Letting go of our children is one of the hardest but most important tasks of parenting. And it is one that we should ideally be practicing from the moment we first hold them in our arms. It will not be long before our children need to stand on their own in varying degrees, so at every step along the way, we need to be supporting them to do just that.
Think about when a baby attempts to learn how to pull his/her head up, or crawl, and then walk. Without even realizing it, they are offering us a beautiful, albeit possibly difficult, lesson in parenting – that of letting go. Our children are naturally motivated to learn and try new things. That first step that they take is a monumental and symbolic one – it is their first step away from us, and towards independence. Parents who can see it like this are the luckiest ones. I know I did not understand this concept when my son took his first step but oh, if I had!
A few examples…
As toddlers, they begin to find their voice, telling us “I do it!”
When they are elementary age, they want to decide how and when to spend their time doing things, and in what order.
By the time they are teens, they are deciding who their friends are and what their interests are.
All of these micro-steps that our children take are all part of the natural growing-up process that occurs as they move closer to independence. And we are most capable of supporting our children when we can see these micro-steps as such.
Supporting our children
Our task as parents then, is to recognize when these micro-steps are occurring and figure out how we can best support our children to take those steps. Dr. Shefali has a wonderful article about raising children to honor their own authentic voices and be strong to stand up during challenging times. We are not helping children learn how to stand on their own when we are constantly trying to force them to do things our way, or rescuing them, or not allowing them a chance to do things for themselves.
A great illustration
This weekend with my daughter offered a great example of allowing our children to stand on their own in developmentally appropriate ways. She went with her Girl Scout troop to a Horse Ranch four hours away in a different state. The first afternoon they were there, she sustained an ear injury when someone smashed into her while she was under water. This overshadowed the rest of her trip, and she called me late Friday night crying that her ear was hurting and asking me to pick her up the next day. During that conversation and immediately after, I was flooded with thoughts and emotions:
How severe is this situation?
Does she need medical attention?
Should I drive four hours and pick her up the next day?
Should I allow her to stay there and come home with everyone else on Sunday?
As all these thoughts and emotions began swirling, I had to sit quietly once I hung up with her and allow all of these chaotic things to swirl around me while I got still and went inside myself. I had to get quiet and really listen to my intuition and how it was guiding me. During chaotic times especially, it can be difficult to hear what our inner compass is telling us, which is one reason why regular meditation can be so helpful.
So I got quiet and listened carefully for its direction. What I heard was that there was no reason with the current information to go up there and pick her up the next day; that because she was not feeling well, she was extra homesick; and that driving up there the next day would send her the message that I did not believe she could manage this situation without being rescued.
So what to do?
I ultimately kept in close contact with her and her Girl Scout leaders about her condition and decided to stay put unless things took a turn for the worse with her. The next day, she was in better spirits, and Advil helped her to feel better. She texted me only again before bedtime on Saturday night and said she would see me the next day when she got home.
When she arrived home, I immediately took her to Urgent Care to have her ear looked at. It turned out that by Sunday evening, she had a pretty bad ear infection that had developed, so we started her on antibiotic ear drops and by the next day, she was already feeling better. If at any point during the trip her condition worsened, or the Girl Scout leaders thought things were deteriorating with her, I would have jumped in the car to go and pick her up. But I had to intentionally place my trust in the women in whose care I entrusted her for the weekend and believe that they would know if more action needed to be taken.
Supporting our children to stand on their own
This decision was not an easy one by far. And I debated what to do for a while, but ultimately, even though she developed an ear infection, I am happy that I decided not to pick her up. This decision on my part taught her just how strong she is, just how much she can handle, and just how much support I can give her from a distance. All of these are vital life lessons that children need to learn.
One of the common things I help parents with is when they struggle with those micro-steps of letting go of their children and supporting them to stand on their own as the children take their own micro-steps towards independence. It is not an easy thing for sure, but can be made easier for parents with their own support and encouragement.