Teens 101: Allowing our Children to Choose What’s Best for Them

All the Things We Thought Were Important

To bush or not to brush. To mitten or not to mitten. Is it worth the fight and sometimes unhappy kids? Learning to listen and allow my kids to make their own choices allows them to make choices that are right for them.

When my kids were little, we had some friends who never made their kids brush their hair.  They didn’t have dreadlocks- it wasn’t a cultural or aesthetic choice, it was just a choice not to argue about it.  Combs were offered and suggested, but in the end the family went out and about happily whether or not the children had combed hair or snarls.

At my house the children did not go out happily, nor did they go out with snarls in their hair.  Frequently they went out with eyes red from crying after lots of fussing and fighting about hair brushing.  Their hair got brushed because I am bigger and stronger and insistent and have the car keys.  But it was sometimes awful.

Then we’d be out and see these other kids with their messy hair, and who cared?  I didn’t.  I didn’t judge those kids or that family.  I noticed, in an amused sort of way, and then the very next day I went back to fighting with my own kids about their hair.  A model of another option was right there in my life, but I didn’t consider it.  I wanted calmer, happier interactions with my small children, but not so much that I was willing to be seen in public with them looking unkempt.

Was that for them?  No.  That was for me.  That was all ego.  I couldn’t be the mom with the kids with messy hair, and if that meant some crying and screaming before we went out, so be it.  Somehow I thought it was that important.

The children of that other family are now also teens, and they willingly and regularly brush their hair.  It was a temporary issue with small children.  They decided not to fight about it, and eventually the kids made different choices on their own.

Despite the frequent fights over tangled hair at my house, we did manage to do some things well with our kids.  They are now wonderful teens and they still love me.  I didn’t destroy our relationships over hair brushing, thankfully.  But it is one of the many things I thought was important at the time, but really wasn’t.  Sometimes even when other positive options are visible, it can be extremely difficult to let go of what we think is “right,” even when “right” is clearly traumatic.

Here’s another example:  We had some other friends that never made their kids wear warm clothes.  It would be cold weather and the kids would all be running around at the playground or wherever.  These other kids would be hot, or claim to be hot, and refuse their jackets.  They had jackets and mittens and hats, and their parents had dutifully brought it all along in case.  But the kids refused them and instead ran around in t-shirts or sweaters, unencumbered, and to my mind, undoubtedly cold.

My kids would have loved to run around without their jackets.  They probably did get hot and sweaty under all those layers.  But a no-jacket option was not happening in our family.  Cold weather, warm clothes.  I chased them around with their hats and they weren’t allowed to play without them.  I disregarded their own sense of their needs and preferences, frequently.  Due to my fear of sickness, fear of judgment from others about allowing my children to be underdressed, and my own beliefs about correct and acceptable dress code in cold weather, my daughters and I had another unnecessary issue to fight about.

How silly it all seems now, and just the opposite of how I really wanted to raise them.  I wanted to raise girls who were strong and certain, comfortable making their own decisions.  And thankfully I did.  Despite the hair and the jackets, they are both strong and certain.  Lots of other things went well, and luckily a person’s spirit isn’t so easily thwarted.  But I can see now that my Victorian convictions about correct appearance, brought with me from my own childhood, of course, were actually undermining to them.  I wanted nothing more than for them to shine out as the beautiful and unique beings I knew them to be, but in actuality I only wanted that when it was “appropriate.”

Parenting is terrible for the ego.  Or perhaps it’s exactly what our egos need!  If I thought about it I’m sure I could dig up dozens of moments and circumstances where I chose my own misguided ego over my children’s growth and autonomy.  How about you?

It’s not useful to beat ourselves up about imperfect parenting, but I do find it useful to reflect on these past choices in comparison to my current parenting choices.  When are my rules and demands actually in their best interest, and when are they in the best interest of my own ego?  When am I disempowering them in service of my hoped-for public perception of myself as Good Parent?  When I can slow myself down and actually question my own beliefs about proper choices, I usually find that my children do know what is best and right for themselves, if I’m willing to listen.

[Photo credit: (cc) Beryl Chan]


Catherine Gobron

Catherine has spent her career creating alternative educational options for young people.  She led the program at North Star: Self-Directed Learning for Teens in Hadley for more than a decade, and is now Co-Director for LightHouse Personalized Education for Teens in Holyoke.  Catherine resides in the Hilltowns with her family and aims to live with gratitude and serenity, achieving this about 15% of the time.

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