“Firsts” and Teen Independence – Part I

This past weekend represented a “first” for my husband and me in the parenting department: we went away and left our son home by himself for two nights. We did not come to this decision easily, mind you. While he’s a “rising senior” in High School and a really reliable kid, he’s only 16. We questioned ourselves: what if there was an emergency? Would he know how to handle it? What if he got ill: who could he call? How would he eat? Would he turn the flame off the burner on the stove if he cooked for himself? How would we know where he was? What if we text him and we don’t hear back?

These, and similar questions, are what most parents face when allowing their teen to do something for the first time. A girlfriend of mine told me her own story – for the first time she allowed her daughter to drop her off at work so that she could have the car for the day. Suddenly my friend questioned: does she really know enough about driving to do this? She’ll have to be on the highway! Does she know how to merge and change lanes? Is she checking all of the mirrors? She won’t text and drive, will she?

The questions we ask ourselves about the “firsts” in our teens’ lives really boil down to one main question: Have we given them the tools they need to be independent? When a teenager does something for the first time, we’re suddenly aware of the details that go into independence: lessons we’ve learned ourselves and take for granted. And the bottom line (and the reason we feel nervous) is that when it comes down to it, we simply can’t teach all of the minutiae that they need to know. Instead, we have to make sure that we’ve taught them to think for themselves and helped them develop internal and external resources in order to make decisions on the fly and resolve problems as they arise. Of course, we also need to make sure that we’ve taught them good values! Finally, we have to give them opportunities to make mistakes – from which they develop their resources – while still providing a “safety net” so that they don’t get into trouble or danger.

In my son’s “home alone weekend” our safety net was a neighbor who agreed to feed him dinner both nights: providing him with a half hour of accountability to an adult each day. We also informed our other neighbors that we would be away. In the unlikely event that our son would decide to have a party, we knew that our neighbors would be aware that it was not “adult sanctioned.” We also asked him to text us if he wanted to go out with friends so we would know his whereabouts. And then, other than teaching him to feed the rabbits, we left him on his own to potentially make, and learn from, his mistakes.

So, how did it work out? Wonderfully. Not perfect in every detail (he didn’t match us text for text, for example) but he did have dinner with our neighbor both nights, he kept the house clean, fed the rabbits and even did the dishes! Did we know his whereabouts every second? No. But all evidence points to the fact that the weekend served as an opportunity for him to learn about independence first-hand.