LETTING GO OF YOUR KIDS
James N Kraut, Psy.D.
From the time your children are born, your job is to get them to not need you to do your job. The human journey begins with complete dependency and as parents, we attempt, gradually, to give our kids the skills to be able to live autonomously. What’s sad about it is that there are two deeply ingrained parental functions that are at odds with each other. We are programmed, as I said, to prepare our children not to need us. But we are also programmed to be bonded with them at an amazingly deep level.
In the early days, with young babies and little kids, the profound love we have for them and the job of socializing and educating our children are not yet in conflict. In the early years of childhood, parents should still be in practically total control. The real beginning of letting go starts with school.
When a child begins to attend school, the parents are no longer the sole purveyors of enculturation. Teachers and other students expose kids to ideas that may differ from what they hear at home. You are no longer able to regulate their experience. The sons and daughters of racists and xenophobes may be sitting next to those whose parents adamantly teach the rejection of prejudice of any kind. They are interacting with each other every day. As your kids grow older, they will be exposed to more and more ideas, music, language, behaviors and attitudes that differ from what you taught them. There’s no way to keep it from happening.
One of the most heartbreaking things parents have to do is let their kids fail. It is often not realized by parents that it is part of learning to trust oneself to be given the chance to make a mistake, fall down, get back up and learn from the experience. If you keep your adolescents from making mistakes, they don’t experience the initial hit and miss of being responsible for making their own decisions. Obviously when safety is at stake, or the outcome is of extreme importance, your input will still be necessary. But if you keep protecting your teens from the world and their own fallibility, they will be helpless and far too innocent when they finally encounter the world without your guidance.
Try to pull back gradually. Give your children the chance to test their wings in high school and by the time they get to college, be more of a coach than a hands-on parent. Let them turn to you when they’re truly stuck, but encourage your children to solve their own problems. Even when they would rather have you do it, they will learn from their own autonomous behaviors and feel justifiably proud of themselves when they steer their own course and it works out.
Perhaps the most useful thing to remember when your children are over 18 and out of the house is that as parents, we always go against their interests when we overly give in to our needs and encourage them too enthusiastically to come back home. We may miss them terribly because the initial bond we formed with them is still here. But if we did our jobs well, they will be so involved with their new lives that they will want to come home far less often than we would prefer. Although that makes for some lonely feelings, we can find comfort by reassuring ourselves that we have done what we were supposed to do. If your adult children are having trouble plotting their own course and staying in their lives outside of your home, they need to work on becoming more independent and the wise parent will encourage that, even though it means it will lead to less time with them.
Keep in mind that it is normal and natural to keep wanting your children around, just as it is inevitable that a healthy adult child will need the parental home less and less. Try to be proud of them from afar!