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Tips from The Parents' Coach » Blog Archive » Parenting By Permission

Parenting By Permission

Effective parenting of older teens and young adults requires a rethink of the whole parenting process.  Parenting children, pre-teens, and early teens is all about teaching the fundamentals of life. At birth children have no knowledge other than how to cry and scream. In the next twelve to fourteen years parents are the primary teacher of everything from speech to manners. Someplace around early to middle teens, there is a shift in the thinking of the teenage mind from “parents, teach me all you know. I will follow you anywhere, lead me, please,” to an urge, a drive, to become their own person, a free agent, an adult.

The problem in parenting is that most parents do not recognize that, for them to remain effective parents, they need to make an equally huge shift in their approach to parenting. Most pre-teen parenting is from the top down. Parents lead and children follow. Parents dictate the agenda and their kids are made to obey. With older teens, this kind of parenting becomes less and less effective. Most problems parents have with older teens boils down to a power struggle. It becomes a war where parents might win a battle or two, but they will ultimately lose the war and possibly any influence they might have in their kids lives, as well. With a shift in thinking and parenting techniques this warfare would disappear.

This new approach to parenting older teens, Permission Parenting, is based on the idea that as teens become more independent, there is a natural tendency on their part to become more resistant to parental edicts. For parents to remain relevant in their kids lives they need to change their approach to one of asking permission from their teens to act as their parent. For parenting to be effective with increasingly independent teens, the teens have to buy in to being parented. I am not suggesting a re-negotiation of a contract, but rather recognizing that there is a major shift happening, then gradually altering parenting techniques to effectively match the changes in their teens.

Now that we have discussed what Permission Parenting is, it is important to discuss what it is not. Permission Parenting is not permissive parenting. The two words sound similar but have very different meaning, especially when it comes to parenting. There is nothing about the concept of Permission Parenting that includes being permissive by giving teens license to do whatever they please. As my Mother used to say, “As long as you are living in this house you will follow my rules.” I will discuss more about rules, later. Actually, Permission Parenting is not about giving anything, but instead it is about receiving something from your teens. It is about gradually changing the conversation from “This is how to do it and this is how you are going to act,” to “May I assist you to work through that?” Permission Parenting isn’t about giving teens permission but rather asking for and/or getting permission to do some good parenting.

This is a huge shift in thinking for parents who have a thirteen year habit of ruling the nest and expecting and usually getting blind obedience. It is as equally huge a shift from their freely dispensing instructions and opinions on and about everything in their kids lives. Furthermore, it is a huge shift from being less able to call on a very effective repertoire of punishments to coerce at those time when obedience was not so blind.

Although, not about parenting, a little story from my life is a good illustration of how changing the tactic to match a change of situation can achieve an intended purpose. I am the older brother by two and a half years. My brother and I shared a bedroom. For our earlier years I was king of the bedroom and ruler of his life in that I got my way and I enforced that physically when necessary. At some point in our childhood by little brother started to be less little. In fact, he was growing faster than I was and quickly physically surpassed me by leaps and bounds. I noticed this process occurring and as he got close to being my physical equal, I stopped using physicality to control him and shifted into verbal intimidation. He never got the chance to beat me up because I never gave him that chance. For years afterwards, I continued to remain dominant by acting in charge but never pushing it to a point where I had to back up the threat with a battle I knew I would lose. The point here is that I was able to continue to get my way by changing the tactic from physical to psychological. With parenting teens, to be able to continue to be great parents requires changing the tactics to fit the changing needs of their teens.

Diana Sterling, in her marvelous book, “Parent As Coach” the how-to text for Permission Parenting, devotes an entire chapter to the art of listening to what teens say. It is one of the first two of her seven step process and for good reason. Only through listening to our teens can we get the clues as to what they need from us. Since they are now setting the agenda, we can only get those clues by intently listening to what they are saying. Rarely will teens, especially early in this process, directly ask for parental assistance. In fact, the first clues that this shift is happening is when they are making requests, actually demands, to be allowed to “do it myself!” Because there probably won’t be any direct requests it is very important for parents to respect their teen’s emerging individuality by asking for permission to be of assistance.

Asking for permission depends on the kind of assistance parents think is needed. There are two main categories, instructional assistance and inner-mind assistance. Instructional involves teaching of skills and techniques such as how to clean a toilet or how to write a resume. inner-mind assistance involves tutoring and providing support to teens as they work through emotional problems, learn new coping skills, and build self-confidence and self-esteem. Sometimes there is a blend of the two types of assistance. Walking them through their first dates by teaching them what to do, what to say and how to act, and supporting them emotionally to get through the nerves and anxiety.

