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Help Your Teen Gain Independence

Teach Your Teen How To Gain Independence and Make Good Choices on their own

"I'm calling to make sure that all my son's paperwork has been completed and handed in. I believe I filled out all the forms he needed, but I wanted to make sure nothing was missing."

The son in question was a 20-year-old college student, finishing up his sophomore year and applying to spend a semester studying in England.

Parental calls to college campuses have become routine. Mothers and fathers call to find out their child's academic advisor, to ask about grades, to make routine inquiries. Some parents are bolder: They've actually scheduled their child's classes or meet with faculty to discuss their child's academic future. In all cases, the parents have either forgotten or purposely ignored that their "child" is now an adult.

Stepping Back

"The students should be introducing their parents to the faculty at graduation," says Moses Ling, the undergraduate advisor for the Department of Architectural Engineering at Penn State University. "We don't have any reason to know them before then."

Whereas parents are often willing to give their teenagers freedom in many other areas – such as holding down a job or staying home alone for a weekend or driving across the state – there is a tendency to keep a tight grip on their teenager's education. For many parents it is a habit – they spent a lifetime in touch with teachers and administrators. In other cases, the parents feel they are making such a large investment into a college education that they should be able to have a say. Or as one father of a Penn State student said, "If I didn't handle these things, they wouldn't get done."

However, parents are not doing their college-aged children a favor by keeping close contact with the faculty and staff. "It definitely leaves a negative impression," says Ling. "By college, the student should be able to find his department's office and ask a staff assistant for help. If a student can't do that much, we have to wonder if he or she can juggle all the other responsibilities of college."

"Parents need to cut the cord right after they drop their child off at the beginning of the student's freshman year of college," says Pamela Dunn, a counselor at Bellefonte Area High School in Pennsylvania. "Students need to take ownership ... it's their life and their education."

Margaret Loudon Cochran, a parent in Grand Rapids, Mich., agrees with Dunn. "As soon as a child leaves for college, they should be responsible for their education," she says. "I am ready to be a sounding board for my daughter, but I am not prepared to do things she could easily do herself."

When parents begin to scale back their involvement with their teen's schooling depends on various factors that are unique for each child. Whereas one parent suggested age 15 as a good time to step away, another set of parents may find that their 12-year-old can deftly handle any problems that arise. Or it could happen when you, the parent, hit a personal roadblock. "My own inability to deal with her math helped [develop my teen's academic independence]," says April O'Herron of Cuyohoga Falls, Ohio.

Making the Separation

However, allowing your teen to take control of school doesn't mean not taking an active interest in his education. Meet the teachers, keep abreast of homework, but as your teen gains confidence, move into the shadows. Parents and counselors provide some guidelines on how to make this separation.

  • Learn to pick and choose your battles. If a high school student is failing a class or is in an unsafe situation, by all means, the parent may need to step in. But most situations don't require parent intervention. By letting the student sweat the small stuff early on, he or she will be more prepared to deal with the larger issues as time goes on. "I think kids should be empowered to start making decisions early in life, so that they are used to making them as adults," says Chantal Meijer, a mother from Terrace, British Columbia, Canada.
  • Follow your child's lead.Let them ask you for help if they need it, and when they ask, don't hesitate. If they know you are right there on their side, they'll be more willing to take the reigns to solve their own problems. As a school counselor said about a particularly trying but independent high school student, "She could be a pain in the butt sometimes, but I'm sending her off to college certain that she'll know how to handle what life throws at her."
  • Slowly delegate similar responsibilities to your teen. Do you, as parent, schedule all the appointments? Do you order the pizza for the gaggle of teens sprawled out in your family room? Hand them the phone, and have them make the calls. Kids are nervous the first few times, but that's OK. That's normal. Tell your teen that she has a better idea of her schedule than you do, so it is easier for her to make her own appointments. Remind yourself that while you might find it easier to pick up the phone and make the call yourself (you may have to nag a bit the first few times you tell the kids to make their own calls), it's one less thing you have to do. "Kids must learn how to ask questions and educate themselves on the processes involved with getting the answers they need," says Deana Case from California.
  • When it comes time for post-high-school planning, look but don't touch. This is the time for parents to let their teen take the lead. Too often parents make the phone calls to schedule campus visits, and when on campus, the parents charge to the front while the student stands in back, waiting to follow orders. While it may not always be easy for the student to make phone calls on his behalf, once at the college, the student should be the one asking questions and taking the lead. A skilled admissions counselor or campus tour guide will make this easy for a prospective student. "Parents can help their child initially but should not do the college search work for their child," Dunn says. "The student needs to find the answer to any question himself."

At the University of Miami, the College of Engineering Advising tells the story of a mother who made an advising appointment for her daughter, then came with her daughter, had already prepared her daughter's fall schedule and sent the daughter off to class while she, the mother, fulfilled the appointment.

This parent has gone against the advise of Case, a veteran parent of teenagers. "Success as a parent is when you make yourself obsolete," she says.

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