With Noah reaching the official age of adulthood, Erin now into the start of her fourth year away from home and Sophie launching into a new, semi-independent life in another city, I’ve been thinking back to the post I wrote in 2007, entitled “Adolescence? No thanks.” Back then, with kids aged 4 through 13, I wrote:
“….adolescence is a social construct that comes of shortening childhood through the pressures of media, consumerism and peer-culture and delaying adulthood through impoverished expectations of teens and twenty-somethings.”
My plan was to compress the in-between state to as short a period as possible. Adolescence is an awkward stage of being no longer a child, having adult-like physical and mental capabilities, but not yet being afforded the responsibility, freedom and self-determination of the adult world. I remembered how nasty the in-between-ness had felt when I was a teen and I wanted my own children to spend as little time there as necessary.
At the time, Erin was a shy backwoods homeschooled girl who at 13 was still not entirely comfortable being away from home and family overnight. She seemed light years away from wanting the independence, freedom and responsibility that most teens eventually fight tooth and nail for. But I said to myself that once she starting pushing for independence, I’d do my very best to grant it rather than resist. “We’re not doing adolescence around here,” I told myself. I really hoped that if I when my kids pushed up against the limits and expectations of childhood I immediately moved those boundaries, they wouldn’t need to rebel, our relationships wouldn’t become conflict-ridden and I wouldn’t have to wail and gnash my teeth. So I crossed my fingers and hoped that when the push for independence came, it would be in a form I could make peace with and yield to.
I had no idea how quickly things would shift! Within a year the girl who couldn’t endure a sleepover at a friend’s house had decided she would like to accept the invitation of some adult friends to go backpacking in southeast Asia for more than two months. From there she never looked back. Soon she was an old hand at spending weekends in Calgary, doing overnight Greyhound bus trips, working, touring with her choir and spending summers away at university campuses and on tour with the National Youth Orchestra. When she came to us at age 16 and said that she wanted to move to Montreal, we had a hard time remembering the 13-year-old who was still too tightly attached to home and family to got to a sleepover. And we said yes.
In our quest to vault over adolescence we allowed her to forge ahead whenever she felt she was ready. The more she did, the more confident she became, and so she rode an accelerating course all the way to independence. We’ve kept to the same strategy with the other kids, though their needs for independence haven’t turned on a dime in quite the same way. Noah grew his independent streak considerably later and more gradually. Sophie was more independent as a child so her blossoming into a self-sufficient 15-year-old wasn’t nearly as much of a shock to her parents. Fiona seems to be following in Sophie’s path, though time will tell.
It’s not simply that I hate in-between-ness. Nor is it that I dislike conflict and wasn’t relishing battling with a succession of teenagers for the better part of two decades. Nor was I trying to win parenting points by producing mature young adults on an accelerated schedule. It’s primarily that I think people, including children and teens, are usually right about what they’re ready for, and when we second-guess them and subject them to impoverished expectations, the resulting frustration they feel can cause them to live down to those expectations.
So we trust them and let them try what they think they’re ready for. After all, if they happen to be wrong, and they’re not really equipped for the responsibility, I’d rather they fail while I’m still there to help pick up the pieces. I’d rather they learn to make good decisions by making decisions. I’d rather they make mistakes when the costs of those mistakes are smaller. I’d rather they have to opportunity to learn from mistakes while they’re still within my sphere of influence and support.
And I won’t lie: mistakes have been made. Social and romantic relationships have blown up. Alcohol has been vomited. School suspensions have been issued. I’m sure there are a few things I know nothing about. But lessons have been learned early, and the result is that my three older offspring are strong, capable, mature, independent young people.
I’m about two thirds of the way through my career as a parent of adolescents. At this point I feel even more confident that this approach — which is really my kids’ approach, because they have the reins — is the right one.