Room to build

Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day;
teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.

~ Unattributed Chinese proverb

As is often the case, one of the best things a parent can give their teenager is hardly a thing at all: it’s room.


  • to make their own decisions and to enjoy the sense of accomplishment associated with wise choices—or—to endure the consequences or poor choices;
  • to learn life lessons never taught in a class or between pages in a book; and
  • to grow.

Parenting is tricky; time doesn’t play fair.

Days are long, years are short—before we know it, our pre-pubescent grade-schooler is learning to drive! There are no defining lines to mark seasons in development; they rarely occur overnight. Sometimes shift is so subtle you don’t even realize it when you’ve left one stage and entered the next.

My point?

During your child’s formative years your job is to feed your child a lot of fish; but over time, gradually, it’s crucial to teach him how to fish for himself.

There will be a point when all the training, teaching, coaching and leading by example will have to be enough.  It is imperative that parents step back from managing their children’s lives and allow them space to work through issues themselves.

Giving your child room allows her to grow.

Recently my son, a junior in high school, suffered a mild concussion during soccer practice.  In the midst of an excellent season; his school has one of the top-ranked teams in the state.  Their team has talent, crazy skill and depth; for my son, his concussion proved to be a set-back. He went from starter to bench warmer.

Without him having to say a word, I sensed his bruised pride.  As his mother, champion and biggest fan, it broke my heart.  The first game I was able to attend after returning from an extended trip, he didn’t play at all!  I knew he was disappointed and I dreaded the ride home.

I was already imagining conversations with the coach, where I would beg him to let the kid play; conversations I knew would never take place but made me long for those days when he was little and everyone got to play every game.

But it’s a different animal when you earn the right to join a team and play competitive sports. Equal play, regardless of ability, serves no one and teaches nothing. But it sure is tough to swallow when your kid is the one not playing.

When he got in the car, I braced for his reaction. But instead of wallowing in self-pity and disappointment, he praised his team and the game they played!  Enthusiastically, he recounted his favorite moments.

Sitting on the bench and me not trying to do a thing about it was giving him the necessary room to build character. He learned as much about being part of a team by sitting on the bench as he did by playing every minute. Maybe more (I think it’s harder!).

Had I stepped in to try to pressure or persuade the coach, my son would have been cast as a victim (which I absolutely detest); it also would have fed the notion that parents can bail you out just because you don’t like something. It would have undermined the coach.

Had I smothered him in the name of love and “fairness,” I would have robbed him of a far greater good.

Sometimes intentional parenting means not doing anything at all. On purpose.

I wonder if helicopter parents ever realize they’re hovering?  Take a minute to consider if you’re allowing enough space for your teen to grow.  Are there areas or issues where you should take a step back?  Maybe a candid conversation with your teens would reveal a blind spot.

Do you have personal examples to share where you’ve allowed your child growing room in the midst of challenge? Encourage us by sharing what works for you!

Robin Dance

Married over half her life to her college sweetheart, Robin's guilty pleasure is Reddi Wip from the can. Mom to three, she's as Southern as sugar-shocked tea. Follow her on Twitter. Her beautiful new blog is a must-see.

Encouragement for living simpler, right in your inbox.

We share our stories as we simplify our lives - no guilt-trips, just love.

(no spam, promise. we hate it, too.)


  1. I’m still in the fish feeding phase with my just-turned 2 year old, but this is a great reminder to be mindful during these next years – and to be prepared ahead of time to avoid being a helicopter parent! Thanks!

  2. We have an 11 year old and just recently my husband has felt that we needed to allow more freedoms for him and also more room. My first tendency is to panic because he still seems so young but I have come to see that with these new freedoms, he is rising to the level of responsibility required. We have a long way to go but I don’t want to be the kind of mom who rescues or insulates her children from the tough life lessons that bring character. Thanks for this post. I always love to read how others are managing the teen years since it really does fly by and we’re almost there.

    • Alia Joy, you imply a great point: it’s not all at one time! Small allowances help prepare for bigger ones. What you will allow at 17 isn’t the same thing at 15. Maturity, age and the uniqueness of each child determine what he or she can handle. And it’s always easier on a second or third child than it is that first one! First borns always pave the way and make it easier for those who come later :).

