Building Emotional and Mental Maturity

Article at-a-glance

  • Building self-esteem begins in infancy but it’s never too late to start helping kids feel capable.
  • Responsibility and accountability can be taught by insisting kids contribute at their development level.
  • Kids learn best how to be young adults by being given repeated chances to try, fail, and succeed in their home environment.

Lynnette Hughes is a mother of eight. She and her husband have already seen six children off to college and Lynnette knew early on that subsidizing their children’s college educations wouldn’t be possible.

“We were just never in that kind of financial position,” she says. “So we told them they all had a responsibility to themselves, to put themselves in the kind of position where they could qualify for scholarships.”

And they did. Each of the college-educated Hughes kids has done it with a combination of scholarship money, part-time jobs, and hard work — no student loans, no financial help from Mom and Dad.

When asked how she prepared her kids for college, Lynnette’s answer is, at first, surprising.

“All of our babies, as soon as they could walk, were responsible for taking their own diapers to the garbage can.” The feeling of pride, she explains, when a child is able to contribute to the family is an important foundational step in a process of building self-esteem. “Their little faces would just beam. We’d cheer and make a big deal out of it.”

When we think of preparing kids for college, diapers are probably the furthest things from our minds. We focus instead on grades, SAT scores, and dorm living. Then we work to remove all the obstacles from our children’s lives so they can just focus on learning. But what if those obstacles are the things that help mold them into capable young adults?

Insist on age-appropriate autonomy & contribution

Taking care of all life’s little chores is how some of us express our love. For parents with one or two kids, it may seem faster to do all the work ourselves. But, when we give our kids the guidance to master a new task and then the responsibility to handle it, we give them an opportunity to learn, fail, succeed, and grow. And our kids can be successful at a lot more than we probably think!

  • Resist the urge to take over a task your children are developmentally capable of handling on their own – from tying their shoes to balancing their first checkbook.
  • Start by making kids responsible for the chores that only benefit them. It will be easier this way for you to back off and let them work it out. Cleaning their own rooms, handling their own laundry, and caring for their own possessions are all responsibilities that, even at a very young age, can be passed into their care.
  • Take the time to teach them to contribute to the family at their level – whether that’s rinsing dishes or planning and preparing a meal.
  • Get creative to encourage autonomy.  “In my kitchen,” says Lynnette, “the dishes are always in the bottom cabinets so even the smallest kids can help by unloading the dishwasher and setting the table.” Some parents keep all the breakfast foods in a low drawer of the refrigerator so kids can feed themselves and younger siblings.

“I never packed for my sons before a scouting trip and they never died. They may have spent an uncomfortable couple of days but they learned quickly to be prepared.” – Lynette Hughes

Let the chips fall and make sure your teen cleans them up

This generation of parents, more than any before, feels compelled to rescue our kids — removing obstacles before kids can even try to navigate them. We race forgotten homework to school, offer repeated reminders about their obligations, grab their scooter off the lawn, and even finish their chores in silence.

But to what end? A teen who never experiences the natural consequence of her own forgetfulness will have a rough transition into adulthood when you aren’t there to manage her obligations for her.

  • Use accountability as a rule of thumb for granting new privileges and responsibilities. When teens are capable of earning (however slowly) the funds to replace a lost phone, they are ready to be responsible for one.
  • Make accountability expectations clear at the outset of a new privilege or responsibility and then resist the urge to rescue kids from their own mistakes.
  • It can take restraint, but letting our children experience natural consequences like a skipped a lunch, lost a phone, or bad grade will stick with them longer than all our reminders.
  • Some natural consequences are too vague for kids to care about. A bad grade is a natural consequence of not studying, but one that’s not motivating for some. Instead, tie these kinds of responsibilities to a privilege they do care about. Explain the relationship (of grades to driving privileges, for example) up front and then be firm and consistent when enforcing it.

Be a cheerleader, not a mechanic

When our kids come to us with a problem, the diagnosis and the fix are sometimes out of our mouths before they’ve finished explaining. Instead, give them the space to talk through their problems with you and arrive at a solution themselves.

  • Empathize with them about their problem. You might even have a similar story from your teen years to share. Shared experiences can help you connect with your child, but avoid dominating the conversation with stories from your past.
  • If they’re stuck, nudge them toward other ideas with, “have you considered…?” or “what do you think would happen if…?” questions.
  • Offer to roleplay some of their ideas. This can be especially useful for working out social quandaries.
  • Express confidence in their ability to handle the problem with integrity.
  • Follow up on how it went, asking what worked and what didn’t.
  • If it worked, congratulation them and name the qualities they used to work through the problem: ingenuity, bravery, sacrifice, and patience are most often the skills needed to conquer tough problems.

