The Prodigal’s Dad – Lesson Three: Who’s Responsible?



We’ve all heard the term “helicopter parent.”  The parent who feels compelled to follow around with constant monitoring of their child or teen, ensuring everything goes as planned.  So let me ask you this: have you EVER heard the term used in a positive light?

Didn’t think so.

Why is that?  It’s because we all know deep down that this is not good.  It does not allow our teens to exercise their own judgment and learn their own lessons.  If they are not allowed to fail, then they will miss their greatest opportunities for learning and growth.  So why do we, as parents, still feel compelled to hover and take responsibility for them?  It is primarily a function of our own fear.  Rather than dwelling on what may go wrong, we must choose to focus on remembering how our teens have learned from previous lessons, and the kind of growth, maturity, and responsibility we are eager to see in them as they move into adulthood.

Just as the Father of the Prodigal is clearly a man of faith, so must we place our faith not only in God, but also in our kids’ ability to learn, grow, and shine.  The more we believe in them, the more we will see them rise to the challenge of responsibility.

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One Day At A Time


This is a week when many of us get serious about considering what changes we want to make in our lives.  There’s just something about starting a new year that gives us fresh hope and fresh motivation.  Unfortunately, many people are quickly discouraged by their “New Year’s Resolution” failures, and end up in a worse state than they were before.  There is one simple shift you and your teens can make together than can make a world of difference in how much real progress each of you make in the transformations you want to experience.  Ready?

Don’t make a “resolution” for the year!

Declaring you WILL do something different for the whole year sets you up for discouragement and a sense of failure.  I know you don’t that for your teens.  Surely you don’t want it for yourself, either?  So, does this mean we should aim low and just remain satisfied with areas of our lives that really do need improvement?  And is THIS what we want to teach our teens?  Of course not!  Instead…

Decide to start facing each day, one day at a time, with a reasonable goal of improvement for that day.  Talk with your family this week about what changes everyone would like to make in their lives.  Be an encourager to your teen, and not a discourager.  If you are really feeling bold, ask for input from your kids and spouse about what changes you could make.  Talk with each other about what is realistic.  Really help your teens think through this part of it.

Then start making daily challenges and goals for yourselves.  Each day is a new day.  Each day is a fresh start.  And each day is a day to celebrate growth and progress.  Just think how much better your teen’s life will be thirty years from now if you do your best to set this example and encourage this way of living right now.  By encouraging each other in the simple daily living of moving toward something better, we can make every year the best it can possibly be.

p.s. – If you and your family have goals of moving more and getting more fit in the coming days, weeks, and months, I can definitely recommend getting Fitbits for parents, teens, and tweens.  We just got them for an early Christmas, and the fun and challenge is a refreshing motivation for all of us.

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I was reminded last night of the rich blessing of hospitality.  Not just the blessing of being welcomed into a home.  But being welcomed into a conversation.  Welcomed into someone’s world.  Welcomed into their heart.  And having someone share their world and heart with you in return through meaningful conversation.  Isn’t that truly better than anything we can buy for one another on Amazon or at the mall?

This Christmas season, take time to have conversations that matter.  Welcome people into a safe place with you.  Especially teens.  They surely need a safe place as much as anyone does these days.  Ask questions that you really want to hear answered.  Pray together.  Eat together.  Laugh together.  Play together.  Make memories without interrupting every moment for selfies.  Just be there.  Fully.  Who will you welcome into your life in the coming days and weeks?  And what difference might it make?

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.  For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in,  I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?  When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you?  When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

– Matthew 25:34-40

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Welcome to Our World

As I begin reflecting on the meaning of this Christmas season, this song keeps coming to mind.  Thank you, Chris Rice, for sharing this beautiful song of rich theology and grateful hope.  In the next couple of weeks, I will be finishing the series on lessons from the Prodigal’s Dad, as well as posting some practical family/parenting reflections on Christmastime.  But for today, I simply want to invite you to consider and celebrate the tremendous meaning of God responding to our ugly sinfulness and desperate brokenness through the tender offering of His only son as a fragile baby into our violent world.  What a joyful mind-blower!  Merry Christmas to you and yours.