  3. I have a 14 year old son. All those years of raising a child is easy compared with the next four years: turning that child into a responsible man.

    • Maryann,
      Easier in *some* ways (wink). And of course, what you’ve done those first 14 years are the foundation for the next four. Parenting aware and intentional is SO important.

      • Totally agree that all those hours and years of love, training up and building relationship are foundational to the older teen years!!!

  4. One thing I try to keep at the front of my mind is that I am trying to teach my child to be independent. I have seen adults that still have to have parents walk them through things, or have never cut the ties, so to speak. When a parent does too much for a child, it hinders them so much later in life. Thank you for this post.

    • Ugh, Johanna, you do bring up a good point; I’ve seen this, too and it fuels my desire for my kids NOT to be like that. I often envision my fist clasped around my children, slowly prying away fingers, one by one, as they get older and able to handle more responsibility; some freedoms are easier to extend than others, and independence is partly earned and partly given. We’re doing our kids a disservice if we do everything for them…agreed!

  5. My daughter is still very young but I look for ways to encourage her to make her own decisions even in little things. My parents did a great job of teaching us to fish but when I went to college I saw lots of other students who had no idea how to live on their own. I want to make sure I’m raising a child to become an adult who needs God, but doesn’t need (though I hope she wants) her mother.

  6. I don’t have teenagers yet. My kids are just 6, 4 and 1 but I totally see where you are coming from. Even now with all of them there are opportunities to let them learn some things on their own so that they become independent. It is hard to watch my 1 year old struggle to get a toy working the way he wants it to, but I let him struggle for a while. Not because I want to be mean, but because it is empowering for him to do it on his own. My oldest is in first grade and reading and doing math for school. Of course there are things that challenge him, but I allow him to be challenged. I heard a story about a butterfly being “born” out of its cacun. It actually needs to press it wings against the cacun in order to build strength. When it is not allowed to do this (that is if someone cuts him out instead) the butterfly will never have strong enough wings to fly. Challenge grows us and empowers us and therefore is a necessary part of every life.

  7. I have felt that the progression toward greater independance is fairly natural and smooth. I am having to prepare my heart NOW, however, for my son leaving home in a couple years (your image of prying fingers, one by one, off your child is one I understand). With sports, education, choices of books/movies he wants to watch, etc., I’ve had opportunity to loosen my grip and allow him more freedom of choice. But what I really love is that while he wants more choice, he also often wants to dialogue with me about his choices. He thinks for himself and is a strong person but still comes to us for guidance or our thoughts on a matter. This is good. I feel like we have transitioned a bit more to a ‘partnership’ of sorts – not that he is free to do anything he feels (there are still boundaries in our home)… but it is not us forcing anything but facilitating him as he moves forward into adulthood (he is 16 in a few days). Honestly, it is a beautiful thing but one that asks us, as parents, to continue to mature too. We cannot parent well at this stage if we are not willing to “grow up” more too.

    One harder thing: my son has recently reminded me that at 16 he is allowed to date. Yikes! We talk with him about what the purpose of dating is, etc., but recognize that we are not in control of who he chooses. This one area may just stretch us more than any other.

    • Sounds like we’re on the same page, Kika :). Boundaries are critical and sometimes I think kids push because they’re CRAVING them!

      My first born spared me the drama related to dating; she made the choice not to throughout high school. We’ve always encouraged group activities and not falling into the trap of “teenage love” because it isolates you from friends (or at least has that potential) and rarely lasts forever. Plus, there’s a host of other issues to deal with as relationships grow. It’s wonderful how you’ve maintained open communication with your son. Giving them freedom to share their inner thoughts–no matter what they are–encourages more of it!

      And I love your comment that parents are in the process of growing up, too. So true!


