Teaching the Way of Love (TWL) is a program for Catholic parents that encourages and empowers them to embrace their role as the primary educators of their children, especially in the areas of moral and personal development.

Parenting Toward Adulthood: Forming a Community of Persons

‘It’s time to become the guide at the side, not the sage on the stage”. This phrase aptly describes the transition parents make during the young adult years. Youth are still expected to follow the right counsel of their parents and participate in family life and parents are still expected to provide guidance and interaction. However, both the youth and the parents needs to be aware that in just a few short years, the youth will be out on his own – away from daily, family contact. This means a shift in basic decision making has to occur. The transition should reflect the young adult’s need to practice sound judgment. Let’s look at the various ways to make the transition smooth.

Instrumental Guidance

Youth need to experience what it means to ‘fly solo’ when making decisions and bearing the responsibilities that will follow. Let’s talk about what ‘flying solo’ really means. In the world of aviation, a pilot has to make several solo flights (no one in the plane but the pilot) before becoming certified. While this means he is physically alone, the pilot never considers himself to be without guidance. The pilot has been trained to ‘fly solo’ using prior knowledge, ground support and his instrumentation. He knows that he has to file a flight plan and follow it. Once, he is in the air, he knows that he has the ability to look at what the gauges say, contact the control tower, and recall previous flights to guide him safely through his journey. He understands that if he uses his resources well, he will make a safe flight, gain confidence in his abilities and eventually become a certified pilot.

Maintaining a community of persons during this life span means that the family takes on the role of ground support for the youth. Parents become the control tower that knows the pilot’s flight plan and is available for contact as needed. Further, the family has to make sure that the instrumentation the pilot uses is fully operational. In this case, the instruments are the established virtues and expectations of the family. The parents must be convinced that the pilot can read and follow the gauges before allowing solo flight. Finally, the family has to have taken several ‘accompanied’ flights with the pilot to ensure safe practices prior to the solo experience.

Let’s translate all of this into four practical parenting steps.

  • The youth should file a workable flight plan. As a parent, be confident in your child’s ability to carry the virtues and standards of your family into the larger world. One way to do this is to know what your child will be doing ahead of time. There are five questions that we suggest you ask before your young adult journeys out with friends. (Consider this the flight plan.) All these questions work together. One unacceptable answer can cancel the flight.
    1. Who will you be with?
    2. What will you be doing?
    3. Where will you be going?
    4. When will you be home?
    5. Why are you going?
  • The youth knows you are available. What good is a control tower if no one is there to respond? Your child can fly solo but never alone. If he is to safely fly solo you have to be ready to accept his calls when he is out on a flight.
  • The youth knows you are approachable. Besides knowing you are available to take his call, your child needs to know you will listen to him and help him out – even if he has flown off his established flight plan.
  • The youth knows you will review the flight plan. When the flight is over, the youth understands that you have the right to review what happened and, if necessary, make course corrections that will result in safe, future flights.

Stay Engaged

One of the most dangerous trends in modern society is the creation of a “teen age” culture that is isolated from the adult world. Teenagers are encouraged to have their own music, movies, social networks, and modes of communication about which parents know nothing. Children are trying to move into adulthood without the guidance of adults.

The cornerstone of this wall of separation – more impregnable than any physical or political wall in history – is the media. Teenaged media outlets such as MTV, companies that market directly to teens, and the music and entertainment industries work together to create a culture where adults are as unwelcome as they are out of place. Parents have received the message loud and clear. If you ask any parent to recite the lyrics of the music their teenage children listen to, you are likely to receive a vague response such as, “I don’t know. I can’t listen to that junk.” The result is that adolescents are left adrift without guidance or standards to judge the culture around them, and they all too often fall prey to the worldly and materialistic snares that await them. Unfortunately, the adult reaction to this separation is to either let the isolated teen culture continue or to attempt to isolate their families from secular culture altogether.

Lumen Gentium from the Second Ecumenical Vatican Council reminds us that the vocation of the laity is to engage the culture in order to transform it. The transformed culture should remind us of God’s goodness and make it easier to live holy lives. This transformation cannot take place if God’s people blindly accept human culture as it is shaped by secular, materialistic concerns, nor if they blindly reject all of human culture because parts of it have been corrupted. Transformation of culture results from God’s people actively interacting with culture, accepting what is good and rejecting or changing what is evil. Teenagers, lacking mature wisdom, need the help of adults who have experience making such judgments.

Although they will deny it until they turn six shades of purple, teenagers desperately need strong family structure. Even though adolescents pride themselves on being fiercely independent, the classroom walls resound with the opinions, philosophies, and attitudes of the world around them, soaked up as water in a sponge wrung out in the guise of their own. If the family does not guide what the teenager soaks up, media and “teen culture” will.

The good news is that the popular belief that teenagers outgrow their families and that they need to rebel is pure nonsense. If families work on fostering close relationships throughout their children’s lives, they will remain close. Oscar Wilde is quoted saying, “Children will love home if home is the most fun place to be.” Here are some ways to make sure you remain the most important influence in your young adult’s life.

  1. Increase approachability and trust by setting ground rules for tense discussions: (e.g. no name calling; don’t “hit below the belt” or attack the other person; don’t bring up something more than three days old; avoid terms like “always” or “never”).
  2. Provide clear and concrete directions. As an example, read the difference between, “Did you clean your room?” and “You need to pick up all the clothes, magazines, tapes, and all unattached items and put them in their appropriate places (which you have already clarified) NOW (or before 7 p.m.)…” The first is an open-ended statement that can be easily misunderstood. The second example is clear and directive.
  3. Be consistent. Uphold the standards and behaviors that have been set.
  4. Follow-through. Continue to coach your teen until he or she demonstrates the expected behavior. Remember to emphasize and recognize good performance and acceptable behavior.
  5. Listen to your teen without arguing. Here are two techniques that will help. One is called the “sponge” technique and the other is called the “deflector” technique.
    • Sponge Technique: “Uh huh” – Your child says, “I don’t see why I have to come home before midnight.” Your response can be “Uh huh”. Or, “Uh huh, I’ve heard that before.” Or, “Is there anything else?” These statements help you stay with the topic but do not become argumentative or attempt to deny your child’s feelings.
    • Deflector Technique: If the situation intensifies, use a “deflector.” Child: “Everybody else gets to stay out until midnight.” Your response: “Regardless, your curfew is 11 p.m.” Child: But Mary (older sister) got to stay out until midnight when she was my age.” Your response: “Nevertheless, your curfew is 11 p.m.” The “deflectors” help parents stay focused on the issue at hand without engaging in argumentative behavior.

Revisit Your Standards

Though the expectations you set for your child never change, the manner in which those expectations are met will. During the teen years, revisit your standards for various activities. It is very possible that some of the rules need to be renegotiated (example – curfews, time limits on media use, etc.) Take a look at the Standards Discussion Guide for more information.

Maintain A Healthy Marriage

Believe it or not, your children are watching you more now than ever before. It is during this stage that your child will ask many questions about what it was like to be single, seriously dating, engaged, or newly married. Because many young adults are searching for answers on dating, relationships, and marriage, they will be more observant of how their parents love each other. Provide your child with a lived example of God’s plan for love and life by:

  • Spending quality (and quantity) time together each week (date nights are a must)
  • Praying for each other and for your marriage
  • Developing a sense of respectful humor – laughter can smooth away many rough times

Continue to be an indestructible team that stands together to love and guide the family.


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