Tears are falling.  Hearts are breaking.  How we need to hear from God.  You’ve been promised.  We’ve been waiting.  Welcome, Holy Child.  Welcome, Holy Child.  Hope that you don’t mind our manger.  How I wish we would have known.  But long awaited holy Stranger, make yourself at home.  Please, make yourself at home.  Bring your peace into our violence.  Bid our hungry souls be filled.  Word now breaking Heaven’s silence.  Welcome to our world.  Welcome to our world.  Fragile fingers sent to heal us.  Tender brow prepared for thorn.  Tiny heart whose blood will save us, unto us is born.  Unto us is born.  So, wrap our injured flesh around you.  Breathe our air and walk our sod.  Rob our sin and make us holy, perfect Son of God.  Perfect Son of God.  Welcome to our world.  – Chris Rice: Welcome to Our World

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The Prodigal’s Dad – Lesson Two: Allowance

Dad watching kids


Of all the lessons we can learn from the Father of the Prodigal, this one may be the hardest: He is willing to allow his son the freedom to make his own choices and mistakes, thereby learning the most powerful lessons for himself.  This certainly doesn’t mean he doesn’t care.  Far from it.  He isn’t simply turning away to ignore his foolish son.  He very deliberately makes the choice to allow his son breathing room when he can so clearly see he is about to fall – and fall hard.  He loves him enough to let him go.  He understands that forced compliance is not something that will help his son truly grow to become the man he was born to be.

How hard is this process for you as a parent?  It’s painful, isn’t it?  It certainly doesn’t come naturally or easily for many of us.  And yet, it is such a critical dynamic for us to practice as our children grow through adolescence into adulthood.  They will face touch decisions in life.  Have we given them opportunities to face some of these for themselves before we send them off into the wild blue yonder of adulthood?  Remember, loving our teens doesn’t mean keeping them from the pain of mistakes and disappointment.  We must prepare them to face such times with strength and wisdom.  And allowing them the freedom to choose and fall now (while not far from our watchful eyes) is one of the greatest, if most difficult, opportunities we can bestow upon them.

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The Prodigal’s Dad – Lesson One: Example

father reading BibleSeveral weeks ago, I posted an article on five lessons we can learn from the Father of the Prodigal.  At that time, I promised you five follow-up posts to explore each lesson.  Sorry it has taken me a while.  Life has been challenging for my family lately.  Sometimes, we just have those seasons, don’t we?

As I mentioned before, when I read between the lines of the story of this family, it seems clear to me that the father has spent a lifetime setting an example of right living before his sons.  If his foolish and headstrong youngest son has enough clarity in the midst of a stinking pigpen to believe his father will accept him home again, it really says a lot about the powerful example of a father’s life well lived.  This man had impressed his heart and character upon his son by consistently making right choices and treating people with compassion and dignity.  His son had seen this way of life reflected over and over throughout the years, and he never forgot.

The simple, yet profound, challenge for us is this: We need to aim our own daily lives at the target we want our teens and children to hit one day.  If we want them to make healthy choices in their diet and lifestyle, our most powerful tool for motivating and guiding them is our own pattern of diet and lifestyle choices.  If we don’t want to see them glued to a screen all the time, we must show them what it looks like to keep our own screens in their proper priority and place.  If we hope they will one day have a great marriage, we need to show them now what that looks and feels like.  If we don’t want them being dishonest, we must walk with integrity in our own tough choices.  Simple and straightforward, isn’t it?  And yet, so challenging.

When I catch myself fussing at my son for not being diligent with his schoolwork, I must look at how much time I have spent playing around on my phone since we both got home.  Ouch!  Before I give him a hard time about needing to get outside and move more, I need to check how many times I’ve gone out for my “daily” run in the last week.  Once?  Twice?  Yikes!  If I want my son to build his life on a foundation of reading God’s Word and having a daily relationship with Christ, I better be doing the same in my own life.  Why would I expect him to aim any higher than his own father?

May God bless you richly with courage, strength, and diligence as you examine your own life to see what your daily habits and choices are teaching your own teens and children.  Let me know if I can help.

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Five Keys to Training Teens to be Responsible

teen-mowing-lawnMany of the adolescents who come to see me for counseling have something in common: their parents or other adult authorities are concerned they are not showing strong personal responsibility in their lives.  Some are dabbling in drug use (yes, that DOES include weed).  Some are not doing well in school, and don’t really seem to care.  Others are hurting themselves or someone else by their foolish choices.  Whether the problems involve friends, money, sex, cars, curfews, language, drugs, alcohol, or any of a host of other issues, so many of my teenage clients really need to grow in personal responsibility that will lead them to making wiser choices in their lives.

As loving parents, we want our teens to grow up to be personally responsible, morally sound, basically self-sufficient adults who make a positive contribution to society. While there are no guarantees we can make this happen, we do have a great deal of power to lead our teens on this path. If you are frequently frustrated by your teen’s attitudes and actions of disrespect, laziness, sloppiness, disobedience, etc., TAKE HEART! Here are the five basic keys to steering them onto the right path – the path of personal responsibility:

1. EXPECT responsibility in your teens. This is NOT the same as wishing, pleading, or even hoping they will be responsible. Expecting them to be responsible means walking away when it is their time to work, rather than hovering over them to ensure they get it done and get it done right. Expecting responsibility in your teens sends a powerful message of how much you believe in them and their abilities – something they need like air and water. Whether your kids are three, ten, fourteen, or eighteen, this principle will go so far to empower them in personal responsibility!

