These sixteen-to-nineteen years are designed (at least, according to the government) to be the years girls (and boys) are given the keys to their independence. At sixteen they are given the literal keys to cars. At seventeen they can see R-rated movies. At eighteen they can buy cigarettes, join the military, drop out of school, and be emancipated from their parents.
To some degree, the founding fathers (and modern legislators as well as cigarette makers) believed that sixteen- through nineteen-year-olds are able to make their own decisions. As parents, this is hard to believe.
You know your daughter's lack of responsibility about her homework. You see that she still forgets to take out the trash and empty the dishwasher and even brush her teeth with any regularity. And you are fearful that she will be unprepared to handle life on her own—even when she puts up a mighty-big front.
But she wants to be independent. She wants to believe that you trust her—that you believe she is capable of things great and small. Mary Dea has just turned sixteen and has taken on a whole new level of familial responsibility. She drives her little sister to and from school and various activities. She helps her mom with errands. She is blossoming under the responsibilities that come with this kind of independence. It becomes her.
In reality, it is the trust of her parents just as much as her newfound independence that causes Mary Dea to blossom. We all remember girls who became destructive in the newfound freedom of their freshman year in college. Many of these girls didn't have the chance to succeed and fail in ever-widening boundaries. They were parented in the same manner throughout their entire high school experience and didn't gain any more responsibilities or earn any more privileges as they got older.
We offer a class for parents of juniors and seniors in high school with our friend and colleague David. one primary emphasis of this class is independence. Girls need more flexibility in determining their bedtimes for each year they progress through school. They need to be allowed a little more time on the phone and on the Internet. As they get older, their curfew needs to get a little later. As the freedoms increase in this way, the difference from high school to college is so negligible that the girls barely notice.
Girls need a chance to develop their independence. They need to be able to fail while they still live at home. During these years you can still meet them at the scene of their first fender bender. You can catch them as they come in with bloodshot eyes and alcohol on their breath. It is not your job to rescue them in these times, or they will not become independent. But you can be there to clean up the scrapes from the fall. You can sympathetically listen, ground them from the car if you need to, and ask them what they could do differently next time (back-door approach, remember?). And then you can remind them of all that you admire in them.
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