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Children gain maturity when freedom comes step by step


QUESTION: It’s obvious that our teenage son is rapidly becoming an adult. What guidelines can you offer to help us transfer power at the right time – neither early nor late?

DR. DOBSON: There are some approaches that have been successful in lessening this conflict. The Amish people have developed a unique tradition that has succeeded for them. Strict discipline and harsh standards of behavior are imposed from infancy. When children turn 16 years of age, however, they enter a period called “Rumspringa.” Suddenly, all restrictions are lifted. They are free to drink, smoke, date, marry, or behave in ways that horrify their parents.

Some Amish children do just that. But most don’t. They are even granted the right to leave the community if they choose. But if they stay, it must be in accordance with the social order. The majority accept the heritage of their families, not because they must, but because they choose to.

Although I admire the Amish and many of their approaches to child-rearing, I believe the Rumspringa concept is implemented too quickly for children raised in a more open society. It works in the controlled environment of Amish country, but it would be disastrous for most of the rest of us. I’ve seen families grant “instant adulthood” to their adolescents, to their regret.

If it doesn’t work to transfer power suddenly to young people, how can they be established as full-fledged adults without creating a civil war in the process? I have recommended that parents begin granting tiny elements of independence literally in toddlerhood. When a child can tie his shoes, he should be permitted – yes, required – to do it. When she can choose her clothes, she should make her own selections within reason. When he can walk safely to school, he should be allowed to do so.

Each year, more responsibility and freedom (they are companions) must be given to the child so that the final release in early adulthood is merely a small, final release of authority. This is the theory, at least. Pulling it off is sometimes quite another matter.

In the final analysis, your own son or daughter will let you know when the time is right for independence. You must judge his or her maturity, wisdom and emotional readiness for full-fledged adulthood. Then you grant it – and pray diligently for the next 30 years.

QUESTION: Our 21-year-old daughter came home from college and moved back into her old bedroom. Now, three years later, she’s still there. She doesn’t work, she has no ambition or direction, and she seems perfectly content to freeload on her dad and me. I know she ought to get on with her life, but what can I do? I can’t just force her out, can I?

DR. DOBSON: Your daughter is not alone. Millions of young adults are living at home and loving it. They have no intention of growing up – and why should they? Food is prepared. Clothes are laundered and the bills are paid. There’s no incentive to face the cold world of reality, and they are determined not to budge. Some, like your daughter, even refuse to work.

I know it’s difficult to dislodge a homebound son or daughter. They’re like furry little puppies who hang around the back door waiting for a saucer of warm milk. But to let them stay year after year, especially if they’re not pursuing career goals, is to cultivate irresponsibility and dependency. That’s not love, even though it may feel like it. There comes the time when you must gently but forthrightly hand the reins over to your adult daughter and force her to stand on her own. I think it’s time to help her pack.

Giving a shove to a 24-year-old woman may seem cruel at the time, but I encourage you to consider emancipating her. If that never happens, lasting characteristics of dependency and immaturity may ensue. I suggest you sit down and talk to your daughter, explaining why the time has come for her to make a life of her own. Set a deadline, perhaps two or three weeks ahead, and begin preparing for it. Then give her a big hug, a promise of prayers, and send her on her way.

Dr. Dobson is founder and chairman of the board of the nonprofit organization Focus on the Family, P.O. Box 444, Colorado Springs, CO. 80903; or Questions and answers are excerpted from The Complete Marriage and Family Home Reference Guide, published by Tyndale House. Copyright 2006 James Dobson Inc.