Having worked in Youth For Christ Singapore and taught at Sunday School for many years, Stephanie Choong thought she had done a decent job of raising her own two children. Joel and Claire were “good kids” who went to church, were close to their parents, and generally behaved well.
Then she found out that Joel had been smoking. A colleague visiting his school had spotted the 18-year-old and told his mother. Stephanie could also detect the smell of cigarette smoke on his clothes, and asked him about it. At first, Joel denied it. But later, he confessed. Asked why he had picked up the habit, he explained that it was partly because he was stressed, and partly because of his friends’ influence.
His father, Tim, was upset. But Stephanie decided that they should not make a big deal out of it. She realised that at this age, her son was not going to listen to a long lecture on why he shouldn’t smoke.
Besides, she tried to comfort herself, at least Joel wasn’t turning away from God or anything. It was just peer pressure, she reminded herself.
So she tried to remain calm as she spoke to her son and suggested other ways to relieve his stress. “We didn’t stop him,” she recalls. “We just said, ‘You know this is not good for you.’ Once our children are 16 years old or older, we can’t make decisions for them. We can only guide and encourage them to make the right decision.”
“Thank God,” she adds, “Joel gave up smoking after a couple of years.”
Focusing on What’s Important
Having walked with many youths through their journey of exploring their identity and experimenting with different things, Stephanie has learnt not to get too worked up over everything they do—and to choose her battles wisely.
“My parenting style is: everything is negotiable except for what God’s Word says,” she explains. “If God says it, then it’s non-negotiable.”
Whenever she finds out that a young person—whether her own children or someone in the youth ministry—is doing something she disapproves of, Stephanie first asks herself: “Is this against God’s Word, or is it just my preference?”
“If it’s just my preference, then forget it,” she says.
What matters more, she stresses, is helping them build a solid relationship with God. Instead of insisting that children do this or don’t do that, she suggests, parents can focus on a larger aim: nurturing their children to look to God’s Word and to seek to do what pleases God.
“My parenting style is: everything is negotiable except for what God’s Word says. If God says it, then it’s non-negotiable.”
Seeing this “big picture” has enabled Stephanie to close her eyes to “less-important” things—like the mess in her son’s room.
“It was a constant cause of argument,” she recalls with a laugh. A stickler for neatness and cleanliness, she would insist on tidying it up—then nagging him about it. But Joel hated her doing so, because he would have trouble finding his things.
“Then I realised: What’s more important? A clean room or a good relationship?” she says. “I decided that if I had to choose, a good relationship was more important than a clean room.”
So she stopped nagging her son. “I just closed the door so I didn’t have to see the mess,” she says. “And I changed my perspective to focus on what’s more important—having a good relationship with my son.”
Stephanie shares 5 tips on learning how “not to sweat the small stuff”:
1. Don’t Try to Stop Them
As her children grew up, Stephanie increasingly saw that she could not stop them from doing what they wanted to do.
“It’s no point,” she says simply. “That’s the reality. I may not approve of what they do, but I’d be kidding myself if I thought I could stop them.”
When children enter their teenage years, she adds, trying to enforce rules strictly is a “delusion”.
“That’s the reality. I may not approve of what they do, but I’d be kidding myself if I thought I could stop them.”
“If you just set rules without a good relationship, you end up setting up walls,” she says. Trying to enforce these rules will only encourage children to lie and hide their actions. Instead, parents need to learn to understand that their kids may be going through a season of their lives when they are experimenting and exploring—and mentor them through these teenage years.
This calls for meaningful, mutually-respectful conversations, in which parents can take time to hear their children out and explain their rationale for their concerns.
“It’s only a few painful years,” says Stephanie. “There’s no need for us to add to the stress and discipline that they have in school, and for the boys, in National Service.”
This, she adds, is how she applies the principle from Ephesians 6:4, which calls on parents: “Do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.”
2. Understand Their Actions
When Joel was studying in polytechnic, he loved to stay out late with his friends. He would leave the house in the late afternoon, returning home only after midnight.
This puzzled as well as disturbed Stephanie, who just couldn’t understand why he couldn’t go out and come back earlier. Was he, she wondered, up to something bad?
Instead of nagging him, however, she decided to ask him why.
“Once I understood his need to feel grown-up, I began to see his other actions in more positive ways.”
“All my friends do that,” he just replied. But when Stephanie questioned him some more, he finally admitted: “It makes us feel like adults.”
This was when she understood: her son was not trying to rebel or do something bad; he was just trying to establish his identity as a young person.
So, instead of clamping down, Stephanie just asked him to let her know whom he was hanging out with and what time he was coming home. “I explained that I was just concerned about him, and wanted to know he was okay. Once I understood his need to feel grown-up, I began to see his other actions in more positive ways.”