2. Clearly communicate your expectations to your teens. It is so important to explain your expectations to your teens with authority and specificity. Speaking with authority is tied directly to the previous point. It means expecting them to follow your instruction and leading, because you believe in them. It also means KNOWING you are the primary authority in your teen’s lives. How many times have you engaged your teens in verbal/emotional battles of will, hoping you will emerge victorious, with your kids coming to a greater respect for your authority? How often does it work out the way you were hoping? How drained are you when you finally get there with them? When you speak to your teens from a solid position of authority, not waiting for the results to tell you if you really are the authority, they are far more likely to respect you and follow your leadership.

3. Stop taking responsibility for your teens. OK, I know this one may throw you for a loop at first, but think it through with me. You know your kids are responsible when they take responsibility for their actions – right? And taking responsibility for their actions means taking responsibility for a series of specific tasks – right? So, if your teen has a task to complete, and you are watching over them and immediately intervening to ensure it is done correctly, who does it sound like is taking responsibility for the task? And if you are really the one bearing responsibility for the work, how can they really assume true responsibility for it? So, whether your teen is dealing with caring for a pet, completing household chores, tackling homework, or maintaining that first car – consider the possibility that his/her irresponsibility may be a reflection of your over-responsibility.

4. Allow your teens to suffer the consequences of poor choices. Loving parents don’t like to see their children suffer. It hurts us. But suffering the consequences of poor choices is one of life’s greatest teachers. We must learn to love our kids enough to look at the bigger picture beyond this moment of temporary suffering. Painful lessons typically lead to real learning and changed behavior, sometimes even changed attitudes. “Getting off easy” teaches teens it is ok to keep doing things just the way they are, setting their feet more firmly on the path of irresponsibility and disrespect.  How often do you find yourself giving in on a stated consequence, then feeling frustrated and angry at your teens for not respecting you and your rules or for being irresponsible? Some lovingly imposed suffering will go a long way to cure this ill!

5. Be available to help your teens process and learn from their choices and results. When you see or hear your teen expressing their frustration at the suffering that resulted from a poor choice, be ready to genuinely show your compassion for them. This doesn’t mean apologizing for enforcing their suffering, which is a natural result of poor choices, disobedience, and misbehavior. It does mean recognizing their frustration, and letting them know you truly hope they get better results – for their sake. If you communicate this message with sarcasm or judgmental preaching, you will effectively shut down your connection and lose influence and leadership of your teens. If you are able to genuinely connect with them, then lovingly process with them how the situation could have gone better for them, they will be better equipped to take responsibility for themselves and make a better choice next time.

In addition, it is amazing to see how adolescents respond to parents’ stories of the lessons they learned “the hard way” in their own lives. (Notice how many of your best lessons were learned “the hard way,” which simply reflects suffering the consequences of poor choices and taking personal responsibility to face those consequences!) They love to hear about your mistakes, because it communicates: a realistic humility that you aren’t perfect, enough personal strength and courage to expose your mistakes and weaknesses without shame, and a reason to hear and respect your wisdom and leadership besides the simple “I told you so.”

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Weathering the Storms of Parenting and Family Life

family in hurricane

Perhaps you took the time to look at this post because you and your family are going through a storm.  Your son seems to have lost all moral direction.  Your daughter never listens to anything you say anymore.  Your teens seem to genuinely hate you.  Sometimes you find yourself genuinely hating your teens.  Maybe things are actually fine in your family relationships, but one of you has just been given a scary diagnosis.  Whatever the details, a ferocious storm seems to be raging through your home and the lives of your beloved teen or kids.  And you really don’t understand why.  And you have no idea how long it will last.  Or what will be the outcome.  Or what to do at all.  I may not have the answers to your specific questions about your situation.  But God has taught me some key lessons I believe are important to remember when facing any life storm in your family.  As another storm is rolling through the emotions of my household, I am reminded of what He has taught me about facing storms.  In fact, some of the most important lessons came in the midst of one of the worst storms my family and I have yet faced together.

Several years ago, my wife and I were just beginning to process some awful news we had received and the mind-blowing implications of this situation.  We decided to book a long weekend at a nearby spiritual retreat and counseling center to find some peace, guidance, encouragement, and strength. Our time there was all that we hoped it would be. God’s Spirit breathed into us just what we needed at this time in our lives. And it all started with a storm.

