I have a friend who teaches 11th grade at a public high school. Every time they near the end of a semester in his classes, he pontificates to his students on the advantages of studying hard for the upcoming test. He has told me he sees many of the students with glassy eyes as he tells them how important these last two years of high school can be for their future.
At the end of this standard lecture, he asks the students if they truly see the importance of doing well in their classes. He asks them to write down why they imagine junior and senior years are critical. Then he has one more thing to add:
“If you don’t think these final two years of high school are important, then I want you to write down this phrase you will need to learn. Here it is: “Do you want fries with that?”
Of course, the students all laugh and he hopes the point strikes them hard. If they punt their final preparatory years of high school, the theory is it will prevent them from getting into a good school, getting a coveted degree, and landing a great job. Though this does not automatically imply that they will be working fast food, he likes the shock value. He hopes the humor gets the point across.
Though my friend is joking, when parents hear this, they get serious about the subject. Parents really do fear their teens will fail at life. It is the most common theme among parents in counseling. This fear has been exacerbated by the economy of the past ten years, where the cost of education has ballooned and the amount of good jobs has diminished. Because of these realities, parents feel they have to continue housing their grown children long after they graduate from high school. Some experts estimate that 60% of adult children are now living with their parents.
This puts even more pressure on parents to push their children to succeed as early as possible in school.
This fear of children failing often leads parents to stop respecting children enough to let them make mistakes. This is also why movements which teach that a parent should control children, manipulate them, focus on rewards and punishments, severely punish them for failing to live up to standards are popular today. Parents fear if they just let teens do whatever they want they will be housing them long after they originally thought they would.
But there are several difficulties with this. First, no one says that it is a parent’s responsibility to house their children forever. You can if you want. You can do anything you want. But if you choose to do so that is your choice. Second, taking a heavy-handed approach toward your teen’s education robs them of their own choices. This approach assumes that most children will not do well unless they are pushed.
But this begs another question: What is going to push them when they are no longer in high school? The answer most parents give me is this: By that time, hopefully they will figure it out. I propose to those parents that kids need to have it figured out long before teen years.
This is why my wife and I told our small children that they will ultimately be the deciding factor in school, career, marriage and finances. Long before they became teens, they were told that they had to learn to be self-motivated. We helped them with their learning disabilities, encouraged them and taught them about working hard, and found resources and influences that would give them tools to succeed.
For instance, until our children were in grade school, we never had cable television. We read to them and with them every day. And when they reached school age, we bought them all the books we could afford. We made weekly trips to the library and made sure they all had library cards. We limited their time on the Internet and made after-school studying a mandatory event.
We did what a lot of parents do. Perhaps what we added that most do not is the continual discussion on their responsibility. They all knew they would be expected to be responsible for effort and success in high school without our pushing. Though there were times we held them accountable for how hard they worked, we never punished or rewarded our teens for their school results. That is not our role. At some point in life they needed to be in charge of their own life and education. If they had wanted to drop out of school, join the circus, get pregnant, be part of a cult or write computer programs–all of that was their choice and we were not going to sweat over it.
It is their life. It is not ours. Though we love our children, we are stable enough in who we are to let them succeed or fail on their own merits. We continue to give support, both emotional and financial, but their achievements are their own. If they failed it was not our failure. If they succeed, it is not our success.
And when we did inevitably house them for part of their adult life, that was our choice and we made it because we felt it was the right thing to do.
Parents must understand that in order to release your teens to take responsibility for themselves you have to build up to it in pre-teen years. Give them more and more responsibility. Talk to them when they don’t live up to their responsibilities instead of always punishing them. Take away distractions and give them every chance to make wise decisions.
And model this for them by making wise decisions yourself. This is the greatest teaching tool. If you don’t want them to do drugs or drink, both show them and tell them by discussing these things intelligently and then refusing to be ruled by those things yourself.
If your goal was to get wasted every weekend, you should not have had kids. If you did, this is one of the sacrifices you have to make. Give up some television. Go to museums as much as the movies. Read with them. Take them with you to church. Show as many documentaries on the television as movies.
Then by teen years, they will have some good examples to follow.