The last 6 months I’ve been conducting a little experiment; but, instead of using rats… I used my daughter.
No, I didn’t cage her, send her through a maze and reward her with pellets. I did something a little more drastic in most conservative parenting circles: I freed her from all rules and restrictions at age 17½. Some of our friends thought we were nuts, and at times… we wondered. But we refrained from retightening our grip.
This week my daughter turned 18, and I’m absolutely fascinated with what I’ve learned in the last year. For the last 6 months she’s had the freedom to hang out with whoever she wants, go where she wants, and stay out as late as she wants (this sounds like a Miley Cyrus song).
The results were amazing!
Our theory was basically this: Start strict, and loosen up as our kids get older, eventually freeing them from all boundaries by age 17½. We figured, they can do whatever they want when they’re 18 anyway, so why not get there six months early while they’re still under our shadow? I posted about this in detail here, and Doug Fields and I now teach it as a curriculum, based on our little workbook about setting realistic guardrails for today’s kids who have a smartphone in their pocket.
Well, now my daughter is 18, so some of what was just “theory” has been truly tried and tested in my home. So I thought I’d share with you some of our observations over the last few years:
- During the early toddler years, my kids didn’t notice we were strict. They grew up learning, If they say it, they mean it!
- As our kids grew older and began spending time with friends, they noticed some of our guardrails were stricter than other houses. This caused a little pushback. “But Melanie’s mom doesn’t make her do that!”
- Any progress we made toward open communication and making them feel safe was thwarted by my angry outbursts when they messed up. “I better not tell Dad, because he’s just gonna flip out!”
- As our kids grew into their teens, we had to be proactive and literally force ourselves to ‘release the grip’ and let them make decisions instead of us making all the decisions for them. “Dad, can I download Lady Gaga?” “No!… I mean… let’s take a look at her lyrics and tell me your thoughts.”
- By the time my daughter was 16 and then 17, we began letting her make big decisions, like, “Can I go to the Homecoming Dance?” We’d tell her, “You make the decision, then let’s talk about it and see how you think it turned out.”
- When my daughter turned 17, she began hearing us talk about how she would have no rules at 17½. She began growing excited about the opportunity to make decisions totally on her own. She began to see the big picture of choices and their consequences.
- By the time 17½ came, “no rules” wasn’t such a big deal. She had been making most decisions by herself by then anyway. She was actually in Uganda on a missions trip the day she turned 17½.
- Once she was 17½, she kept asking us permission to go places. I would always have to remind her, “You can do whatever you think is best.”
- Discussions with us were no longer about trying to convince us to give her permission—she already had that. Now conversations were about what she was learning from her decisions, good and bad.
- She began talking with us about decisions even more. When she wanted to drive over 2 hours to San Francisco with her friends (the furthest she had ever driven), she wanted to know all about traffic, directions and safety. Not because we made her, but because we were “safe” to talk with.
Now she’s 18… and it’s really not much different around here.
She heads to California Baptist University this week. We’re gonna miss this kid!
WHAT ABOUT YOU? What areas have you found it difficult to “release the grip” of your teens?
Jonathan McKee is the author of numerous books including the brand new Candid Confessions of an Imperfect Parent, as well as youth ministry books like Connect: Real Relationships in a World of Isolation. You can find his excellent blog here.