Give Teenagers Responsibilities

Sept. 4, 2014

There is a website on which reporters post “want ads” for information on subjects they are researching. Today I saw one of those information requests for college preparation advice for high school freshmen. The ad specifically requested “advice on how to build good habits.” I translate that to advice on how to be successful in college and life beyond high school.

How convenient then that the updated, second edition of Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able? has recently been released. It is, of course, full of just that kind of information. It is directed toward parents, however, because they are the ones that through guidance and the handing over of responsibilities give their teenagers those skills necessary for a successful college experience.

Although these skills have been discussed often in this forum, it is never too repetitive to make or update a list.

1. Your freshman should keep her own calendar. Include not only academic deadlines and dates, but have her note sport and extracurricular meeting dates, doctor appointments, and anything else she has going. You also should keep track of those dates because in the beginning she probably will miss a few. You can remind her, but eventually let her take over—and let her suffer the consequences of missing a deadline or an appointment.

2. In high school, many teenagers get involved in numerous activities: multiple sports, music, clubs, community service, a job. This is a good time to guide your teenager through priority management. Teenagers can become overwhelmed juggling too many activities on top of school work. Make it clear that academics come first. If school work starts to slide, then your teenager may need guidance in deciding which activities to let go. This can be hard for parents because the teenager may decide to give up something that mom or dad really want him to pursue—such as piano lessons or a particular sport that is near and dear to mom or dad’s heart. Remember that this is the teenager’s life and he needs to make the decisions.

3. If you haven’t already, this is a good time to put your teenager on a budget and teach her financial responsibility. Make a list of the items you will pay for and those for which the teenager is responsible. Do this whether the teenager’s money is an allowance, from work she does for you, or from an outside part-time job—and stick to the plan. This is a good time to show your teenager your household expenses and how you budget.

4. Provide opportunities for your teenager to improve his communication skills. During family gatherings or when friends are around, ask an adult to start conversations with your teen, asking about the teen’s activities, interests, or views. Teens need to learn to communicate face-to-face instead of relying on texting or social media outlets. Also encourage your teen to ask questions as that is a good way to start networking and building contacts.

That’s a good list to start. It will grow as your teenager ages and as you give out graduated responsibility. Keep reminding yourself that the goal is to help your teenager be ready, willing, and able for success in college and life beyond high school.

Nov. 8, 2013

In yet another article, an educator stresses that academic skills, by themselves, do not guarantee college and career readiness—the same message put forth in Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able?

David Cook, Director of Innovation and Partner Engagement at the Kentucky Department of Education, questioned in an Education Week blog whether we are graduating students that truly are college and career ready. His conclusion, after talking to business representatives, is that education is not providing a crucial part of what is needed. Cook wrote: “Being able to read, write, and demonstrate math knowledge are not the only readiness indicators. In fact, they are the bare minimum.” A statement that reads as if it came straight out of Toward College Success.

Cook goes on to say that employers told him that they “don’t terminate employees because they aren’t able to grasp the content knowledge needed to do the job. Instead, they terminate employees because employees don’t know what to do when they face a challenge or problem, they can’t think creatively about new approaches to issues on the job, they can’t adapt to new work, and most importantly they don’t understand the importance of showing up to work and being persistent when faced with challenges.”

Wow. These are the points that I make in presentations and that I make in this venue, only I relate it more to college success. What these businesspersons told Cook is even more disturbing than the number of kids who get to college without these skills—these same young adults are graduating college still lacking time and priority management, conflict management, and, it seems, basic maturity.  I think it would be interesting to review the history of some of these unsatisfactory young employees to learn what courses they took and the grades they received. It sounds as if something is amiss.

But to reiterate my point: It does take more than academic skill to be successful in college and in life. And while Cook challenges high schools to tackle the issue, I challenge parents to step up. Schools can certainly reinforce “soft skills,” but I believe most need to be taught at home long before the end of high school. Parents are the ones who have the opportunity to give graduated responsibility, who can offer choices that demand careful consideration because of the consequence or outcome attached. Mistakes, even failures, are great learning opportunities; parents can guide their child through learning from a mistake, being persistent, and moving on.

To read Cook’s article:

Sept. 17, 2013

Researchers from the University of Michigan have found that techniques promoted by the non-profit College for Every Student (CFES) truly lives up to its goal “to raise the academic aspirations and performance of underserved youth so that they can prepare for, gain access to, and succeed in college.”

Caralee Adams explains in her Sept. 13 Education Week article that the study that sampled 1,100 6th to 9th grade students in 21 schools across 10 states found 75 percent of the study participants “plan to attend four-year colleges, compared with five percent of students in a control group.”

