Let Teens Climb

We often tell parents of young kids to let them climb; stop following behind them with your hands held out, protecting them from falling. Kids learn by falling. That’s how they become stronger. The same is true as they grow older, into teens and adults. Sometimes we have to allow them to climb higher and fall farther in order to let them learn. 

Steven is eighteen. He struggled to graduate high school, and now he wants to start community college. His mom is discouraging Steven from going back to school, even though he plans to pay the tuition himself while continuing to live at home. She says he doesn’t appear ready for community college, and that he should wait another semester or even a year so he can grow up a little bit. 

But I don’t know. Maybe Steven will surprise her. Maybe he will fight his way through and push to achieve his goal, developing his skill set as he goes. That’s often how teens learn. Or maybe he will fall, and learn from failure. Why protect him from taking a risk?

Parents want to wait until teens seem ready with a new skill to let them go out and use it, instead of allowing them to fail. We want to see that they are mature enough to take on a new challenge before we let them sign up. We want to observe the evidence that they have the skills to balance increased responsibility before we let them take it on. But sometimes teens push us to let them go before they appear ready. They take on more without asking. They create situations that require more maturity for themselves without obtaining our consent. Why?

Parents assume that the signs of readiness will begin to emerge before a teen can take on something new, but sometimes that’s’ not how it happens. Teens may rise to the occasion when placed in a new situation. A teen who has tended to be selfish and immature, but then faces a family crisis will often take on more responsibility and grow up quickly. The responsibility may bring about the growth, not the other way around. 

Teens may seek out challenges just beyond their skillset to create opportunities to grow. They may place themselves on the edge of the next stage, knowing they are ready to learn and intuiting that new responsibility is the best way to get there. 

With the rise of “parenting” through young adulthood, teens are given few chances to explore, to try and fail on their own terms. If Steven enters community college and fails a semester, will that harm him more than waiting until his mom feels he is ready? 

Good parents will argue on this point. They want to see proof their kid can achieve a new goal before they allow him to take it on. But is this the right way to think about it? Don’t they need to climb and fall in order to learn?

Posted on February 29, 2016 .