As parents, we spend a lifetime learning to let go of our children. It’s fun in the early years as children learn new things and take steps of independence under our caring and loving eyes. We celebrate those meaningful victories like holding a bottle or sippy cup, learning to tie their own shoes, riding a bike. The childhood list of milestones goes on for days!
However, as birthdays stack up, the idea of letting go gets a bit more challenging, and for many, the middle and high school years become a struggle for control. Too often, instead of loosening our grip, where appropriate to teach and guide, we start tightening our hold.
Why is it hard for parents to let go?
Each of us probably has a slightly different “hot button” for those areas we like to manage.
As a parent, we should be committed to lead, guide, and advise, but we can’t hold on so tight they aren’t prepared to leave and step independently into the life God created them to live. It requires a hard and honest look at ourselves and perhaps also signals a lack of trust in God’s sovereign love for our children.
Hopefully, we all can agree on at least one thing: our goal in parenting is to raise children who leave. Whether you have teenagers or soon-to-be teenagers, and regardless of whether their plans after high school point to college or career, launching them into adulthood prepared to face life independently should be a priority.
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.
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 protect your children. 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 gripped 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 an injustice 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.
But for now, let’s look at parenting teenagers to consider where letting go becomes necessary to help prepare them for college and beyond. I surveyed parents who had recently sent children to college, and the list below comes from the combined feedback from my personal experiences, as well as those that were shared with me.
5 Things You Should Stop Doing for Your Teenager
1. Managing their schoolwork
There’s a fine line between involvement and helicoptering when it comes to our children’s academic success. When children are in elementary school, parents are instrumental in guiding study habits, building organizational skills, and setting important expectations about school and learning. For many parents, though, their level of hands-on involvement fails to shift as the child gets older. And with easy access to all things academic via the electronic gradebook, Type A parents, in particular, quickly get wrapped around the axle monitoring progress…or lack thereof.
However, if I could offer you one important piece of advice it would be this: Step away from the eGradebook. When I consider my son’s freshman year in high school, it feels foundational to his eventual college success. But more on this topic below because it was a huge step for me and my husband in learning to let go and one of the best, and hardest, parenting decisions we made.
When I left for college, this was a life skill I lacked. While I had other chores around my house growing up, somehow I escaped learning to do laundry. Thankfully, one of my best friends, who also happened to be my college roommate freshman year, showed me the ropes. But that experience left an impression on me.
So in raising our children, I wanted to make sure that when we sent them off they were prepared to live independently. Now, I also don’t love doing laundry or ironing, so it’s possible this was simply my way of avoiding a bigger task. But I’m going to keep believing my motives were purely altruistic. Either way, knowing how to do this essential task is critical, and both of my kids had this skill in place long before leaving for college.
It also seems I’m not alone with this opinion. In fact, it was the top response from parents who responded to our survey. And by the way, they need to learn to do it all: sorting, washing, folding, and putting it all away.
Would I find clean clothes left in laundry baskets on the floor of their room? Yes. Did it make me crazy? Also yes. Did I take over doing their laundry, so that it would be done “right”? No. You need to learn to let this go. If all their socks end up pink, well, that’s a good lesson to learn, too, and life will go on.
3. Waking them in the morning
High school, in particular, is a training ground for independent living. As painful as it might be at first, particularly for those who aren’t naturally early risers, your teen needs to be able to manage his/her own morning routine. When they go off to college, you won’t be there to wake them up for class.
It seems like such a silly thing, but it’s an important step in self-management. There are natural consequences that follow if they are late to school or to an activity/sport. So let them learn the lesson while they still are living at home because the consequences of missing class in college or being late to work are significantly greater. There’s an element of time management here, as well, that will serve them greatly as an adult.
Does anyone love to clean? While there might be a few — other than my grandmother, who in fact did enjoy cleaning — I don’t know anyone that necessarily loves it. But, my goodness, if there is one thing your child needs to know it’s how not to live in filth!
While, yes, dorm bathrooms are cleaned with some regularity, that won’t be the case for a student living off-campus. Additionally, cleanliness extends beyond the bathroom, so make sure your student knows the basics.
