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Keeping Our Mouths Shut

By Judy Gruen

We've been experimenting with a radical new parenting technique, with remarkably good results. We call it “Keeping Our Mouths Shut.”

We adopted this idea when our kids became teens -- a time when it was vital for them to feel a growing sense of independence. They needed to "own" their decisions, even though it was frightening to think what some of those decisions could conceivably be. It may be perverse that kids begin to tune out parents exactly at the time when they are old enough to commit heart-stoppingly dangerous antics, including driving, dating, and starring in homemade movies about themselves that they could upload onto the Internet and possibly ruin their reputations for years, but this is the universe we inhabit.

Now, we try to act more like coaches offering suggestions, rather than parents issuing ultimatums. Naturally, this doesn’t always work. When I warned one kid that going to a party the night before a paper was due was not a good idea, he tossed back that infuriating teen response: “Don't worry. I'll do it later." The results were as expected, but next time, he chose work before play for the old GPA.

It's harder to keep our mouths shut on topics of deeper significance, but I'm convinced that "less is more" in the advice department. We listen to our kids discuss the merits of various situations, with only the lightest sprinkling of "That's a good consideration" when needed. When I told one of my college-aged kids last week how relieved I was at a decision he had made about changing schools, and that I had held back from stating my opinion about it, he simply said, "That's good. It wouldn't have been good coming from you." I sighed at the delicate dance required between teens and their parents.

We want so much for our kids to benefit from our experiences. We'd love to save them from serious missteps, but we have to trust that the values and lessons we have taught them till now make it a safe bet than when they are teens, sometimes, our best parenting trick is keeping our ears open but our mouths shut.

Judy Gruen is the mother of four kids, ages 15, 17, 19 and 21. Her latest book is The Women's Daily Irony Supplement. Read more of her work on

By Stacey Garfinkle |  August 4, 2009; 7:00 AM ET  | Category:  Guest Blogs
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"our best parenting trick is keeping our ears open but our mouths shut"

Liberal pinko.

Posted by: jezebel3 | August 4, 2009 7:36 AM | Report abuse

"Liberal pinko?" Geez, I don't even know where to begin. First, there is the oxymoronic term itself - you can't be liberal and communist at the same time. Go read a little bit about different political stances and you'll see that there are vast differences between, so-called liberalism, socialism and communism. However, if you only get your education from particular slanted media I can understand your confusion.

As to the derogatory comment being hurled at this parent, I think you are way off base. It sounds to me as if she is trusting that all the parenting she has done with that child for the previous 15, 17, 19, 21 years respectively will pay off in an age-appropriate way. They have to learn to be independent, functioning members of society without a parent telling them what to do all the time (the parent won't be with them in college or beyond), so what better way to do that than with guidance? Kudos to Judy and her husband for knowing when to step back and presumably when to step in.

Posted by: hokie_mom | August 4, 2009 8:23 AM | Report abuse

I am glad that my parents didn't keep their mouths shut when I was a teenager! Agree with Jezebel 3 today.

Posted by: sunflower571 | August 4, 2009 8:34 AM | Report abuse

This seems like a useful approach in some situations, but not all. I find it difficult to comment further without knowing what the "house rules" are for the teenagers still at home. It's one thing to let a college student decide to party the night before a paper is due (my parents didn't know my homework or party schedule in college) but it is another when it is a highschooler partying on a school night (regardless of a paper being due) IMHO.

Posted by: JJ321 | August 4, 2009 9:07 AM | Report abuse

Yes, you have to let teenagers grow up and become independent. The trick is knowing where and when to step in with guidance and/or rules. It's one thing to try to force a kid to study; it's another thing entirely to allow underage drinking; drinking and driving; experimentation with drugs; underage and unprotected sex; shoplifting and other petty crimes; reckless driving; and a bunch of other truly dangerous, potentially life-altering activities.

One of middle DD's classmates just had her third abortion. She's 17. Her parents feel that she should make her own decisions about sex, and have felt that way since she was 14. Bzzt - too little parenting in my opinion.

Yep, let 'em pick their own colleges; their own majors; find their own jobs; etc. If they want to change colleges they can - but I have a limit on how much I'll contribute. And we really stepped in, hard, when oldest DD was considering a college option that would have required her to take on over $100,000 in student debt by the time she got her Bachelor's degree. Sorry - that's too life-altering for me not to weigh in.

Posted by: ArmyBrat1 | August 4, 2009 9:36 AM | Report abuse

And if the one with a paper due is in college, why is he at home? Did he stay home and go to college? Then the parents are subsidizing him to some degree.