Stephanie and her husband Tim.
3. Let Them Make Decisions
Very young children need clear rules and boundaries to protect them because they may not be able to understand the rationale behind the rules. But as they enter the upper primary-school years and into teenage, Stephanie has found that they need to be more involved in making decisions for themselves, though within the boundaries.
“These can be small decisions like how to spend their time and money, what they want to wear,” she suggests.
“Parents can be the ‘signposts’ in their children’s lives—guiding them in the right direction with God’s Word and biblical wisdom, but leaving them to make the decisions themselves.”
Instead of telling children what to do (or what not to do), Stephanie suggests focusing more on the reasons and principles, and allowing them to decide how to apply them to their lives.
Over the years, she has found her children—and those she teaches and mentors—remembering these principles more than the rules.
“My son says he can still hear my voice in his head,” she says. “He remembers my questions like, ‘What kind of Christian are you when you’re outside church?’ That struck him and helped him decide to be real about his Christian life.”.
Parents, adds Stephanie, can be the “signposts” in their children’s lives—guiding them in the right direction with God’s Word and biblical wisdom, but leaving them to make the decisions themselves.
Ultimately, she notes, it is God’s Word that should guide their ways, as Psalm 119:9–11 says:
How can a young person stay on the path of purity?
By living according to your word.
I seek you with all my heart;
do not let me stray from your commands.
I have hidden your word in my heart
that I might not sin against you.
Praise be to you, Lord;
teach me your decrees.
4. Show Them You Still Love Them . . . No Matter What
There have been times when Stephanie’s children and those she mentored insisted on making decisions she felt were not right.
While she did not hide her disapproval, she made sure to show them that she still loved them as a mother or as a mentor. “You know what the Bible says about this, and you are not doing what is right,” she would tell them. But then she would add: “But that doesn’t mean I don’t love you or care for you.”
These were not just empty words: Stephanie made sure that she backed up her promises with action.
So when a youth decided to date a non-believer despite her advice, she explained to him why the relationship wasn’t likely to work—but then offered to share the gospel with his girlfriend. “I wanted to show both of them that I still loved and cared for them,” she says.
“While they may be rebelling against the ways of God, we need to assure them that we still love them no matter what. Our love for them is unconditional.”
“Just because your child is in his ‘wayward years’ doesn’t mean your relationship with them has to suffer,” she adds. “While they may be rebelling against the ways of God, we need to assure them that we still love them no matter what. Our love for them is unconditional. We can say to them, ‘I disapprove of what you do, but I still love you, and you can still come to me’.”
1 Corinthians 13:4–7, she adds, showed her that the only way to keep loving a difficult teen was through God’s kind of love as described in the passage. “I also realised it was humanly impossible, so I go to God for His grace to love in His way,” she says.
5. Remember that God Is in Control
When Joel decided to study design at polytechnic, Stephanie had to remind herself to respect both his God-given gift and his decision, even though she wasn’t sure what it would lead to.
“I knew my son was creative, so I tried to be supportive,” she says. “But then I heard about all the bad influences in the advertising industry, and I started to wonder, ‘Did I do the right thing?’”
As it turned out, her son did pick up a worldly lifestyle when he began working, which troubled both Tim and Stephanie. “That season kept me on my knees before the Lord,” she recalls.
“I realised that God was in control all these years, and making use of the ‘wilderness years’ to shape Joel.”
But then Joel had a turnaround. He began to use his talents for God, and was soon involved in outreach ministries. He began volunteering for Youth For Christ—the very organisation he had run away from when he was studying. He became serious about reading the Word of God and began serving in church. After finishing his degree in visual communications, he even joined YFC’s Creative Arts ministry, where he used art to reach out to youths in the design industry.
It was then, Stephanie realised, that God had always been in control of her son’s life.
“God saw the plan, but I didn’t,” she says. “God saw how He would use Joel in the future.”
Joel himself believes that his wayward years were not wasted, because he can now identify with the struggles of those in the creative circles. God, he says, has given him a burden to reach them. Today, he continues to counsel them with the Word of God and engage them in conversation—just like his parents once did with him.
All this reminds Stephanie of the assurance given in Roman 8:28–29: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.”
God had conformed Joel to the image of Jesus in His own time and way, says Stephanie, adding: “I realised that God was in control all these years, and making use of the ‘wilderness years’ to shape Joel.”
So, for parents struggling with teenage children or kids testing the boundaries, Stephanie has these words of encouragement: “Let things unfold. Trust God to bring our children through, and just keep praying.”