Balancing Responsibility with Adolescent Kids

Election day always reminds me that privilege and responsibility go hand in hand.  The privilege is dormant until acquired by responsible action (the privilege of voting is dormant until we cast a vote).  In the parlance of raising teenagers, the freedom of independence is acquired by demonstrated responsibility over time.  So every time a 16-year old does what he/she says he/she will do, or handles decisions wisely, he/she gains a credit of responsibility, and with responsibility comes another credit of freedom and independence.  The trouble comes when that kid refuses to be responsible but still wants independence or when he/she IS responsible, but a parent is stuck and refuses to render another credit of independence.

Years ago, a friend introduced me to a picture of that give-and-take process in a graph.  When our kids are born, we exercise 100% control over them.  In fact, if we don’t, they die.  So we exercise complete control at birth and somewhere around age 18, they leave home and our control has been diminished significantly.  We rarely lose influence completely, but it’s reduced as they leave home and it typically levels out.

We often make two kinds of mistakes.  Our kids want more independence and they want control to simply fall like a “cliff.”  Usually this is at the onset of teenage years.  Parents often succumb because they feel alone in their supervision.  Removing that much control/supervision all at once is like putting a kid in a car he/she has never driven and expecting them to be able to manage metropolitan traffic.  That’s disastrous.  They need to practice with supervision just like a new driver needs to practice with good supervision, and that happens in small increments at a time.

The other mistake we make is that we don’t reward responsible behavior with incremental freedom.  That graph levels out at about 13 and our teens often are “stuck” until they leave home.  Our kids become resentful and will often rebel because they see no reward for their responsible behavior.  Eventually, they leave home and they experience the cliff of freefall freedom, but we’re no longer around to help them recover.  I saw this a great deal with incoming freshman arrived at the university campus without having had plenty of practice with their parents.  It’s better to coach our kids through new freedom than to dump it on them and leave them on their own.

So every time my sons wanted another privilege of freedom, they “bought” it with responsible behavior, and if they couldn’t handle it, we backed up.  Conversely, if my control wasn’t taking stock of their responsible “trust deposits,” it would be appropriate to use the graph to justify adding an increment of freedom.

Some of those conversations are VIVID in my mind.  This balance graph was a very helpful tool for me.  Parenting is an art, and we all walk a delicate balance of giving our kids good supervision and appropriate freedom as they demonstrate responsible choices.




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