Should I Allow My Teen to Make Risky Decisions?
Parents may have to decide whether to allow a teen to make a decision when head and gut feelings don’t agree and all the risk factors aren’t known
A tragic death
The mood was somber. Our family had just attended the memorial service for the 16-year-old son of friends. Our son Jason and the family’s younger son were playmates. We had visited the family a few days before the service so my husband and I could grieve with the parents and Jason could try to comfort his friend.
Both boys were fourteen. They were both stunned to think the older boy had died in an auto accident so young. The younger son had been at a family camp with his parents that week, and the one who died chose to stay home. To make matters worse, his driving privileges had been suspended and he should not have been on the treacherous road where the accident occurred. He took advantage of his parents being out of town.
After the memorial service
Although our pastor had elementary-age children of his own, he seemed to have missed training in how to handle children’s grieving. Instead of helping our young people grieve safely, he tried instead to distract them.
As attendees talked to each other after the memorial service, the pastor invited any young people present to go waterskiing the next day. One of the elders had a boat and waterskis. They planned to go to Pyramid Lake in Los Angeles County — about 90 minutes from our community. Jason had always wanted to waterski, so of course, he begged us to go. We were torn. Here’s why.
We make our living as landlords. At that time we owned a commercial building in Ventura. We were renovating a vacant unit so we could get new tenants in as quickly as possible. Jason was helping. We were homeschooling and believed it was important to teach practical skills as well as academic ones. We had been counting on Jason to help that day, but he had been helping almost every day of that August. We knew he deserved to do something he’d enjoy. We did not want to deny him that.
Our spirits were troubled
Sometimes you just have a gut feeling you don’t want to ignore. That Monday night both of us had a sense of dread that made us want to say no to Jason’s request. We had no logical reason to say no — only that feeling of impending doom.
Ever since the other young man died, the parents in our church were realizing that no one’s child is immune from harm. A child can be gone in a day! We were holding our children close and telling them often that we loved them. We were giving Jason lots of hugs — even more than usual. We found many ways to let Jason know how much he meant to us. We were treating almost every day that week as though it might be his last. But we were hesitant to give him what he wanted. We did not want to let him take that day trip. We didn’t mind giving him a day off. We were just afraid to let him go.
That night we told him we would pray about it. I’m sure he did, too. We said we would decide the next morning. The pastor, who would be driving, said it would be OK to call in the morning to let him know if Jason was going.
My husband and I had been discussing the decision on Monday night after Jason went to bed. We knew we had no logical reason to keep Jason home. Had anyone told us he would be offered the chance to ride a jet ski, we would have kept him home. We had told him earlier that summer while watching a jet skier how dangerous riding a jet ski would be for him and why.
We knew Jason was probably not strong enough to resist the temptation to do something he wanted to do so much if the opportunity arose. But we made our decision not knowing the jet ski would be there and that everyone would have a chance to use it.
We finally decided to tell Jason how we felt and let him decide. So on Tuesday morning, we said we had a very bad feeling about the trip and didn’t want to let him go. We also told him we could find no logical reason to keep him home. We said we appreciated all the hard work he put in at the building and knew he deserved some fun. So we would let him decide. He said, “Don’t worry. I’ll have my life jacket.” And he chose to go.
We both gave him a big hug and told him once more how much we loved him. As Jason got in the van, my husband had a vision. He said he’d seen a boat coming right at himself. But he didn’t understand what it meant. And we knew how disappointed and probably resentful Jason would be if my husband had said right then, “You can’t go after all. I just had a vision that something terrible might happen.”
The rest of our day we felt as though a dark cloud hung over us.
I have already told the story of Tuesday afternoon and early evening here:
How God Prepared Me for My Son’s Death
There’s no good way to lose your son. God knew that better than anyone
I don’t remember now what I said or did after hearing that Jason was dead. I only remember how I felt. My son, the light of my life was gone. I would never see my friend or my traveling companion again. (We had been friends before he came to live with us, and we had shared many long road trips.) His place at the dinner table would be forever vacant. His room would be empty. I would no longer hear his excited voice reporting on his daily adventures. Our hearts would always hurt.
