pair of jeans with holes already in them. I’ve never eaten cold pizza for breakfast. I never read any Harry Potter books, nor have I seen any of the movies. I can’t tell you one song sung by Red Hot Chili Peppers or even what group or pop artist has the number one album. I haven’t been to the movies in more than six months. I don’t have a tan. My sons beg me to put my shirt on when I take it off and go outdoors. What’s so great about sleeping until noon? Does anything good ever happen past 12:30 P.M.? I’ve never used body spray to smell good. I’ve never done a kick flip on a skateboard. I’ve never forked a yard. I don’t have a profile on My Space. I’ve never sent a text message. I’ve never drunk a beer (honest). I’ve never met anyone over the Internet. I don’t have any tattoos or body piercings.

Living in such a different world, how can I ever expect to relate or have any credibility with my own teenagers? Don’t I need to plunge myself into some of the youth culture to understand their world? Won’t this gain me a hearing with my sons and perhaps other youth?

Parents of every generation have had to come to terms with the emerging youth culture, its trends and its fads, some of which are benign, some positive, and some negative. Keeping up, being knowledgeable and interested in the youth culture is important. Yet understanding that we are not a part of that culture is also important. Teenagers don’t want their parents acting like teenagers.

However, teenagers intuitively know whether we are interested in them as individuals. They also know whether we have an interest in things that are important to them. I don’t have to have ever done a kick flip on a skateboard to appreciate how difficult it is and how much practice it takes, or to enjoy watching a teenager pull one off.

The fact that parents of teenagers are aging and often not immersed in youth culture doesn’t mean we have to be intimidated by it, repulsed by it or paralyzed by it. We must keep in mind that although many cultural influences have great pull for the attention and allegiance of our teenagers–such as their peers and the media–research continues to show that parents still have the greatest opportunity to influence their teenagers through close relationships, strong parenting skills, good communication and modeling positive behaviors. The words of the Bible are still true: “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.” Proverbs 22:6

No magic bullet can turn a teenager into a productive, moral, law-abiding adult. Yet it is essential to establish a relationship between parent and teenager where love is communicated through time spent together. Even with our children, perhaps especially with our children, the saying is true, “They don’t care what you know until they know you care.”

Research has shown that “teens who perceived that their parents like them, respect them, take them seriously, listen to them and give reasons for rules and decisions that involve them were less likely to smoke and drink.”

The bottom line is that parents cannot simply lay down the law with teenagers and expect it to be followed. This may sound strange, but parents must earn the respect of their teens. This is done more with one’s ears than with one’s mouth. “Because I said so” works fine up to a certain age.

After children begin to exert their independence, which happens during the teen years if not before, “because I said so” usually reaps rebellion. Obedience that results in the building of character comes when teens have a relationship with parents that’s trusting and emphasizes communication.

Parents don’t have to understand youth culture to understand it’s vital to spend time with their children. If you do it early and never stop, it’s easier than having to begin anew. If you’ve stopped, it may be awkward at first to begin to spend more quality time with your teenagers, but the alternative is that you will eventually lose most of your influence with them. Not to make the effort to spend quality time together is one form of communication. It communicates that you don’t care.

You don’t have to act like a teenager to be with teens. In fact, don’t try. They’ll run and hide. But if you look hard enough, you’ll find enough in common that you can spend some quality time together and like it. Try to choose an activity that’s going to require you to interact and talk, something that will be fun for the teen, even if it’s a stretch for you. After you’ve invested time on his or her turf, you will have earned the right to invite the teen onto yours.

If you can’t find time for them when all is going well, don’t expect them to come find you when things start getting difficult. Remember, things always get difficult in a teen’s world.

You don’t have to understand youth culture to understand that every teenager needs a friend. You don’t have to understand youth culture to be a friend to a teenager, even if that teenager happens to be your own.

Michael Helms is pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Moultrie, Ga. His column appears in The Moultrie Observer.

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