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Help teen son cultivate skills of independence

Armin Brott McClatchy-Tribune

Dear Mr. Dad: Our 15-year-old son is still a few years away from college, but my wife and I are already thinking about when he’s going to move out and begin a life on his own. A number of our friends have kids who have already graduated from college and one after another, those kids are moving back home. We love our son and would be happy to have him visit anytime – or move back for a short time in case of emergency – but we really want him to be self-sufficient. What can we do now to make sure he can make it on his own out there?

A. The fact that you’re asking the question at all gives your son a better chance than other kids his age of thriving in the real world. Too many parents cross their fingers and hope for the best; you’re actually taking steps to make it happen. For everyone else, finger-crossing and hoping aren’t terribly effective strategies.

A recent report from the Pew Research Center found that the percentage of young adults living at home has more than doubled over the past three decades or so. Back in 1980, about 11 percent of adults 20 to 34 spent some time living with their parents. Today, it’s nearly 30 percent. Young men are a bit more likely than young women to be sharing a roof with Ma and Pa.

There are several reasons for this. First, the economy still sucks, and it’s not easy for a new college grad to find a job that will pay rent and put food on the table. So moving back home seems like the best option – and I agree, as long as the kids are actively looking for work and contributing something towards expenses (money is OK, but labor can be just as good).

The second reason – and this one’s a lot worse – is that parents themselves have undermined their kids’ ability to become independent. Just think about a few of the different parenting styles we hear about: tiger parents who are obsessed with their kids’ grades and performance; helicopter parents who hover, interfere and micromanage their children’s lives; and snowplow parents who push all obstacles out of their children’s path. What all those moms and dads have in common is that they never let their children make mistakes and learn from them. In my view, if you’ve never failed and recovered, you’ll never be able to move forward independently; you’ll always be stuck, waiting for someone else to step in and save you.

What it comes down to is what Dennis Trittin and Arlyn Lawrence, authors of “Parenting for the Launch,” call giving kids “wings, not strings.” There are two particularly good ways to do that. One is to give your son plenty of opportunities to demonstrate responsibility and integrity, “making allowances for immaturity and lack of experience, extending forgiveness, and taking the steps needed to re-establish trust when it is broken,” say Trittin and Lawrence. The more freedom you give him in this area – and the more he accomplishes on his own – the more confident and competent he’ll be.

The other is to empower your son by letting him make decisions and deal with the consequences. Start with small ones and give him more control as he earns it. Of course, you’ll be there to help if it’s truly necessary. But again, the more he can rely on his own wits, the better equipped he’ll be to deal with what Shakespeare called “the slings and arrows” that the world will throw at him.

Read Armin Brott’s blog at www.DadSoup.com, follow him on Twitter, @mrdad, or send email to armin@mrdad.com.
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