It sounds as if the values instilled did not include respect for the educational opportunities offered, or gratitude for the parental support (either paying for college or paying for housing, or both).

It is one thing if teens want to squander their own money, but I would not pay for an education or for housing of someone who is wasting my money and effort.

Isn't the bad grade on the paper only one conseqence of choosing a party over homework?

I agree that too many parents micro-manage their children, but that example is the extreme opposite.

Posted by: Amelia5 | August 4, 2009 10:01 AM | Report abuse

meh... i kind-of like this approach. of course every situation would be different based on the kid's personality but generally speaking this works for us.

i think letting the kid do poorly on an assignment because he/she chose to do something other than homework is a great life lesson.

vs. parents who call the school to complain about their kid's bad grades ( i honestly can't believe parents around DC actually do this), this seems much more reasonable.

Posted by: interestingidea1234 | August 4, 2009 10:26 AM | Report abuse

It's a matter of judgment. Sometimes it's fine to keep your mouth shut and let the kids learn some important life lesson. But in some areas, you just have to say something, and maybe even do something, if you are a responsible parent. Doing poorly on one assignment is one think. Flunking out of 11th grade is another.

Posted by: emily8 | August 4, 2009 10:38 AM | Report abuse

I meant to say, "Doing poorly on one assignment is one thing."

Posted by: emily8 | August 4, 2009 10:39 AM | Report abuse

sometimes this is called the law of natural consequences. i think it depends on the child & the decision. it's always a balance.

Posted by: quark2 | August 4, 2009 11:18 AM | Report abuse

A kid who is bound to flunk the 11th grade is probably going to do so even with a parent with a mouth flapping like a bird.

I think it's important to distinguish between taking action and talking.

Flunking the 11th grade requires action - a new venue, enforcing the rules, engaging a counselor or tutor.

It's pretty easy to become part of the chattering landscape. Sometimes a parent needs to shut up and let their actions make the point.

Posted by: RedBird27 | August 4, 2009 11:35 AM | Report abuse

One of middle DD's classmates just had her third abortion. She's 17. Her parents feel that she should make her own decisions about sex, and have felt that way since she was 14. Bzzt - too little parenting in my opinion.
Posted by: ArmyBrat1 | August 4, 2009 9:36
Geez! Three abortions by age 17? Anyways, how exactly do you expecting parents to make decisions for their children regarding sex?

Posted by: Soguns1 | August 4, 2009 11:45 AM | Report abuse

I like this approach. Both of my kids do much better when given responsibility and decision-making authority than when we lecture or attempt to dictate everything for them. Not everything, of course. My job is to protect them from serious, long-term consequences that their brains aren't yet developed enough to understand. So safety issues, serious school issues, those I'm going to step in on.

But my job is to raise functional adults. Adults need good judgment and a sense of responsibility. And just like anything else, you learn that through practice. So I need to figure out what amount of freedom and responsibility they can handle, and give it to them -- then slowly expand those boundaries over time. And as long as they're within that realm, I need to let them go, even -- especially! -- where I don't agree with the decision.

Posted by: laura33 | August 4, 2009 12:01 PM | Report abuse

I would have that kid on birth control ASAP. The kind where she gets a shot or something, so that I don't have to worry about whether she takes her pills. Three abortions by age 17 is just ridiculous.

Posted by: emily8 | August 4, 2009 12:02 PM | Report abuse

Interesting: when I was teaching college, well, one of the kid's parents called me up to complain about the grade. And took it to the head of the department!

Posted by: atlmom1234 | August 4, 2009 12:17 PM | Report abuse

I think this is a great approach. Many of us are way too involved in stuff that our kids are doing.
We need to step back and let the kids make their own mistakes (um, hopefully not leading to three abortions).
Keep to your values/your ideals and your children will learn them. You can't TELL them those - you MUST show them. And they will learn.
Or not - you can only do so much, really. If they just want to piss you off, and they have been paying attention, well, then they will know how to do it perfectly.
My parents were extremely hands off (due to a number of reasons) - and I was flabbergasted sometimes at things friends of mine told me when I was older about how much their parents knew about what they were doing. It was mind boggling.

Posted by: atlmom1234 | August 4, 2009 12:23 PM | Report abuse

This is a good post for me since my mouth has a tendency to "flap like a bird" as RedBird phrased it.

My youngest (age 11) is starting to take offense even though she's the one who most often needs the reminders that seem to exit my mouth automatically around my kids. Apparently mother dolphins with their young vocalize (squeak, whistle etc.) more than dolphins in any other situation so perhaps it's an interspecies thing!

