The tools for courageous conversations with your teens: A conversation with Alex Chediak

The transition to college from high school can be as intimidating as it is exciting—for both teens and parents. Looking back on my college years, I needed a lot more help than I realized. There was a TON I was just completely unprepared for, things I absolutely want my kids to be ready for if and when they take that step.

Not too long ago, I shared a few thoughts on Alex Chediak’s latest book on this subject, Preparing Your Teens for College, a book I described as one you didn’t know you needed to read until you read it. And just recently, Alex kindly took some time to answer a few questions about the book, the challenges teens face as they head to post-secondary education, and the conversation he wishes he’d had when he was 15:

AA: What motivated you to write this book?

AC: Three factors: College has never been more expensive, more students than ever are going, and a disturbingly large percentage of those students are stumbling along the way. In the U.S., we have the highest college drop-out rate in the industrialized world. The stakes are high–having a degree or credential of some kind is increasingly important in the job market–and too many students aren’t making it. Preparation is crucial.

I had already written a book for students (Thriving at College). It seemed strategic to write a companion book for parents of 12-18 year olds—those getting their teens ready not just for college but for the totality of their lives.

Why do you think so many teens are unprepared for the realities of college and adult life?

Simply put, they haven’t had enough modeling and training in what it means to take on adult responsibilities. Many parents have bought into the prevailing view that teens are inherently impetuous, reckless, and irresponsible. Why train someone when they aren’t ready to learn? But when we have low expectations for our teens, we get little in return. Adolescence gets extended.

I think the opposite error is more common among Christians: Helicopter parenting. A lot of the students I’ve seen struggle in college came from very loving families where they were treated like children all the way through high school. These teens were controlled instead of coached. In the interest of protecting them from failure or hardship, Mom and Dad stunted their development.

Here’s a quote from my book about this: “Don’t minimize your teens’ trials, but don’t solve their problems for them either. The former will make them feel weak. The latter will ensure they stay weak.”

In the book, you write about the importance of quality friendships—why does this matter so much? How have you seen this at work in the lives of your students?

Our closest friends shape our trajectory in life, particularly in the teen years as we’re entering adulthood. Proverbs 13:20 reads, “Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm.” It’s also true that “birds of a feather flock together.” In my experience, students that are serious about learning tend to find each other. Ditto for those more interested in partying.

That’s why it’s important for our teens to assess what character qualities, what virtues, they value, and to pursue friendships with others who share those values. In high school, it’s sometimes easier because of supportive circumstances (loving parents, a strong church, a vibrant youth group). But at college, it’s tougher, particularly at secular colleges, because now you have to go out of your way to find “iron sharpening iron” (Proverbs 27:17) relationships. The easiest friendships to form aren’t necessarily the best ones. Since we ought to prepare for a test before (not during) a test, the ideal time to learn intentionality in friendships is before college.

Preparing Your Teens for College

Preparing Your Teens for College is available now. Buy it at Westminster Books or Amazon.

Think back to yourself at 15. Which of these conversations did you most need to have with your parents? Why?

In the book I describe how I failed to see any connection between my budding Christian faith and my academic work. That made it hard for me to be motivated at school. As I came to see God as the Author of all truth, to appreciate my responsibility for developing whatever God-given abilities with which I was entrusted (Matthew 25:14-30), as I came to understand that loving my neighbor required having something useful to offer, and that usefulness presupposes competence, I came to love learning.

Your kids still fairly young, so college is a fair ways off (although looming!). How are you already applying what you’ve thought through and taught in this book with your family?

The faith component is crucial. I hope, pray, and labor that my kids will experience the twin miracles of regeneration and faith, which is the best foundation for developing the character and maturity necessary for success not just in college but in life. A good tree bears good fruit. True faith necessarily leads to good works.

I’m also striving to teach them to love learning—to really enjoy the exercise of their mental faculties, as they gain mastery over subjects they didn’t previously understand. Similarly, I want them to see that while learning can be difficult, it can be done. Kids are prone to give up on a task they can’t figure out in 20 seconds. What I want them to learn in those moments is to push themselves through that initial difficulty—to assess and categorize the task, to develop strategies, to call upon fundamentals previously learned, and to (if necessary) ask for a hint instead of an answer. I try to regularly encourage them with how much they’ve already learned. I pray that all my children experience the thrill of learning.

If you can offer one encouragement to the parents who will read your book, what would it be?

The evidence is clear that a mom and dad’s involvement in a teen’s life influences them in meaningful ways. Parents, you have the potential to make an overwhelmingly positive difference in the lives of your teens. Even when they don’t seem to care, they are watching what you do and listening to what you say. And even in your stumbling you have the opportunity to model repentance, humility, and the fact that we relate to our Father on the basis of grace, not our imperfect works (which will help your teens do likewise).

I wrote Preparing Your Teens for College to give you the courage and the tools to have crucial conversations with your teens about the issues that will shape the trajectory of their lives. Even if your teens are halfway out the door, it’s not too late to make an impact. And it’s never too early to start.


Alex Chediak (Ph.D., U.C. Berkeley) is a speaker and professor of engineering and physics at California Baptist University. He is the bestselling author of Thriving at College, the recently released prequel, Preparing Your Teens for College (both with Tyndale House Publishers), and numerous articles for Christian College Guide, Boundless, and other publications. He has appeared on programs such as Focus on the Family and Family Life Today. Alex and his wife, Marni, and their three children reside in Riverside, CA. Learn more at www.alexchediak.com or follow him on Twitter (@chediak).

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