Dad wisdom, by Rich Morey

By Rich Morey

I was talking with a guy who has younger kids recently about how tough it can be when they start pushing for more independence. 

And I tell you, as a dad of two teens and a 20-something, I am still trying to figure this one out! But I also have learned some things I wish I'd known sooner.

As their parent, you probably want to resist most of these pushes for independence. That's a good instinct. It comes from wanting to protect them and keep them safe. Which is what you've been doing for them, and will continue to do. It is your role.

At the same, time, they're changing. Growing up. Becoming their own person with their own personality. And they defy you. Push boundaries. Test limits. That is their role.

It helps to recognize that. They're fulfilling their role of growing up and growing independent of you so that they can go on to build a life on their own.

That's the goal. Compliance isn't the goal. It's great when you get it! But it's not the goal. The goal is for you to help your child find their way. To help them learn the big lessons and become a responsible adult.

Give them a little room to find themselves. It’s not a straight line. They’ll try different things growing up and sometimes you’re like "Oh man, not that!" but you have to let kids find their way, provided it won’t do them harm.

Don’t sweat the small stuff and the stuff you can live with. If your son wants to grow long hair and you don’t want him to, maybe that’s something you can live with anyway? Maybe even find a way to support it. “Yeah you know what, it’s kinda cool. You look like a rockstar!” If nothing else, you can just say that you think it’s cool that he's doing his own thing. Teach him the importance of being true to himself.

What kids need most is support. Of course, they need boundaries. But they also need to feel loved. To feel like you’re there for them and you’re their biggest fan. Listen to your kids and learn about them. I now enjoy many things, including a few styles of music that I probably wouldn't have given a listen to, were it not for my kids.

Now that my kids are older, I see how important it is to just be there for them. The world is a mess. Much scarier than when I was a kid. Wages are low, rents are high. Jobs aren’t as secure. College is outrageously expensive. We continue to do damage to the planet and all manner of life on it. I see now how much my kids just need me to let them know I’ve got their back. Make sure your kids know that.

My kids are amazing. I love them more than I've ever loved anything. And I try to let them know that they are freaking AWESOME and amazing and the apples of my eye. Because they are. And they need to know that. Even when they make mistakes. Especially then.

It's important to teach and punish your kids as appropriate, but don’t withdraw your love. Let them know you’re disappointed that they made a bad choice, but also use the moment to teach the lesson.

Resist the urge to protect them from the natural consequences of their choices, too. For example, let's say your son is exhausted and grumpy after he chose to stay up too late on a school night.

In this case, he doesn't get to stay home "sick." He has to go to school. He chose (with or without your permission...that's irrelevant here) to be out late on a school night, he has to go to school exhausted. Explain this to your kids, because they may not see it. You want your kids to learn to weigh the outcome and make good choices. They won't always make good choices, but they'll have the tools and the lessons.

They need to understand that every choice they make has consequences, good and bad. Really, these are THE BEST teaching moments. Learn to use them to help your kids learn lessons about trust. About being honest. Kindness. Respect. Thinking ahead and planning, Having self-discipline. All the big stuff.

It’s also important to learn to expect that they're going to continue to make bad decisions sometimes. To make mistakes. To push limits. That’s just going to happen; it's their role. And we are all imperfect and we all have to find our own way. That’s really the only way we learn and grow. Remember, compliance isn't the long-term goal.

Be sure to understand the difference between your kids doing something that warrants correction (lying, stealing, willful disobedience, etc.), and your kids doing something that you don't like/wouldn't prefer. You have to allow some room for them to find their way. It's really essential that you allow them as much freedom as you can. Not to the point of irresponsibility, of course. Most parents I know struggle with allowing that freedom (vs. giving too much of it).

Even when they do make a mistake, try to find a positive aspect to it.

Here's an example:

Say your son lied to you about staying over at a friend's house and went to a party instead. Confronted with the truth, he claims that he lied because he "knew you would say no."

You can explain that you’re responsible for his safety, and that you need to know that he will always be truthful with you (and you can promise the same). I always told my kids if they made a mistake and were honest about it, I'd be a lot more lenient than if they made a mistake and lied to me about it. It's essential to try to establish a strong respect for honesty and truthfulness. They have to know they can come to you with stuff and you're not going to get angry and shut them down. Or they'll stop coming.

Punishment plays a role in this. You want him to learn and to do that, he needs consequences. Ask him what he thinks an appropriate punishment might be. If you need to, take a day or so to think about it. (I often have a hard time with finding the right consequences and ask advice from others). Just always be sure to follow up.

At the same time, you can acknowledge his need for more independence. Promise that you'll listen openly to him when he wants to do something that requires more trust. And encourage him to come to you. Try to find ways to give more independence, even if you don't feel safe granting exactly what he asks for. Find compromise. Take a brief time to think about it if you need. Just be sure to follow up.

You need to be sure to follow up with them and fulfill the promises you make to them because it shows them that you have respect for them. They will be much more likely to respect you if you are also showing them respect. Sometimes we fail here simply because we over-promise out of good intentions. Our lives are very busy. Nevertheless, it's important to them. Try to think carefully about what you promise your kids. They often remember if you break promises or go against your word, especially on things that matter to them.

As they earn your trust, you allow a little more independence. If they break trust, you pull back a little independence for a time. Back and forth.

One other golden nugget I learned, and it helps with headstrong behavior, is to let them choose between two things with which you are comfortable. For example, if your daughter is being rebellious about dinner, next time give her a choice. "Would you rather have have X or Y for dinner. Which sounds good?" She still gets the independence and control of making a choice, and you get something you’re on board with. Find a way to let your kids make a decision in the process.

Ask their advice about things sometimes. “Hey buddy, we have to run two errands, which one should we do first?” This stuff can help release some of the need to exert independence in riskier ways.

The best advice someone gave me was this. They told me, “The way you treat your child is going to be the way s/he looks to be treated by their mate. If you, as their dad, are tender, affectionate, supportive, compassionate, etc. they will think that is the way their mate should treat them down the road. They’ll gravitate toward someone who will treat them right."

I hope some of this helps. Take what makes sense, leave the rest. I’m just sharing stuff I learned along the way.