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Hold them close, then let them go

Posted: February 28, 2013 5:11 p.m.
Updated: March 1, 2013 5:00 a.m.

It’s funny how parenting works. At times, I am wonderfully amazed at the position; in other moments, I am utterly confused by the entire ride as if I were falling down the rabbit hole. I believe it fair to say, even with all the preparations we think we’ve made, no one is ever ready. We are always caught off guard when parenthood chooses us. When the “smoke clears,” we realize that, of all the balls ever thrown our way, this is the one we cannot drop. Having kids -- the charge of rearing good, ethical, responsible human beings -- is one of the most significant jobs, I believe, any of us can accept. The hours of the job are non-negotiable, covering seven days a week, both day and night shifts. And unfortunately, there is no one set of rules we can follow or one flawless parenting class we can take. Parenting is awash in opposites -- highs and lows, joys and sorrows, work and play, responsibility and freedom. It’s a constant tug-of-war and this is what makes it so complicated.

More and more I see how parenting is a process of letting go. I’m convinced our lives as parents are made up of countless letting-go moments all linked together. They start out small -- the first time my eldest son rode his bike to school; the first time my boys and their best friends slept under the stars (and not in a tent, mind you, but in the “hole;” the first time at camp, the first time crossing the street without me, the first time leaving my twins at kindergarten. Then, suddenly, the letting-go’s appear larger -- drivers licenses, cell phones, high school graduations, transition to college -- as do the responsibilities.

I never expected how hard the larger letting-go’s would hit. Recently, I was talking with friends on exactly when we, as parents, no longer have influence over our children. At what point do they take all our advice, our lessons, our examples, and compile them into their own book with chapters of their own? Maybe in this book our chapters belong to 1-18 and theirs belong to 19 and beyond. Or maybe we get thru chapter 20 or 21. We influence, motivate, inspire, shape, affect, and encourage our children for 20 years, give or take. We let them fly, falter, try again, teach, coach, mentor, see them stumble and recover only to watch them fall again. Some even crash. Hard. Teaching our child independence is a tough milestone, but when we allow them to make mistakes or even fail, they will only learn from these experiences. Letting our kids go is more than a physical act; it’s an intricate emotional challenge. Aside from loving our children, we provide for them and protect them. Allowing them to develop in to a strong, moral, independent adult with purpose, we hope, is our goal. We want to protect them, but not over-protect, to provide for them, but not indulge them. We hold them close, and as the pendulum invariably swings the other way, we let them go. As parents, we simply have to be present in the moment and move between the opposites as best we can to find the right balance.

I still have the vision of my oldest son leaning on our car as if frozen in time, watching his four siblings unloading all his things for his new home -- the college dormitory. It wasn’t until after his sisters gave their final approval of the set-up, we gave our final hugs, and we left him there looking touchingly lost amongst a pile of crates in a Spartan room, did I feel what letting-go really meant. I thought, perhaps this is what it means to be a parent -- teaching our children to live without us. They will be ours forever; this will never change. We have to trust they have been listening and just let go. A few weeks ago, I was worried about my son at college, as he had been feeling overwhelmed and homesick. I called to tell him I would drive and bring him home for the weekend. He thanked me and explained why he couldn’t come home. He had signed up for a weekend retreat with his new church. The letting-go became a bit more bearable at least for the weekend.

So this is what I know so far in this thing called “parenting” -- we spend close to 20 years teaching and advising and loving and motivating and inspiring our children. We are not perfect; neither are they. We will make mistakes; so will they. We will do our best; they will, too. As parents, we have to trust we’ve laid a solid foundation, and then we have to let go. We have to trust that the curfews, the restrictions, the occasional forced plate of broccoli, the time-outs, the talks, the punishments, were all for a reason. They will still need us but in different ways. We give our children roots and we give them wings.

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