Parent Your Teen and Yourself Toward Personal Action

Dan Bolton


"It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it franklyand try another. But above all, try something." ~Ben Franklin

More and more articles on the topic of how it is good for parents to allow their child to make mistakes having been popping up online and shared by mental health professionals. My own son shared some great examples with me of such lessons about the importance of being allowed to make mistakes he learned at school, most notably from the example of Thomas Edison. He told me that before making the first successful light bulb he was told that Edison made several thousand unsuccessful ones. I looked this up and Edison is in fact quoted as replying to a question about his ‘many failures’: "I have not failed. I've discovered ten thousand ways which don't work." 

In an online article, Dr. Kwame Brown made a salient point that is a point of contention I come across often in my work with adolescents, young adults, and even young professionals who are trying to build an independent life:

“We instill (earlier with each generation it would seem) a fear of failure so intense that children are afraid to try anything new. We basically treat them the same way we treat people in government management:  Make a mistake and you’re toast.”

A modern term that has been coined to explain the what has been more commonly known as over-parenting or over-protective parents who are constantly overhead trying to help children resolve problems and obstacles they come up against. Helping a child resolve problems can be helpful to a certain point in their life, as parents do model for their children how to cope with life’s challenges. But at a certain point in a child’s life it becomes necessary to take on their individual identity and figure out how to tackle life’s challenges on their own as their own person. 

Dr. Montgomery, a psychologist at Keene State College in New Hampshire, conducted a fascinating study on Helicopter Parenting:

“Montgomery and his colleagues surveyed about 300 freshmen with a questionnaire the researchers specifically designed to assess helicopter parenting. They focused on college students, because college is a "crisis point" in the relationship between the helicopter parent and the child, Montgomery said. At this stage, the parents no longer have control over their child's life and can't keep track of them like in the past.

The results show having so-called ‘helicopter parents’ was associated with being dependent, neurotic and less open, a slew of personality traits that are generally thought of as undesirable.

"We have a person who is dependent, who is vulnerable, who is self-conscious, who is anxious, who is impulsive, not open to new actions or ideas; is that going to make a successful college student?"

I think that we can all gather consensus on this rhetorical question.

The Bhagavad Gita, an ancient spiritual text considered by experts to be an allegory of higher impulses struggling against evil, shows that this phenomenon is age old. In this ancient text it states that one path to wisdom for young men (and this should be applied to young women as well) is through action... not meditation, not reflection, not constantly sitting around and thinking about what the right thing to do is, or even doing exactly as they are told to do by authority figures who know best, but Action... I will propose adding an extension, and call it Personal Action. At some point in a child’s life, after 15, 17, heck nowadays even 30 years of the social, mental and physical learning we have required of them, it is essential that they take these lessons and apply them in their own lives through their own unique personal action. What else is adolescence and young adulthood about other than learning to become one’s own person through experience of the world? 

If you’re a parent reading this blog and your child chooses non-action there is a lesson, as with all choices come consequences. Don’t react by saying “I told you so” when their first attempts at independent action don’t go well, or they even crash and burn. And resist the urge to do it for them if they don’t take any action. If you’re a young adult struggling with independence, don’t beat yourself up for your mistakes. The question that should be asked is... “How’s that working for you?”

In the end what do we learn from always doing exactly as we are told or has been scripted for us? Truthfully not a whole lot. 

Through taking our own personal action, we may really learn why our parents may have been right all along. When we learn through personal action it creates a genuine a-ha moment and generates real learning. The brain is such a sophisticated instrument, and it will learn everything it needs to learn very quickly through experience. This is where a teenager really attains the understanding about life’s lessons parents desire. This is the point where we as adults gather the lessons we may not have as children. Take action and allow for mistakes because that is what helps a person grow into a truly independent adult. How do you teach teenagers confidence early... let them have their own ideas, listen to them, let them put those ideas into action and learn from trial and error, without trying to micromanage them and making them do things from your perspective ("I already weent through this, so I know that you should do it this way"). Yes, tell them what you think, what your experience was, but encourage them to test out their ideas about the world on their own, indepenedenty so they can develop a healthy autonomy. Don’t hold yourself or your child back out of fear... fear becomes the obstacle to real learning, and real independence.


1) Why We MUST Let Our Children Make Mistakes

2) 'Helicopter' Parents Have Neurotic Kids

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