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From the Zoo to the Jungle: Allowing Your Teen the Room to Make Mistakes

It’s a jungle out there!  The world we live in is dangerous.  As parents, we bear the huge responsibility of protecting our little ones from harm.  But as they get older, it’s also our job to slowly give our sons and daughters the skills they need to to survive in the real world on their own.  We can teach our kids to live in the zoo, but more importantly, we need to prepare them to survive in the jungle.

Living in the Zoo

Life in the zoo is relatively easy.  The animals are free to roam around in safety away from dangerous predators.  They don’t have to work for their food; it’s handed to them on a silver platter.  While zoos protect and care for their animals, everyone knows that you can’t throw a domesticated animal back into the wild and expect it to thrive.  While in that place of safety, the animal has failed to develop the necessary instincts to survive in the jungle.

Ever feel like you are running a zoo at your house?  I know I felt that way many times.  It was my job as a parent to protect my kids from mistakes, keep them from harm and provide for their every need.  Up to a certain point, that’s exactly what a good parent does.  But if we continue to shelter our kids without giving them more control over their lives, we’re not preparing them for life outside the home.  In fact, we’re actually setting them up for future failure.

Discernment doesn’t come naturally.  We aren’t born with the knowledge of how to make the right decision in every circumstance.  Like a muscle, discernment has to be developed and exercised over time.  And the most common way this happens is through trial and error.

Think back to your own life.  Remember all those mistakes you made?  Though we may regret some of our decisions, they formed us into discerning, mature adults.  I would even go so far as to classify a string of ill-advised mistakes as “experience.”  It will feel unpleasant at times, but it’s important we give our teens opportunities to flex their decision-making muscles and make mistakes while they’re still under our roof and care.

Living in the Jungle

So how do you give more control to your teenager without letting chaos reign?  How do you begin training them for the jungle?

Well first, I encourage parents to start early.  The pre-teen years are an excellent time to get the ball rolling.  Every month, pick out one new area of responsibility for your child.  It could be learning to get out of bed with an alarm clock, bringing their clothes down to the laundry or making their own snacks after school.  Will there be days where your child has to wear an old shirt because they forgot to bring down their laundry?  Sure!  But this is all a part of the training program.  These uncomfortable moments are an important way of teaching your child to be independent and responsible.

As your teen gets older, continue to hand over responsibility.  Let them buy their own clothes out of an allowance.  Set the curfew back an hour later.  Have them decide what to make for dinner once a week.  Building a habit of responsible decision-making is a precious gift that you can give to your kids.

It’s only natural that teens will make mistakes.  They will bungle or blunder through bad decisions.  And that’s where one of the most important elements in this process comes in—grace.  When your son or daughter makes decisions that tempt us to gasp, shake our heads or slap our foreheads, it’s our job to consistently respond with grace.  The worst thing we can do is shame our teens, embarrass them or tighten the reins because of a failure.  Instead, we need to instruct and encourage our kids to learn from their mistakes, dust themselves off and try again.

Proverbs 24:16 tells us “the righteous falls seven times and rises again.”  (By the way, this is a good reminder that everyone makes mistakes—even parents!)  Standing back and watching our kids find their way can be a scary thing.  There’s a fear that your child will not be able to handle that type of freedom and completely go astray.  But if you give your teen the chance to direct certain areas of their life, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

I’ve spoken to many parents who told me, “You don’t know my kid, MarkHe can be really irresponsible.”  Or, “I don’t think letting her make those type of decisions is wise.  She’s not mature enough.”  However, those same parents who decided to let go and give their teens room for mistakes found that their kids responded astonishingly well!  Not only did the kids rise up to the challenges they were given, they exceeded even the parent’s expectations!  Most teenagers want to please their parents.  With the freedom to make decisions and fall down, they feel like they have an opportunity to do just that.

Now, I don’t want parents to get the wrong idea.  I am not recommending you throw your son or daughter into the deep end of the pool and shouting, “Swim!”  What I am saying is that we cannot keep our kids in the shallow end and expect them to navigate the larger end of the pool on their own.  Teaching our kids maturity and life skills involves taking them into deeper and deeper water gradually, so they feel comfortable leaving your care one day.

No one wants to see a son or daughter get hurt, fall down or make a mistake.  But those experiences are the necessary building blocks of a responsible adult.  Begin teaching your kids now how to make the most of each opportunity, and give them grace when they fail.  If you do, you will not only teach your child how to function in a zoo—you’ll give them the skills to thrive in the jungle!



Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, located in Hallsville, Texas.  For more information and helpful resources for moms and dads, check out our website.  It’s filled with ideas and tools to help you become a more effective parent.  Go to  Or read other helpful articles by Mark, at  You can also call Heartlight directly at (903) 668-2173.  Hear the Parenting Today’s Teens broadcast on a radio station near you, or download the podcast at

Author: Mark Gregston

Mark Gregston began working with teens more than 40 years ago as a youth minister and Young Life director. He has authored nearly two dozen books, has written hundreds of articles, and is host of the nationally-acclaimed Parenting Today’s Teens podcast and radio broadcast.