By Lisa M. Schab, L.C.S.W.
Does this sound familiar? Your teenager says you never let her do anything she wants. You say some of the things she wants to do are beyond reasonable. She says she’ll never learn if you don’t give her a chance. You say you don’t want to give her that chance until you know she is ready. Kids must become independent to survive in the world. At the same time, good judgment and life skills are not built in, and teenagers don’t always have a good sense of what they can handle. So how does a parent help a child gain experience while keeping him safe? When you find yourself having the “I want to…/I don’t think you’re ready to…,” conversation, try to offer as many chances for independence as you can, while still maintaining your limits. The following guidelines can help: Provide a solid basegive a kid a chance • Provide as many chances for him to learn responsibility as you can. Hopefully, by the time he is a teen, you already have incorporated responsibility into his daily life. Household chores, running errands, caring for younger siblings, doing homework, developing a skill or talent such as soccer or piano lessons, are all ways to build responsible habits. When you see your child acting responsibly in some areas of his life, there is a better chance he also will act responsibly in other areas, even when you aren’t around to watch. • Express your values clearly in everyday life. While you are watching television, eating in a restaurant or walking through the mall, you can let your children know what types of behaviors, morals and ethics you support, and why. Let them know there is a difference between right and wrong and teach them to act on it at all times. • Model the behaviors you expect from your children. Kids learn more from what you do than what you say. Look at your own choices and lifestyle. If you scream at your kids to control their anger, you aren’t being effective. If you tell them lying is wrong, they need to hear you being honest. Life is also filled with gray areas; help your kids to understand these and make wise choices when confronted with them. • Teach them to handle critical situations. Let them practice giving basic first aid and picking up the phone to call 9-1-1. Teach them to stay calm in emergencies, and be sure they have your cell phone and other numbers at hand. Help them practice exactly the words they’ll use to say, “No, thanks” when someone offers them drugs or suggests they shoplift. Give a kid a chance • Always assume innocent until proven otherwise. Kids tend to rise to the expectations we place on them. If you want them to be trustworthy, give them your trust. Believe in them so they can believe in themselves. • Take each case individually. Unfortunately, there are no rules defining when a child is ready for a later curfew, to go to Great America alone or start one-on-one dating. These are parental judgment calls determined by a child’s maturity level and track record. Just because your oldest daughter couldn’t responsibly handle being dropped off at the mall with friends at age 11, doesn’t mean the same is true of her younger sister. • Start on a small scale and work your way up. If you aren’t sure your child is ready to take on a major responsibility, try it on a smaller scale first. If he wants to spend a whole day alone snow boarding with friends, let him first try it for an afternoon. If he wants to extend his curfew for an hour, offer him a 15-minute extension first • Lengthen the apron string without cutting it completely. Decide on a system of checking in if you are apprehensive about the situation. Have him carry a cell phone, or give him money for a pay phone. Have him call in at reasonable intervals, or when he moves from one location to the next. As you learn that he can keep himself safe and be where he is supposed to be, you can lengthen the time between check-ins. Pick your battles Finally, remember it’s important to pick your battles. There always will be something you’d like to change about your child’s choices. Try to recognize those things that are less important and let them go so your energy and influence can be used for the more significant situations. Ask for examples of good judgement. Let your child win your trust by showing responsible behavior in other areas. When he’s late with an English paper, does he ask for the extension and get that in on time, or does he blow off the entire assignment, blaming the teacher for not giving clear instructions. Nobody’s perfect. Your child will mess up once in awhile. Remember to look at his overall track record rather than judging him by one negative incident. We all make mistakes. It’s important for kids to admit them, learn to fix them and be given another chance.