Meanwhile, we waited. The pastor and the elder with the boat and the jet ski were still with the group they had taken to the lake. Although Jason had died almost instantly, they had to wait for the police and other emergency first responders. Although it was too late for them to help Jason, they had to finish their reports and transport Jason somewhere. It took days for his body to make it to our local mortuary. The pastor called us and said he would be over when the group got home. We waited.
As we waited the house began to fill with our friends. How grateful we were for them. We were still in shock and denial. This could not be happening. There must have been a mistake. Jason was too alive to be dead. But later that night the pastor arrived and we got the full story.
The full story
They had let Jason take the jet ski out by himself. They had called him ashore when his turn was up. He hadn’t known enough to circle around to get gradually to the shore. Instead, he turned and went straight for the shore. That’s when he collided with a boat.
He stayed alive just long enough to yell for help. Our group had seen the accident and they were heading out to help Jason, but it was too late. They got him into the boat and to the shore, but he bled to death before the paramedics could get there.
Somehow the night ended. We didn’t sleep much. I doubt if the pastor slept much, either. At least he’d learned something. At the youth group meeting the next night he tried to help the other young people and their parents deal with their grief instead of trying to distract them. My husband and I went for a walk. We discussed our decision to let Jason decide.
Were we wrong to let Jason decide?
As we look back, there would have been no decision we could have made with no negative consequences. None of us were aware of all the facts. We knew how Jason would have felt had we not given permission for him to go just on the basis of our dread. We had no logical reason for him not to take that day off and enjoy some recreation.
We could not tell him that if he went he would die. None of us knew that. In fact, we honestly thought our dread was because he might get hurt. It never occurred to us he might actually die. If we kept him home we would not have known what it might have saved him from.
It’s also true that keeping him home may not have kept him alive. He would have gone to the Ventura building with my husband and may have had an accident with the power equipment they would be using. Then I might have blamed my husband and he might have blamed himself. Or there could have been a car accident going to or from Ventura.
Jason might have gone reluctantly with my husband, probably resenting having to work while all his friends were having a great time at the lake. I doubt if he would have been thinking grateful thoughts that we had saved him from death, but rather a sense of deprivation. That might have caused a temporary barrier in our relationship with him.
If you were in this situation with the limited knowledge we had, would you have listened to your heart or your mind when they disagreed? Would you have kept your child home for what appeared to be no logical reason or let him go? Or would you have, like we did, let him decide himself after expressing the conflict you felt inside over it?
God lets his children decide
As I look back on this, I remember how God treats us. When He created Adam and Eve, He explained what He expected of them. In Genesis God tells Adam:
“You may eat freely of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you will surely die.” (Genesis 2:17, RSV)
Adam must have passed this command to Eve after she joined him in the garden. In Genesis 3, when the serpent comes to tempt her to eat from the forbidden tree, she tells him they may not eat the fruit from that tree. The serpent responds that God is just trying to deprive them of something good — being like God in the ability to discern good from evil. To Eve the fruit of the tree looked good. She liked the idea of being as wise as God, as the serpent promised. So she ate the fruit and gave some to Adam. Thus they and the rest of the human race became subject to death.
God gave his people free will so that they could show their love by obeying rather than being forced to obey. In John 14:15, Jesus told His followers, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (RSV)
In Biblical times, by the age of thirteen children were considered morally accountable to God. Most churches and synagogues today also consider children this age ready to commit to membership in their congregations. We considered Jason old enough to make decisions such as the one before us that day, with the available facts we knew.
The decision to go to the lake was not wrong. The decision to ride the jet ski when tempted was what led to his death. My husband had warned him of the possible consequences. He had told Jason his visibility would be limited by the wind in his eyes and he might not see a boat in his path. The sound of the jet ski would be so loud he might not hear an approaching boat. In the case of a collision, the propeller of the jet ski might cut him and/or sever a limb. But inside he probably felt he’d be missing out if he passed up this opportunity the adults in charge were allowing. He watched all his friends enjoy their exciting rides. And most healthy teens seem to think they are indestructible. Bad things only happen to other people.
Those adults on the outing were also partially responsible. They allowed Jason to ride alone with no experience and little instruction, without parental permission. I also fault the state of California for allowing such young teens to drive a jet ski alone. It would have been easier for the adults to say no if there had been a law against someone so young taking a jet ski out alone. Today a 14-year-old would have to be supervised on board by someone 18 or older who has a Boater Card.