But I did let my elder daughter elect NOT to hand in a writing assignment because she was unhappy with the illustrations. I suggested she at least get credit for the writing! But she was too embarassed to hand it in and opted for a zero on the assignment instead. The decision left her with an end-of-term "C" in language arts for the first time in her life but I figure this is a lesson better learned in 7th grade than on the job!

Posted by: annenh | August 4, 2009 12:48 PM | Report abuse

So Judy lets her son party all night instead of making him work on a paper due the next day. Hahaha. Not only is this Laughable parenting in and of itself, but then touting it to a blog as a teachable moment with positive results will have me giggling throughout the day...

Though there is a lot to be said about letting a kid suffer the consequences of his/her own actions. As a style of parenting, like Judy, I'm more of a "let them do whatever they want" kinda dad, especially when it comes to things that don't make a difference to me. If my kids don't want to make their beds or clean their room, fine, I don't go into their rooms, no skin off my back. If they don't want to write thank you notes to the people that gave them cheap plastic gifts at Christmas, so be it. If the thank-you note expecters decide not to give a gift next year, even better as far as I'm concerned. Bedtimes? Hey, they'll fall asleep when they get tired.

On the other hand, I WILL force them to do things like floss their teeth (dentist bills), wear a helmut when riding a bicycle (child-hating do-gooders might call CPS), and wake them up for school so I don't have to write a note and lie about them getting a stomachache to excuse their absence.

I've got 4 kids, I have to pick my battles ya know.

Posted by: WhackyWeasel | August 4, 2009 1:33 PM | Report abuse

I wish my parents had backed off more when I was a teen still living at home. I failed out of my first attempt at college, because it was my first taste of freedom and self-determination, and I went nuts. I had no judgement at all. If I'd tried more stuff in high school, I'd have learned from my mistakes. Waiting meant making those mistakes in college where the consequences were a lot worse.

With our kids, DH and I try to let them make their own choices and decisions as much as possible. If we think they're making a bad decision, we'll tell them what we expect the results will be, but we let them go ahead and experience the consequences. Then we get to say, "told you so." (grin) And we talk about alternatives that might work out better the next time. I can't remember any mistakes that have been repeated, so the boys *are* learning something.

Obviously, we can't always allow everything. Sometimes we have to say no. The most recent "no" was when younger son wanted to spend the night at one particular friend's house. This kid is visiting his mother for the summer, and lives with his father in So. Cal. during the school year. So it's a very permissive environment.

We had plans to attend a religious event the next day, and staying up until 3 in the morning (again!) would have made younger son much too tired and grumpy for anyone in the family to have enjoyed the event. So, he didn't get permission for the sleep-over. Instead he went to bed at a reasonable time, and we all had a good day, not a miserable one.

But younger son probably will get another opportunity for a sleep-over with that particular friend. He'll just have to plan ahead and know that he'll be dead tired most of the next day, and won't get to do anything else fun until he's caught up on his rest.

Posted by: SueMc | August 4, 2009 1:48 PM | Report abuse

not to speak for Judy, but i think her point is that her kids would simply have to face the consequences of an unexcused absence. and it's that philosophy that i agree with 100%.

i loathe the example set by writing a fake excuse note in order to avoid an unexcused tardy. the lessons being: a) lie to get out of a problem that YOU created and b) no consequences - daddy will get you out of trouble.

Posted by: interestingidea1234 | August 4, 2009 1:53 PM | Report abuse

Many years ago, Readers' Digest had an article on letting early teens begin to make their own decisions - those decisions that parents could live with, with the admonishment that if children did not learn to make their own decisions and occasionally fail while learning, they will leave home and not know how to make good decisions for themselves. It was a great article and since my daughter was 13 at the time, appropriate. I started with bed time - with the caveat that she had to be in the house and quiet when I went to bed and moved on through various decisions through her teen years so that as a senior in high school she would say - "Mom tell me I can't go to that party" or otherwise give her a bad guy when she said "no". When she was at college, she lived at home and I traveled - she ran the house, paid the bills and generally made many adult decisions - and she could because she had learned how. Today she is raising her teenaged son and I keep seeing her use many of those same lessons with him. She says she is glad that she had the chance to learn those lessons while knowing that I was there to keep her from going off the deep end.
From a grateful grandma

Posted by: ellajeannichols | August 4, 2009 2:37 PM | Report abuse

Speaking of controlling parents, my college-orientation-leader daughter has a few stories of families touring the dorms with the parents asking: Who will wake my son up in the morning? Who will tell him to make his bed? One mother asked how her son would know it's time to take a shower (daughter explained with a smile that with roommates, this is a self-correcting problem).

Posted by: davemarks | August 4, 2009 2:51 PM | Report abuse

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