It all started ten feet in the air. Beija was two, she decided to get to the top of the playground climber, I stood about ten feet away watching her progress, other parents at the park were…freaking out. Was I positive she wasn’t going to get hurt? No. As I considered possible outcomes (tears, broken arm, etc.) it dawned on me at that moment that the benefits to her of taking the risk – building strength, problem-solving, the joy of accomplishment – were more important than 100% safety. And we have been lucky to replay endless versions of gaining-independence-while-your-parents-hold-their-breath throughout Beija’s 12 (nearly 13, she will remind you) years of life.
I’ve come to believe that the primary “work” of teens is to learn how to function in the world without us. Our job as parents is to provide tools and opportunities for success, then breathe deeply and watch them take risks. Teens are some of the most amazing and frustrating creatures on the planet. They want so badly to be separate from us and yet, every once in a while they call for our support.
This is the second in a series (first one is here) of posts on successful travel with teens. (I am switching from “tweens” to “teens” both at Beija’s request and because it applies throughout the 11-18 timespan.) Remember the Choose Your Own Adventure books? I loved them. So I am using the framework to share ways to use travel to help your kids grow independence and self-reliance at your (and their) own pace.
Choose Your Own Teen Travel Independence Adventures
Scenario 1: Peruvian Ice Cream
We are just wrapping up an urban hike in Huaraz, Peru and Beija is clamoring for ice cream, remembering a little store up the block. Jay and I are so ready to head back to our room to get a shower, but think it’s fine for her to have some. How do you deal with this helado situation?
If you go buy your child an ice cream cone, skip to the “Not Ready” section at the bottom of this post.
If you hand your child cash to buy their own cone go to Scenario 1 below.
Scenario 2: Oaxaca City Walk
We are in Oaxaca City. We all just had a delicious meal after a long and adventure-filled urban hike. Heading toward our B&B Beija and Pacifica (both 12) are walking ahead of us in the full moon’s light (because how embarrassing to be seen with your parents). Jay and I are in the mood to try some Mezcal at a roof-top bar two blocks from the B&B. Is there a win-win?
If you choose to skip Mezcal and walk back to the B&B together skip to the “Not Ready” section at the end of this post.
If you choose to hand your child the key to walk several familiar blocks back while you head off for a drink, see Scenario 2 below.
Laying the Groundwork: Preparing for Independence
Before we get to our adventure, let’s back up. To raise independent, confident kids you both have to be a problem-solving role model and work to build those muscles in your kids. They have spent most of their lives counting on you to solve their problems so it might take a little practice for them to take charge.
In order to do this, I like to talk through “what if” situations. You will have to time this perfectly – get the kiddo in the right mood – to get full participation and minimize eye rolling. 98% of the time Plan A will come to fruition, but when it doesn’t, everyone will freak out a little less if they’ve thought through what they’d do in case things are not smooth sailing. Here are some questions we might run through:
- What if someone asks you a question you don’t understand?
- What if you don’t get what you asked for?
- What would you say in (appropriate language here)?
- What if you get the wrong change?
- Which direction would you go from here to get back to the hotel?
- What if you get lost? (everyone should carry the hotel’s business card in their pockets)
- How would you ask for help?
- What if someone catcalls you?
- What if you run into an aggressive dog?
Ok, now back to our adventures…
Scenario 1: The kid works for a payoff!
If your child refuses the money to buy their own ice cream and insists that you enter the store with them, skip to the “Not Ready” section below.
If your child takes the money and goes into the store on their own, read on:
Win, win, win! Everybody gets what they want. They will probably enjoy their treat even more when it comes with a side of success and self-determination. It is so much fun to watch them feel proud of their accomplishments. It is also a forcing function to get them to try new things.
It may not be ice cream that motivates your child. Maybe it is buying a souvenir or getting to participate in a game you see going on. We always make a point to praise independence when it happens to add a little emotional currency to the experience. Don’t make too big a deal of their successes though or they will rebel. “OMG, Mom! Stop.”
Scenario 2: The kid goes solo!
If your child refuses the keys and insists that you come, skip to the “Not Ready” section below.
If your child takes the keys and starts down the road, read on:
“Here’s a key. Text me when you get back.” I remember the freeing feeling of strength and pride my first few times walking to school on my own as a kid. It is so fun to see Beija have that feeling too. One of my proudest moments of our recent trip to a village in Peru was when Beija put on her raincoat and told us she was going out to see if she could find a local girl she met the day before. She came home with stories of all the animals she saw on her walk and all the people she had greeted. Including the woman who exclaimed in surprise, “¡Gringa!” when Beija waved. As she recounted this, I did a little mental victory dance and whispered to Jay, “It is working!!”
Not ready to set them loose? Or maybe they aren’t ready to be set loose? Or maybe it is just that the situation isn’t quite right. Every child is different and you know them better than anyone else. That said, some of us need to breathe deeply and let go just a little bit. If you or your child fall into the need-to-let-go category, my advice is to stretch yourself to something that makes you both slightly uncomfortable while weighing the risks with a clear eye.
There are lots of ways to work up to greater independence. Here are some ideas:
Scenario 1 Ramp Ups
- At home, give opportunities to speak for themselves and conduct their own transactions
- Give a small allowance so they can practice using money and counting change
- Role play how the independent choice might have gone when you get back to the hotel
- Get ice cream with them but ask them to tell the server the flavor they want
- Go with, but stand away and have them complete the transaction on their own
Scenario 2 Ramp Ups
- At home, let them roam around solo more than usual
- Install a GPS app on your phones (Life360 or Find my Friends) so you can see where they are
- Let them walk ahead of you as you go back to the hotel
- Encourage them to read on the hotel patio while you go out or siesta
- Relax on a bench and give them freedom to explore the boundaries of a plaza
Be patient. My tween/teen vacillates between confident forays into the world while rejecting my support completely to wanting to sit on my lap in restaurants. Now is their time to experiment, knowing that you’ll be there for them when they need you and rejecting your protection by turns. Take their lead, gently nudging your maturing bird toward flight.