One day your child took her first independent breath and your whole life changed. You were no longer a childless couple expecting a baby; you were a parent and would be so for the rest of your life.
One day you took her to preschool or daycare and left her. You had to turn around and go elsewhere while she stayed and experienced life without you.
And one day she started kindergarten and she was no longer a preschooler but a student.
Raising children is full of days like this. The day she takes her first step, says her first words, gets on a bus with her friends to go to the mall, gets all dressed up for her first dance or party and the day she heads off in her polyester uniform to start her first job working in a fast food outlet.
In each case, a parent’s job is to first be preparing her for these new stages by teaching her what she needs to know, then letting her go. Letting her go; knowing she will make mistakes, will be hurt or embarrassed but has the skills and the tenacity to move forward. And you are always there to teach, to supervise, to soothe and to encourage.
That’s the way it’s supposed to be. Then one day, she heads off to university and all those years of slowly letting go pay off. Sure she’s nervous and she has lots to learn about living away from home. But she has the basic skills and you celebrate her maturity. (You may cry and worry in private).
But in the last few years we are hearing more stories about parents who just won’t let go and children who aren’t ready to go. Parents haven’t done the job of raising their kids to be capable adults ready to head out into the world and make their own way.
I was floored last year when I heard the story about a University student standing in line to register for his courses. This is not usually the easiest or smoothest process in the world. But, hey, this is a young man who managed to graduate from high school, apply to the university and get accepted. So he should be able to handle this particular rite of passage. But wait a minute. Who is that with him? His mother. And not only that, she is doing all the talking. There he is, a young adult allowing or maybe even expecting his mother to handle registration.
And it’s not an anomaly. At Simon Fraser University, in Canada, they have had to develop a handbook for parents who are having trouble adjusting to their children being in university. These parents are not simply bringing their kids to campus and dropping them off. They are helping them buy books, set up their dorm rooms and some are even staying overnight. Parents are attending Frosh week parties and student orientation sessions.
I wrote my book But Nobody Told Me I’d Ever Have to Leave Home: From Toddlers to Teens: How Parents Can Raise Children to Become Capable Adults because I was seeing too many young men and women who are not growing up. Parents are not raising them to be capable and the kids are comfortable remaining dependent children.
Parenting is about raising kids to have roots and wings. First we need to do the tough job of parenting, giving kids security and stability by modeling, expecting, demanding and supervising their behavior. We set limits, we discipline, we offer unconditional love and through this we raise kids ready to become capable. These are their roots.
From the stability of their roots, we give them wings. We understand that from their first independent breath we are engaged in the process of letting go. And it’s a process. Each developmental stage requires us to help them to develop the tools they need to move forward toward the day when they head off to create their own life.
In my book, my adult children wrote an afterword and talked about becoming capable young adults.
About leaving home for the first time, my son said, "There were missteps, but I found a place to live, I found my way to school and I figured out how to manage my time.” And my daughter said. “I didn’t move out without a care or concern, but I did have enough skills to get myself places, feed, clothe and house myself and figure out the rest.”
We need to let our children go to daycare and preschool, to elementary and secondary school and to the mall with their friends. And once they graduate from high school we need to let them go to find their own lives as the young adults they are.