In our country, grateful Americans set aside July 4th to celebrate a grand holiday. The festive fireworks, mouth-watering barbeques and fun with family and friends remind us about the value of our independence. But there’s another Independence Day that most parents dread. It’s the day your child walks out your door to begin life as an autonomous, responsible citizen.
As he crosses the threshold from the safety of your home into the dangers of the real world, you won’t be thinking about the petty battles you fought during the adolescent years. It won’t matter whether your teen’s room was clean, whether he watched too much television, or whether you liked his friends. What will matter most is whether you taught him what he needs to survive in the jungle that awaits him.
In this regard, independence is earned … not granted. It’s not enough that your teen has turned eighteen. He needs to mature and gain wisdom in order to enjoy an independent lifestyle.
So, here’s the question: how do we bring our teens to that point of maturation?
The time that you have with your son or daughter during the teen years allows for you to gradually manage and nurture this transition. It gives you the opportunity to stand alongside your teen when he needs you the most and when he begins to take those first steps of independence. It’s not unlike the earlier years when you taught him to ride a bike. The day came when it was finally time to strip off the training wheels and let him get a taste of freedom. You nervously jogged alongside him as the front wheel swung wildly back and forth. He had to suffer a few spills on the sidewalk before you let him venture out into the street.
We want the best for our kids. But many times, our good intentions prompt us to take steps that make them rely on us. We keep them from feeling any pain, and we unwittingly employ tactics that keep them looking to us for every need. Even though it feels good for us to be loved and needed, it doesn’t allow our child to grow up and become independent. They remain tethered to us, and we merely protract their childhood.
Planning early to help your child become self-regulating will help ease you both into this process. Think ahead and think about it long before they reach Independence Day. Be intentional. When your teen is twelve or thirteen, ask yourself: What am I doing for my teen to help him become his own person?
Look for practical ways to let them exercise their adult muscles. For example, the skill of budgeting applies just as easily to going to the movies as it does to paying the rent. So when your teen wants to go to the theatre with his friends, require that he fund the event from his own resources. Don’t become a walking ATM machine to your teen, dispensing twenty-dollar bills on demand, because it will only delay his capacity to generate and manage his own money.
Remember that spending adequate time together is crucial to developing a good relationship so that you can impart these principles in your teen. His liberation won’t come in a few quick chats on the porch. You need to spend lots of time developing a quality relationship that engenders trust. There’s no short cut. It takes time, even without talking or conversing, to build an atmosphere where your teen is willing to openly share with you his inner feelings.
This might take some work and planning. Think about where you spend your time together. You may not eat dinner around a dinner table anymore. Perhaps you get a quick bite of fast food instead. So if that’s the case, use the time in the car to talk when you have a captive audience. Learn about the video games that your son plays so that you can sit down next to him while he plays. Find out what his goal is for running the 100-yard dash in track. If you don’t show your teen how much you care about what’s important to him in his everyday life, he won’t have the opportunity to learn why you react the way you do to challenges in your own life.
Remember, too, that your teen sees everything you do. The good, the bad and the ugly. If you have a strong relationship with your teen and you’re modeling appropriate behavior and decision-making, then your teen will have the benefit of drawing on a good example. But it all depends on the relationship that you build right now. If you and your teen are distant or out of sync in your communication, he probably won’t be paying attention to what you’re doing or how you’re making your decisions. However, if you’re intentional in building trust with your teen and in giving him responsibilities that show that you value his strengths and contributions, you can build that freedom he’s craving.
Chores are an obvious tool for building responsibility into your teen. Don’t let him off the hook on working around the house just because you want your teen to have an easier life than you did. Let him feel the weight of what’s required to keep a home functioning in a healthy and normal manner.
I live in the country. Kids in east Texas are forced to do chores and participate in work early on in order to survive. In this environment, kids tend to become more resilient and do what’s needed. Today, however, we seem to bestow their liberation at an arbitrary age. And many times, they are not ready for the cruel realities of life that await them.
Your son or daughter is getting ready for Independence Day. My hope is that you will begin working toward that coming transition in order to celebrate the autonomy your teen deserves. Believe it or not, his independence will keep him coming home for years to come, because he’s learned to enjoy and respect his relationship with you.