With such a positive influence, I decided to look further into CFES. CFES uses three “high-impact practices” that help get underserved teenagers on the track to college and that helps them be successful once they are there. Practice number one is mentoring personal and academic growth by means of an older peer, teacher, community leader, college student, or engaged adult.  

Practice number two is leadership through service, which builds not only leadership skills but also develops responsibility skills and resiliency. Practice number three is pathways to college that provides opportunities for visit college visits, for interaction with students and faculty, and introduces CFES students to the admissions process and financial aid options.

CFES’ statistics are impressive: “Ninety-five percent of CFES Scholars nationwide are from low-income households, 99 percent graduate from high school, and 96 percent go on to college.” In addition, nine out of ten CFES students are their family’s first generation to go to college.

CFES sounds like it is meeting an important need: to help low-income, underserved teenagers make it to college and succeed once they are there. My guess is that their techniques would benefit many students that do not fall into the underserved category. Too many teenagers disengage from school for a variety of reasons and the involvement of a mentor could make a huge difference in a student’s perseverance and resiliency. And the fact that CFES works with young students—middle school or even younger—is definitely a contributing factor to the student success rate. As Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able? states over  and over: Teenagers need the opportunity to develop life skills long before they graduate from high school. Skills such as time and priority management, conflict management, financial management, self-advocacy, and communication skills are all necessary for a successful college experience.

To read more about CFES:

To read Adam’s article:

An update on my son’s situation: My son, who was hit by a car while riding his bike home from class at the University of Hawaii, suffered a serious compound fracture of his leg. After almost two weeks in the hospital, he realized that it was impractical to attempt this semester of classes (including several geology field trips). His dad helped him pack up, but before they left Honolulu, they took to the beach. I’ll post his picture on the Toward College Success Facebook page ( He is now back here in Colorado trying to figure out how to stay busy. One thing he plans to do is contact his geology professors and see if there is anything he could do from a computer—and further develop his networking as a bonus. His graduation will be delayed, but I promised him that it really won’t matter in the long run.

March 26, 2013

Last week I wrote about various alternative high school programs that allowed students opportunities to gain college credit, work experience, or internships all while working toward high school graduation. It seems that educators post daily articles and blogs about the need to move toward a “redesign” of high schools to increase students’ college and career readiness. And data seems to be backing them up. For example, an October 2012 report from Jobs for the Future did a study in Texas that found high school students who had taken at least one college course while enrolled in high school “were nearly 50 percent more likely to earn a college degree from a Texas college within six years than students who had not participated in dual enrollment.”

 Another study, “Opportunity by Design: New High School Model for Student Success” by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, contends that in order to be prepared to meet the Common Core Standards, many high schools will need to “redesign.” The Carnegie study points to schools that have increased student engagement and graduation rates through smaller schools, real-world experiences with community businesses, more personal attention to individual student academic progress, and a comprehensive academic curriculum as well as dual programs.

 I found, however, part of the statement written by Vartan Gregorian, president of Carnegie Corporation, to be particularly telling: “….while it is important to graduate from high school, high school is not an end into itself, but rather preparation for college as well as life-long learning. It is one part of the path that leads students toward their ultimate potential in any field of endeavor as well as in finding personal satisfaction in their lives.”

 It is, in fact, during those high school years that a student should be learning the skills she needs to be successful in college and career. Redesigning high schools to more fully engage students and offering dual programs are part of moving them toward success, but there is another important component here. I believe parents need to see their role in this whole discussion; parents need to be as involved as the school in moving their teenager toward success. At home, parents need to be teaching time, conflict, and financial management. They need to give their teenagers graduated responsibilities. They need to model an interest in learning, keep communication open, and learn to listen to their teenager. Without these non-academic but important life skills, redesigned high schools will still struggle to prepare students for college and career success. It take parents, schools, and communities working together to move teenagers toward college and career success.

 To read the Jobs for the Future report:

To read the Carnegie report:

March 12, 2013

 One of the main points in Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able?, is how important it is that teenagers take on responsibilities. I’ve often stressed in this venue that parents need to give their teenagers graduated responsibilities and be ready with reasonable consequences when things go wrong, but it always helps to hear the message from a different source.

 Last week, Nancy Flanagan questioned in her Education Week blog the practice demanded by many parents and sanctioned by many teachers for weekly or daily reports of a slacking student’s assignments and schoolwork. Parents, understandably concerned when they see a report of their teenager’s missing assignments and low grades, often insist that accountability be given over to them—and teacher’s often comply. With the directive given, parents take responsibility to sign off on completed homework, test papers, and projects. Josh and Sarah no longer need to keep their own calendar or figure out how much time they need to prepare—Mom and Dad, and teacher, will take care of that for them.