Teach kids to advocate for themselves

As adults, we take steps every day to make sure we’re getting what we need. We negotiate raises, call customer service when the fridge breaks, and hire a personal trainer when we need more motivation to get fit.

An unprepared college freshman with a sore throat or a drug-using roommate may have no idea which channels to explore to get help. With us at their sides, the tween and teen years are a safe space to begin navigating the resources available outside the family.

  • When your kids have a problem that can be solved best with an outside resource, talk them through identifying that resource and finding the best way to contact them.
  • Let them help you find your next dentist, plumber, or mechanic. Ask how they’d go about finding and vetting the right service provider – their ingenuity may surprise you.
  • Insist they make their own phone calls as soon as they are capable. Arranging their own playdates is a valuable first lesson in self-advocacy and communication. Later they’ll be more prepared to order the family a pizza, make their own medical appointment, and contact the university housing department.
  • Have kids check in with the receptionist at their medical and dental appointments and speak directly to their provider about the reason for their visit. You’ll be there to fill in any gaps and this experience can have the added benefit of making kids feel more empowered and interested in managing their own health.

Choose a mix of extracurricular activities

We’re often told that admissions departments look for applicants with a lot of extracurricular activities. This is because they know teens who have participated in these groups pick up skills that will translate into a successful college experience.

Each type of extracurricular group has different experiences to offer, so try to give your teen gets exposure to more than one kind.

  • Sports involvement teaches lessons about making progress through training, the value of hard work, how to work as a team, commitment, leadership, and good sportsmanship.
  • Service organizations (especially when teens organize events and work with committees) can teach patience, diplomacy, leadership, organization, money management, communication, and strategy.
  • Academic clubs can foster a love of academic accomplishment, teach kids to work in teams, and get them excited about competition.
  • Involvement in any type of extra-curricular activity gives teens the opportunity to balance a more complex schedule and to meet and work with new peers and adults outside their normal circle.

“What I found most helpful in getting them ready were clubs and committees where they had to work with all different personality types. To organize blood drives or to go into nursing homes, they had to work with adults.” –Lynette Hughes

Give them practice managing money – even badly

College freshman have access to funds in amounts they’ve never encountered – student loans, grant money, financial assistance from parents, income from a part-time job, and scholarship funds, to name a few. All of which can be mismanaged with disastrous consequences.

  • Whether it comes as an allowance or from jobs, the important thing is that kids get the experience of managing money themselves over many years.
  • Try not to rescue. It’s tough, but letting them blow cash on junk, lose bills out of pockets, and forget to budget for that trip to the amusement park is giving them the room to grow.
  • Help kids learn responsibility with money by slowly raising their allowance but also making them responsible for some of their needs, like school clothing. Over time, this will help them distinguish between their wants and needs, get creative with resources, learn to save, and delay gratification.

“I’ll never forget my son calling me his first week of college to tell me how some kids in his dorm were angry because their car payments were due and their student loan money hadn’t come in yet. It was obvious these kids had no concept what that money was for or even a real sense that it would have to be paid back some day.” – Lynette Hughes

Expand their horizons

Coupled with less privacy, homesickness, and the new dynamics of having to get along with roommates, cultural shock can be one of the most jarring aspects of college life. Kids from small towns may find themselves suddenly in the racial minority for the first time in their lives.

  • Travel with your kids. You don’t need to be wealthy. Even humanitarian service projects to another town qualify as travel.
  • Encourage your teen to take a foreign language through high school. They’ll pick up a lot of cultural nuances and empathy for anyone who speaks English as a second language.
  • Attend local cultural festivals. Experiencing other foods, languages, arts, and customs can make them less intimidating.
  • Expose kids to foreign art and entertainment. Foreign children’s movies can help open their eyes to other ways of living from an early age.
  • Give teens practice outside the family nest: traveling with trusted family friends, attending summer camps, visiting relatives on their own, and taking short trips with their extracurricular groups are all good trial runs for college life.

Let them work a cruddy job

Working with the public, dealing with impatient bosses, being forced to solve problems, and balancing work and school obligations are all good learning experiences for the college-bound teen. If they learn nothing else, they’ll learn they don’t want to earn minimum wage the rest of their lives.

“My parents stopped paying for my education when I didn’t hold up my end of the deal and get good grades. I thought, “I’ll show them,” and I got a job in a plastic fabrication shop. After one miserable summer of crawling under hot ovens with molten plastic dripping on me, I went back to school on my own dime.” – Toby

There are entire industries designed to prepare our kids academically, financially, and even materially for college. Still, sixty percent of freshman polled reported they would have liked to have been better emotionally prepared. For this kind of readiness, there is no quick fix and no tutor. As parents, we must simply give them safe space and ample opportunity for repeated success and failure in the laboratory we call childhood.

Part 1 in our college-prep series, “Is my teen ready for college?”

Next in our college-prep series:


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