Q: My daughter is a bright, respectful, ambitious 16-year-old who just will not to do some of the basic things she’s going to have to do when she’s at college in a couple of years. She takes school seriously but if we didn’t wake her up in the morning she’d miss her first class entirely. She wouldn’t be caught dead looking “gross” yet relies on me to do her laundry. My concerns about how she’ll do on her own at college fall on deaf ears. Help!
A: If only it were like at NASA: Prepare for launch in 3…2…1… Adulthood! But launching our kids is more like the building of the rocket, which takes many years. The knowledge of how to go about being an adult is not something we’re born with (who among us hasn’t figured out the hard way that some clothes don’t go in the dryer, or the importance of keeping up with your finances?). Yet it’s common for parents to get frustrated with teens who aren’t acting like an almost-adult. Why aren’t our older adolescents preparing themselves for life outside of the home?
There can be many reasons, but often it’s because they don’t have to. Sometimes our love for our children translates into efforts to make their life easier so they avoid stress and struggle. We think we’re helping them (and so do they), but really we’re robbing them of the opportunity to develop independence. Kids are going to individuate anyway and the more self-sufficient they are when that happens, the better. They’ll push for increasing autonomy, but autonomy without responsibility is a recipe for entitlement. So we need to give and expect increasing responsibility as they grow older.
It sounds like that might be your situation. Your daughter has a lot more autonomy than she did when she was in elementary school but some of her basic life responsibilities haven’t also grown. Here are some ideas that will help get you back on track:
- Tell her that some routines are going to change because you want her to develop habits that will make the transition to college much easier (and because she needs to know how to do them in life). Have in mind what responsibilities you’d like her to take over, but ask her what she wants to start with. This might open up a good conversation about what she imagines college life will be like (and give you a chance to correct unreasonable expectations). Start with a few responsibilities, then add on a couple more as she achieves mastery.
- Teach her how to do those things. Review with her how her alarm works and strategies for alarms if you are a heavy sleeper (setting two alarms, placing an alarm across the room versus by the bed, etc.) Show her how to do laundry. Something that might be obvious to you, with your years of adult experience, might feel overwhelming or intimidating to her.
- Set expectations with these new responsibilities. Tell her how often she’s supposed to empty the dishwasher, how thoroughly she’s supposed to clean the bathroom, etc. And let her know what to expect if she doesn’t follow through. One idea is to give One Free Pass for a habit fail (so she gets warning), then let your daughter experience natural consequences. She might need proof that you’re really not going to save her, and she deserves fair warning. A natural consequence for example might be that your daughter, who cares about what she looks like, has no clean clothes if she does not do her laundry.
- Let her fail. Failure is a powerful learning tool and motivator. While you might not want her to sleep all morning and miss school altogether, failures with natural consequences such as the laundry example are good.
- Praise her achievements! The positive reinforcement of praise is also a powerful motivator, and helps her develop pride in her own achievements in adult responsibility.
Many books have been written on launching our teenagers, so know you’re not alone with this struggle. There are a lot of reasons why it’s tough – our economic environment, our social culture, the nature of transition. Plus, there are a lot of areas of growth involved – physical, biological, academic, social, emotional, rational… we can’t expect our newly-minted adult children to be fully formed. After all, the human brain isn’t done developing until at least the mid-twenties. So there’s an awful lot of nudging and teaching and encouraging and supporting and trying and failing that needs to happen before the actual launching can occur. Maybe parenting is harder than rocket science…