Should teens pay their own way?

A reader of this column writes, ‘I’m frustrated with my teenage son. Is it unfair for me to remind him that, while independence is great and that I encourage it, I am still paying for everything, and that he’s obligated to at least listen to my opinions?’

The first thing you should NOT do is lecture your son that, “I take care of you; I gave you food and shelter, so you owe me.” Children do not ask to be born. They come into the world because of the choice the parents made to have them — and raise them. Children are entitled to food, shelter and a nurturing environment that fosters intellectual growth. The rest is up to the child-turned-adult, starting in young adulthood (i.e. the teenage years).

Psychologist Robert Epstein told Psychology Today, ‘In every mammalian species, immediately upon reaching puberty, animals function as adults, often having offspring. We call our offspring ‘children’ well past puberty. The trend started a hundred years ago and now extends childhood well into the 20s. The age at which Americans reach adulthood is increasing — 30 is the new 20 — and most Americans now believe a person isn’t an adult until age 26.’

The teenager is in the wrong when he or she claims entitlement to things that may be desired, but are not needed to live. Even if the parent can afford something the teen wants, the parent is not obliged to buy it. Sports cars, designer leather jackets, or the best iPhone are not entitlements. If the parent is able (and willing) to provide some of these things, that’s fine; but they should be presented as, “I love you and I can afford to buy this for you, so I’m doing it.”

Parents must distinguish between “want” and “need.” The teenager may claim to ‘need’ the latest video game, and the parent must be prepared to inform the teenager that he or she is wrong. This won’t make the parent popular, but it will make for a more realistic and less ‘entitled’ young adult.

Unfortunately, many parents don’t take this approach, and this can lead to difficulties in the real world where the best of everything is not just handed out. In some cases, young adults can become anxious or confused. ‘What’s wrong with me? I used to live comfortably and well; now look at me. Did I do something wrong?’ He or she may become resentful. ‘This isn’t right. I’ve always had what I wanted. Now people are attaching all these strings to it.’ In their resentment, some young adults blame their parents. In the more difficult cases, I’ve seen them actually move back home at age 25 or even 30, mortified and resentful. Now it’s the parents’ turn to wonder, ‘Where did we go wrong?’

Some people think it’s ‘old fashioned’ (i.e., wrong) to require teenagers to pay for things that are not basic necessities. Ridiculous. It’s magical thinking to treat teenagers as royalty and then act surprised that they don’t turn into self-responsible adults once released into the world. I had a discussion recently with an older parent who commented, ‘Well, I wanted to give my kids everything I didn’t have.’ A-ha! That’s it, right there: One of those motives with which you dare not argue. But, alas, you have to argue with it if you want better results.

Two things are in conflict here: The first is wanting your kids to have things you didn’t have. The second is wanting them to be self-reliant. You can’t have it both ways. Raising self-reliant young adults means NOT giving them everything they want. If you can’t get past the need to bestow on them everything they desire, they’re probably going to keep coming back for more. It’s just human nature. Most people adapt to what they’ve been trained to expect. If a young adult is used to having to work for his expensive clothes, he won’t be shocked when he has to continue doing it as an adult. When a young adult is handed everything, he doesn’t care why his parent is doing it. He simply comes to expect it.

The motivation for ‘wanting everything for my child that I didn’t have’ might feel good, but it doesn’t serve the interest of the child. Is the purpose of raising a child to make a parent feel benevolent and generous? Or is it to launch the young person into a self-responsible and fulfilling life? Again: You can’t have both.

You are not your teenager’s friend. You’re his or her leader. Being a leader means being unpopular sometimes, but it’s still what’s right. The young people who function best are the ones who were required to pay their own way as much as possible. Just as parents have no right to expect their kids to owe them for being born, kids have no right to expect their parents to give them everything without any effort. If they do, the parents might quickly find out that 40 is the new 20!