The right to fail
By Zach Meyer
"You have earned the right to fail."
These are the words I've heard the father of one of my teenage clients share with her on more than one occasion, and they represent to me a target to aim for when it comes to parenting teenagers in general. Let me unpack them.
Psychology used to think that the human brain was basically done developing after the first 3 or 4 years of life, and that from then on, experience was the only thing it was gaining. We now understand that that couldn't be farther from the truth; our brains are still developing in important ways into our 20s, which is why 30-year-old you had a different personality or different interests than 21-year-old you in some significant ways. (Thank God.)
Teenagers' brains have some pretty specific developmental tasks. Their ability to think abstractly is increasing. So is their capacity to feel their own feelings, as well as to empathize with the feelings of others. Their awareness of and curiosity about the world beyond their own experience is expanding in leaps and bounds. And their desire to make the most of the moment right in front of them is strong.
Unfortunately, the part of their brain that helps them connect the choices they make right now with the possible future consequences of those choices is just sort of chilling out. It's one of the last parts of their brain to develop into its final "adult" form.
So that means teens are full of a deepening sense of wonder at the people and experiences available to them, a greater capacity to feel things in response to those people and experiences, and an underdeveloped warning system when danger is lurking ahead.
This is why teens make strange, big, sudden, obvious mistakes. This is why otherwise "responsible" teens get drunk one weekend. This is why otherwise "cautious" teens ride down a hill in a shopping cart. They were curious about the unknown, had a chance to do an experiment and find out more, and their brain didn't put up the red flags that are obvious to your adult brain. Teens are essentially wired to make mistakes. It's not a parenting failure on your part. It's a developmental reality. It's not even a bug — it's a feature.
Why? Because we learn way more from failure than we could ever learn from success. It directs our attention to what doesn't work for us with unparalleled clarity. Teens stand to learn volumes from their failures during these years, especially if they can come to you to talk about them.
So your teens will make mistakes. But you can help steer them away from the most dangerous or damaging ones. Here are three steps you can and should take to help your teen follow your most important guidelines while you wait for their brains to catch up to themselves.
First, you should have no more than 5 core expectations for your teen. This makes them easier for your teen to remember in the excitement of the moment. I find that most appropriate parental expectations fall into one of three categories: safety, conduct, and character. And I find that well thought out expectations can make the behavior you'd like from your teen obvious across multiple scenarios. For example: "In our family, we value being truthful with each other, because it builds trust and respect for one another. Therefore we will not tolerate lying or deceit of any kind, because they undermine the kind of family we want to be." This would be an expectation that has to do with character, and, with it, you just covered following through on promises, lying outright, engaging in behaviors you wouldn't approve of, conduct on social media, conduct with friends and more with one "rule." Expectations that fall into these three categories are also the easiest to explain to teens. (More on that below.) If you have expectations for your teen that you spar about regularly that don't fit clearly into one of those categories, consider revising them until they do or throwing them out alltogether. They might not be as necessary as they feel. (In case it wasn't obvious, it helps a lot if your whole family agrees to abide by the same core expectations. Do you respect coworkers with a "do as I say and not as I do" mentality? Exactly.)
Second, explain your expectations. "Because I said so" no longer works on your teen because it no longer works on any teen. Their brains are getting really good at abstract reasoning, remember? If they're being asked "support your answers" and "show your work" all day in school, they're going to expect the same from their parents. And if you have an expectation for your teen that you can't defend, he's going to feel very uncompelled to follow it. (Wouldn't you?) Having to explain yourself doesn't mean you're giving in to your teen's lack of respect for your authority; it means you're respecting his increased ability to understand another's experience and that you want to invite him into yours. "When you come home after curfew, imagine what that's like for me. I want to be sure you're home safe before I go to sleep, because I'm responsible for your safety, morally and legally. But if I don't get to bed before 11 because I'm waiting up for you, I won't get enough sleep before I have to get up for work at 5 and it'll affect my whole day. Your curfew is as late as I can push it before it starts to negatively affect me. Plus, I love you, and you say you want me to trust you, so when you're not home when you said you'd be I immediately wonder if something bad happened or if you're in danger. That gets me really worried, and even if you walk in the door at 10:45 and you're totally fine, I'm now too worked up to get the sleep I need. I know you can drive now, and that gives you a certain amount of independence, but your choices still affect everyone else in this house. Your choices will always affect someone else. And I hope you can see how you coming home after your curfew would negatively affect me." Most teens, even if they still don't like your expectation, will be more likely to respect it after being invited into your experience. So try it out.
Third, be very, extremely, overly, emphatically clear about your expectations. Be concrete. Give examples. To you, "be home by 10:30" might mean the car is in the garage, the garage door is closed, the house is locked, the keys are hanging where they belong and your teen is getting ready for bed. To your teen, "be home by 10:30" might mean that at 10:20, he realizes he needs to be home soon and starts thinking about the friends he needs to say goodbye to before leaving the party. At 10:23, he learns his good friend is in a fight with his girlfriend, and feels bad just leaving without being there to talk it through with him. He eventually says his goodbyes and is out of there by 10:40, home by 10:56, but he totally began leaving before his curfew so WHAT'S THE BIG DEAL?? So say exactly what you mean. Being explicit about what meeting your expectations looks like will make it easier for your teen to do it. If you feel like you're being ridiculously specific and your teen is rolling his eyes at you, you're doing it right.
So back to the client I mentioned.
My client's parents have worked very hard over many years to make their expectations very clear to her. They've identified core, nonnegotiable rules for their family that have to do with the kind of people they want their children to become. They've backed up their expectations with honest, patient explanations that have helped their children see their perspective and responsibility as parents. Her parents have also worked hard to limit their expectations to core issues of safety, conduct, and character, leaving room for their daughter to become someone who might be different from them in significant ways while still remaining an integral and contributing member of the family.
And because these parents have respectfully articulated their core expectations to their daughter, she has worked very hard to meet them, even when she has not agreed with them.
Still, she's a teenager. Her brain is still learning how to weigh choices and anticipate consequences. She's made many mistakes. But because her parents were clear, concise, and consistent with their biggest expectations, she's rarely forgotten them, and has proven herself very trustworthy when it mattered most.
Because she has shown she can be trusted with her parents' nonnegotiables, they have immense, well-placed trust in her. And they hope that, when she inevitably makes a poor choice, it will be more likely to be in an area of her life that will be peripheral, reparable, and will allow for reflection and growth.
Because she has proven trustworthy where it matters most, her parents feel she has earned the right to fail. And open, rich, productive conversations have arisen out of these failures.
Give your teen the gift of clear, defensible, concise expectations, set her up to succeed at meeting them, and enjoy the peace of mind that comes with a teen who has your words steadily ringing above the din of her very active teenage brain.