What I learned after giving my four teens almost total control over their lives

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Is intense parental involvement really the key to long-term success? Copyright Rawpixel.com Shutterstock
By Danielle Teller with NBC News
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It's appropriate to nurture and protect teens from physical and psychological harm, but it's not helpful to decide for them the course of their future.

My teenagers call me a bunny mom. Let me explain. We live in an affluent suburb with high-performing public schools, and many of our kids' friends have tiger moms and helicopter dads who heavily police their children's schoolwork, music practice, and extracurriculars in the hope that their offspring will go on to elite universities and professional success. My family, however, has adopted a different strategy.

Several years ago, my husband and I sat our four kids down and explained that we weren't going to parent them that way. We hoped that the rules we had enforced when they were preteens had instilled good habits, but once they got to high school, we were going to start to back off. We would no longer insist that they join a sports team, eat broccoli or play piano. We weren't going to make their decisions for them or push them to succeed. We would provide guidance and support, and we would expect them to be good citizens at home and at school, but our goal was to gradually hand over the reins, so that by age 18, they would have complete control over their own lives.

It wasn't easy to hand over control. We could envision the mistakes and poor choices our children might make, and we had met the talented and ferociously hard-working peers they would eventually compete with for college admission and employment. But though we were nervous, we decided to take a light-touch approach for two reasons. First, it seemed most likely to produce happiness, and second, we weren't convinced that intense parental involvement is key to long-term success. (Notice, too, that we are not conflating happiness with success.)

When we think about over-involved parents causing unhappiness, we usually focus on stressed-out and overworked teens who develop mood disorders or who self-harm. In fact, our community briefly — and maybe a little unfairly — became the national poster child for overparenting after a rash of suicides in local high schools. While there is no confirmed link between high parental expectations and suicide, psychologists like Madeline Levinehave vividly described the ways in which pressure to achieve can be emotionally toxic for teens, and that is certainly an important consideration when deciding how to raise a child.

What we don't always also consider, however, are the longer-term consequences of pushing a reluctant child into the fast lane. Everyone has different skills and interests. For some, the pursuit of traditional academic and extracurricular success is arduous, and seemingly unending. The effort it takes to gain admittance to an elite university sets the pace for the indefinite future. Stress and workloads don't decrease for those who become lawyers or doctors or business executives. If anything, the fast lane speeds up as competition gets stiffer.

Some people thrive in challenging professional environments, but those who ended up in those environments only because of parental pressure must choose between a grueling lifelong race they detest or an outcome they have been groomed to perceive as failure. That is not a recipe for happiness.

We don’t always also consider the longer-term consequences of pushing a reluctant child into the fast lane.

In conversation with a colleague, it also occurred to me that teens who are propelled into elite universities by parental effort may be at a practical disadvantage. My colleague told me that in her Chinese immigrant community, parents prized a Harvard education for their children; one family she knew even named a son "Harvard Cambridge" in Mandarin. News of acceptance to exclusive universities— which did come for many — was widely trumpeted. But this was all too often followed by years of silence. It seemed that after freshman year, there were no further achievements to celebrate.

My colleague hypothesized that these tremendously accomplished youths dropped off the radar because they were culturally handicapped. As first-generation Americans, they couldn't take full advantage of the social and networking advantages conferred by Harvard, and so they didn't have access to the best opportunities.

Her explanation may be correct, but there is an alternative hypothesis: After years of living a regimented life, young adults of all backgrounds and ethnicities can begin to feel directionless. When parents set priorities and make every decision, there is no opportunity for children to develop their own goals and motivations. It is possible that after college, some of these kids just have no idea what to do with their lives and no practice at tackling such a problem.

When parents set priorities and make every decision, there is no opportunity for children to develop their own goals.

In the business world, good managers balance authority and responsibility for employees. If a manager says, "This year, you will make only red widgets," and blue widgets turn out to be wildly popular, she can't hold her employee responsible for having made only red widgets. More importantly, an employee who doesn't have the authority to make decisions will not innovate and will not feel personally invested in the outcome of his work.

For children, responsibility also needs to be paired with authority. Toddlers have little of either, but as they age and are increasingly held to account, they should be allowed to make more choices. Teens who cannot control the direction of their own lives will not feel truly responsible for their actions. At best, they will unthinkingly do as their told. At worst, they will not learn who they are; they will not develop an authentic sense of self.

It's hard for parents to let go. Just as we protected our babies from sharp objects, we want to protect our teens from what we perceive as failure. Yet while it is appropriate to nurture and protect teens from physical and psychological harm as we did when they were younger, it is not helpful to decide for them the course of their future lives. As a so-called bunny mom, I have to bite my tongue when one of my children decides to stop taking math classes or quit the swim team. "You won't achieve your full potential," I want to say. But that shouldn't be their goal in life any more than it is my main goal in life. Their goal should be to follow their own ambitions, wherever those may take them.

Danielle Teller is the author of the forthcoming novel "All the Ever Afters: The Untold Story of Cinderella's Stepmother" (danielleteller.com).

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