The week after I turned 14 I watched a fireworks display I’ll never forget. America was celebrating the 200th birthday of her independence. That night in Washington, D.C., each explosive sparkle seemed to shout a message before it disintegrated into the night sky: a war was fought to gain that independence.
Political independence is considered so important that over the centuries countless people have been willing to fight and even sacrifice their lives to gain it.
You may recognize the importance of independence in your own life, too. Your teen years are a time of practice and preparation for adulthood. And you need to become independent in order to succeed as an adult. However, your parents may not agree with you about how much independence you need, or just how much you are ready for now.
Fortunately, you can win your independence without declaring an all-out war. In fact, war is the last thing you want. So, how do you go about becoming independent without all the fireworks?
First, understand that independence doesn’t necessarily occur as soon as you blow out the candles on a long-awaited birthday cake. It comes gradually as you prove that you can make wise choices. If time after time you prove you can make wise decisions, the day will come when your parents will trust you to make all decisions by yourself.
Second, as you struggle for independence, it really helps to know where your parents are coming from.
For example, why do parents seem to interfere so much in your life? Because although it’s part of a parent’s job description to help you achieve independence, it’s a job description that many parents struggle with. Ever since you were a baby their job has been to protect you. They are so used to taking care of you that they may resist the commission to render themselves unnecessary.
Also, your parents are often just plain frightened for you. They started by lying awake nights when you were a baby, listening to your breathing in the next room and rushing in when they couldn’t hear you. Then, as you began to move around in the world a little more, they worried about light sockets, stairways, busy streets, etc. For many parents, worry is a habit they’ve had for a long time. And frankly, because they worried, you were probably saved from harm many times.
Now that you are older and can be trusted to cross streets safely and not to put your fingers in light sockets, parents find themselves worrying about other dangers.
Barbara Smith, a seminary teacher in Florida and mother of four teens says, “I find my children so trusting and so naive that I’m frightened for them. I’m aware of the temptations that are there.”
You can reassure your parents over and over again that there’s nothing to worry about. But the best way to stop your parents from worrying is to show them there’s nothing to worry about.
“When Virginia was 16 she wanted to spend a weekend in Orlando with five friends,” recalls her mother, Barbara Smith. “I was very much against it, but there was no reason not to allow her to go. She had never done anything to show we couldn’t trust her. It turned out that she had a wonderful time and didn’t do anything she wouldn’t have done if we had been there.”
Once your parents realize they can trust you to do what’s right, they will allow you to make more and more decisions on your own. As Virginia’s mother pointed out, how could she say no to a daughter who was so responsible?
But sometimes parents need a nudge in the direction of giving you more independence. It’s difficult to prove yourself if you’re never given a chance to make your own decisions. It may help if you talk to them about your need for independence. Let them know you feel ready to accept responsibility for the consequences of your own behavior. Ask them for opportunities to prove yourself.
You may want to look for new areas, in which you must make decisions for yourself, that your parents don’t control. Take up a new hobby that your parents know too little about to tell you how to do it. Volunteer to help with a political campaign, join a service club, become a volunteer at the hospital, join a nature conservation group. Learn photography or a sport your parents don’t consider dangerous. It will be hard for parents to object if you’re spending your time in a worthwhile manner.
Your hobby will give you experience in making independent decisions and accepting the consequences, even if you’re still not allowed to set your own curfew.
Don’t confuse independence with defiance. Some think independence means going against their parents’ wishes. But, ironically, those who think they are being independent by going against their parents’ wishes are still being controlled by their parents. They are simply doing the opposite of what their parents say, whatever that might be. Their decision is still based on the parents’ advice. And that is not independence. Truly independent people do what’s right because it’s right, not because someone told them to do it or not to do it.
If defying your parents doesn’t mean you are independent, does obeying your parents mean that you are not independent? Not at all. Parents must obey rules and laws themselves. Independence, whatever your age, means you act responsibly and accept the consequences for your behavior.
The day will come when you must make independent decisions. Mom and Dad may drive you to the airport when you go to college, but they’re not likely to show up on campus and wake you up in time for class.
When you’re independent you will discover that freedom demands a great deal of responsibility. And it has its risks. America has suffered from crime, economic depressions, and numerous wars since her independence. If you prepare carefully and well for your independence, you will be able to avoid many of those risks and you will be able to deal with the others.
Your teen years should be a school ground rather than a battle ground. Conflicts may arise, but don’t let them be with your allies—your parents. When the real battles of life begin, your allies will come in handy.
Prove you can make wise choices.
Don’t confuse independence with defiance.
Earn trust and you’ll earn freedom.
Annoyed when your parents ask where you are going, with whom, when you’ll return? It may not be a sign of distrust. Knowing who is going where and when makes it easier to plan meal times, etc., and cuts down on worry. When you are late—especially if no one knows where you are—the first worry usually is that you have had an accident. Cause less worry; get more freedom. Tell them where you’ll be.
Demonstrate responsibility by making and keeping contracts. Talk about areas in which you would like more independence, such as curfew, handling money, etc. Agree on what you can do to show trustworthiness and maturity and on what they will do in return. Then keep your end of the agreement.
Admit mistakes. Apologize. Be willing to talk about it. Accept punishment gracefully. Most parents will see this as a sign of maturity.
Disagree agreeably! Instead of slamming doors, yelling, pouting, whatever, say something like, “Can I talk with you about this for a minute?”
Then try this formula: “When you … then I feel. …” For example, instead of saying “Dad, you are always putting me down in front of your friends,” try saying, “Dad, when you talk about my grades in front of your friends, it really embarrasses me.” Focus on how their action makes you feel instead of attacking them. Then sincerely listen for their feelings. If you want understanding, give understanding. (But be patient. It may take a number of tries before you get out of the arguing habit.)
If either of you is too angry to talk calmly, sometimes it’s just best to say “I’m sorry” and go do your homework, mow the lawn, whatever, until tempers have cooled a little. “A soft answer turneth away wrath” (Prov. 15:1).
Timing is vital. If you are going to ask your parents for something important, pick the right time to ask. If Dad is muttering over a stack of bills, it’s a bad time to ask for more than 99 cents.
Show maturity by planning ahead. Parents hate making decisions under pressure. If you want to go camping, don’t wait to ask until your friends are 15 minutes from picking you up. Need money for a school lab fee? Let your parents know as soon as you know.”
It can be really annoying to have a parent tell you to do something you already knew you were supposed to do and were just going to do. It’s tempting to rebel. Instead, if this happens too often, talk to your parents about it. Agree that if you do a task by a specific time, your parents won’t remind you.
Whatever happens, don’t self-destruct. If you are really angry with your parents, you might be tempted to do something that will hurt them. It’s one of Satan’s favorite strategies. Some young people turn to shoplifting, sexual immorality, drugs, or even suicide. While these things do hurt parents terribly, they hurt you even more. If you can’t see any other way out, someone else can—your bishop, a school counselor, a trusted adult friend. Talk to them.