By Robbye Fox
I started noticing the “Adulting” checklists during my children’s early high school years. “Adulting 101” … “12 Life Skills All Kids Need to Know to Leave Home” … “24 Life Skills Every Teen Should Learn.” No two lists were the same. They each placed a higher value on one skill or set of skills over another.
From balancing a budget or navigating public transportation to cooking and doing laundry, each list posited the skills every teen needed to launch successfully into adulthood. “We’ve got plenty of time,” I remember thinking, while also wondering if any of my kids were ever going to want me to teach them how to sew a button on their shirt or change a tire on the car.
At that point, we did have plenty of time … had I actually started the process then. It turns out, teens don’t magically gain an extensive knowledge base on their 18th birthday that enables them to navigate life full-time. It’s like when they learn to ride a bike – they rarely go from tricycle to two-wheeler without some time on training wheels.
We had spent a great deal of their high school years focused on schoolwork, SAT prep, resume building, athletic competitions, all sprinkled with some family fun, but not nearly enough time with our teenagers focused on the training for life. I do remember trying to be transparent with daily tasks and handing over as many of their personal responsibilities to them as possible, such as setting their own alarms, managing their schoolwork schedules and money, keeping their own private spaces organized and clean (or not, but then dealing with the consequences of that choice).
When it came to the other stuff, I still liked to be needed and probably held on to more of a managing role than I should have.
When summer arrived the year before college, those lists reared their ugly heads again. I panicked. “So little time!” I thought. “We’ve got serious work to accomplish this summer!” I pored over the lists trying to identify the duplication and prioritize where to start. Then I attended my daughter’s college orientation and heard a magical phrase spoken by the Vice President of Student Affairs (VPSA) that I wished I’d learned much earlier.
The VPSA introduced the phrase as she was graciously trying to encourage parents to lengthen our leashes. Colleges across the country are struggling with a student body that is less prepared to deal with life’s ups and downs than previous classes. She was telling us it was time to empower our 18-year-olds with the idea that even if they didn’t know how to handle something initially, we were confident they had the wherewithal to figure it out. Especially during these days of Google searches and YouTube videos, there’s not much in the way of hard skills that our kids can’t learn to do on their own if we just empower them to do so.
The VPSA encouraged parents to use the magic phrase or something similar whenever a child used the electronic umbilical cord (i.e., cell phone) to phone home with a problem needing to be solved. Nine times out of 10, she suggested, the problem they’re asking about is theirs to solve, not ours, as they would be the ones most affected by the outcome. But in our rush to feel needed, to help make our child’s life “easier,” we parents often tend to propose at least one solution before we’ve even thought to ask them how they might approach it.
Like teaching kids to ride a two-wheeler, the VPSA was encouraging parents to let go of the back of the bike so our kids can start pedaling toward their own destinations. It sounded scary. I asked myself, what if they choose a less direct route or a bumpier road? Even more scary, what if they fall down, scrape their knee or elbow, or even break a bone? I didn’t spend nearly enough time asking the opposite – what if they blaze a trail that no one has ever taken before, or notice scenery that I typically cruise by too quickly to notice? As parents, when we let go and allow our kids to steer and pedal their own bikes, we send the message that we trust they are capable enough to ride without our help. Grabbing their shirt or running fast to get ahead of them in case they start to fall sends the opposite message – that we don’t trust them to have what it takes. Seeing our doubt can lead them to doubt themselves, which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Too often, this leads to increased anxiety and even depression among our young people today.
After returning home from orientation, I changed my approach to focusing more on life’s soft skills, such as how and where to ask for help, the importance of eye contact and asking questions, conflict resolution, and respectful ways of advocating for themselves. I asked them more open-ended questions that started with “what” and “how” and tried to remember to process my observations and problem-solving out loud to visibly model those skills. I’ll admit it was hard not to grasp at every last opportunity to kick into full-fledged “take control Mom mode” whenever my kids had the slightest issue so I could feel needed and earn my Super Mom title once again. But the fact is, they didn’t need me running alongside the bike anymore. I had to focus on encouraging them to use the many bike lanes, rest stops, and other supports that kept them on a safe path. I had to become more consultant, less manager.
I also recognized that it was time to spend less energy keeping my kids propped up and more on teaching the skills needed for when they invariably fall down – to whom and where could they turn in addition to parents and other loved ones to help regroup and find the courage to get back on the bike and start again. Teaching them there were resources to lean on other than me didn’t lessen the time that they asked for my opinion. If anything, letting them know that I wanted their thoughts first before offering my unsolicited advice led them to invite me along for the ride more often. I still have to remind myself to hang back and let them choose their own paths, as dented with potholes as I might fear those paths to be.
The fact is, learning not to take over for my teens was incredibly freeing. Suddenly, not every problem was mine to solve. And I got to see first-hand just how capable and creative my kids could be when I gave them the space. Years later, with my kids now well into adulthood, this phrase remains a gift that keeps on giving. But I still get tested. “I’m having an existential crisis” read a text this week from one adult daughter. “I think my dog’s constipated,” read a text from another. “Whoa that’s rough – how are you thinking you’re going to handle that?” read my responses.
This article appears in the August 2023 issue of Washington Parent magazine.
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