I Let My Teens Make Their Own Choices

by Christine Burke

His hazel eyes stared defiantly back at me and his toddler arms were folded across his Thomas the Tank Engine shirt. “But he started it,” he wailed, tears brimming as he realized that he had been caught hitting another child on the playground. “I wanted that swing and it was my turn,” my son grumbled as he stomped his foot for emphasis. As I lead him over to the other child to apologize, my son stubbornly refused to admit that he’d been rude. “You have a choice here, son,” I chided. With little conviction and a roll of his eyes, my son uttered a lame apology and turned wistfully to look back at the swings as I herded him to the car, our play time over as a consequence of his poor behavior.

On the ride home, as he cried at the injustice in his 4-year-old world, I reminded him that there are choices in life, all day every day. “Every action has a consequence,” I told him and since that day, that phrase has been repeated hundreds of times in our house. My husband and I have spent years explaining consequences for actions in our home. We realized early on that the day would come that our children wouldn’t always have us around to help them make good choices and we wanted to lay a strong moral foundation early on in their lives.

Now that my kids are entering the teen years, I’m learning to step back a bit and let my kids build on the foundation we’ve cured for them. In letting them make choices like these on their own, it’s my hope that they’ll learn from their mistakes while we can still talk them through their actions.

1. Their Friends

Allowing my kids to choose who they spend their time with isn’t always an easy task. While I may look at their friendships through the eyes of a seasoned 40-something, I realize that I went through a lot of lousy friendships as I grew up. Having those experiences, both good and bad, allowed me to clarify the kind of relationships I wanted to cultivate as an adult. By stepping back and letting my kids navigate their social circle on their own, they are developing their own keen sense of friendship radar. Obviously, if my husband and I notice they are spending time with a dangerous crowd or are involved in a toxic relationship, we’ll step in, but for now, we are choosing to be hands-off in our kids’ friendship choices.

2. Whether They Fail a Class

My husband is fond of saying, “Your grades are for you, not us” and that perspective has served our children well over the years. By encouraging our kids to achieve success for personal satisfaction rather than to please others, they are choosing academic success more often than not. Of course, we all want our kids to succeed but demanding good grades isn’t the ticket to success. When my son does poorly on a test, we talk about the choices he made that led to his less than satisfactory grade. In talking about his choice to study less and play video games or race through a test to get to lunch more quickly, he’s learning that every action he makes at school affects his academic outcome.

3. How They Spend Their Money

When our children were young, we started a financial dialogue that included giving them an allowance. While they’ve learned valuable lessons about saving money, it’s been in the spending of money that they’ve learned the most. Buyer’s remorse cuts pretty deeply when you are 13 and on a tight budget. By allowing our kids to have a bit of financial independence in their money choices, they are learning to be fiscally responsible adults. And, though it kills me to see how much of their hard earned money they waste on iTunes, I know that choosing to stay mum is best for their wallets down the line.

4. How They Spend Their Time After School

Admittedly, I’m in the majority when I say that I support my kids in their decision to be enrolled in minimal activities after school. Neither of my teens is interested in playing multiple sports per season and nor do they want their afternoons to be jam-packed and overscheduled. We have allowed them to pick one or two activities that they love to focus on, and I am completely okay with them enjoying an afternoon relaxing after school. I support their need to decompress after a busy day of school and, in doing so, I am helping them learn to schedule downtime into their lives. We aren’t the family who spends every weekend on a ball field and that’s because my teens have chosen the “less is more” route when it comes to activities.

Stepping back and letting your teen make their own choices can be daunting. But loosening the reigns and letting them find their way in their early teens will pave the way for them to make sound decisions when they get older. Teens today are faced with tough decisions about sex, alcohol, and social media, and it can be tough to let your teen struggle with the correct course of action. Giving them the tools to weigh their options and accept the consequences of their actions will serve them long into adulthood. And as I watch my teens find their way and make their own choices, I have made a promise to them that I won’t say “I told you so” if they make a mistake or two along the way. I’d by lying if I said I wouldn’t say it under my breath, though.