Do you remember teaching your child to drive a car? How could you forget? Did you ever grab the steering wheel to keep your rookie driver from hitting another car…or a tree…or a mailbox…or a kid on a bike?  Hopefully that didn’t happen too often—it’s bad for the blood pressure and the insurance rates!

While there may be rare moments when we have to grab the wheel from our kids, it’s important that we begin letting go when kids reach the teen years.  One of our most important priorities is to gradually empower them to take control of their own lives and take responsibility for their own actions.

Teens have a growing need to take control of their lives.  They want to make their own decisions.  So give it to them!  Give them the power to control their lives and hold them responsible for the results.

We live in a generation where parents tend to do everything for their kids.  As a result, their growth and development can be stunted. Dr. Henry Cloud talked about this when he wrote, “The problem with over-control is this: while a major responsibility of good parenting is certainly to control and protect, they must make room for their child to make mistakes. Over-controlled children are subject to dependency, enmeshment conflicts and difficulty setting and keeping firm boundaries.  They also have problems taking risks and being creative.”

Maturity is a by-product of the assumption of responsibility; teens won’t get it any other way.

Your kids will need discernment and decision-making skills when they leave home, so begin treating them like the adult you want them to eventually be, one step at a time.  Since we learn the most from consequences we suffer when we make mistakes, falling down is just part of the process of growing up. On the playground monkey bars children learn if you don’t grab the next rung, you will never make any progress. Likewise, if we never let them reach for more responsibility, and sometimes miss, they simply won’t progress in life.

This transfer of responsibility must be age-appropriate.  Like training wheels on a bicycle, give your child some control over their “ride” in life, but leave some basic safeguards in place. Easing of control for an older teen can look something like this. “Yes, you can take the car, but you can have no more than one other teen in the car, and have it back here by 11PM.”  Make it known (and stick to it) that if your simple rules aren’t followed, then the next time they need it, the car won’t be available to them.  Giving them responsibility does not mean allowing them to escape accountability.

Steps to handing over control (and not taking it back)

Setting boundaries and allowing consequences are the two legs of empowering your child.  Give them the responsibility for their decisions and refuse to take back that responsibility from them.  They’ll make better choices when they learn they are completely responsible for the outcome.

My friend Bill Zeigler, a school principal, has seen just about every imaginable mistake a kid can make.  At his school they have this slogan: “Good grades plus good behavior equals freedom.”  Since kids at this age strive for freedom, it is the greatest reward to encourage them to excel.

So reward them with more freedoms.  Encourage your teen to get a summer job and work some after school, preferably in a job where they have to serve customers. They’ll be able to start paying for some of their own expenses and learn how to manage their money.  There’s nothing more “real life” than having to get yourself to work, and dealing with customers and bosses.

Finally let me say this: your attitude when your teen makes mistakes is critical.  Don’t shame your child.  Don’t say, “I told you so.”  Don’t  say, “You never…” or “You always…”  Those remarks do nothing to enhance your relationship and they can counteract the effect of consequences.  Instead, offer them advice only when they seek it, and hold your tongue to keep from provoking them.

Start today developing an intentional strategy to help your kids mature and develop, through empowering them.

March 21, 2011

Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, a residential program for struggling adolescents 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.