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Annie Fox, M.Ed., is an internationally respected parenting expert, award-winning author, and a trusted online adviser for tweens and teens.

Stepping back may be hard, but it’s what your kid needs

October 30, 2010

This article was originally written for and posted on SafetyWeb is a thoughtfully designed tool that provides parents with a means and a context for ongoing family conversations about safety, friendship and how the choices we make, online and off, have consequences.

Thanks for respecting me, Mom.

If your kids are 11-17, congrats! You’ve made it to the Major League of parenting. With little ones, you didn’t need fancy plays since you called all the shots. Now there’s often grumbling in the bullpen and effective parenting is all about nuance and negotiation.

As t(w)eens step up and make more of their own decisions, parents need to gradually step back. But your job’s not done yet! Kids still need us to be plugged in and monitoring their physical, social and emotional well-being. With 3/4 of middle and high school students actively engaged in social media, they need us more than ever.

But when does conscientious monitoring of young digital citizens cross the line and become disrespectful and intrusive? Good question! Hold that thought.

Just for the record, if you’ve got evidence or a vague sense that your child is engaging in harmful activities or is being hurt, threatened or harassed, monitor the situation very closely. Act on your gut. Question your kid at length. Tell what you know, suspect and fear. Dig deep and don’t give up until you get to the bottom of what’s going on. Then offer your strongest support, providing your child the help (s)he needs and follow up!

But what if nothing’s going on? How closely should you monitor then? I often hear from good, drug-free kids, who get excellent grades. They’re indignant because Mom/Dad snoop through their email and cell phones for no known reason. They’re exhausted by a so-called Velcro parent who can’t let go and constantly texts and phones their kids all the day.

In case you’re thinking: “I have the right to check in with my kid whenever I want and to know everything my kid’s doing at all times!” With all due respect, if you don’t have probable cause for poking into the personal exchanges your kids have with their peers, you shouldn’t. All kids, especially teens, have the right to a degree of privacy.

How much privacy? How much freedom? At what age? Depends. I don’t know your child or his track record for making responsible choices when you’re not around. Besides, parenting isn’t a science, it’s an art. We’re all artists, trying to figure out how to use our tools to launch a masterpiece, i.e., a fully functioning young adult. Unfortunately, there are no easy answers. But the most effective parents create and maintain healthy boundaries with their kids.

In 21st Century parent-speak the word “boundaries” often means “rules.” As in: Parents set up the rules and the kids (hopefully) comply. This top-down, one-way approach can lead to rebellion in the ranks. Family rules are part of any discussion of boundaries, but the fact is, healthy boundaries are a two-way street. Our personal boundaries deserve respect and so do our kids’. For example:

You politely inform your 13 year old she can’t go out with her friends because she didn’t keep her agreement to finish her homework first. Furious, she blasts you with a choice sampling from her name-calling inventory. Boundary alert! Your daughter disrespected you. She deserves a consequence from you so she doesn’t think for one minute that her behavior was acceptable.

Your 14 year old mumbles something about Coach being a “jerk” for not letting the boy start in tomorrow’s game. Incensed, you grab your phone. Your son shouts, “Don’t! I’ll handle it!” Ignoring him, you call Coach and give the “jerk” an earful. Double Boundary alert! By disregarding your son’s wishes, you disrespected him. You also rudely overstepped your parenting role by intervening between coach and student.

We all want our kids’ respect. That’s why we’ve got to hold them accountable for respecting our boundaries. While we’re at it, we need to respect their boundaries too. Great advice, though not always easy to follow. But like I said, parenting is an art… you’ve got to practice to improve. Besides, we’re not looking for perfection, just progress.



  1. You are so correct! Stepping back is a great move for parents. And that’s from a chess player! In order to gain momentum in our relationships with our children we need to step back, regroup, huddle up and find creative new strategies to empower them…while continuing to keep them safe. The baseball bat and bullhorn does not work….and that is proven. I have worked with thousands of children over the past 20 years and most of them have not been in my home, but they all have been a part of my family. I have learned from my mistakes in the past and pulling back has prevented me from making many more mistakes. As a father, husband, teacher, principal and mentor, I have learned so much from you and the resources you provide for your colleagues. Thank you for your post and your courage to tackle a tough subject. Keep up the good work……..

    Comment by Principal EL — October 30, 2010 @ 3:46 pm

  2. Stepping back will certainly brings you closer to your child. When you give respect you will get respect , and also you will be the coolest mom, and all the kids will be talking about.
    great article thank you, sending all my friends here. I book marked it as well. Thank you

    Comment by Aasiyah — October 31, 2010 @ 5:20 pm

  3. Thanks, Annie! I really like this post.

    As you know, I’m a big fan of letting kids of all ages try things and either succeed or fail “on their own” (with a big INVISIBLE safety net). It’s a parenting style that requires I high degree of engagement, honest communication and the ability to prioritize our kids’ growth over our own needs and fears.

    A friend of mine explains it to her teen this way. “You have a box. The size of your box is under your control. The more that you consistently make good decisions, the more decisions you will be able to make. (Your box gets bigger.) Poor decisions, especially risky behavior, shrink the size of the box. Lying locks it and puts bars on the windows. It’s up to you.”

    Somehow this post reminded me of that friend and her daughter.

    Thanks for everything you do.

    Comment by Andrea Patten — November 3, 2010 @ 2:09 pm

  4. Great post, and one I’ll pass along. I come to parenting from the point of view of a teacher, and have often tried to think in terms of the outcome: with a vision of the young men I want them to be, how can I best support my sons (currently 7 and 9 years old)? The idea of backing off doesn’t have to wait until the teen years, either. One of my best moves as a parent came when my oldest son was only 6. I came to pick him up from his after school program and found him sitting alone on a bench near the playground, sulking and teary-eyed, an unusual situation for him. I asked him what was happening, and he provided a minimal, grumbling answer, from which I could infer only that there had been a problem with another child. I considered approaching the staff members on duty to get to the bottom of the mystery, and then I stopped myself. My son was not injured, and this was not part of a pattern. I suggested two options to my son: “If you’re not hurt and if you don’t feel like talking about the problem, we can just go home. But if something happened that is still bothering you, maybe talking to someone would make you feel better. Do you want to tell the teacher?” He thought about it for a moment and decided he wanted to tell the teacher, and then looked to me. Another decision – go along with him, or send him on his own? I told him to go ahead and I would wait at the bench. So, he took a deep breath, went to the teacher, and to this day, I don’t know what was said between them. I do know that I sent a message of support to each of them by trusting each to handle what they could handle, with the knowledge that I would help out if needed. Not every situation has been resolved that neatly, but that choice has become my touchstone, a reminder my sons won’t learn to speak for themselves if I offer to speak for them when I’m not needed. If there had been an injury or a pattern of problems, I would have inserted myself into the situation more, of course.

    Comment by David B. Cohen — November 3, 2010 @ 3:55 pm

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