How to train your parents to step back

I write often here about how important it is for parents to step back. Kids who rely on their parents to direct, manage, and fix their lives for them are less successful getting into college and less prepared once they get there.

But the truth is that there’s a lot teenagers can do to earn that independence rather than just lament its absence. Here are five suggestions.

1. Start doing things you’ve always been asked to do.
Asking for independence isn’t nearly as effective as actually demonstrating it. And the best way to start is to do things your parents have always had to ask you to do, like making your bed, cleaning your room, taking out the trash, etc. Tasks like these are the low-hanging fruit of independence. You don’t need permission. You don’t have to earn the right. Just start (and don’t stop). Every teen wants to stay out later or have access to the family car or spend unsupervised time with their friends. But it’s hard to entrust a teenager with a car and late curfew if you can’t be trusted to make your bed without being asked. Assuming responsibility for the things you’ve always had to be asked to do will demonstrate a real maturity and independence that you and your parents can build on.

2. Look for opportunities where failure would be recoverable.
Most parents’ reluctance to step back comes from their fear of what will happen if things go badly. If the first independence you seek is to manage your entire college application process with no parental oversight, failure might not be recoverable (missing a deadline could mean that a college you loved is now completely off the table). Instead, start with things where you could recover from the worst case scenario. Meeting with your counselor to discuss your course planning, keeping track of your schedule for your part-time job, asking your calculus teacher for some extra help before the next exam—if those things don’t go well, there will be little harm done and your parents could even step in if you needed them to. Think of it like training for a marathon or investing money—you have to build up slowly before you can safely go big.

3. Seek advice along with permission.
Many students assert their need for independence along with a steadfast refusal to listen to any advice. But the problem with that approach is that it puts you and your parents on opposite sides of the table. And as ready as you may be to do more on your own, your parents know more about life than you do. So instead, ask for their advice along with their permission. There’s a big difference between “Can I go with my friends to look at colleges this weekend?” and “I want to look at colleges this weekend with my friends. What do you think I should do while I’m there to get the most out of it?” See the difference? The former is pushing them out. The latter is inviting them in.

4. Share credit, own blame.
As you direct more of your own life, some things will work out as you’d hoped, and some will not. How you respond to each will affect whether or not you’ll get more chances to stretch in the future. So here’s a tip—give your parents credit when things go well, but own all the blame yourself when they don’t.

“My counselor agreed to let me do an independent study, just like we talked about. Thanks for your advice. It really helped.”

“I thought I could juggle both activities at the same time, but I was wrong. I’ll make sure not to take on more than I can handle again.”

No demand for acknowledgement when it goes right, and no excuses for when it goes wrong. Just a willingness to share the good and to own the bad. And both responses earn you more opportunities in the future.

5. Respect the process.
The transfer of responsibility from parent to student isn’t meant to happen overnight. It’s a process. And like any process that a) involves human beings and b) is worth doing, it takes time, patience, and an acknowledgment that if it were easy, everyone would do it perfectly. So expect that it will take some time. You and your parents may both make mistakes along the way—remember that they’re more likely to forgive yours if you’re willing to do the same for them. And most importantly, care more about progress than you do about getting what you want when you want it. Showing that you can move maturely and productively through the ups and downs doesn’t just show respect for the process. It also shows that you’re behaving like the adult who’s ready for the very independence you’re seeking.