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If this hasn’t happened in your household yet, it will soon: your preteen or teen asks permission to do something that makes you stop dead in your tracks. Maybe he wants to go on a friends-only camping trip. Maybe she wants to go to school 2000 miles away. Maybe your child wants to start wearing make-up, start playing in a rock band, or host a boy-girl sleepover in your basement.

Two ideas jump into your mind: “NO!” and “Am I being unreasonable?” How can you tell which idea is right?

Linda Messina, writing recently in the New York Times, suggests a way to decide when to say yes to something your teen wants to do. Messina suggests asking two questions:

She goes on to propose that if a parent isn’t yet ready for whatever her child wants to do but will be ready someday, then it’s okay to wait. But if a parent isn’t ready for this now and will never be ready for it, then waiting holds a child back.

The difference lies in who needs to grow. If it’s your child who needs to grow, so that when he is older you’ll be fine with whatever he’s asking to do, then waiting allows for that growth and waiting makes sense. But if it’s you who needs to grow, in order to accept your child’s new level of autonomy and capabilities, then making the child wait for your growth is unfair.

One of the most difficult parts of being a parent is letting go. Our role is to guide children carefully, giving them the skills and good judgment to handle what’s coming, and then step back and let them go at it. Whether it’s heading off to kindergarten or heading off to college, this stepping back is very hard. We’re not ready. We’ll never really be ready. So we need to let go.

At the same time, children often pull ahead, led by their friends or the media or just a hare-brained idea, to ask for privileges and permissions for which they’re not ready. They will be ready someday and someday we’ll be happy to let them try their wings. But first they need to grow up a bit more.

If children need to grow up a bit more, then help that to happen. Kids grow in their ability to make decisions and foresee consequences only when they have opportunities to try. While your child is under your protection, increase her level of challenge. Meet a request you think is too big for her, not with “no” but with a compromise.

Believe me, you will never be totally comfortable letting your children go. You will always want to give them  “good advice.”  Growing up happens to both of you. At those moments when you realize your children have grown into their abilities, it’s time for you to grow into them too.


© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.