Flanagan questions what this teaches the student. She writes: “I admit: lots of teachers are on board with everything-must-be-tracked-and-signed policies, handing off ultimate oversight, the checklist of requirements, to mom and dad. It prevents big ugly surprises on report card day, and absolves teachers from the distasteful job of nagging. It also reinforces the teacher’s primary role as planner, goal-setter, dispenser, and evaluator. Read: controller.

“Something important is lost, however, when kids assume that mom will always play backstop to any academic negligence. It’s the reason why students now expect to get good grades simply for completing and turning in mediocre work in college. And all of this cheapens learning.”

Flanagan mentions Chris Liebig, another blogger, who wrote on this same subject: Liebig wrote: “First, the parent signature requirement robs the students of autonomy over their own school work. I want my kids’ school work to be their business. I want them to get experience with being independent and taking care of their own affairs. I think that kind of autonomy is a key ingredient in building a sense of agency and competence.

“Second, it’s demeaning to make kids prove to you every day that they’ve done their homework. It sends the message that you don’t trust them to be independent, and don’t think they’re capable of handling their school work on their own. It presumes them to be slackers until they prove themselves otherwise, over and over again. It encourages them to see themselves as doing the work to satisfy others, rather than to make it their own.”

I’m not completely on board with everything Liebig says in his blog because I do think it is important for parents to stay involved with their teenagers, including being aware of how they are doing in school. But it is what parents do with that knowledge that turns them into either helicopter parents or a guiding hand. Teenagers should take responsibility for their schoolwork, chores, job, or whatever is in their life. Yes, they will need some help now and then, but the point is to help them be ready, willing, and able to take on college or whatever their future holds after high school.

To read Flanagan’s blog:

To read Liebig’s blog:

Feb. 26, 2013

In yesterday’s Huffington Post College blog, editor Shelley Emling, told the story of her academically-gifted son’s college application process. He visited and applied to some top schools: MIT, Tufts, Harvard, Boston College, to name a few. Emling never worried about his grades and test scores, but she was very curious as to what he would write in his admissions essay. She and her son understood that the essay was where he could shine; where he could distinguish himself and show he would be a successful college student.

 To her surprise, Emling’s son refused to let her or his dad read the essay. He told them it was personal and that it was something he wanted to do on his own. His dad accepted that decision, but Emling argued that she and her husband were paying for their son’s college education and that they had a stake in its outcome. She didn’t want to change anything, just see it. In the end, her 17-year-old son convinced her with this logic: “Mom, I’ve been good all through high school. I’ve always gotten good grades. I don’t think I’ve ever really disappointed you. Can’t you just trust me now? Just this once?”

 So, Emling asked the questions: “Did I make the correct call? Does a parent have the right to review their kid’s college essay?” She answered herself somewhat by saying that “if you’ve raised a good kid you just have to trust them.”

 I think it is more than that. I think parents must see to it that their teenagers figure some things out on their own, then be there if they make mistakes to teach them to cope with the mistake, learn from it, and move on. They will need that type of skill to be successful when they leave home for college or whatever they do after high school.

 I found the discussion following Emling’s article to be insightful. The whole gamut of parenting came through from: he’s 17 and living at home so you have a right to read the essay, to butt out mom and dad. Many who said Emling had the right to read the essay also felt she made the right decision to leave it be when he made his argument. The most eloquent response came from a father who was applying to a high school for performing and visual arts—which means this was a middle schooler. Her dad wrote:

 “She submitted a writing portfolio in one of her fields. All I told her was write about something you know about. She gave it to me to read. The poetry and short stories were dark, detailed, and impressive. I did not review or comment on the content. I made two editing suggestions, one she ignored, and then she submitted it. She qualified academically, she passed the first auditions in both writing and vocal, and just finished with her final callback auditions. She feels good about the process. I suggested the school, but she embraced the idea. When she went to visit, I delivered her, then stepped back while she interviewed them, unlike many whose parents seemed to be doing all the talking. If (and when, we hope) she gets in, it will be on her own merit. She’ll never have any reason to doubt that it was her own ability that got her in. And that’s how it should be. Sometimes you have to step back and watch your child take wing and fly for themselves.”

 Eventually we all have to step back and watch our children take wing and fly for themselves. This dad had obviously raised a capable young woman. If we give our kids gradual responsibilities, let them learn from mistakes, guide them when they ask for help, and let them make decisions about their own future, then we will have developed teenagers who are ready, willing, and able to succeed in college and beyond.

