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January 2005
New Year, New Choices

by Annie Fox, M.Ed.

Our kids gave us a wonderful gift for the holidays by coming home to visit. Our daughter lives and works in Europe. Our son is at college in another state. It was a real pleasure for my husband and I to hang out with these two happy, healthy, self-sufficient young adults. They loved the time we all spent together and they said so. In fact, our son commented on the fact that he knew how lucky he was to actually like coming home. Unfortunately, too many young adults do not enjoy visiting their parents.

I know, because I was one of them.

"One of your key parenting tasks is teaching your kids how to make good choices that reflect their own personal values. In order to help them develop into clear, independent thinkers, you have to back off and let them practice making their own decisions and learn from the process."

Starting from my first semester, freshman year, I never liked going home. Why? Because my mom treated me as if I was still a kid. In so many ways, of course, I was, but in just as many ways I had been changed forever by my time away at school. I had successfully negotiated territorial rights with a roommate. I had gotten myself to class on time and done my assignments without any prompting. I managed my own laundry and took care of myself through at least one cold and a wicked late autumn blizzard.

While I was still my mother’s daughter I was no longer a child. Yet, from the moment I returned to the old homestead a few days before Thanksgiving, I felt as if I had stepped back in time and it was not a comfortable feeling. All my newly gained independence was undermined with questions from my mother: “Why are you walking around barefoot? Put on some slippers.” And “Is that all you’re going to eat?” Sigh.

After a day or two of her helpful suggestions I was desperate go back to my own life where I was in charge of everything I did. And vacation after vacation the same scenes played out again and again. Sadly I was unable to express my frustration in appropriate ways so my mom never got the message and our relationship suffered until (at age 29) I had a child of my own. At that point my relationship with my mom mellowed considerably.

Hopefully, now that we are parents, we realize that much of what our own parents did that drove us crazy was motivated by love. (It took years, but I finally understood that “Why are you walking around barefoot?” means: “I love you and I don’t want you to catch a cold or hurt yourself.”)

Parents truly believe that they do ‘what is best’ for their children so that the kids will grow up happy and healthy. And what better way to ensure your child’s ‘success’ if not to guide them with all the benefit of your own experience?

That’s fine for the little ones, who like being cooperative because they want nothing more than to see you smile at them. But the first sign of a kid’s growing up is when they start having their own ideas about what’s right for them. The friction in so many families between parents and their adolescent kids happens when parents don’t accept or respect the child’s ability to make independent choices.

Let’s talk about choices.

The key struggle for parents is recognizing that your children are not you. (Not as obvious as it appears.) They are independent beings with their own ideas. Your success as a parent may well depend on how clear you are about this simple fact. It’s about respecting and delighting in your children’s separateness. It’s also about learning to let go.

That’s the main difference between parenting a young child and parenting a young adolescent. Parents need to shift from managing your child’s every waking hour (because they literally cannot survive without you) to being ‘on call’ as a consultant and support person for your teenager.

Learning to make good choices, on your own, is a process. We each learned it and we know it takes time. It also takes invaluable mistakes and learning from them. That process is helped tremendously when all along, parents have been providing safe choice-making opportunities for their kids. You can’t expect your child, suddenly, at age 18 to begin making his/her own wise decisions when you, as the parent, haven’t given that young person any chances up until then to be an independent thinker. Kids ‘graduating’ from those families and going off on their own for the first time either become overwhelmed and paralyzed by the task of making their own choices or they act out in wild, immature ways because they haven't learned to balance independence with responsibility.

In this new year, how about giving yourself a parenting challenge? Have a conversation with your child about decision-making. Talk about what makes a ‘good’ decision vs. a ‘poor’ one. Share with your son or daughter how you personally make decisions. Tell him/her about a ‘tough decision’ you had to make and how you went about weighing the pros and cons. Tell them what happened as a result of the choice you made. Then tell your child that growing up means being able to make good decisions that reflect their personal values. Tell your child that this year, you would like to help him/her gain skill and confidence in good decision-making. Then make a pledge to your child that you will be available whenever he/she is faced with a tough choice and needs help sorting things out. Pledge that you will spend less time telling them what to do and more time helping them figure out for themselves what is the right thing to do.

Good luck! As a parent you’re doing the most important job there is. Do it well and when your kids are grown they will always feel good about coming home.

Happy New Year!

In friendship,

Annie

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