    • I’m a youth pastor’s wife and I’ve seen many different kinds of teen/parent relationships. The thing that breaks my heart the most is when there are teens who don’t feel like they can be honest with their parents about what they are really dealing with. I hate knowing things about them that their parents are clueless to, all because they are afraid their parents will flip out if they are honest with them. My girls are 4 and 2 and I tell them every night that I love them because they are mine, not because of what they do or don’t do. I want to instill in them now that I will always be safe. I am so glad to hear that your son feels safe with you! I’d love to hear what you’ve done to build that foundation with him!!! Honestly, I don’t see many families where that exists…

      • I think the fact that we homeschooled until this year made it easier to build a close relationship (although I can’t guarantee this). We had plenty of time to talk and laugh together, read great books, discuss, etc. I’ve always been honest about my shortcomings and (mostly) been good about saying I’m sorry and backing down when I’ve made a wrong or off-the-cuff decision. I encouraged (and sometimes pushed) my kids to think for themselves and express their thought even if they differed from my own. I remember my sisters and I being able to push my mom’s buttons and get her all riled up and decided to be different (although I also purposed to be just like in her in letting my children know how much I love and like them as people).

        We go for dates and have serious discussions at time – usually I try to follow my son’s leading but sometimes I lead as in asking if he’d be willing to read a certain book (ex. about dating/marriage) and then discuss it with me at a later point. And at times I go to him and tell him (like very recently) that if he ever feels that I am being unfair or judgmental or not really hearing him, that he has permission to come to me and tell me so. I also reminded him that his father and I had children to share life together – that we are not enemies – but a team. We’re in life together, so to speak. I can tell that this desire for mutual respect is significant for him and it should be.

        I hope these thoughts help.

        • One more thing – my son could point out a million ways in which he probably feels I was unfair or imperfect – and they’d mostly be true 😉 But again, the choice to really share life together and genuinely care for, respect and like each child for who they are is so important and life-giving. Isn’t that what we want as adults, too?

      • Jen,
        That’s the kind of thing that breaks my heart. Wise advice given to me AGES ago was “never to over react.” My older friend’s advice was based on experience, explaining I’d learn much more (from my kids and their friends) if I just let them keep talking. I’ve never forgotten that.

        I’ve tried to parent with an end goal in mind from the time my babies were on this side of the womb; hardly perfect, but at least with forethought and intention. My kids are the kind of teens I’d hope they’d turn out to be, and though there’s still a few years left under my roof (and ANYTHING could happen!), they’re definitely headed in the right direction.

        They give me great reason to be thankful.

        Because you asked (not because I’m imposing!!), I’ve written the beginning of series I might complete one day :). It’s a series of posts that speak to how we’ve parented. I didn’t write it because I think I know it all…but because our kids are pretty decent and it seemed like a few might be interested in the choices we made :). Here ya go:

        • Thanks so much, Robin and Kika! I’m eager to follow your series and I just might have to print both your answers out and keep them on hand to remind myself that great relationships are possible and there are things I can do to attain them! I’m drawn to homeschooling, but want to make sure my motives are right and it would be in the best interests of my kids before I pursue it. It’s good to hear your feedback on how homeschooling enhanced your relationship, Kika.


  8. great post! My daughter is 5 and is starting Kindergarten in the fall – I can see a shift coming from a mile away and am bracing myself for it!

  9. My daughter is only 2 but I try to give her space to explore and learn on her own. If she falls down its ok she will learn. Obviously I don’t leave her in big trouble but a scratch or bump is part of learning.

  10. I have a 2 year old, and one on the way, and am honestly petrified by the thought of navigating the waters of teen parenting. Glad to have examples and places where dialogue occurs. For now, we’ll try to conquer the potty.

    • Your last line made me giggle, Rae :).

      I remember dreading the teen years…and I think I parented with those thoughts in mind from our kids’ earliest ages. B u t…they don’t have to be years of dread at all! I *like* being around my kids and have really tried to build a respectful (parent to child, not friend to friend) relationship that allows both sides to always speak what we’re thinking as long as it’s done with respect. I know a lot of great kids who have good relationships with their parents; there are certainly no guarantees but I think you can set a stage for success.

  11. “We are not really raising children. We are raising adults.”
    I wish I knew where I read that the first time (probably here). My kids are young, but I really appreciate your thoughts on the later years because it helps me envision what I should be trying to do now to prepare them (and me!) for what’s coming down the road.

    Right now, we are struggling with the letting go that comes with Kindergarten. I didn’t think it would be so hard, since my kids have been in part time childcare/school since birth, but thinking of putting my 5 year old on a bus to a school where HE will have the primary relationship with the teacher instead of ME… yikes!

