Maybe you remember teaching your kid to ride a bike. Many of us began with training wheels. The little guy rode happily, rattily along the sidewalk, wobbling side to side, oblivious to the notion of balance. . . but it didn’t matter because the training wheels protected him from falling. The new independence was thrilling . . . if a bit unnerving for us parents.
As parents of tweens and teens, we’re all about a new type of training wheels and a new type of independence. But BALANCE remains a big concern. When our child is younger, we maintain the balance, more or less. If she’s tired, no sleep-over. If his science project isn’t done, no soccer fun. But as our kid rounds the bend toward young adulthood, he MUST learn to balance the elements of his life himself. And as parents realized in earlier lessons, falling is part of the learning; there is no way we can be there to prevent each tumble. We really only have two choices: allow freedom, knowing there’ll be tumbles, even crashes OR tell our kid, “NO freedom, no thrilling ride, no independence. It’s just too unsafe!” Sooner or later however, most healthy kids WILL head for the thrilling ride of independence.
It can help to think of “balance” as happening in 4 different areas:
- WORK (school, job, chores, college applications)
- PLAY (something fun for the kid, the experience of “flow” where time passes seamlessly)
- LOVE (family, friends, romance, community, team, mentors)
- HEALTH (sleep, substance use, exercise, eating well, making dr. appointment)
As parents, it’s like a kid learning to ride a bike, so lots of assistance early on, then to training wheels, then “wheels off” unless kid falters, in which case, back with the training wheels…hoping, AIMING to take them off permanently. WHEN the kid falls (doesn’t get into the college he’d hoped; a new baby arrives; a job change to new city; she doesn’t make the team) a parent is always there to help dust off, get back on the bike, support as needed.
How can a parent be helpful as the kid learns “balance” for herself?
Using questions which allow them to consider their options – By middle school, kids begin to learn balance for themselves. We might say something like, “You seem a little worn out tonight. What do you need?” (even when we KNOW what she needs is to go to bed early!) Or, during a conflict with a friend, “What have you tried so far to make this better? Is there anything else you think might help?” This is a time when “I wonder…” statement can be useful, as in, “I wonder which might help you most in the test tomorrow: studying more when you’re tired or going to bed soon and getting refreshed.”
Allowing “failure” to happen – Keep in mind that
MISTAKES + CONSEQUENCES = LEARNING
My corollary to that piece of wisdom is: the sooner the consequences befall the kid, the cheaper the learning. . . in both heartache and money. So, while we really, REALLY want to keep our kids from heartache or failure, sometimes the fastest route to learning is disaster or difficulty. It helps to know that actually the human brain is programmed to learn best from threats.
In particular middle school is a great time to fail because the “cost” is relatively low. As the Freakonomics guys advise: “fail fast and fail forward,” meaning learn from what you did wrong.
Encourage kids to examine what went well and what didn’t go well
In the wake of their kid’s being out of balance, parents are prone to say some version of “I told you so.” As you recall from being a kid, this is definitely NOT helpful! Two favorite questions I like instead are:
(when things have gone well for the kid) “Wow! That worked out well. What did you DO that made that go the way you wanted it to?” It is important to help the kid realize a sense of agency, that is, I do can impact the outcome in a positive way.
(when things have not gone well for the kid) “That didn’t seem to go the way you’d hoped. What do you know now that you didn’t understand before?” OR “If you had a do-over, is there anything you’d do differently?”
Remember, it takes a LONG time to learn to balance, even longer to keep your balance without thinking (remember riding a bike?) When you think of all the things kids have to learn to balance (money, relationships, time, eating, sleeping, studying, having fun, saying “no” to trouble, self-control in sex), be patient as they wobble along with their training wheels. Don’t be afraid of their falling as they learn. Let them know you’re on their side, believing they’ll get it right . . . or better yet, HAVE gotten it right!