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Stepping Back So Kids Can Step Up

Stepping Back So Kids Can Step Up

I Tried To Get Out Of My Kids’ Way For 15 Years. Then I Asked Them “How Did That Go?”

Last year, Lenore Skenazy, the enthusiastic and entertaining founder of Free Range Kids and a co-founder of Let Grow, came to speak with our community about how “Always Helping Kids is Hurting Them”. It was an incredible conversation!

My wife and I have felt aligned with the Let Grow motto (“when parents step back, kids step up”) since our children were small, and the stories and resources from organizations like Free Range Kids have helped encourage us as parents.

In preparation for Lenore’s visit, I decided to ask my kids (now they are 22, 19 and 16):

“What are you glad that we did as parents to give you more freedom and responsibility than other kids? And why?” 

Here’s the resulting list along with notes on how our family approached them or how it felt from my point of view as Dad, in the hopes that it might be useful to parents of teens and younger kids–and with the caveat that every parent, family and kid are different–including at different ages!

  • “Definitely being allowed to walk places and go places on our own” my college age daughter immediately responded. “You taught us to be careful but that as you get older you shouldn’t feel scared to go places by yourself.” She added “I feel like the parents of many kids told them to never walk alone, and accidentally taught them to be paranoid and suspicious.” 

(The truth is that even when her walks were rationally and statistically quite safe, she wasn’t the only one expanding her comfort zone–I had to overcome my own worry.)

  • “We could ask you for help, but you wouldn’t help me unless I asked,” said my son, now a junior in college. “You let us figure stuff out on our own–which is good because I’m now prepared for all the things I’m responsible for as an adult.”

(I’m glad he remembers it this way. I think he might have underestimated how hard it is for me to keep my brilliant advice to myself–or how annoyed my teens got when I couldn’t help myself from volunteering it!)

  • “You let us have fights with friends without getting involved,” said my high school aged daughter. “I know kids who if they have an argument with a friend, their mom will look over their texts and call the other kid’s mother to solve the problem.” 

(I do think there are times when calling another parent is literally a “good call.” But as I’ve aged as a parent, I’ve decided that usually the best way I can help my kids with social conflict is to ask questions and listen, share my own relevant experiences and to ask “so, what do you think you’ll do?”)

A few more “stepping back” success reports from our offspring:

  • “You did not email teachers or counselors. You let us build our own relationships with mentors and authority figures.” If our teen was going to be late, had questions, or needed help, they were in charge of writing the email or stopping by the teacher’s office hours. My older daughter added “we always knew that our grades belonged to us. If we got an A, you told us it was because we earned an A, and if we got a C, it was because we earned a C. You didn’t get involved with teachers.”
  • “You let us spend our money on whatever we wanted–but we had to earn it ourselves. You taught us that what we want is within reach, and we have our own means of getting it.” My daughter said many of her friends hadn’t had their own money–and that for some who did, their parents controlled how they spent it.

(This might not be for everyone–but it ended up being one of the most positive parts of our family culture. My wife and I told our kids that money for non-essentials, from snacks to video game consoles to cell phones was their responsibility. That meant they worked–first with small jobs at home from the “job board”, then moving on from dog walking or helping neighbors to working at summer camps and weekend or afterschool jobs.)

  • “We learned to cook and do laundry” said my 15 year old. It felt good to hear the pride in her voice. And you know what else feels good? Not doing other people’s laundry! 

I notice a common theme. It’s ownership. Teens are sometimes scared to be in charge of their life–but they also like it, and they feel proud and capable when they handle things on their own.

There’s no perfect way to parent, and every family is different.  In those past moments of parenting, we didn’t know how things would turn out–and we still don’t. But I’m glad we’ve imperfectly tried to give our kids the room to grow into their own awesome capacities. And I’m glad that they’re glad.

Because when parents step back, kids really do step up.

Dan Emery is dedicated to Coaching Personal Greatness, One Lesson At A Time. He is the founder of NYC's friendliest and fastest growing guitar schools, New York City Guitar School, Brooklyn Guitar School, Queens Guitar School and NYC Guitar School, East, and the author of the Amazon best-selling Guitar For Absolute Beginners and six other books on learning guitar and deliberate practice. He coaches new entrepreneurs through the Entrepreneurs Organization Accelerator program and especially enjoys helping other Educational Entrepreneurs. He has a Masters in Education from Columbia University Teachers College, extensive performing experience as songwriter and guitarist for The Dan Emery Mystery Band, a wife, three kids, a cat and some juggling equipment.


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