 To read Emling’s article:

Feb 19, 2013

It is no surprise to readers of this forum that I think Colorado State University’s Office of Parent and Family Programs does a great job with its Parents and Families newsletter. It is always full of useful information for parents of CSU students—information that helps parents understand what it takes to be a successful college student.

 The most recent issue is no exception. In an article about “supporting academic endeavors,” Dean of Students and Executive Director of the Office of Parent and Family Programs, Jody Donovan, asked her college-attending son for his advice on how parents and family members can have meaningfully talks with their “college students about their courses, learning, and exploring new areas of interests.”  He gave some solid suggestions for parents of college students, but his comment on communication skills got my attention.

 Donovan wrote that her son said that, “many college students have not had experience talking with adults about important matters. Many students have not had to handle important conversations on their own, and need practice before they feel comfortable talking with a faculty or staff member. He (her son) has watched numerous students rely on their parents for simple logistical matters, like paying rent, setting up meetings, researching deadlines, etc. Parents and family members play a significant role in helping students practice, through role playing, coaching, and preparing students for handling their own affairs. It is hard for us, as parents to watch our students struggle with something we can take care of easily, and yet, if students never get an opportunity to tackle things on their own, they never gain these important skills for success in life.”

 Or for success in college. The skills that Donovan spoke of are some of the skills I continually tout in this forum and in Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able? Donovan, who is quoted in Toward College Success, recommends the book to parents attending CSU campus visits. She recognizes that the skills outlined in Toward College Success are indeed essential for students to be successful in their college living and learning environment. The communication skills necessary for success that her son correctly noted are discussed in my Jan. 8, 2013 blog post. Parents who create opportunities for their teenagers to hone communication skill, who give them graduated responsibilities, who let them be responsible for their own appointments and calendars, are parents who are teaching the skills critical for college success and life beyond high school.

Jan. 8, 2013

It is common knowledge that teenagers’ preferred method of communication is by texting. Choppy text-speak is almost a new language in itself. No need for a face-to-face conversation when everyone has a mobile phone. Doonesbury comic strip depicts it well when Zonk and Jeff sit across a restaurant table and never look at each other or speak to each other—instead they text their conversation back and forth.

 It is true that communication methods have changed so drastically in the last couple of decades that actually speaking with someone seems to be a last-option choice. Yet clear, courteous communication remains crucial to successful relationships—whether those relationships are developed in the workplace, school, or between friends. To go further, I would say that solid communication skills are necessary for college success.

 What I’m really talking about is communication etiquette. Developing communication etiquette is a skill that many people do not even consider, yet how we communicate can either open doors or close them. Unfortunately there are a lot of adults who do not recognize the importance of communication etiquette, so it is no wonder that many teenagers lack it altogether.  If parents are not teaching their kids how to effectively, yet politely communication, then we shouldn’t be surprised at their rudeness. While parents are teaching important life skills to their children—things I’ve talked about often before, such as time and priority management, conflict management , and financial management—they also should stress the value of polite, effective communication. Such skills will serve those teenagers well when they are off on their own in college or seeking employment. 

 The following are a few communication etiquette tips for teenagers:

 ·         Teenagers should understand that texting should be reserved for informal, short messages; they should not assume that a teacher or employer will communicate by text.

·         Students should learn to check email once a day and respond promptly—within 24 hours—because email is the way that teachers, school administrators, and employers most likely will communicate. When responding, students should be formal. Do not address a teacher or employer by their first name unless asked to do so. Use complete sentences, check for spelling errors, avoid “text speak,” address all questions asked, and keep communication concise and to the point.

·         Another thing for students to remember about email is that many people are inundated with daily emails. We all know how easy it is to “lose” an email once it rolls out of sight on our screen. Students need to be aware that sometimes a teacher or employer will be too swamped to answer right away. It is then that the student should display her self-advocacy skills. Send a polite reminder email, referring to your first one, and say that you will follow up with a call in one week. Be sure to thank the person for their time. Such a response shows a determined, efficient student.

·         Another big issue that has arisen with the advent of our non-verbal communication methods is the tendency to avoid conflict. Students should learn to address difficult issues instead of avoiding them. It is easier to simply not respond to a confrontational or complicated email or text; however, not responding indicates immaturity and disrespect. Conflicts will arise at college and in the workplace, and parents should teach their teenagers how to appropriately address them.

