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Person walking down a foggy path wearing a backpack.

The Prodigal Son Parable gives us a beautiful picture of what God is like and how He opens His arms for us when we least deserve it. But as Lori Ann Wood reveals, it also offers some excellent wisdom that we’d do well to pass on to our teenage children. Here are 18 life lessons for teens, gleaned from the Parable of the Prodigal Son. 

I remember clearly how I felt as my oldest child neared high school graduation. I carried a panicky feeling about whether I had prepared her enough, taught her enough, modeled life for her enough as if the culmination of 18 years of parenting had somehow snuck up on me. 

I searched for lists of what she would need to know to survive on her own. I didn’t want her to fail, so I not-so-subtly brought up practical subjects in everyday conversation during those last hurried months:

“This is how I clean the shower walls.”

“Here’s an easy way to replace a button.”

“Always carry your keys between your fingers when you’re walking alone.”

“A good way to budget is with cash and envelopes.”

I’m not sure any of it actually sunk in. And maybe that’s okay.

After launching three children and teaching parenting classes for the court system, I have come to realize this: The most valuable lessons we can teach our children might not be what we’d expect. 

As parents, our first duty and desire is to protect. But as our children grow, that protecting role must always be yielding to the second role—preparing.

As parents, we should worry less about protecting them from failing, and spend more time preparing them for when they do. Maybe the most important lessons we teach our emerging adults are less instructive and more restorative. 

Perhaps we need to shift our focus from ‘how to avoid mistakes’ to ‘how to handle the aftermath’. More guidance on accepting grace, for example. This side of Eternity, every error-prone child needs to hone that skill.

And lessons with so much at stake must come from someone invested in their lives.

They can Google the over-the-counter meds they need for their cold, pull up a YouTube video on how to change a flat tire, and buy a recipe book to mimic your heirloom chocolate cake, but some things our almost-adult children shouldn’t learn on their own.

 The most important curricula must come from a trusted Source.

THE HIGHEST AUTHORITY ON RESTORATION IS THE MOST TRUSTWORTHY OF ALL

When Jesus spoke, people listened. Even today, we red-letter His words so we won’t miss them. 

Flipping through our Bible, we see only a smattering of red. His words were precious and few, but when Jesus communicated in His signature short story form, it was jam-packed with teaching. Life’s lessons came alive.

In Luke 15:11-32, Jesus told one of His lesson-dense stories about a father releasing a child. 

Like many of our own children, the son in the parable expressed an unexpected desire to leave home. This father must have bitten his lip as he gave his naive young adult the savings the family had sacrificed all his life to accumulate. 

With a comfortable bank account, the son defiantly moved far away and quickly spent the money in a lifestyle unlike anything he had experienced growing up. Finding himself at a low point and broke, the son resorted to shameful work to survive. 

Somewhere in the middle of the mess, he decided to go back home and humbly ask to be put on his father’s payroll as hired help. Ever expectant, his father spotted his worn-down son on the horizon one day, hobbling toward home. 

The forgiving father ran to him, swept him up, and celebrated his child’s return.

LESSONS FROM THE PARABLE

1. Don’t Discount Your Roots

Just because they’re in familiar ground, doesn’t mean they’re not valuable. It’s okay to leave home but never pull up those roots if you can help it. They are meant to sturdy you in this stormy life.

2. Friends Mold Your Character

Who you invest your time in determines who you become. It is gradual, but it is powerful. Choose each friend intentionally and wisely.

3. Choices Have Consequences

Grace saves your soul, but it doesn’t shield you from the consequences of your actions. Sometimes the consequence is immediate, sometimes it’s delayed, and sometimes it falls on innocent bystanders. But this physical, pre-Glory realm guarantees that the bullet will fall somewhere.

4. Thank God for Hard Times

Many times in life, you can be on a gradual downhill course and never realize it. Unless you get a wake-up call, like finding yourself eating slop, it may seem too late to get back on the right path.

5. Your Low Point May Be a High Point

Your lowest experiences can give you a much needed vantage point. Life’s truths become clearer when circumstances can’t get any worse. Sometimes you can’t see where you need to be until you’re looking up from rock bottom.

6. Admitting a Mistake Can Be Heroic

While it may be the most difficult, it may also be the single best thing you ever do. After all, in terms of God’s grace, acknowledging your shortcoming is the first step in sealing your soul for Eternity.

7. No One Can Mess Up God’s Purposes

Especially after you’ve made a mistake, it’s easy to believe you have ruined everything, that you have fallen hopelessly out of your Father’s will. But you can never derail God’s ultimate plan.

