One crucial step in helping teens prepare for college centers around academic independence. Yet, it seems to be an area where parents, in general, hold an increasingly tight grip of control. For those of you with a few more years to go before your child graduates from high school, I have a cautionary tale.
While I am far from a parenting expert, I know parents struggle to relinquish control of their teens for various reasons, but the big one is fear.
In parenting, fear takes many forms — fear of the unknown, fear of failure, fear of life-altering consequences — but as our children begin to reach the age of adulthood, our fears can gain paralyzing momentum if we’re not careful.
Why is it so hard to let go?
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m a big believer in parenting from failure. In my own parenting journey, I’ve tried to bridge gaps and missteps from my own teenage and young adult years by purposefully parenting my kids across known pitfalls. My inner “been there; done that” served as an excellent resource on occasion, but it also created personal turmoil that wasn’t always warranted.
I recognize there’s a fine line here. Abdicating control and relinquishing all decision-making to your teen isn’t the answer, but neither is micromanaging every activity and decision that child must make.
Yes, it is perfectly natural to want to help your teen, to protect them from the hard things in life. We live in a fallen world where we see, feel and often experience the effects of sin; bad things can and do happen.
However, problems start when we fail to surrender those fears to God and allow them, instead, to consume our thoughts and actions. In parenting teens, it’s easy to become overwhelmed by all the things that might go wrong. But instead of fixing our eyes on Jesus, we fix our eyes on the “what-ifs,” hoping that if we hold on tight enough, we’ll be able to control the outcomes.
While learning to let go can be hard, we are doing our teens a disservice and failing to show faith in our creator when we refuse to loosen our grip. The simple fact is that we have to learn to trust God with our children.
What can parents do to help their teenagers?
That’s a big question. When it comes to helping teens, there are many things you can do, but let’s talk specifically about academic performance and relinquishing control of your teenager’s schoolwork. I’m fairly certain some of you read that (or maybe you started with the post that includes “5 things you should stop doing for your teenager“) with a “No Way!” already forming.
If you have sent a child to college recently or expect to send one soon, you know the stakes increase once high school GPA and ranking become a factor. The story below provides a glipse into our son’s freshman year of high school. I hope our experience helps you.
When our son began his freshman year of high school, his father and I would lose our minds when we would log in to the electronic grade book and see missing grades, bad grades, or zeros. Probably the bigger issue was that we knew what needed to be done differently — for goodness sake, just turn in your homework…on time…Every. Single. Time! The oversight was maddening.
It’s not that our son didn’t care about school or his grades. In fact, his grades overall weren’t terrible, but he didn’t pursue his academics like the sister who went before him. In parenting her, the electronic gradebook was convenient, but I never opened it to find myself shocked by what I found there.
By the end of the semester of his freshman year in high school, we had developed a predictable pattern of behavior:
- Mom confronts the issue with a fully prepared lecture. Somewhere in that carefully crafted monologue sits the all-important point about grades and opportunities: “The better your grades are now, the more opportunities you’ll have in the future.”
- Dad comes home, and another lecture follows. Many of the talking points are similar; after all, we’re a united parenting front of frustration.
- Although we often tried to “discuss” the problem with a mixture of calm and compassion, frustration and anger typically found us by the end.
- Mason dutifully listened; nothing really changed.
That is, nothing changed until I did, until I took the advice a friend shared based on the recommendation of their counselor. And it was this — parenting gold, plain and simple — get off the electronic gradebook.
So that’s what I did. I stopped looking, and while it took my husband a few more weeks to join me in letting go, he also stepped away. And you know what? It was one of the best parenting decisions we ever made.
But there was balance in that decision. So while you take those steps toward helping your teen by letting go, here are two critical steps to help ease the transition:
Help your teen by setting expectations
In my opinion, setting expectations goes hand in hand with relinquishing your hold over the gradebook (or any other task you’re turning over to your teen). We didn’t stop caring about his progress. We maintained expectations over academics based on what we knew of his abilities, and we told him we would want to see grades at the end of a grading period.
However, we also made it clear we wanted no surprises. So, if he was having difficulty in a class for whatever reason, we wanted him to own that and talk to us about it. We expected honesty and his best effort; we did not expect or demand all As.
It was a healthy shift in our parenting. It kept us out of the day-to-day and gave him ownership of his academics to set a course for his future success, not ours.
Help your teen by sharing your why
It also was important for me to share with my son the “why” behind my decision. The electronic gradebook gave me access to everything I needed to ensure he managed his calendar wisely, completed assignments on time, studied for tests, etc., so I probably could have continued micromanaging his academic success in high school.
However, if that was the case, what would happen when he got to college, and his mom and dad weren’t there to ensure he did what was needed to be prepared and excel? I finally realized that if I didn’t loosen my hold on his academic behavior in high school, I would be setting him up for failure when he was ready to leave.
The bottom line: He needed to care about his grades; I couldn’t care for him.
To improve his chances for success in college, he needed to know from the start how to balance his time and assignments on his own. And as we all know, this takes trial and error to figure out.
While stepping away from the gradebook remains one of my best pieces of parenting advice and was a pivotal step in learning to let go, it’s not guaranteed to create smooth sailing or set your child up to be the next valedictorian. That’s not the point. However, it’s a significant shift in perspective that prepares your teenager to launch. And in the end, that’s the goal, remember?
Letting go to let God lead
Preparing our teenagers for college and beyond takes time, and it is not always easy. Actions do have consequences, but the good news is that God never leaves us (Deuteronomy 31:8). He uses whatever trials we face to draw us closer to him (Joshua 1:9).
Whether you are facing an upcoming high school graduation and have been holding on for dear life or your children are still in elementary school, start making changes now to prepare.
Pray for discernment about the changes you need to make (Matthew 7:7—8, 11). Ask God to help you understand why you are afraid to let go. Talk to your student about your fears and concerns. But whatever you do, act. Take whatever steps you need to help your teen gain a level of independence that will prepare him or her for life outside your constant care.
When it seems too scary, remember that God loves your child more than you ever can or will (1 John 4:9—10). He’s created that child to fulfill a purpose unique to his plan (Psalm 139:13—16), and God’s plans always prevail (Romans 8:28). Parenting has a unique way of drawing us closer to God as we navigate different seasons and stages. Here are a few verses to encourage you as you take those steps in learning to let go and trust God.
Helping you help your teen:
I wish this book, The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed by Jessica Lahey, had been around when my kids were younger. I wish it were required reading for all parents. It’s that good.
The author, a former middle and high school teacher, offers so much practical wisdom for parenting, and it is worth the read if you’re in the throes of raising kids.
Consider this nugget of truth from her book:
“…parents argue that even one failure could spell the end of a scholarship opportunity, the loss of Honor Roll, the unerasable record of detention, academic probation, or suspension. Yes, I nod, that’s true, but the greater risk lies in sheltering and protecting kids from failures while they still are living at home, because failures that happened out there, in the real world, carry far higher stakes.” – The Gift of Failure, Page 161
So what about you? In parenting teens, what helpful advice would you give for learning to let go so that your child is ready to launch to college and beyond?
Email me and let me know!