  12. I can totally relate to this, in many ways…I have a teen who is starting to drive and it scares the heck out of me…I am having a hard time taking the leap of faith to trust that after driving school and driving with us, I have to step back and trust in him and hope for the best (I worry about him being distracted as well as all the other distracted drivers on the road).
    So true about the stages of development not having a clear delineation…the days pass and before you know it your child is almost all grown…very poignant time and I love your words of wisdom, as well as your example.
    thanks for sharing!

    • Ah, Sharon…thank you for your kind words.
      One of my friends required a driving contract with her kids. It spelled out where they could go, who could ride with them and other boundaries (today that would have to include cell phone restrictions…maybe music, too…). Just let go a little at a time and you’ll become accustomed to him driving. It was definitely harder with my first….still is :). I just remind myself I was that age a long, long time ago and I made it through with no wrecks….!

  13. Great post! With an almost 2 year old, I’m not there yet, but this is something I think my parents did a good job with. My mom started having me make my own doctor/dentist/hair appointments when I was 15 or so and I woke up to my own alarm (no other requests). Just basic things like that were so helpful to me when I went off to college and realized many of my peers were never even asked to do such basic things. I think your post takes it a step further, which is great!

  14. YES and YES!!
    not being a Kuemmerrer (mother hen to the max) is quite beneficial…I think the more children you have the more you realize this. There’s simply not as much time to smother and over-care for 4 as there are for 2…
    mine tend to thrive when they have to work it out themselves.
    Great, encouraging post!

  15. brooke wagen says:

    my oldest son was homeschooled k-5 and started a great magnet school for 6th grade. needless to say i had my fears, but i was determined to let him be the independent person he was ready and prepared to be. he ended up in p.e. with an assigned seat next to a boy who used foul language toward all the girls who walked by and had everyone in a camp – friend or foe. i watched over the weeks as my son related his experiences, and as he one day decided to just say what he thought, gently, so that this boy wouldn’t think he agreed or was complicit in his meanness. my son then joined the ‘foe’ camp and was physically bullied for weeks. i am so glad i didn’t do a thing; he learned a few great lessons, not the least of which is how to turn the other cheek. but even sweeter as a mom, his new friends in the class (many many of them) told him if he didn’t say something to the teacher, they would on his behalf. and so i let my child have peers who could ALL do what was right, and i didn’t steal his chance to practice what i had preached.

  16. This sounds so far away with regard to my son, but I’ve already had to start learning the lesson with regard to my my husband. He was passed over as captain of his sports team because he’d had to take time off due to injury, and it has been all I can do to bite my tongue and not tell the coaches what total morons they were.

  17. Three out of four of my children are now teens, and it has definitely been an adjustment. Since my oldest graduates this year, it’s been a difficult process to peel my grip off him. I am slowly learning to see the hellos and not just the good-byes of his leaving for college.
    Navigating the razor thin line of when to step in and when to back off in a teenager’s life is also a struggle. My husband and I had to do some short-term drastic intervention in my second son’s life early this year for safety. We debated about intervening further but decided to wait and see what would happen as the school year unfolded. Because we chose to let him take some ownership of how school will look, he is excelling and maturing beyond our wildest dreams. All we had to do was provide a measure of safety. He took control from there.
    I think all parents of teenagers deserve lots of dark chocolate and ice cream (even those of us with “easy” teenagers need the extra sweets to reward us for letting go!). Blessings.

  18. Michael Stegger says:

    It is important that parents start turning their kids into responsible persons at their tender age, because if they wait until the children have fully grown it may be really hard. Let them learn how to take care of themselves and how the world works when they are still young.

  19. victor Collins says:

    Children should be given the freedom to grow and in due time they will discover many things for themselves.

  20. Ya know, I was just thinking about something similar with younger children. I see parents hovering around their children as they play outside and it kind of drives me crazy. How are they supposed to learn anything on their own? Playtime is a chance to discover and learn new things about themselves and their friends. I’m all for less hovering…maybe more listening and guiding during downtime.

    Anyways, thanks for the post.

  21. to make their own decisions and to enjoy the sense of accomplishment associated with wise choices—or—to endure the consequences or poor choices;

Add Your Thoughts