8. Difficult Days Don’t Have to Define You

Tough experiences change your life, but they don’t have to be in charge of your life. Whether from your own missteps or uncontrollable circumstances, the troubles of life will threaten to swallow your worth. You must be resilient enough to not let them.

9. It Takes Courage to Start Again

The path of least resistance is always the status quo. Breaking away for a new beginning will never be easy.

10. You Can Always Come Home

No matter what happens, shame should never stand in the way of your first and most durable support system.

11. Your Experience is Not Wasted

When you’ve reached the point in your story where home is your last resort, sometimes you’re right where God wants you to be. He’s always done His best work in messy storylines.

12. Parents Wait Expectantly

As parents, we never stop checking our texts, emails, mailbox, or driveway, hoping to see you. As deep as you get into your new, independent life, we will always have a door open and a room ready.

13. Parents Don’t Really Let Go

Even when we release you into the world, we’re still holding you in prayer. And that commitment tethers us both to the Father. Never take that intercession for granted. Share your struggles with the ones who love you most.

14. Forgiveness is Never Off the Table

Regardless of the offense or the time that has passed, forgiveness is always a possibility. It has no load limit and no expiration date.

15. Love Gets the Last Say

God promised that love is unending. Every child has underestimated the durability of a parent’s love and the Father’s grace. But they’re here to stay.

16. Food is Tangible Love

A good home-cooked meal is a needed embrace after you’ve been on your own—and it may mean even more to us to provide it than it does to you to receive it.

17. Your Father Sees Your Potential

Both your earthbound parents and your Heavenly Father always see the best possible version of you. No matter how bad the current version of you might appear to others—or to yourself.

18. You are Worth Receiving Grace.

Accepting that fortified forgiveness, simply because you are an image bearer of Christ, is sometimes a gift to others, but it’s always a gift to yourself.

***

In retrospect, I wish I had focused more on preparing my children and accepting the grace that can follow their inevitable missteps. 

In the Prodigal Son parable, we find such lessons to impart about children leaving home, making mistakes, and finding their way back. 

But the directives are not just for us as parents, they are for us as children of God, too. It seems an obvious application for launching our grown children, but even as parents, we find it’s the story of every one of us as we continually struggle to walk toward Home.

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10 comments
  1. What a beautiful reminder of what is important as we prepare to launch our kids into the world. My oldest is 15 and I’m already feeling the panic start to rise in my heart over what I have yet to teach him before he flies the next. It’s such an overwhelming thought! But the grace of God covers my failures and missteps … and all the things I will inevitably forget to teach him.

    1. Yes! I’m thankful for God’s grace as we parent these free-willed growing adults. So much of God’s character seems clearer to me now that I have adult children of my own. And I totally understand the panic. I’ve been there three times and it keeps recurring even when they’re on their own. I love your point about our missteps or omissions being covered by His grace.

  2. Growing up in a perfectionist environment, I equated mistakes with sins. As an adult I realized this was not so. Mistakes are learning and growth opportunities and we a make them. What we do after the mistake is more important than the mistake. My son hated making mistakes in math. For awhile I would say, “Yay for mistakes. Now we will hunt down the mistake and learn how to do it correctly.” We usually learn something better through our mistakes, if we learn from them, than if we make no mistakes at all. It’s true in math and life.

    1. So true! Mistakes are the best teachers. As a young parent, I found it a challenge to embrace their mistakes, and mine, as learning opportunities. For years, somehow I skimmed over the mistake part of this parable and focused on the return Home. Thanks for the reminder to reframe mistakes and parent on!

  3. Your words are so timely and encouraging as my youngest child just graduated. My children are 18, 20, 21, 22 and 25. They are all in the struggle to figure life and themselves out…so am I after 20 years of homeschooling. Thanks for sharing your thoughts Lori!

    1. I am resonating with your statement about us mommas also figuring out ourselves and our lives! We need grace in our process, too. I needed to hear that today. Thank you.

  4. Although we’re still pretty far from the teenage years, I find the bigger-picture view your words offer so helpful and still relevant. Thank you for sharing your wisdom!!

  5. Beautifully said and we need it for ourselves as well : we can always come home to God! If only we could tattoo your list on our kids – maybe that would be a way to get the truths home… (:

    1. I like how you think! I guess we’ll just have to settle for constant reminders. And, like you mentioned, I need those reminders just as much. We mommas will need to stick together for support!

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