How to Help Your Teens Grow Up to Be Independent Adults

One minute you’re changing your kid’s diapers, and the next you’re arguing with her about curfew. Your baby has grown into a young person with strong opinions and a fierce desire to be independent. As a parent, it’s your job to teach him life skills. But, like everything with teenagers, it’s complicated. By the time you’re butting heads over phone and car privileges, the best time to teach independence has passed. Raising an independent kid begins in preschool, says Julie Lythcott-Haims, former dean of freshmen at Stanford University and author of How to Raise an Adult: Break Free from the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success.

“Kids don’t acquire life skills by magic at the stroke of midnight on their eighteenth birthday,” she writes. “Childhood is meant to be a training ground. Parents can assist, not by always being there to do it or to tell them how to do it via cellphone—but by getting out of the way and letting them figure it out by themselves.”

Unfortunately, this isn’t happening as often as it should. We are in the midst of an overparenting era, Lythcott-Haims says, and our kids are suffering for it.

The 2018 Cooperative Institutional Research Program Freshman Study by the Higher Education Research Institute reported the emotional and mental health of freshmen in 1,900 U.S. colleges has declined since 1985. While there are many factors at play, researchers have found a strong correlation between parents who are overinvolved in their kids lives and undergraduates who report poor psychological well-being, problems making friends, low self-efficacy, and anxiety. 

Lythcott-Haims warns that if we want our kids to be happy and successful adults, we urgently need to let them do more. “The narrative has to shift so we see that it is most loving to be interested in our children learning skills for themselves,” she writes. “It feels unloving…in the moment, but when we remember that our job is to put ourselves out of a job, that’s actually the most loving thing we can do.”


Kids Should Choose Their Chores from an Early Age

Doing tasks around the house from an early age is a predictor of success in adult life, according to Marty Rossmann, professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota. Yet the amount of time kids spend doing chores has been declining since the ’80s.

Psychologists believe household work teaches kids how to look after themselves and develop a good work ethic. By 10-12 a child can take on laundry, change the bed, and mow the lawn. High-schoolers can manage most adult chores, such as shopping for and preparing meals and unclogging drains. Your kids will definitely complain, but at least they won’t be calling you asking how to vacuum after they’ve moved out.


Teach Financial Literary as Early as Possible

“It’s never too early, or too late, to begin teaching about financial literacy,” says Jennifer Myers, CFP and president of SageVest Wealth Management and SageVest Kids. “Kids can really begin to conceptualize money as tweens.” 

“Budgeting is the most important thing a parent can teach their child,” Myers says. “We always recommend attaching purchase responsibilities with allowances. It forces kids to learn about the importance of budgeting and saving.” By the teen years, kids should be paying for outings with friends, makeup, clothing, and more (think things they want, not things they need), to help conceptualize real life costs, Myers suggests.

Most money experts and psychologists recommend teens hold a part-time job (and not just during the summer). “It gives them the understanding that when they fill up the car tank it might cost five hours of work,” says Cary Siegel, author of Why Didn’t They Teach Me This at School: 99 Personal Money Management Lessons to Live By.


Teens Need to Know How to Change a Tire

Lauren Fix, the “Car Coach,” says American teenagers should be learning basic car maintenance—as they do in other countries. Not only will it give her confidence, it also saves money. All she needs is the owner’s manual, Youtube, and the local auto parts store. Teach him to check and change the oil, check tire pressure and add air, change a tire, fill the gas tank, replace basic parts (wiper blades and air filters), and what to do when the “check engine” light comes on.


Time Management Is the Most Important Thing

The recent admissions scandal is an extreme example of how far some will go to get their kid into the “right” college. More common, Lythcott-Haims says, is the helicopter parent who constantly monitors their child’s academics and chooses her classes and extracurricular activities. Parents doing homework is also not unusual.

The average U.S. parent spends six hours a week helping their child with academics, according to the Varkey Foundation’s Global Parent’ Survey. While well-intentioned, micromanaging stops kids from experiencing the natural consequences of their actions, such as missing deadlines and getting good or bad grades. Lythcott-Haims also warns that it can leave children feeling like their parents have no faith in them, and that they are doing their homework for their parents, not themselves. “None of this is good for the child,” she says.


For Best Results, Let Your Kids Struggle a Little

Young adults have to be able to cope with the ups and downs of life and keep going. Learning to manage conflict, hurt feelings, and cope when things go wrong is important. If we try and solve every one of our child’s minor problems, we rob him of experiences that help to build resilience. As Mogel says: “When they come to you in distress, resist responding like a concierge, talent agent, or the secret police. Assume they are capable of figuring out—through trial and error—how to solve their own problems.”

If you’re feeling a little behind, don’t worry! It’s never too late to start. Lythcott-Haims has this advice: “The first thing is to acknowledge to the kid, with a small bit of apology, ‘We realized that we are a bit behind when it comes to teaching you to be independent and it’s time for us to start teaching you a lot of things.’ A teen needs to hear that because otherwise they will view your shift with a lot of skepticism.”

Let her choose which chores she’s going to take on. Then tell him you will stop asking him about school work all the time because you know he has it under control, and let him decide what skills, like money management or car care, he would like to learn first. The process will probably elicit an eye roll now, but her future self will thank you.