Age 16 & Learning to Let Go

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Photo by Chuck via Flickr

Getting his license was the easy part.

Standing back and figuring out how to when to step in and when to step back…THAT was  — is — the hard part.

Isn’t that the hard part of parenting, in general? Maybe that’s why I found the baby years easy. When you have an infant who needs food — and is physically incapable of feeding himself — the “what to do” part is pretty simple: Feed baby. When baby cries, pick up baby. Provide food or comfort or clean diaper. Repeat, over and over and over.

But as our kids get older and more capable, we have to step back and allow them to do things for themselves. It starts, maybe, with handing over the spoon. Sure, your child will make a huge mess when he attempts to spoon applesauce or yogurt into his mouth, and no, his attempts at self-feeding won’t be efficient. It will take him three times longer to eat on his own than it took you to spoon baby food into his mouth, and that’s not even counting the clean up time. But you have to do it. Unless you plan on spoon-feeding your child all the way through high school and following him to work someday, you have to release control.

Learning to Let Go

Age 16 is when things get tricky. At 16, American teenagers can get a driver’s license, official governmental recognition that they have met all basic requirements and are legally allowed to drive (with certain restrictions, thanks to the prevalence of graduated drivers’ licenses.) But turning over the keys is a much bigger milestone than turning over control of the spoon. With a spoon, your child might make a mess. Worst-case scenario, he might poke himself in the eyes. With a car…you don’t even need me to tell you what can happen with a car. If you’re  parent, you’ve already had the nightmares. You’ve already cried upon reading or hearing stories of car accidents. You’ve already reflected, with horror, upon some of the not-so-wise decisions you made as a teenager, and have been quietly terrified for some time now. Because as a former teenager, you know one thing: Teens do what they want to do, and a whole lotta preaching and safety messaging from parents and teachers isn’t going to change that fact.

You control what you can: You try to role model safe driving behavior. You give your kid controlled driving experiences — letting him practice on snow in an empty parking lot, for instance — both to build his skills and your confidence in his abilities. You establish rules and guidelines that fit your family and your child.

And then your child tells you he wants to buy a car.

He’s got his own money — he’s been working and saving for awhile now — and the car would be a convenience, as he could drive himself to and from activities. But once again, the question arises: When to step in, and when to step back?

By mid-life, most adults have experience buying and selling vehicles. Most of us have already made a few vehicular decisions we regret, and learned from those decisions. As parents, we’re eager to save our kids from heartbreak and expensive lessons. But our children — our 16, 17, 18 year old children — don’t necessarily want our input. They know what they want and what they like. And some of them, anyway, are SO EAGER to cross this milestone, this Purchase of the First Car, independently.

So…do you insist on going along when your son travels to see a stranger about a car he found on Craigslist? Or do you stay back and let him handle this negotiation with his friends, as per his preference? Do you “let” your teenage son hand over hundreds or even thousands of dollars for a vehicle that you haven’t seen?

It depends, of course. On your child and the particulars of the situation (where the vehicle is located, who he’s planning to take with him, etc.)

I opted to sit back. My son was clearly clamoring to be in charge, and after all, it was his money, his car, and his decision.

It also turned out to be a very expensive lesson. The car he purchased needs repairs that will cost more than twice what he paid for the vehicle. Let me tell you: my heart sank when I heard that news. I wasn’t surprised, mind you; when he bought the car, he knew it needed work, and I knew, from experience, that cars that “need work” often need far more than you think. My heart ached, though, for the blow to my son’s confidence, trust in humanity and bank balance. His plan now is to sell his car for parts and then buy a different car. He will definitely be selling the vehicle at a loss.

But would I do things any differently? No.

I trusted my son to make his own decision. When he suffered the consequences of that decision, I didn’t shame him or berate him or criticize him. I listened. I empathized. I acted as a sounding board as he explored his options and selected his next steps. Little by little and step by step, I’ve been letting him go. Gradually, I’m handing him the reins to his life. He has two more years under my roof before he ventures out into the wider world, a legal adult. By that time, I want him to be comfortable managing the complexities of life, and the only way that’s going to happen is if I release control. If I let life hurt him and allow him to suffer some pain.

If I do so now, I can be here to hold and hug him, literally and metaphorically, when the world beats him up. I can be a soft landing place, a resource, a source of support.

He’s 16 now, but I’m setting the stage for our relationship moving forward. Now, he’s become the driver.

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