For instructional assistance the basic rule is that if they want to do it on their own, let them. “I would rather do this myself!” or “Let me do that,” are not signs that you are no longer useful or have become superfluous, rather, they are indications that your original mission of teaching how to do things has changed from explaining everything to teaching only when asked. This is no less important a role. Actually it is a very important next step. It is parents assuming the role of a coach. The rule is that when your teens are indicating either through words or actions that they do not need your assistance, back off and let them do it themselves.

My Mother never understood this concept. Not only in her own family, but when she saw this going on in other families, she would label teens asserting their independence as their being “ungrateful wretches.” Parents want to avoid at all costs being ejected from their teens’ lives. This will be avoided if they back off and say such sincerely supportive things as, “I am glad to see you taking on this responsibility. If I can be of any assistance, just ask.” or O.K., I’ll be in the kitchen if you need me.” The next thing for parents to do is to physically leave the scene. Standing there watching them is a sign of lack of confidence in them. Let them get into trouble and ask for the next lesson. The only time they are truly teachable is when they know that they do not know. Let them fail and ask to be coached. If they ask, do so in a supportive way, rather than gloating on how you knew they would fail. This is not a contest about who is right. It is win-win if parents stay out of the competition. Parents have already won. They have made it out of adolescence and on to being responsible adults. Now they get to coach their teens to win. When that happens the parents win, too! This is Permission Parenting.

My assumption has been that this transition process will start in middle teen years with small non-critical things like washing the dishes. For instance, you are watching him wash the dishes and he looks over at you and says, “Must you watch me?” or, sarcastically, “Am I doing something wrong?” Say, “Actually, I was just thinking how well you are doing them,” and walk away. With critical things that involve safety, both theirs and every one else’s, like driving a car or using power equipment, there are more steps involved. With my kids, I told them that I would teach them how to safely do the task, I would observe them doing it and when I was sure that they could handle it safely, I would then leave them to do it alone. They knew that I was perfectly willing for them to test their abilities and have failures when to do so would not injure them or others. For one’s where I felt the penalties for failure were too severe because of potential hazard, they knew that they would have to earn my trust through demonstrated successful performance. After that I would leave them alone.

For inner-mind assistance like emotions, coping skills, people skills, self-confidence and self-esteem, parents seem to have a harder time coming to an understanding that they can only be of assistance when they are invited in. This concept was most difficult for me to get. When my son was in deep emotional turmoil, he would become silent and unresponsive. What was worse, he wouldn’t talk about it. I would feel like a totally helpless failure. If I persisted in my efforts to get him to talk, he would physically leave the house. I would start to feel that his upset was because of something I did or said and I would become a total emotional wreck. Eventually I realized that the roles had changed. He needed to be given the space to work through his feeling by himself. When I backed off, letting him know that if and when he wanted to use me as a sounding board, I was always be there for him, he did eventually start sharing his most inner feelings and allowed me to coach him through them.

The steps for coaching teens through emotional turmoil and other inner-mind issues once they have asked for such assistance, is very important. The first step is to shut up and let them talk until they have nothing more to say or they ask a direct question. Then continue to say nothing until you have fully digested what they just told you or, if you already know your response, enough time that it looks like you are carefully considering your response. Then ask for permission to make a suggestion or ask a question. “May I ask you a question?” or May I make an observation or suggestion?” Wait for permission. When you get the O.K., then make your comment. Making your suggestion in the form of a question that get them to see their situation in a different light and points to a solution is way more effective than outright telling them. It gives them practice figuring out solutions on their own so that when you are not there to coach them they will be able to do it on their own. They also get to be able to take the credit for the solution which is a confidence and esteem builder.

A final thought about how rule setting is done with Permission Parenting. As the shift towards independent thinking occurs, parents need to logically explain why it is important to follow their rules in exactly the same manner they would do if an adult came to stay with them. If they can’t explain the importance, then they can expect lots of non-compliance. Older teens need to be able to see why things need to be done in a certain way and to buy into the rules. The days of “do it my way because I said so, or else!” are almost over. How will you enforce the “or else,” ground them? – They know that they can survive on their own and pushed and challenged enough will leave, if only to save face. If that happens, parental influence is over. You lose and so do they because they won’t have your needed guidance. Just as I did with my brother, pick and choose your battles carefully. Parents need to figure out what rules are the bottom line  for living in the family and in their household and let those be known. Everything else is negotiable and needs a buy-in from their teens.

Parents who embrace Permission Parenting will eventually, like all parents, end up living in an empty nest. The difference will be that they will have a lifetime of contact with their kids. Permission Parenting is parenting for the rest of their (and your) lives because they will always want you as their coach.

©2007, J.Jason Wittman

About the Author:

Coach Jason Wittman, MPS has a private practice as a Life Coach
specializing in working with parents of teenagers and young
adults ( ) He can be reached

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