Many well-meaning parents think they can protect their kids by sheltering them. They spend very little time preparing them for the real world because they aren’t in danger at the moment.  But they can only keep their kids isolated for so long. At some point they’re going out into that world—to a job, to college, to marriage—and it is vital that they be prepared for that day.  When you taught your kids to swim, you probably didn’t pick them up and throw them in the deep end of the pool.  You started them out splashing around in the shallow water, and gradually increased their exposure until they were ready and able to swim on their own.

Here’s a practical application of this principle: most parents wait too long to give their teens privileges and responsibilities.  Typically they drag their feet for about six months past the point where they should have.  I tell parents, “If you’re thinking about letting your teen do something, you probably should already have done it.”  If they have to fight for their independence, they are actually in self-preservation mode; they innately know they need to test out freedom to adjust to the world in which they will have to survive.

Having said that, I remain absolutely committed to protecting kids from danger.  For instance, I strongly urge parents not to let their 10-13 year old kids attend sleepovers or to be in the homes of their friends unattended.  That may sound old-fashioned, but it is at that early age that much harmful experimentation goes on.  If you look at the statistics of the first use of drugs, alcohol and sexual experimentation, it falls into that age range and anecdotal evidence points to kids picking up these habits when alone with their friends.  Give your kids freedoms, but as we say in the horse world “let out the reins” slowly.  Don’t do it in areas that will threaten their safety and their future, especially at the very impressionable “tween” years.

Breaking the Mold

One way to adjust your style is that instead of just telling your teenagers what to do (the way most of us were raised) have discussions with them; spend time working out the practical applications of the truths you have taught them.  Rather than lecturing, ask questions.  When you start asking questions, you convey a powerful positive message to them that they need to begin thinking on their own.  Asking questions makes them feel valued—at the most devaluing stage of their lives.  It empowers them to begin asking their own questions of you and about the negative things their peers may ask them to be involved in.

The answers you get to your questions will help you identify areas in which you may need to adjust or strengthen your teaching.  Do not be judgmental or reactionary.  If they are a teenager, you have already taught them all you’re going to teach them about your values; now affirm and guide them toward what is right.  If I’m counseling with a young person and they give a negative answer, I say something like, “That’s interesting.”  I don’t say “That’s wrong.”  I then keep the conversation going (with more questions) and try to guide them rather than smother them.  They’ll often come around to the right decision — based on the values they’ve been taught — if it is discussed openly and without condemnation.

Adjusting to your teen’s age and maturity is like hitting a moving target.  It’s not something you can do just once.  As they grow and mature and face new challenges, you need to keep changing right along with them.  The relationship is far more important than minor issues.  Don’t violate your principles, but do focus on what matters most and set aside the rest.  They say “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” but don’t wait until your teen spins out of control to make the needed changes.  Engage your child now, on their level, and make any changes or adjustments in order to improve your relationship with them and to prepare them for the all too soon day in which they will be out on their own.

Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, a therapeutic boarding school located in East Texas. Call 903-668-2173. Visit http://www.heartlightministries.org, or to read other articles by Mark, visit http://www.markgregston.com.