A young mother recently told me that her four-month-old son was now sleeping in his own crib in his own room instead of in a bassinette in her room. She said this with both relief and a bit of sadness.
A mother of a kindergartner told me about her feelings as her daughter entered the public school this fall: how watching her daughter get on the bus on the first morning by herself pulled at her heartstrings. She described a sense of pride in her daughter’s accomplishment and maturity, and also a sense of loss and loneliness as she turned to go back to her empty house.
A parent of a sixth grader mentioned how often his daughter wants to be with friends rather than with the family. He felt unsure whether to allow this – he was pleased that she has friends whom she cares about and who care about her, but he was concerned about her losing sight of the importance of family in her life.
The parent in each of these situations wonders, through the excitement and the growth that they see: “Where did my baby go?” “How did the time pass so quickly?” “How independent do I allow or want my child to become?” Often at transition times, parents think about their children growing up and moving on.
One of the constant struggles parents experience as they watch their children grow is finding a healthy balance between letting the children move into the broader world and finding ways to stay connected to them.
Be Aware of and Accept Your Feelings
As your children grow, they need you less. They are becoming increasingly independent, beginning with the newborn who starts to sleep in his own room, all the way to the teen going off to college, and of course even beyond that. This can create conflicting emotions in parents.
Part of your job as a mom or dad is to form a strong emotional bond with your children, so allowing – and even encouraging – separation seems unnatural and contrary to what a “good parent” should be doing.
Parents often feel an ache and an emptiness about not being needed as strongly as when their children were young. The path you are on is often bittersweet. When your children are first born, you are totally committed to your helpless little infants; you are fully devoted to them and immersed in caring for them. You do all this so that gradually, little step by little step, they develop the confidence to travel their own path. The truth is that the healthy outcome of your caring and focus is that they will eventually leave you.
It is one of the most difficult things that a parent must do. Being aware of the struggle and knowing you are not alone in having these feelings can help you to make the choices that are best for your children. You will then be able to encourage them to spread their wings and become self-assured and independent.
The next piece to consider when thinking about this balancing act is what your children need to be doing in order to optimize their growth and development. It is often difficult for parents to know how much to let go or how much to hold on. However, knowledge of child development and an understanding of your child’s temperament can help you decide.
Developmentally, children will move in and out of periods of attachment and clinginess to you, times of social growth when they prefer to be doing things with peers, and stages when they need more solitude. School-age children need to master social skills so they can maneuver through their peer group successfully. Teens need to separate from their parents and attach to their age group in order to develop their own sense of identity and their own values. It helps to be aware of these cycles and to be respectful of your children’s needs as they arise.
For example, it can be reassuring to the father of the sixth grader mentioned previously to know that one of the tasks of a child of that age is to learn about social relationships with peers. With this knowledge it will be easier for him not to take his daughter’s preference for her friend group as a personal rejection of him or a negation of the value of family. She is simply doing her “job.” He can honor her need to perform the developmental task of her age by giving her many opportunities to socialize. He can also keep in mind that his job as a parent is to pass on his values to his children and to encourage an awareness of the importance of family.
Knowing, understanding, and respecting your child’s temperament traits can also help you to make healthy decisions for your unique child. Some children are considered “slow to warm” and more introverted; they may need more time to separate and enter new situations. Other children are more adventurous and ready to move out on their own. Tina, the little kindergartener in the opening of this article, can’t wait for school to start and runs onto the bus with barely a wave to her mother. Rachel clings to her mother as the bus driver waits.
Awareness of your child’s temperament can help you to set realistic expectations for how ready your child is to move out into the world. For one child, you may need to hold back her eager enthusiasm; for another child, you may need to encourage her timid attempts.
Clarify Your Values
The issue of letting go/holding on exists on a continuum. At one end of this spectrum is “over-involvement” or being enmeshed with your children; the children are given no autonomy or latitude to go out into the world, to the detriment of their development and future functioning. At the other end of the continuum is detachment and emotional distance, where the letting go becomes more an act of abandonment than healthy separation.
Enmeshed/overly involved. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Remote/detached
Yet because parenting is such a personal journey, there is no one right point on this scale. Rather, each family can find its comfortable place between these two extremes, working consciously to avoid the end points. Cultural influences are strong here – some cultures admire and encourage independence while others stress closeness and interdependence. Either can be healthy as long as parents avoid the extremes, so that children can feel autonomous and capable and find ways to stay connected to their families.
So it is with the sixth grader’s need for sociability. One family may allow more time for peer interactions and may make fewer “family-time demands” on their pre-teen. Another set of parents may want more involvement in family activities and so may put more limits on their young adolescent’s time with peers. The goal is to find a healthy balance that allows the child both experiences and honors the parents’ values and needs.
As children grow and move out into the wider world, they no longer need you to provide the same level of physical care. And as they show greater maturity and improved judgment, you can begin slowly letting out the reins. The parenting role can be expanded from that of caretaker and disciplinarian to one that includes a relationship with your children that is based on other factors – ones that will “keep them coming back for more.” Developing common interests is an effective way to maintain a bond between you and your children.
This issue of letting go/holding on is a continuing theme that moms and dads visit throughout their parenting journey, beginning with the baby moving to his own room through starting school and beyond. Children need to learn to be both independent and interdependent; parents can help their children do this by valuing both traits and by being mindful of balancing “letting go” and “staying connected” in their families.
By Audrey Krisbergh, Certified Parenting Educator
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