Regardless of whether they live in a dorm, apartment, or house, most will share a space with roommates. And if there’s one thing that causes tempers to flare, it’s a roommate that never cleans up after him/herself. In addition to grateful roommates, their future spouses will thank you.
This is not about the occasional helping hand, but it’s another step in responsibility and time management. On occasion, I would help my kids with lunch when they were in high school, but most of the time, it was a responsibility that fell to them. It’s a small step in meal planning, too, which they will need to figure out once they move beyond high school.
Along this same line, let your teens help with grocery shopping to give them some ownership over the lunches they decide to make. And while you’re at it, you can also teach them a few basic recipes and skills in the kitchen. Who knows, they may discover a new passion…bonus for you!
3 Life Skills for Young Adults
The following three are add-ons because they are more specific to teenagers who also are driving. So while the top five are things you should stop doing for your teenager beginning in middle school, these last three focus on life skills pertinent as you prepare to launch them into college or a career.
Each of the life skills below was shared by parents who have sent children to college. When asked the question, “Before teens leave for college, what things should they be able to do?” the following were included in their responses:
1. Financial management
Nearly every parent who responded to our survey, which asked a variety of questions about launching teenagers from high school to college, included financial management somewhere in their list. This can be a difficult step in learning to let go, but it’s a critical step in teaching your kids to manage and understand their finances. Regardless of your personal financial position, here’s what several parents said were key things a student should know and understand before they head to college:
- Balance a checking account: Online banking has changed the look of this, but it’s still important for your teen to understand, and be mindful, of their accounts. If you’re the money manager in your house, I think this can be a hard one to let go. There’s a great deal of control that comes with managing the purse strings, but do your child a favor and pass along these important skills. If you need a helpful resource, here’s an article worth reading and sharing: “Is Balancing a Checkbook Still Relevant?”
- Have a budget: A never-ending money tree won’t help your student in the long run. Decide what they will need to pay for from their discretionary funds, and then stick to it. When the money is gone; it’s gone. Depending on your child, this can be an easy or painful process to manage.
- Managing credit cards: By giving your teen a credit card before they go to college, you can help them establish and build positive credit history and teach them important lessons around financial management. When they go to college, it’s a must, in my opinion, because so many things, including books, will need to be purchased online. But set reasonable parameters around what is an allowable purchase, particularly since you’re likely paying the bills.
2. Car care
Here are a few things to begin teaching once your teen has a driver’s license:
- Basic maintenance: oil changes (when to have that done, what type of oil does their car need), tire rotation schedule, car wash, etc.
- What to do in case of a flat tire.
- How to jump a car when it won’t start.
- What to do in case of an accident.
3. Making appointments
It seems so insignificant, but it’s something that strikes a chord with parents. Many appointments now can be made online, so this probably has become less of a big deal. However, more than one parent brought up the issue of their teenagers being reluctant to make appointments over the phone, so let’s address it.
It’s not that they can’t; it’s that they’ve never had to do it. You probably don’t need to be the one making hair appointments, doctor and dentist appointments, etc. up until the minute they leave for college. Share with them the “how-tos” and then let that go. When it comes to physician appointments, in particular, here are a few helpful tips from our readers:
- Know what to say
- Know what information to have ready (i.e. insurance card)
- A workable calendar open and ready
Before they leave for college, you’ll also want to help them make a plan about where to go if they get sick. Figure this out BEFORE it happens. If not, you might find yourself paying for an ER visit simply because they didn’t realize the difference between CareNow and Urgent Care.
Finding Balance: Learning to Let Go and Maintaining Expectations
So let’s talk more about relinquishing control of your teenager’s schoolwork because I know some of you are reading this with the “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 becomes a factor. So let me share a story about our son’s 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.
And it’s here my husband and I found ourselves when our son started high school. 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 letting go, here are two critical steps to help ease the transition:
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, not ours.
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 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 high school graduation in May 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.
Recommended reading for learning to let go:
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? What 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!