Both sad and liberating

As usual, I was both fascinated and touched by your questions on my Sixth Blogging Anniversary post.  I wrote about what I am reading, and which blogs I most devotedly follow.  Now, a different question:

Parenting “emerging adults” is an exercise in letting go and it’s both sad and liberating. If you ever want to write about “healthy consequences” or “natural consequences,” that would be interesting to me. What I mean is letting kids learn from negative experiences rather than constantly rescuing them. This discernment has been hard for me because it’s a balancing act–trying to figure out when they need scooped up and loved versus when you should let them squirm in their own doings and let them figure their way out themselves.

I have thought about this a lot.  I believe absolutely in letting kids learn from negative experiences, and in resisting the urge to rescue them every time they trip. In fact I would call this one of the central challenges of parenting.  I return, again, to Erdrich’s red string that ties our hearts: we have to give children enough rope that they can learn to fall and get up, while trusting that they are still close, that they know the bond we share doesn’t fray when it’s stretched.

As with all things, I only have my instinct to guide me here.  And a whole lot of love.  I’ve been mulling the question almost non-stop since I became a parent 10 years ago.  Several years ago, I wrote this:

It (developing resilience, letting children fail) is about letting my children be, even when there is conflict between them. It is about letting them lose at games and sports. It is about not shielding them from the world’s ugly and hard edges, not coddling them when things are going to hurt. It is about sticking with rules even when they cause disappointment or, more likely, screaming tantrums. It is, fundamentally, about teaching children that the world – and my world – does not revolve around them. This is a hard lesson to impart, full of discomfort and sadness. But it is also probably the most important thing I can teach Grace and Whit.

Obviously parenting, and the need to let go, is on my mind often.  More recently, I wrote this:

They don’t belong to me. On that I am absolutely clear: the crystalline, sharp clarity of sunshine on icicles. No way. I brought them into this world and that is all.  I love my children too much to handicap them with over-protection. I love them so much that I continue to challenge myself to let them go a little bit, knowing that that letting go lets them build muscles, physical and emotional, that will help them stand steadily in life’s waves. To let them go I have to trust them. And myself. And I do.

I read these two passages now and I nod, because I still agree with every word.  It’s actually reassuring to me, a reminder that our parenting philosophies are formed early, and remain sturdy, even as they adapt to the various seasons we move through.  There’s a particular poignancy to the idea of letting go right now, though: it feels keener, this need to release my grip, and closer, the day when they will leave me for good.  This is true particularly of Grace, who grows so fast, in every sense of the word, daily.

I don’t know how to actually answer my reader’s thoughtful, thought-provoking question.  I wish I did!  All I know how to do is vigorously agree that this is both a challenge and essential.  I do believe that this effort – watching our children fail or err while simultaneously making sure they know they are profoundly loved and supported to the best of our abilities – is central to parenthood.  I am still very much figuring out how to do that.  I know that my efforts are helped by my fierce belief in both a benevolent universe and the sometimes-surprising strength of my own children.  \

I would love any of your thoughts on this: how do we toe the line between support and space, between prodding our children to become independent while also filling them with security and the knowledge that they are deeply, unequivocally loved?

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  1. Posted October 9, 2012 at 8:35 am | Permalink

    Lindsey, this essay is a particularly meaningful one for me. Thank you for articulating this challenge and what makes it essential so beautifully.

    I was overprotected, but curiously my basic emotional needs often did not fall under the umbrella of overprotection. For my daughter, I strive daily at changing the equation. I work to always meet her emotional needs while knowing that the bumps along the way are part of the curriculum of childhood. I do not remove them from her path and have watched her blossom as she meets these challenges head-on. It’s empowering to know you can make your way through the world, but that takes practice. I’m proud to say I started early, so we’re both more agile as the obstacles grow larger over time. Thanks again for this post.

  2. Posted October 9, 2012 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

    Oh, I think about this challenge all the time, especially as my kids get older and spend more time away from me.

    I think I remember that you’re reading Madeline Levine’s Teach Your Children Well? In that book and in a recent op-ed in the Times, she writes powerfully about not doing for our kids what they can do – or almost do – for themselves so that they are able to develop a sense of self independent from us.

    I suppose that there’s a reason I’ve always struggled with that most bittersweet of moments in early childhood: when my kids took their first step away from me. The metaphor makes me swoon! xo