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Helping Our Kids Spread Their Wings

“There are two lasting bequests we can give our children. One is roots. The other is wings.”

 ~ Hodding Carter, Jr.

When a kid hasn’t studied or prepared for a test, it’s pretty obvious.  One science teacher humorously recalls a student’s response to the essay question, “What is a vacuum?”  They wrote down, “Something my mom says I should use more often.”  A math teacher once asked her class how to convert “centimeters” into “meters,” and an unprepared student responded, “Take out centi-.

Fortunately, a failed science test every now and then probably won’t make or break our kid’s future.  But there’s another kind of test that every young adult will have to face, and it’s our job as parents to see that they succeed!  Eighty percent of your son or daughter’s life will be spent outside the home and away from you.  Are you training your child to handle the difficult questions, issues, and responsibilities that come with adulthood?

If you have a pre-teen or a full-blown teenager in your home, the main goal right now is equipping that young person to be independent.  This is more than teaching them how to handle the finances, cook a healthy meal, or drive responsibly.  Preparing them for life includes training them to be godly men and women of strong character.  It can be scary to watch our children spread their wings to fly, but it will make all the difference in their life.

Independence, But With Limits!

Before we give our kids every freedom imaginable, we need to think carefully about the limits.  Some parents have a tendency to go far, too fast.  This can happen when divorced moms and dads feel guilty and try to compensate by being lax in discipline.  Other parents want to be friends with their children, so they toss their parental role to the side, along with the rules.  But children raised without boundaries don’t usually become responsible and mature adults.  More often they become selfish, demanding, and controlling.

Proper boundaries are like lanes on the freeway.  They keep your child from veering off the road and running headlong into dangerous situations!  If you don’t provide appropriate limits, teens will feel unprepared for their new freedom and grow confused or frustrated.  But this doesn’t mean the boundaries have to be narrowly rigid.  Once your teen demonstrates that he or she can handle the first baby steps of freedom, expand his or her responsibilities.  Reward trustworthy behavior with increasing freedom.  You can be sure that teenagers will become impatient with the step-by-step process, but remind them that earning their wings takes time.

Teach Self-Control

Your teenager is often pulled in many different ways by many different forces—hormones, peers, and authority figures, to name a few.  In today’s culture, it’s tough being a teen!  In order to help kids mature into healthy, independent adults, parents need to teach them self-control.  Teenagers need practical instruction on resisting negative influences and embracing good decisions.  And like most disciplines, self-control is a learned trait.  It comes with trial and error, and a lot of preparation.  Here are some ways to begin the process:

  • Start by asking a lot of questions.  Ask your teen about the moral, cultural, or current issues of the day, and wait for their answer.  Questions like, “ what do you think would be the best thing to do in this situation? or, “what would you do if you were asked to have sex, steal or take drugs?”  or even statements like, “Tell me what you think about…” are great ways to stimulate clear thinking and wise decisions.  Allow your teen to come up with their own answer without injecting yours.  Let them realize the fullness of their response by hearing their words.  A teen’s reply may be immature, irresponsible, or just plain wrong, but their response will echo in their mind and start them on a path to exercising self-control.
  • As you give them more freedom, allow your teen to make their own choices in that area of liberty, whether good or bad.  For example, if you give your son or daughter gas money and they choose to spend that money on something other than fuel, then they will have to figure out another way to get around.  Don’t give in and provide more money to fill up the tank!  Let your teen walk, if necessary, in order to impress the importance self-restraint.  Believe me, once a licensed teenager has to walk instead of drive they’ll never make that same decision again!
  • Encourage your child in their good decisions.  Highlight their successes, not their failures.  Don’t say, “I told you so,” when they make a mistake.  That simply clips their wings.  Instead, patiently allow them the opportunity to make the right choice.  When you see your child respond with maturity and responsibility, congratulate them right then and there.  Instant feedback is always best.  Let them know you’re proud of them and that you’re going to give them even more freedom in the future.
  • Offer your teen specific examples of good decisions you have made.  While it’s possible your teenager will make a crack about your life in the dark ages, revealing the decisions you made in complex situations provides a solid role model.  When they find themselves in the same situation that you once faced, they will have a framework from which to work and a concrete illustration for decision-making.  Develop a portfolio of good decisions you and other people your teen admires have made, and randomly inject them into conversations (not to make a point when the teen does something wrong).  It’s a great way to put a spotlight on the benefits of self- control.

Someday soon your teen will face a very important test.  My advice for parents is to begin preparing your children right now to embrace their independence and face the world equipped with all the tools they need.  Give them the opportunity to practice maturity, and don’t bail them out or condemn them if they fail.  When we provide our teenagers with increasing levels of independence, coupled with proper limits and parental guidance, it’s likely we’ll have the thrilling opportunity to watch them spread their wings and fly!



Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, a residential counseling center for struggling teens located in Longview, Texas.  He has been married to his wife, Jan, for 40 years, has two kids, and four grandkids.  He lives in Longview, Texas, with the Heartlight staff, 60 high school kids, 25 horses, his dog, Stitch, two llamas, and a prized donkey named Toy.

His past involvement as a youth pastor, Young Life area director, and living with more than 2,800 teens has prepared Mark to share his insights and wisdom about parenting pre-teens and adolescents. You can find out more about Heartlight at HeartlightMinistries.orgYou can also call Heartlight directly at (903) 668-2173.

Mark is also the host of the radio program Parenting Today’s Teen; heard on over 1,600 radio outlets nationwide. Visit where you’ll find more parenting resources and find a station near you that carries the daily 60-second features or the 30-minute weekend program.   Here you can download the Parenting Today’s Teens App, a great way to listen on your schedule.


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.