There is no way we can know what life will throw at our teen or when
In this case, we had every reason to believe our son was safe in the water. He was a good swimmer. He had a life jacket. We trusted the adults in charge of the trip. We believed Jason was safe learning to water ski. The risk factor we were unaware of was the jet ski. It had never occurred to us to ask if anyone would bring a jet ski. It’s quite possible the pastor didn’t know it would be there, either. Sometimes we parents need to make the best decision with the facts we have.
Teens often overestimate their ability to know what’s best for them. The part of their brain that takes consequences into consideration has not yet fully developed. Many teens like to test their boundaries and engage in risky activities. Sometimes we have to say no. Had we known about the jet ski, we would have said no. We agreed to water skiing because an adult would be driving the boat. As far as we knew, there was little danger involved.
How to know when a teen is ready for more freedom
According to Kathy Hardie-Williams at Good Therapy, there are principles that govern how much freedom to give teens. Most of us have heard that if one does not allow teens enough freedom, they will rebel. So it’s important to find a balance between giving too little or too much freedom.
One principle is that freedom and responsibility go hand in hand. Jason had demonstrated that he could do most chores without being reminded. He completed his academic assignments. He normally obeyed any rules we set.
Parents need to teach children the values they want them to have, but teens also need to earn their parents’ trust before they gain more freedom. We had confidence that Jason had internalized the values we tried to instill in him. We believed we could trust him not to get into trouble when we weren’t watching. We knew his friends and his friends’ parents and knew most of their values were compatible with ours. We believed we could give him the freedom to make many decisions in the context of that framework. He had earned our trust.
The ultimate test
Even if parents believe their children have internalized good values and usually act responsibly, there’s only one way to test them. One must let children make some decisions.
Let children begin young with small decisions such as what to wear and which food or activity they prefer at a certain time. Increase the importance of the decisions as the children grow older and help them visualize the pros and cons of their decisions. In this way, we prepare our young people to handle more consequential decisions while we still have the chance to guide them. When they make decisions that cause them hurts we can discuss what might have helped them make better decisions.
Ultimately, we are preparing our children for the day they leave the nest and make most of their own decisions, if not all of them. They don’t automatically start making wise decisions the day they turn eighteen if they’ve not had a chance to make any before.
There will always be things neither you nor your children will know before making a decision. There will be outside factors that parents can’t predict or control. Sometimes parents or children can make what seem to be risk-free decisions and something totally off the wall will happen. For example, a neighbor of mine decided to walk her dog around our neighborhood on the sidewalk. She was hit by an out of control motorcycle that jumped the curb and she became a quadriplegic. The same thing could have happened just as easily to Jason while he was on his way to visit a friend in the neighborhood.
We have to do our best to teach children how to make the best decisions possible with the information they have. Then we need to trust them to make them. Sometimes they will be tempted to make a wrong decision with tragic consequences, as Jason did. Sometimes they can make reasonable decisions with tragic consequences, as in the case of my friend. But most of the time, if they have demonstrated they can handle freedom responsibly, their practice in decision making will be harmless. If there are negative consequences, the teen will learn from them and make better decisions next time, unless the decision is a fatal one, as Jason’s was.
It a challenge to maintain the balance between parental control and freedom. Too much control and you may lose your child to rebellion. Too much freedom and you may lose your child forever. Parents have to make the best decisions they can with the facts they have. They don’t have the option of knowing what the consequences of opposite decisions will be.
In our case, our heads and our hearts did not agree, and we thus allowed our son to make his own decision on the basis of his past history. We know he didn’t want to die. He told someone on the way to the lake that if he got badly hurt, he would still want to live. I’m sure when he got on that jet ski, dying was the last thing on his mind. I’m sure when the adults gave him permission to ride alone they expected him to have a safe ride. Yet he decided his own end when he chose what seemed good to him in spite of the warning he got. God, who had all the information ahead of time, allowed him to.
Ultimately, Jason was God’s child. In Psalm 139:16, the Bible says God knew all the days that were formed for us before we were born. He knew He would take Jason home that day, and He let Jason choose to go on a jet ski.