As we stopped for an early lunch of burgers at Riverside Patty on the way out to St. Amant, we knew the dark, foreboding cloud-cover meant a big storm was on the way. We had barely made it through the doors to place our order when the bottom fell out and we got a downpour like nothing I’ve experienced in years. We both agreed it was fitting for our mood – somber, heavy-hearted, weary, and burdened. The storm really seemed the perfect way for us to begin our retreat. We made it safely to the Hermitage, dashed into our guesthouse, and sat out on the patio, taking in the fury and the beauty of the storm. As we sat together, considering and discussing what God might be preparing to teach us, I realized He was already speaking to me through the storm. I heard several important life lessons about storms as I sat there with my wife and God:

1. When the storms of life rage intensely, it is good to have shelter with someone you love and trust.

2. Storms don’t just bring danger. They also bring new life.

3. Storms have a way of cleaning away trash and debris from our lives.

4. Storms are very good at interrupting our plans and making us stop and just be.

5. Storms never last forever.

6. Storms make us aware of our own weakness and God’s power.

7. Heavy storms never leave the landscape like they found it. Some things break and fall, while other things are uncovered and rise up.

8. There is a time for seeking shelter, and a time for stepping out to face the landscape.

As you encounter the storms of your life, I sincerely hope you will reach out to God and receiving His loving shelter and guidance. Sometimes that reaching out includes reaching out to another person God has provided for you. If you need someone to be there in your storm, feel free to call on me.

With Hope – Dr. Butner

ps – Click here to read my previous post, “Surviving the Storms in Life.”

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To Snoop or Not To Snoop

So, you’re already very aware of how important it is to oversee and guide your teen’s digital world – especially regarding his or her smart phone. What you want to know is: how far should you go with monitoring activity? Do you stick with simply asking questions and discussing? Do you periodically look through your teen’s phone for yourself? Do you look several times a week? Do you inform your teen their smart phone is “open” to your inspection, or do you do it without their awareness? In this video post, Dr. Butner offers guidance to help you make these decisions well.

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5 Lessons from the Prodigal’s Dad

running prodigal fatherOne of my very favorite stories in all of Scripture is the story Jesus told about a wayward young man we frequently call “The Prodigal Son” and his family.  I love this story so much because it is my story.  And it reminds me of important parts of my story I can sometimes forget – particularly the response of my Father.  If you listen carefully, you may find it is your story, too.  God is a profoundly amazing and wonderful Father, and his lessons in this story are particularly instructive for parents who are doing your best to raise adolescents well.  You can read the Biblical narrative from Jesus here, but this is my interpretation:

Growing up in a loving family, he has been feeling an increasing desire to get out of the shadow of his obedient older brother’s “righteousness.”  He wants to be his own man and live his own life.  He has grown tired of feeling the expectation to always do the right thing.  It’s time to find out what the world is really all about, beyond the confines and watchful eyes of home.  So he hits his Dad up for his inheritance, gets the full amount with surprisingly little resistance, and heads out for the fun and adventure that he knows is waiting Out There for a young vibrant man such as himself. 

He quickly finds the excitement and friends he wanted.  And the thrill is great!  For a little while.  But somehow the funds, freedom, fun, and friends all vanish before he even knows what happened.  The party is over.  He is alone, desperate, and hungry.  The only job he can find is about the filthiest, most lowly position a Jewish man could possibly take.  He is tending pigs.  He is now unclean in every sense of the word – from his permanently soiled solitary set of ragged clothes to the stench that radiates from him at all times to his spiritual position of perpetual outcast because he works with the ultimate unclean animal every day. 


His utter despair brings him to true brokenness, which leads him to a glimmer of hope and his first experience of real humility.  “Maybe Dad will have pity on me.  He is a good man.  Better than I’ll ever be.  If I can just convince him to give me a place to live, I’ll take whatever lowly position he will offer me.  He is my only hope.”

All along the homeward road, he practices his speech,  with humility and hope growing each time he adjusts a word.  Just as he begins rehearsing his final draft, his speech is cut short.  Dad?!?  His father comes bounding in from nowhere to sweep him into a crushing embrace that seems to last as long as his entire journey back from Out There.  He tries to share his painfully crafted words of brokenness and humility with his Dad, but his plea for the life of a hired hand is swiftly and completely dismissed.

With compassion.  And grace.  And love.  And irrational forgiveness.

Thus begins his new life as a Real Man in the household of The Father.

In the next few weeks, I will be offering follow-up posts to further unpack and explain the profound lessons I gather from this story.  But for now, let me simply list for you the qualities of this Dad that offered the hope of real transformation in the life of his wayward son:

1. He modeled healthy Godly living to his son over the years.

2. He respected his son’s need to make his own choices.

3. He never gave up hope, even when his son willfully set off down the wrong path.

4. He did not run after his son.  He ran to meet him.

5. He didn’t beat up his son for being foolish.  He allowed him to pay the heavy price for his foolishness, and eagerly showed him how to recover and change his life once he was broken and humbled by his consequences.

I’m looking forward to sharing more about these lessons with you in the next few days!

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