Letting Go of Your Children

One of the hardest things a parent has to do for his child’s well-being is “letting go.” The attachment between a parent and child, at its best, is profoundly intense and rewarding to both parties. But, at some point, earlier than most parents think, the tie must be loosened. There are at least two reasons for this.

The first involves the danger of overprotection. While the world is a harsh place at times, children who are not seriously disabled need to begin to obtain some mastery of that world. They will not do so if the parent hovers too closely, watches every move, makes every decision, and doesn’t permit the child to get a sense of accomplishment and independence, that is, to get a sense of their own mastery of the world.

Secondly, if the child is ultimately to break-free, the parent must prepare him and encourage him. Kids will make bad decisions; they will get hurt by life. All that is a part of growing up and, in fact, a part of life as an adult, too. If they are to succeed in life, attach to others outside the family (mate), produce children, and develop a personality that is different from that of either parent, they will profit from the permission and encouragement to do so.

There is no perfect guidebook for how to disengage–how to, little-by-little, give your child more freedom, less oversight. It is easier, of course, if the young one is reasonably outgoing, a good student, and doesn’t get into much trouble with authorities. But even with kids who are having difficulty, micro-management can create resentment and rebellion, while constant criticism can be depressing and efface the child’s shaky self-esteem. A parent needs to know which children need a heavy hand, which a light touch, when to praise, when to correct, and when to punish. No one can provide  precise direction to this in the abstract, because each child is different and each parent is different. That said, here are a few pitfalls to watch out for:

1. Don’t try to raise each of your children the same way. While this should be obvious, it rarely is. Some parents even brag: “I treated all my kids the same.” This is preposterous, but, even if you came close, you probably shouldn’t have. All children aren’t the same and therefore require the kind of individually tailored attention that works for them. Why would it make sense to raise an active child in the same way as a passive one, or an outgoing offspring just like an introspective little person? One size doesn’t fit all.

2. Don’t “own” your child’s life. He isn’t you. He needs to have his own ideas, not some Xeroxed version of what you think he should be. He ultimately needs to “own” his direction in life, meaning that the desire to do well in school and in other things needs to be his. If he only does his school work because he is required to, even when he is in high school, somehow the transfer of responsibility from you to him hasn’t been made. You’ve got about 15 years to accomplish that hand-off; after that, demands from parents to “do better” usually generate diminishing returns.

3. Don’t set unreasonable expectations. Most middle-class folks see their children, at least a little, as a reflection of themselves; someone to carry the family banner into the future. But, you can make yourself a little crazy by wanting great fortune and fame for your kids, and letting them know you will settle for nothing less. Harvard isn’t for everyone and there is no guarantee of a good life that comes with admission to Princeton, Northwestern, Yale, etc. If your child can make a living, find love in his life, behave honorably, and experience some measure of fulfillment, that just might be quite enough.

4. Don’t make your child feel guilty over leading his own life, not providing you with grandchildren, and not being as close to you as he was when he was little. He needs to break-free and take care of himself. He should (and probably will) want to have you in his life, but don’t be an anchor around his ankle.

5. Don’t live and die with every success and failure on your son or daughter’s path. Easier said than done, by the way. Learn to accept things as they are. Get some distance. Meditate. Get a life of your own. As a famous basketball coach once said, “If every game is a matter of life and death, you’re going to have a problem. You are going to die a lot.”

6. As your kids move into adulthood, don’t preach and do be careful about giving advice, especially if it hasn’t been requested. Let your children know that you are proud of them. Not because they became captains of industry, but because they are good, decent, and loving people. Give your grown kids support and encouragement. Enjoy them, don’t manage them.

7. Remember that they aren’t you, they won’t always do what you would do, what you think wise, believe what you believe to be true. They might belong to a different political party, root for a different baseball team (God forbid!), change religion or give up religion. They might marry someone you don’t completely fit with. Remind yourself that what is important is your child’s happiness and fulfillment and decency.

8. Take good care of yourself. Find a meaning in life that is not 100% about your adult children. Try to get there gradually, not on his or her 21st birthday.

If you are lucky, your children will turn out well, and be grateful for all you did, and for your wisdom in not “doing it all” for them forever. It’s quite an adventure for the concerned parent, and you will never stop being concerned. As Sir Francis Bacon wrote, “He that hath wife and children, hath given hostages to fortune…” But, with practice, you will sleep at night even on many of the nights that your adult child is having some bumps in the road.

When you look at her, fast asleep in her crib, all of that seems impossible and impossibly far away. But it can happen.

I’ve been there.

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