Parenting 17-year-olds like 18-year-olds

The last 6 months I’ve been conducting a little experiment; but, instead of using rats… I used my daughter.

No, I didn’t cage her, send her through a maze and reward her with pellets. I did something a little more drastic in most conservative parenting circles: I freed her from all rules and restrictions at age 17½.

Some of our friends thought we were nuts, and at times… we wondered. But we refrained from retightening our grip.

This week my daughter turned 18, and I’m absolutely fascinated with what I’ve learned in the last year. For the last 6 months she’s had the freedom to hang out with whoever she wants, go where she wants, and stay out as late as she wants (this sounds like a Miley Cyrus song).

The results were amazing!

Our theory was basically this:

Start strict, and loosen up as our kids get older, eventually freeing them from all boundaries by age 17½.

We figured, they can do whatever they want when they’re 18 anyway, so why not get there six months early while they’re still under our shadow? I posted about this in detail here, and Doug Fields and I now teach it as a parenting workshop, based on our workbook about setting realistic guardrails for today’s kids who have a smartphone in their pocket.

Well, now my daughter is 18, so some of what was just “theory” has been truly tried and tested in my home. So I thought I’d share with you some of our observations over the last few years:

  • During the early toddler years, my kids didn’t notice we were strict. They grew up learning, If they say it, they mean it!
  • As our kids grew older and began spending time with friends, they noticed some of our guardrails were stricter than other houses. This caused a little pushback. “But Melanie’s mom doesn’t make her do that!”
  • Any progress we made toward open communication and making them feel safe was thwarted by my angry outbursts, an overreaction to their messups. “I better not tell Dad, because he’s just gonna flip out!” (I share more about this in my book, Candid Confessions of an Imperfect Parent)
  • As our kids grew into their teens, we had to be proactive and literally force ourselves to ‘release the grip’ and let them make decisions instead of us making all the decisions for them. “Dad, can I download Lady Gaga?” “No!… I mean… let’s take a look at her lyrics and tell me your thoughts.”
  • By the time my daughter was 16 and then 17, we began letting her make big decisions, like, “Can I go to the Homecoming Dance?” We’d tell her, “You make the decision, then let’s talk about it and see how you think it turned out.”
  • When my daughter turned 17, she began hearing us talk about how she would have no rules at 17½. She began growing excited about the opportunity to make decisions totally on her own. She began to see the big picture of choices and their consequences.
  • By the time 17½ came, “no rules” wasn’t such a big deal. She had been making most decisions by herself by then anyway. She was actually in Uganda on a missions trip the day she turned 17½.
  • Once she was 17½, she kept asking us permission to go places. I would always have to remind her, “You can do whatever you think is best.”
  • Discussions with us were no longer about trying to convince us to give her permission—she already had that. Now conversations were about what she was learning from her decisions, good and bad.
  • She began talking with us about decisions even more. When she wanted to drive over 2 hours to San Francisco with her friends (the furthest she had ever driven), she wanted to know all about traffic, directions and safety. Not because we made her, but because we were “safe” to talk with.
  • I actually didn’t disagree with any decision she made in the last 6 months.

Now she’s 18… and it’s really not much different around here.

She heads to California Baptist University in one week. We’re gonna miss this kid!

IF YOU LIKED THIS POST FROM JONATHAN, YOU’LL LOVE HIS BOOK “SHOULD I JUST SMASH MY KID’S PHONE?”

About Jonathan McKee

president of The Source for Youth Ministry, is the author of over a dozen books including the new Get Your Teenager Talking, The Guy's Guide to God, Girls and the Phone in Your Pocket, The Zombie Apocalypse Survival Guide for Teenager, and youth ministry books like Ministry By Teenagers, Connect: Real Relationships in a World of Isolation, and the 10-Minute Talks series. Jonathan speaks and trains at conferences, churches and events across North America, all while providing free resources for youth workers and parents on his websites, TheSource4YM.com and TheSource4Parents.com. You can follow Jonathan on his blog, getting a regular dose of youth culture and parenting help. Jonathan and his wife Lori, and their three teenagers Alec, Alyssa and Ashley live in California.
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3 Responses to Parenting 17-year-olds like 18-year-olds

  1. Rachel Rauh says:

    We have also done this sort of thing with out children. I would rather kids make small mistakes when they are younger then make horrible mistakes at 18 because they have “freedom”. My daughter just recently turned 18 also. She would ask us what will change when I am 18? The answer was nothing. We had already been letting her make choices and talking about them. She still asks sometimes when do I need to come home? I in return ask her ….When do you think you need to be home? She says how about 10? I have to work and don’t want to be tired…….My husband and I always said we are raising adults not children. What can I say I love the person she is and she was worth all the hard work!

  2. Tim says:

    Great article. And absolutely true. Our son is turning 18 in a few weeks and has learned to make great decisions.

    I’ve seen way too many parents let kids do whatever with the excuse “they’re just kids.” At the same time they’re thinking that they’ll be able to get more strict with them as they get older. It just doesn’t work that way.

  3. Karen says:

    They’re children, not kids!!! Kids are young goats! You get that right and your off to a good start!
    Rachel, you can’t make up your mind can you? lol