More than nurturing, more than safety, more than education and socialization and even more than food, clothing, shelter and a new cell phone every couple of years, parenting is about letting go.
All of the rest of that may be necessary (make your own judgment about cell phones, Xbox, PlayStation, Twitter and Facebook accounts, of course), but it's just practice. All that energy invested in getting your kids to do their chores, to get in bed on time, to eat their vegetables, and to do their homework is practice. All the arguments, the door slamming, the nightmares that brought her crawling into your bed, the playdates and scouting trips and soccer matches? Practice.
Loving and respecting you? Getting along with siblings? Apologizing to a classmate? Serving detention and getting caught sneaking out of class, and her first speeding ticket? Yep. Practice. Rehearsal. It's all just warm up for the real deal: Letting go.
As parents, we are the just the means of launching our children off into their lives. Remember the space shuttle program? Every six months or so a hulking, five hundred foot tall rocket would blast off, an inverted volcano belching fire and smoke, separating into pieces left to burn up in the atmosphere, just to get a tiny little capsule into space. As parents, we are that enormous, thunderous rocket, pushing, pushing through resistance to launch our kids -to let them go- and gladly left behind to burn up on re-entry.
And how true. That's more or less what our parents did to get us here today and what our kids will do with their children someday, too. Its how the species has survived, each generation holding tight just long enough to finally, painfully and inevitably let the next one go.
Letting go is full of pride and grief, worry and fear and hope.
Fortunately, it's not the one time, fire-breathing all-or-nothing spectacle that the rocket analogy might suggest. We get to practice letting go several trillion times before the kids are finally launched into outer space (aka "adulthood") on their own.
In fact, the biggest and most dramatic letting go is probably the first.
Birth. None of us remembers, but it's reasonable to guess that there is no transition in life bigger than the transition from being weightless and afloat with all needs instantly met to suddenly being cold and hungry and scared, amidst bright lights and loud sounds and prodding fingers.
All that comes after is the yo-yo, back-and forth experience of feeling held tight, then let go. Pick up-cuddle-eat, put down. Wake up is being held tight by all things familiar. Sleep is letting go into darkness and fear. Coming home is being held tight, getting on the school bus is letting go. Friends and family mean being held tight, leaving for summer camp or college or travel or work means letting go.
And the losses! Even a child who has the good fortune not to experience the death of a loved one certainly faces loss all the time. Friends move far away. Pets die. Beloved babysitters go off to college. Girlfriends reject us. Every loss means letting go, as well. Each feels devastating at the time -a 10 out of 10 on the Richter scale- but each one is just a bit more practice preparing for the big show. For being launched into adulthood.
Having survived the process, we see the irony in our children's demands for greater and greater freedoms. The seven year old who wants to stay up later. The ten year old who must have a cell phone! The fifteen year old who's ready to drop out and move out and get a job today because "I'll never need algebra in the real world!" They all think that as adults, we can do anything we want. We're in charge of all the goodies. We are masters of our own fates. They don't know how nice it is to be held tight, that they should relish and enjoy the comforts we provide as long as they can, that they should linger and make childhood last, and that letting go is hard.
One way or another, sooner or later, with an explosion of flames or a gentle, gradual transition, every child must eventually be let go. Sent off into the world to discover themselves. To make their way. Hopefully, the break isn't total. Hopefully the rocket ship doesn't burn up entirely on re-entry. Hopefully, "The Giving Tree" isn't cut down to its roots.
Even after we let our kids go, we try to be there to hold them tight. Even if it's from a distance. Even if they need us less and less often. This is good. This is how it should be.
My newest book, Holding Tight/Letting Go: Raising Healthy Kids in Anxious Times (Unhooked Books 2016) has shifted my perspective.
Writing those chapters helped me begin to see my experience as a son, as a father, as a professional, and as a human being differently. None of what I've said and written in this column for the past twenty-plus years has changed, I'm beginning to see it all in a new frame. That frame is, as the title suggests, the fundamental experience we all share of feeling held tight and let go, over and over again, from conception through our senior years and even death.
Would I have been a better parent or professional had I had this perspective twenty years ago? Perhaps. I'll never know. But you can.
Keep reading and learning and talking about bedtimes and toddler tantrums and anger management and impulse control and structure, all the millions of topics that make up the nuts and bolts of healthy parenting. But don't forget as you do so -as you pour the cereal and drive the carpool and kiss them goodnight- that every bit of that is practice. Every bit of that is learning how to manage the heartbeat rhythm that is holding tight/letting go.
Benjamin D. Garber is a husband, son and the father of two. He is a New Hampshire licensed psychologist, a former Guardian ad litem and a Parenting Coordinator. He is an invited speaker and professional trainer across the United States and Canada, a prolific writer and a closet cartoonist.
Dr. Garber has advanced degrees in child and family development, clinical psychology, and psycholinguistics from the Pennsylvania State University and the University of Michigan. He has lived and worked in New Hampshire since 1988, opening his present practice in clinical child, family, forensic and consulting psychology in 1999. When not engaged in professional activities or involved with family matters, Dr. Garber can often be found kayaking and fishing on the remote lakes and rivers of Northern New England and occasionally scuba diving in warmer waters to the south.
Dr. Garber is a nationally renowned speaker, researcher and an award winning freelance journalist, writing in the areas of child and family development for popular press publications appearing around the world and in juried professional publications in both law and psychology. His other books are: Keeping Kids Out of the Middle, Ten Child-Centered Family Evaluation Tools and Developmental Psychology for Family Law Professionals.