Before she was a teenager, Chelsea* had a cell phone. She also had her own bedroom complete with cable TV and a computer with high-speed Internet access. By the time she was a young teen, she made regular salon visits and had an artificial tan that made her look much older than she was.
By the time Chelsea was 14, a new car sat in the driveway, just waiting for her to get a driving permit.
By 15, Chelsea pretty much had it all and was bored.
A few months later, Chelsea dropped a bomb on her parents by asking for permission to get married. "After all," she reasoned, "we're already married in God's eyes." And to compound their shock, she was expelled from school for drug possession.
"I don't understand how this could happen," her mom, Dawn, said. "We raised her in a strong Christian home. And she's not some underprivileged kid. I went back to work to make sure she had all the advantages."
We want our kids to have good things in life. But lavishing them with too many good things is like letting children gorge on candy — in the long run, it hurts their health, hinders their appetite for wholesome things and leads to a hunger for risky, harmful ones.
Just as we limit sweets in our children's diets, we also need to set healthy limits in other areas. We can do this by creating appropriate stages and boundaries.
Creating appropriate stages means putting age limitations on behaviors that rush our kids out of childhood — such as wearing makeup, enjoying Internet use, having a cell phone and getting a job. By delaying these activities until an appropriate age, we use them as rites of passage that mark a healthy progress toward adulthood.
As we set up stages and boundaries, we give our children something to look forward to. We help them see that maturity is a process, not something that automatically happens when they turn 18.
This approach also teaches our children that it's OK to wait for something. Our society says, "Have everything you want now! Don't wait. Go for it!" But seeking instant gratification often leads to long-term problems, such as massive debt, destroyed relationships and wounded emotions.
Questions to consider
There are no set rules for determining the ages when kids should be allowed to have or do certain things. Each family and each child is different. But as you think about stages for your kids, ask yourself these questions:
- What is the reason for letting my child have or do this? For instance, 8-year-old Taylor has a cell phone, which she uses to call her mom at work while she stands at the bus stop alone every morning. For Taylor and her mom, the phone is a matter of security.
On the other hand, Lindsey started asking for a cell phone in junior high. But since Lindsey just wanted a phone to impress her peers, her mom decided that Lindsey could have one when she was old enough to get a job and earn the money to pay for it.
Sometimes we have to evaluate whether an item is a frivolous accessory or something that's important to a child's self-image. A mom may balk at letting a daughter get a bra before she has the figure to fit it, but parents sometimes need to realize that when kids see their classmates developing physically, they don't want to be the only one in school who's "still a baby."
- Is my child ready for this responsibility? If my son isn't mature enough to avoid using a cell phone during class, then I'm doing him a disservice by giving him one. Sometimes we even put our kids at risk by letting them have privileges too early. One mom was horrified to learn that her daughter was giving out personal information to men on the Internet.
- Am I ready for this responsibility? Parenting is tough enough without giving yourself extra work. When we let our children enter a new stage, we have the added job of helping them handle the new privilege responsibly. Letting a child have a phone in his room, for instance, may mean monitoring to make sure he's not chatting with friends when he should be doing homework.
- Will jumping too soon to a particular life stage send unintended messages to my child about self-image or materialism? Will letting a daughter get too many beauty treatments too young make her think her appearance is the most important thing in life? Will letting a boy have too many electronic toys too young set him up for always having to buy the latest gadget?
Give them a hand
When your child reaches a new stage, enthusiastically help him or her enter it. When he's old enough for a mountain bike, help him select one. When she's old enough to shave her legs, pick out gel and razors together and show her how to do it. When your son is ready for a job, help him research the market. Use life stages not only as signposts of growing up but also as opportunities to start something new with your child.
*name has been changed