Parenting Teens: Let Them Experiment?


Live your life as an experiment. Adopt an attitude of, “I’m not sure what will help in this situation, but I’m going to experiment and try this.”  Sometimes the result will be, “Wow, did that ever not work!” But, if it is, we’ve learned something and now we can try something else.

~Chogyam Trungpa

One of the underlying tenets of mindfulness is to let go of expectations and surrender to living in the moment. Can you imagine doing that with your children? Letting go of expectations?  

Me either.  But, I’m trying.

Let me back up a little. Being mindful and staying in the moment is not a release of all responsibility. Nor, does it propose we stop thinking about the future altogether. Mindfulness suggests that we view and practice our daily responsibilities with interest and curiosity and perhaps even happiness – no matter what the task is!  Mindfulness also suggests that we view the future with interest and curiosity, but that we try to suspend concrete expectations of what should happen in the future. This can be a daunting task for people living in modern society. We so often proceed through our lives with a litany of “shoulds.” AND, we put these “shoulds” on our kids!


Lessons I learned from my two teens

I parent my two kids very differently. I know, many of you are gasping and saying, “But why wouldn’t you treat your kids equally?” Well, quite honestly, because they have very different personalities. And, even more to the point, my youngest child struggles with significant anxiety. Thus, she needs a very different style of parenting than her older, cool-as-a-cucumber, brother. But, those of you gasping are not altogether wrong in your judgment. You see, as I have been practicing deeper and deeper mindfulness in my life, it has come to my clear attention that I am in fact “shoulding” all over my son!

School these days puts a tremendous amount of pressure on our kids:

  • They must perform well on the standardized tests so that the schools can look like they are actually teaching something.  
  • The kids must be still and quiet and in learning mode for hours on end in spite of their roller-coaster hormones and energy cycles.
  • In high school, they are told that if  they don’t graduate with above a 4.0 – AND  score in the highest percentiles on their ACT/SAT exams – AND participate in extracurricular activities – AND demonstrate community service – AND, AND, AND… they WILL NOT get into the college of their choice, or maybe not get into a four-year school AT ALL!

All year I have been going along with that program and putting a tremendous amount of pressure on my son. With my daughter, on the other hand, I let her achieve and not achieve. I have very few expectations for her future. This does not mean that I think she’s going to have a future full of doing nothing! I know she will do something that fulfills her heart and that she will be successful. She, like her brother, is a high-achiever. But, because of her anxiety, I cannot put a lot of pressure on her. Simple as that, I don’t. 

The beauty in this is that it is very freeing as a parent! 

I know that she will be fine! She is a very talented musician and wants to go to Julliard. She very well may do that. But, if she doesn’t, that’s okay. Back to my son. He was such a high achiever in middle school that we enrolled him in three Advanced Placement classes, one honors class, and college prep Algebra for the first quarter of his freshman year. He ended-up really struggling. Instead of taking a “let’s experiment and see what happens” approach his dad and I came down on him like the proverbially ton-of-bricks. One day on the way home from school I remarked with frustration, “Well, I guess you will just have to go to community college because Clemson (his first choice school) will be out of reach for you!” 

My son, with his typical cool head, replied, “You say that like there’s something wrong with community college. I think it’s a really good way to get a good education and save money.” If I had not been driving I would have forehead slapped myself! Of course, he was right!  Even more shamefully, I was straying from my own principles of bringing my kids up with mindfulness and the compassion, empathy, and freedom that comes with it! 

The moral of the story

The moral of the story is this: Let your teens experiment with what they can handle in school! Let them experiment with their lives! (And no, I’m not talking about drugs and alcohol. But, they will probably do that too!) Allow them to try things out and fail. Or, try things out and succeed!  This is how we learn and grow as human beings. 

Experimenting with life is freeing! 

Try it with your kids. Try it with yourself. You might be surprised by what you learn and feel! I’m doing this with my son now. And, low-and-behold his grades have stabilized. And so has our relationship!