As parents we are always saying farewell. From the moment a baby is born we begin the process of separation. It’s easy to forget in the day to day business of living, that our job as parents is to set our people free, let them fly, give them wings so they can soar into a life of their own. It’s a temporary and delicate job of teaching, loving and leading to the edge of goodbye. We are reminded when we send them to school for the very first time, when we leave them at a friends over night or drop them at summer camp, we are reminded that we don’t own them and our role is constantly evolving throughout their life. But one remains pretty constant –the role of letting go.
I’m beyond the age of waiting in elementary school pick-up lines talking about first steps and weaning off breast-milk. I have reached the time in life when many of my friends are sending their children off to college. The topics of conversation have shifted to revolve around such things as freedom and financial aid.
I had a taste of what it might be like for my friends of college age students, when I dropped my 11 year old off at nature’s classroom. Nature’s classroom is a school run program in the back woods of New Hampshire. Students spend one week alienated from helicopter parents. It’s my daughters first time away from home for so long. It’s exciting and worrisome, and wonderful. A range of emotions flooded me as I gave her one last hug, and I couldn’t think of what else to say to make it a more effective and positive trip. I want to keep her from experiencing anything negative, but I know letting go is the only way for her to experience anything positive and gain confidence that we will need for the future.
As I drove away I found myself going through the mental checklist. “Did I tell her to have a buddy at all times or where to go if she needed help? Did I tell her I love her? With all these questions simmering, there was one overarching idea that suddenly shrouded the others: “Did I prepare her to be away from me, on her own?” did I give her what she needs to be successful, apart from my voice of wisdom, loving shelter and cautious reflections?
I realized that this question grows with our children. While watching the school bus drive away for the very first time, we might ask, ‘does she have her lunch?’ ‘Can she tie her shoes?’ But they’ll be home in a few hours. Their days and experiences are fairly predictable in kindergarten. High school is a new game. I saw my 14 year old walking on our, sidewalk-less street, to the bus with his head down, checking his phone. I sent him a text, “don’t text while walking down the street”, I happen to see the problem and was able to address it. At 14+ they are gone more than they are home. Most of their brand new and evolving experiences happen out of sight. “Do they have what they need to handle situations that cannot be seen or predicted?” Often, they learn on the job, while you and I are not around to tell them what to do, they figure things out pretty quick.
Talking to strangers takes on a different expectation when they are 5 and when they are 16. The reality is talking to strangers isn’t bad, we must do it. What’s concerning is kidnappings. The real info we need to give them is not “don’t talk to strangers” but “know what to do in a situation where someone is behaving strange.” We want them to know how to avoid situations that are dangerous.” Did I give her that? Have I allowed my answers to grow with her?
Is it even possible to teach them everything? Have I given my children the rundown of important life lessons, information, tough and tender love, compassion and honesty? Have I instilled in them the importance of being cautious but taking some risks, so life can be an adventurous and challenging journey filled with good things, rather than a looming stretch of broken roads and dark forests? Have I prepared them with the staples of life?
Today everything is changing so fast it’s hard to know what are those eternal, time tested, staple truths and resources that they need to know? Did I hug them enough, show them enough love and give them a sense of security, a good balance of independence and responsibility and power? Are they resilient enough, courageous discerning, will they assert themselves and speak up on behalf of those weaker than themselves? How do we know they will make the right choices? Did we give them the right tools? And how do we keep ourselves from staying up late worrying about whether or not they’ll make the wrong choices. Is that part of letting them fly? Perhaps some of those essential truths they learn in the sky, through experience, did I allow them to have enough experiences?
My husband told me this past weekend a colleague’s college age son tried to kick through a window outside his apartment building, while drunk. He sliced his leg open from ankle to knee. He showed me the picture of this young man’s calf muscle hanging out on the gurney, and I thought, in horror, he might lose his leg! Are his parents to blame for him not knowing about the effects of alcohol or putting his leg through a double pane glass window? Of course not- he’s 20 years old. They cannot be responsible for what their son does with the information they gave him. These are the stories that scare us, that make us want to hold on. But we can only provide the ingredients – once our children are on their own, they make the final decisions, we have to let them have the experiences to gather the skills we didn’t or couldn’t give them. It’s dreadful what happened, but freedom to choose is beautiful. And another beautiful thing is to hear the words, “Mom – I did it!” This is the greatest responsibility, whether a shout of victory or a cry of despair. To own one’s own life –this is the greatest freedom, and it’s worth dying for.
There will be one more thing on the checklist we forget to give as we are waving goodbye. We might be able to reach them by cell phone, but perhaps we can’t reach them. Most likely their success will not come down to one thing. Life is a piece of art, with many colors. What they need comes from a lifetime of learning, their lifetime of gathered information and experiences, decisions, and a multitude of counselors, teachers and moments.
We teach them to use a pencil and show them how we used it and then let them figure out what they want to write on the empty pages of their own life. We give them some tools and teach them the basic skills, it’s up to them to wield those tools and choose what they will make. If we don’t allow them to make choices, they will be miserable, prisoners of our fears, and inexperienced to handle the world we won’t always be part of.
Our goal in life as parents is to raise our children and send them off into the world, to freedom, independence, and responsibility and even to disappointment and occasional failures. The hope is that we have trained them in such a way that they return. They will shadow those they admire. So live your life in such a way that is good and admirable.
I’ll never forget seeing a mother and 2 year old walking in the store, the child was following along beside mom. Not holding a hand or on a leash, just bopping along behind mom. And I thought to myself, how do they know to do that? What makes such a small child, stay with their mother at such a young age? Mom-ma has the goods, even an infant knows that. We don’t have to hold on to our children to ensure they stay close. When we ask ourselves, “did I give them what they need to succeed” – if we’re letting go, we’re giving them what they need, and we are letting them learn. If we have loved and cared for our children they will likely follow us even when we forget to give that last piece of advice. We won’t have to remember everything, just the part about letting them fly when they are ready, so that when they are ready, they can fly back home.