When a child is first learning to ride a bike without training wheels, many parents follow a similar sequence. At first, the child may use training wheels. These provide some clear support and yet allow the child the feeling of some control. Eventually it is time for the training wheels to come off.

The transition usually takes place over one rough afternoon. The parent runs behind the child, providing some extra balance for the child. At some point, the parent lets go. Typically, the child does not even notice this at first. She is able to balance herself without even realizing that she is doing it. At some point they she may look back and notice. Different kids respond differently to this realization. Some wobble for a brief moment then continue to balance themselves. Others, struck by the lack of external support, will fall. It is very tempting to return to using the training wheels after they fall. Some kids will hesitate before getting back on, and would welcome the safety of the training wheels.

For some kids, however, this would only reinforce their dependence. Such a child will not push herself or learn to balance herself if she knows that her parents will step in and do it for her. She will only balance herself if she knows it is really up to her alone.

The best move for such a child is to support her verbally, but let her learn to balance herself, even if it means a few falls. This can be very hard for a parent to watch. Sometimes, a child will test (consciously or subconsciously) her parents’ resolve to hold back and let her learn for herself. Only after repeatedly falling and seeing that her parent will not pick her up, will she take over and balance herself.

This is an ideal metaphor for transitioning the power for personal choice to teenagers. At first, the parents have complete structure (training wheels). Eventually, when the child is ready, it is time for the training wheels to come off. In this case, the transition period is longer, and sometimes even rougher. The parent can initially offer support, but if she tries to micromanage, she will be metaphorically running behind the bike as her teen goes around the neighborhood. A parent cannot be there every time that her teen has a difficult decision to make, nor can she force her teen to make the best choice every time (as discussed in the postings Why are teenagers so dead set on doing things their own way? and Consigliere). The transition I speak of here is to the role of Consigliere described in last week’s posting. Initially, while still offering structure, the parent can slowly, mindfully, release her management, allowing the teen more self-governance in appropriate areas, while maintaining control when necessary. In this way, for the teen that desires control, the parent can choose where she gets it as opposed to the teen seizing it.

However, as the parent lets go, the teen will, at some point ‘look back and notice.’ Again, different kids respond differently to this realization. Some wobble for a brief moment and then continue to ‘balance’ themselves. Others, struck by the lack of external support, will fall. By that I mean they will make mistakes, sometimes real doozies.

It is very tempting to try to help her by taking back control at this point. It is hard to watch your teen ‘fall.’ For some teens, however, this would only reinforce their dependence. The best move for those teens is to support them by reminding them of what they are doing and the consequences, but stand back and allow them to learn to balance themselves.

Sometimes a teen needs the freedom to make bad choices free of her parents’ control before she can learn to make good choices for her own reasons. It allows her to break the illusion that it is her parents’ fault that the behavior led to that consequence. She will begin to see the actual causal relationship between her action and its natural consequences, without her parents as a ‘middle-man.’

Many behavioral experts agree that ‘natural consequences’ are almost always preferable to artificial punishment. They are more likely to teach the teen the connection between her behavior and the consequence. Artificial punishments are sometimes necessary because the natural consequences are inappropriate for one reason or another, but reliance on them tends to result in transitory changes in behavior as well as negative side effects. Such punishments can feel more personal to a teen, as if the punishment is about her, and not the behavior. Or, otherwise it may feel as if it is more about the adult being strict, mean or otherwise unreasonable. The more direct the connection between the behavior and the punishment, the more likely the child will remember the punishment is about the behavior, and be able to apply that to her behavior in the future. [i]

She can then begin to act based on her ability to foresee the consequences of her actions. This process can be very hard for a parent to watch. Only after repeatedly ‘falling’ and seeing that her parents will not step in and force her to make the choice that they think is best will she take over and ’balance’ herself. For some teens, this is the only way that they can own the decisions, and not perceive themselves as simply following their parents’ rules.

This model does not suggest that a parent completely back off from protecting her children. A complete withdrawal of parental limits would be like abandoning your child, and more harmful than too many limits. Some ‘falls’ are too risky to allow. Many teens are far too willing to take risks that put their safety or their entire future in jeopardy. This method/philosophy is only appropriate for behaviors where the consequences of falling are acceptable and not irreversible. A scraped knee is acceptable, but you wouldn’t take your child’s training wheels off next to a cliff. Failing one class, while very unfortunate, can be a powerful lesson that school is now her responsibility. On the other hand, behaviors that lead to physical danger such as daredevil activities and dating at a young age require closer monitoring and parental limits. In the end, there are no absolutes. I cannot tell a parent which falls are more tolerable to them. One parent’s tolerable scrape is another’s intolerable crisis. This transition is essential to development. You must decide where and when it is appropriate. This model suggests selective parenting, and choosing the appropriate forum to gradually withdrawing limits so that the teen can learn to limit herself.

An example can help illustrate how this model can work. There was an older teenage girl that I worked with, Carla. When I started working with her, she was seventeen. Her parents had a long unsuccessful history of trying to force her to do things that they wanted. One of the chief topics of argument was school, both attendance and homework. They had historically argued with her, threatened repercussions, and tried to bribe her to go to school and to do her work. Yet the consequences were inconsistent, and she had often been successful in talking her way out of any serious repercussions to missing school.

By the time I began seeing Carla, she was seventeen years old. Nearly an adult, certain models of consequences were simply not going to work this late in the game. So her parents and I tried a different approach. I supported them in the uneasy task of letting go. Carla continued to blow off school, and eventually dropped out. However, she began to realize that her going or not going to school was now about her and her future. It was no longer a way to hurt her parents. It was no longer a way to prove she did not have to obey them. Going to school was no longer ‘their issue,’ it was her issue. Deep down, she knew that she wanted to go, but she had gotten used to them doing the job of trying to get her there, however unsuccessfully. This had given her the freedom to be irresponsible. She didn’t have to motivate or limit herself, because it was their job to keep an eye on her responsibilities and her future. She knew they would step in and provide her some incentive to meet her obligations. When they stopped doing this, that job was now her own.

After that, SHE decided to get her G.E.D. SHE decided to start at community college with some elective courses, eventually applying and getting into an undergraduate program. Carla had reached a point where she needed to experience the natural consequences of her choices without their protection. Without the perception of her parents’ agenda and control to rebel against, she was able to make these decisions truly independently.

It is important to state that this intervention was chosen carefully based on the history, age, and personality involved. It is not the right approach for every situation. Carla’s parents took a big risk in agreeing to this approach, and I deeply appreciated their trust.


[i] Vockell, Edward (2001). Educational Psychology: A Practical Approach. Retrieved September, 13, 2007, from http://education.calumet.purdue.edu/vockell/edpsybook/

Parenting With Consequences not with Punishment (April 25,2007). Retrieved September 13, 2007 from Mommy.com. Website: http://www.mommyhelp.com/2007/04/25/parenting-with-consequences-not-with-punishment/


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