How Parents Undermine Their Teens’ Self-Sufficiency

I get it: as a parent, you want what’s best for your teen, and you’ve hired me — an academic life coach! — to help your teen learn the skills necessary to be a success. However, are their ways you might undermine the very coaching you are paying for? Read on:

Parent To the Rescue

Because I do most of my coaching on Skype, I’m able to see some of my clients during their off period while they are at school. The other day I got an email from a student saying that he might be late because he’d accidentally left his iPad (the source of his webcam) at home, and he needed time to problem-solve an alternate method of calling me.

To my surprise, he showed up right on time after all, on his iPad no less!

Evidently, his father had rushed the iPad over to school in time for our session. According to this client, this was the third time this week that a parent had delivered something that he forgot at home.

Now, I don’t blame these parents in the least. They’re spending good money on academic coaching, and don’t want it to go to waste because of their son’s forgetfulness. However, by diving in to help their son fix the problem, the parents inadvertently interrupted him as he tried to problem-solve his mistake. They also taught him that it’s ok to forget things because they are always available to rescue him.

Advice From a 3-Year-Old: Worry About Yourself

The video that I posted at the top of this entry is perfect advice to parents: “Worry about yourself!” This young gal wants desperately to buckle herself into her car seat, and she rejects her father’s incessant interference in her process. She is clearly not figuring out the buckling mechanism, but gosh darnit, she is hell bent on trying! And she’d prefer that her father go off and do his own thing. “Go drive!” she commands him.

In the case of my client, what might it have looked like for the father to “worry about himself” rather than readjust his day to deliver his son the iPad? How did the father’s habit of “worrying about his son” undermine an opportunity for the son to practice self-sufficiency and learn from his mistakes?

Making a New Plan for Self-Sufficiency

During our session the son came up with a great plan for remembering to pack  his backpack.  Several sessions ago we’d established what we fondly called the “Yay! I’m Done with Homework Ritual!”, which includes the following steps (as written by my client):

  1. Put all my stuff in the correct folders
  2. Put the folders/binders in my back pack
  3. Put my backpack by the door

After carefully recalling each moment of forgetfulness, he realized that, although he was doing a good job of putting his backpack by the backdoor, he was actually leaving some assignments  next to his backpack rather than in the backpack. The next morning he would be in a hurry, and grab the backpack, but not the items next to the backpack. Hence: forgotten work.

He also realized that he charges his iPad overnight, which means he can’t pack it in his backpack during the “Yay! I’m Done with Homework Ritual!” This client came up with the idea of leaving his backpack near where he charges the iPad, and in fact, putting the iPad in his backpack while it’s charging. So the new ritual reads as follows:

  1. Put all my stuff in the correct folders
  2. Put the folders/binders in my back pack
  3. Put my backpack where I charge my iPad

Time Will Tell

Now we will need to see whether my client can follow through with this ritual. Time will tell. I’m going to ask his parents NOT TO REMIND him about the ritual, so that his success is entirely dependent on whether he remembers to do it! If he doesn’t remember, I will process that with him, and we will go from there.

How Donnel Learned His Lesson the Hard Way

Another client, Donnel, is a senior in high school with newly diagnosed ADD. He drives himself to my sessions, and so is completely self-sufficient in this regard. Early on, though, he totally forgot one of our sessions and didn’t show up. Luckily, I offer one “freebie”, and so I didn’t charge him; however, I did make an agreement with Donnel and his mom that, were this to happen again, Donnel would owe his mother $85 for the missed session.

Several month later, Donnel missed the session again without giving me 24 hour advance warning. As promised, his mother charged him $85 (a debt which he has finally paid off a few weeks ago). Although I know it was annoying to Donnel to have to owe his mother, it was well worth the money.

As the final weeks of senior year have ramped up, he has consistently given me 24-hour warning since then, which is a great feat for a young person who struggles with attention deficit. By being held accountable for his own forgetfulness, he has learned to put all activities on the calender, check the calendar regularly, communicate ASAP to people affected by schedule changes, and (perhaps most importantly) that he’d rather live debt free. Not a bad set of lessons.

Being a parent is not easy!

So why make it harder for yourself by worrying about your kid. Take this wise little 3-year-old’s advice (it’s just so cute and profound, I can’t help but post this again):

2 thoughts to “How Parents Undermine Their Teens’ Self-Sufficiency”

  1. Great advice Gretchen! It is hard to watch your child suffer (even if it’s just a little) when you could bring the forgotten homework, uniform, lunch money, etc. My thought was always that I didn’t want to still be delivering forgotten items when my kids were adults. At some point the job of a parent is not to rescue them but to make them responsible enough so they don’t need to be rescued. It’s better that they take responsibility for their forgetfulness now rather than at 30 when their shortsightedness could have much more dire consequences.

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