Developing Responsibility in Your Teen

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Well-intentioned parents can all too easily become enabling. Stop doing so many things for your teen, or you will likely stifle maturity. Teens are capable of handling responsibilities.

I have a word of advice that is applicable to almost every parent of a teenager in today’s world. Stop! More specifically, stop doing so many things for your teen. By doing too much, you are likely stifling their motivation, limiting their creativity, promoting irresponsibility and postponing maturity. You may even be taking away the sense of accomplishment, pride and self-esteem they would otherwise have.

Most parents do not require enough from their kids today; nor do they train them to handle responsibility. There was a time in our society when young people were expected to do many things for themselves. On the farm or in larger families they were expected to help out around the house, take care of their siblings, and even help support the family in some instances. Along with the conveniences of modern day living has come the prolonging of immaturity well into the mid-twenties.

Fact is, teens are capable of handling plenty of responsibility, but too often parents get in the way.  We can underestimate their abilities and stifle new challenges, so they don’t mature. I often hear parents say things like, “They’re too young for that,” or, “I’ll just have to redo it anyway.”  Regardless, they need to learn and they’ll only do so when we stop doing everything for them. I don’t think kids should drive a car at age 16, or vote or go to war at age 18, but that’s the real world.  Is there risk involved in the process?  Of course.  But there’s no way to avoid it. Exposure to some difficulty and risk is a necessary part of the growing process.

You may remember the large-scale science experiment known as the Biosphere 2 from about twenty years ago. In the Arizona desert, a group of scientists tried to recreate in a sealed environment the different ecosystems found on Earth. The plan was to create a self-sustaining cycle (a biosphere) that would continually support life on another planet. Vegetation grew, but they found that the trees eventually drooped over and broke in half. It was because there was no wind. You see, as trees grow outdoors, bending back and forth in the wind creates small cracks in the bark and then sap fills the cracks, making the whole tree stronger and the bark thicker. Without it, the tree has no strength and support.

Likewise, not allowing our teens to learn responsibility — to bend in the wind — we are not allowing them to learn the skills they are going to need to survive and stand upright in the world. So, take a minute to think about the skills your teen is going to need, and then plan how you will train them to deal with those issues through real-life responsibility. Here are just a few of things you can focus on:

Cooking healthy meals, doing their own laundry, buying groceries, changing a tire, how to spend money, how to save money, how to study, how to act in a job interview, how to plan, how to deal with stress, handling conflict…the list could go on forever.

Start talking about and training them for the things that will be required of them as adults, before they have to actually face them.

No Substitute for Experience

Kids need to experience for themselves the link between their choices and the resulting consequences—good or bad. Learning to make good choices requires practice — it’s not an inborn ability and they won’t magically develop that skill when they turn 18 or 21.

They also learn from the experience of observation. For instance, I believe that a man’s word is his bond. If I say I’ll do something, I do it. And I believe that order and cleanliness is important. So, I try to model those and other important character traits to my staff and the kids I work with. The point is, you can’t expect more from your child than you demonstrate in your own life.

When you’ve been doing everything for them all along, they’ve come to depend on you. But you need to make the transition in the early teen years.  So sit down with them and discuss your new expectations with words like “I/we will no longer do…”  Then stick to it and don’t pick up the slack.

You’ll never be a perfect parent. Neither will I.  But if we’ve done the best we can to prepare and train our kids in the teen years for adulthood, and have modeled responsibility for them, that’s all we can do.  We need to step back and trust what we’ve taught them all their lives will rub off on them. Yes, they will make mistakes, but they need to. Swallow hard and allow them to learn for themselves.

Well-intentioned parents can all too easily become enabling, and that can lead to trouble for the teen when they break out on their own. It reminds me of someone who found a butterfly struggling to shed its cocoon. Trying to help the butterfly ease its way into the world, they broke open the cocoon to free the fragile creature—but the butterfly then died!  You see, it needed the process and struggle of getting out of the cocoon in order to gain the strength to live. So do your kids.

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