Feeding the Mouth that Bites You – Post 2 (by Kim Jansen)

Although my last post provided a light-hearted foray into the concept of “planned emancipation,” today I’m getting into the nitty gritty. As a reminder, the term (coined by Dr. Kenneth Wilgus in his book Feeding the Mouth that Bites You) refers to an approach to launching teens into the world by gradually withdrawing your authority over various areas of their lives in a systematic & recognizable way.

I’ll admit I’ve been procrastinating writing this post because I don’t really have much success to report.   In all transparency, I have been wrestling with the concepts and wondering how my teens will possibly be ready to “launch” in just a few short years.

We started by creating what Wilgus calls a “Freedoms” list (Chapter 5) for one of our teens. We felt like we had already granted this teen quite a few freedoms between middle school & early high school, so we entered the presentation of the list in high spirits.

The freedoms we outlined:

  • keep room as clean (or dirty) as desired
  • choose own music
  • use own judgment in deciding when to go to bed
  • handle own schoolwork
  • choose own friends

Unfortunately, that first meeting didn’t go as we imagined. The teen in question did not hug and thank us for bestowing upon her these already granted freedoms. Instead she responded with suspicion, wondering what we were up to. Although we felt the freedoms list was generous, she felt we were definitely still behind the curve compared to her friends.

Wilgus says this is somewhat normal.

“This first ‘feeding’ is often met with cautious optimism,” he said. “Commonly teenagers don’t believe their parents will actually follow through with giving them these freedoms.”

And perhaps we tend to talk too much.

“Adolescents tend to glaze over when parents start with a meandering preamble that couches freedoms in yet another grand speechmaking session,” Wilgus says.

Guilty.

In hindsight, we also failed to create a vision for future freedoms to be added as time goes on. Wilgus recommends parents add new freedoms every six to twelve months, if possible.

After additional discernment, we decided to add a new freedom a few weeks later:

Use your own judgment in style of dress.

Now, Wilgus does give some caveats to this freedom in regards to modesty. He is clear that parents maintain the right to hold boundaries on vulgar or provocative clothing for boys and girls. This is a topic that I won’t endeavor to cover here.

However, our daughter understands that this freedom does not grant her the freedom to buy whatever clothing she wants. It gives her the ability to use her own judgment in choosing which clothing (from her closet) to wear for each occasion.

Of course, the first chance for this new freedom to be demonstrated felt like a high stakes occasion – church. We have always prohibited our children from wearing jeans or shorts to church (with a few exceptions). So, on that first Sunday, I hoped that she would continue to wear her black pants and cute boots.

Nope.

As we’re scrambling to get in the van on-time, my daughter emerged from her room donning acid-washed jeans (with intentional rips at the knees) and high-top Converse All-Stars.

Sigh.

Nope.

As we’re scrambling to get in the van on-time, my daughter emerged from her room donning acid-washed jeans (with intentional rips at the knees) and high-top Converse All-Stars.

Sigh.

Nope.

As we’re scrambling to get in the van on-time, my daughter emerged from her room donning acid-washed jeans (with intentional rips at the knees) and high-top Converse All-Stars.

Sigh.

It just so happens that we attend a church where we are one of the few families our age not already wearing jeans to the Sunday service. However, the first weekend after giving this freedom, we were joining some friends at a different church. I sensed the dress code was bit more formal, but I managed to avoid feeling embarrassed by my daughter’s ultra-casual look. (It helped that we sat in the choir loft, because all of the pews were occupied. We didn’t even have to walk up to the front of the church for Communion – thank you, COVID.)

I respect if a standard of dress for church is a non-negotiable in your family. In fact, I envy that. I believe that the way we dress indicates our level of respect for the people we are with. After all, the primary person we’re “with” at Church is God Himself.

For our family, however, giving freedom in style of dress to all three of our teenagers – one daughter and two sons – has been the right move.

“Our confused culture often makes giving over this freedom a bit harder,” Wilgus says. “Walking into a restaurant or church with a teenager that looks like he just woke up can be very embarrassing to parents. A culture that still regards adults-in-training like they’re just “big children” means that a lot of parents will look at a ratty-looking teenager as a sign of poor parenting.”

However, Wilgus calls it a “small sacrifice” to help teens feel “grown up” without having to resort to drastic measures like alcohol or other destructive behaviors.

“A well-behaved teenager, who feels the freedom to wear a T-shirt and jeans to church…has greater confidence in the fact that he or she is growing up – confidence that is very useful in fending off more dangerous temptations,” Wilgus says.

In the next post, I’ll tackle the biggest thorn in my side since acknowledging and granting my teens freedom: BEDTIME.

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