·         Despite our digital communication preferences, nothing takes the place of face-to-face communication. Unfortunately, many teenagers—as well as adults—lack confidence and skill in communicating their ideas, questions, and comments in person. As I’ve said before, parents should encourage or create opportunities for their teens to speak with adults in varying situations. Remind them that no question is a stupid question. Students should be taught to look the other person in the eye when speaking, to shake hands, and to pay attention to body language.

·         Students and parents need to recognize that it is disrespectful to text and/or answer a call during face-to-face conversations, be it family time, during class, or in a meeting. If it is absolutely necessary to answer, excuse yourself first. Our smart phones are smart at distracting us, not at making us better communicators.

·         Students should be careful of what they post on social media. Every time a student posts, he should ask himself if he would be comfortable with a school administrator or employer seeing it.

 College success depends on a variety of skills; effective, polite communication is one of the most important.

Dec. 12, 2012

I ran into a friend I haven’t seen in awhile, and as often happens, we asked what was going on with each other’s kids. This particular friend has four young adult children; they being young adults meant the conversation included how successfully they were managing college.

 Her youngest is a college freshman. My friend told me that her daughter’s roommate very quickly added to the statistic that one in four college freshmen drop out, flunk out, or disappear from their college campuses each year. In this case, my friend explained that the roommate was the daughter of a strict religious family who had sent their daughter through private Christian schools and who had kept a tight rein on her activities, friends, and behavior.

 Once at college, this young woman suddenly found freedom from her family’s tight grip, and went overboard with partying. My friend’s daughter said her roommate often came back to the dorm room inebriated and missed most of her classes due to late nights. After only one month, the young woman dropped out of school to most likely be re-programmed by her family.

 I relate a couple of similar stories in Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able? One involved a “preacher’s daughter” who was raised in a very strict parent-controlled environment. When the young woman got to college, the student relating the story said “she couldn’t handle the freedom.” She began drinking regularly and became sexually active with more than one partner. Her family discovered her risky behavior and yanked her out of the large university she attended and enrolled her in a small school. 

 The point in both these stories is not that children of strict religious families will all end up going crazy when they get to college, but that parents need to carefully think through the rules and restrictions they impose on their high school-age teenagers. Once our kids are “released” into the world of college or whatever they choose after high school, they need the skills to successfully maneuver all that they encounter. If certain subjects are not up for discussion, they often become intriguing to teenagers. It is far better to hold open discussions with your teenagers about any subject—no matter how uncomfortable it is for you—so that you can explain your opinion without judgment, and listen to their questions and opinions.

 You can agree to disagree, but if you try to explain where your position is coming from and if your teenager sees you living it, it will have a far greater impact than you simply forbidding an activity with no discussion. And in the end—well, your fledged teenager will be making their own decisions. Keep the discussions going, model the behavior you hope to instill, and give your teenager graduated responsibilities with clear expectations.

Nov. 20, 2012

The season for high school college-information nights is coming to a close. I’ve spoken at four such evenings in what are called “break-out sessions.” Parents can go to two or three break-out sessions on important topics such as: financial aid, snagging scholarships, the application process, prepping for the SAT and ACT, and much more. My topic—Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able?—doesn’t draw the crowds that the others do. I understand that—parents want to know how to pay for college and how to help their student bag an acceptance letter. But the parents that do listen to my presentation always say the same thing: “This is so important.”

 Of course, I agree. It is all too easy to focus on getting into college and paying for it. But, as I preach so often in this venue, parents need to be just as concerned that their teenager has what it takes to be successful once they land on campus. To that end, I start my presentation by giving the statistic that one in four college freshmen drop out, flunk out, or disappear for other reasons from their college campuses every year. Then I ask: “What’s the chance your son or daughter will add to that statistic?”  That usually garners attention.

 I then go on to ask what parents consider important skills for college success. Academics are always number one, and, of course, it is crucial. But I ask parents to consider the following scenario: How successful will your teenager be in getting himself up for an 8:00 class in a subject he hates but is required to take, in which he is one of 300 students and no one takes role or cares if he is there, and for which he may not get a grade until mid-term? It is obvious that the simple task of waking up and getting to class takes more than academic skill—and without that skill the student is most likely doomed to fail.

 My presentation continues by listing some other important non-academic skills that students need to be successful. Skills that I have discussed many times: time and priority management, conflict management, self-advocacy, financial management, the ability to maneuver the college bureaucracy, and many others. Just as Toward College Success does, I point out to parents that these skills are not learned overnight—they are skills that need to be developed from middle school on. I also believe it is never too late to start “teaching” these skills, but the sooner, the better.

 Need more details? Please open your copy of Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able?