Many parenting issues seem to be all about control. Parents make rules and then enforce them; cook food and convince the children to eat it; educate young minds and teach them right from wrong. Being a parent brings with it a mountain of responsibility, and the authority needed to do the job.
I’ve been thinking lately about the other side of the coin. What role does letting go of that control play in parenting?
When we are pregnant or our progeny are small, we are completely responsible for those small creations, and we make all of the decisions about their lives. Remember the terrifying responsibility of holding a tiny, fragile new being in your arms? At least that small person didn’t argue with you over the necessity of being in a car seat, or sleeping on their back! Later, we put their small arms and legs into clothes we like, and hold their hands as we walk them to the dance or art class we choose. We choose the home in which they grow, the religion they practice, and the school they attend.
Somewhere along the line that absolute control begins to evaporate, we loosen our grip and our children begin to choose their own direction.
Perhaps it starts with that first strident “No!” to the clothes we have chosen, or evolves later with a demand to take a course in auto mechanics instead of ballet. Perhaps they refuse to study in a class they hate, or ask to go to their friend’s church instead of yours.
They become increasingly independent, take on more responsibility for their own lives, and our influence wanes.
Life itself has more of an impact than we would sometimes choose. Disappointments and loss are inevitable, and possibly essential for normal development. Nothing can make a parent feel more powerless than when a child is injured or sick. Heartbreak strengthens our souls and allows us to appreciate real love later, but it is hard to watch it happen to the one you never wanted to see hurt.
Worse, how do you manage when your child is simply not built in a way that coincides with their dreams? When they are not tall enough, or pretty enough, or talented enough, and they have to realign their futures to a different reality? How, when random chance throws them sideways? There is sometimes simply nothing in your parenting arsenal that will help.
How do you manage when, in order to build their future, they have to leave another part of their lives (perhaps the part in which you are standing) behind?
They will never know who they truly are and be able to choose the direction of their lives if we dictate all of their decisions. So we as parents need to learn to step back and empower them, rather than holding all that power close ourselves. We need to allow them to risk hurt, while we place the weight of their lives on their own shoulders, so that they can become our equals rather than our dependents.
Over time, we assume more of a supporting role. We are there if they need love, if they ask for help, or if they want to bounce ideas, but we no longer determine and fix their lives. Powerlessness is proof of successful parenting.
So, letting go.
Perhaps we start when we hold up two outfits and ask them which one they want to wear. We keep control of the things that keep them safe, making them wear seat belts and bike helmets, locking up guns, making them get their shots – but let them choose which sport they want to play, what they want to learn, and who they want to associate with. We let them fail a test or loose a friend, even though we can see it coming and they cannot. We protect them from choices that will destroy their future (drugs, sex, destructive relationships…), but accept their decisions in other areas. It is their life, not ours.
We force ourselves to let go, and step back. We will no doubt be angry, or sad, over some of their choices. We may feel guilty when they fail and we could have helped. We will have trouble finding where the line is, where that point is that we need to step back.