We want our kids to succeed, not just because of our obligation to provide them with good lives, but because we love them and want them to be happy. So, how much parental intervention is warranted in the face of a growing teen's natural ups and downs, successes and failures, joys and sorrows? Where do we draw the line and maintain control of decision-making for our kids while we're simultaneously nurturing their capacity for independent decision-making? How much failure and error should we tolerate, even embrace, for the sake of our child's learning, when it might not look good on his/her college application? How do we ensure that our parenting is informed by our unconditional love for who they are, rather than merely a drive for making them who we want them to be?
Our first instinct is to overprotect them. Obviously, we are ethically obligated to feed and shelter our children, not to mention treat them with a certain amount of kindness. By extension, doesn't that mean we must do everything in our power to ensure that their feet never touch sand that's too hot, and their words never fall short of a college entrance board's standards? We're supposed to shield them from the pains and disappointments they will no doubt face as they grow, right?
Well, no. We know that trial and error is a critical element of any learning process. We put the kids on teams so they can experience the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. We know their lives will be filled with more romantic relationships that end in misery than will work out, but we send them off into the hormonal mosh-pit of high school nevertheless. We know they must learn to fend for themselves.
We all have seen the results of oblivious parenting that allows self-destruction to run unchecked. And we've seen overprotective parenting that prevents ease and true self-reliance from being developed and asserted. Finding the line between protecting and guiding, on the one hand, and stifling and inhibiting on the other, is a game of trial and error itself. Each parent and child must find ways to communicate with each other. Parents must make their expectations clear and follow through consistently, while maintaining a context of love and support. Children must be able to express their fears, make mistakes and know that they have a safe environment to grow and develop.
Complicating the situation is that just as our adolescents' capacity for decision-making and self-management is swinging into high gear, their capacity for significant crashes picks up right along with it--romances ending in heartbreak, indelible marks on academic transcripts, social ostracism, and the like. Couple this with the fact that teens tend to resist whatever measures we, as parents, take in their predictable process of identity formation and individuation, and we are navigating in murky waters.
My dad modeled a parenting technique with me that I will no doubt try when my children reach adolescence. Whenever he felt he had to rein in my forays into recklessness, he would remind me that it was not me he didn't trust, it was the rest of the teenage world around me. Even then, I found that soothing, and I ran with the trust my parents DID grant me to make my own choices that, for the most part, gave them further reasons to trust me. That said, when Dad imposed rules and limitations, he spoke with me clearly about where he was drawing a line and why, without robbing me of my own sense of dignity and volition. And it was only negotiable when it was negotiable.
Ultimately, the message is this: If you want to help your kids grow to be independent, self-managing problem-solvers who will listen to your best advice, start practicing NOW - not because they need the practice, but because you do. Bite your tongue as your little girl dresses herself with articles of clothing that you'd never combine, even though you worry she'll be ridiculed. Make that boy of yours order his own meals at restaurants, but have to live with his choices. If she can give good reasons, let her take an elective that she believes is right for her, even though you feel it does not optimize her learning in these fleeting school years. Let him delay registering for that major exam by one more month because he just doesn't feel ready yet--he might be right. But for everyone's sake, let your child know that, whoever is in the driver's seat of a given choice, what you're interested in most is not her performance, it's her.