Let Him Go

Dr. Henry Selby, Headmaster All Saints' Episcopal School, Morristown, TN

Dr. Henry Selby, Headmaster All Saints’ Episcopal School, Morristown, TN

Today I’m going to share great wisdom! Moms and dads, sometimes you have to let go. Sometimes you have to allow your child to fail at a project or come in last in the competition, or even (gasp!) be chosen last. And you weren’t hardwired for this process.

You were hardwired to care for your child, to nurture and protect her, and to be an advocate and champion. And when your child is hurting, you are hurting even more. It’s about love.

When I was a brand new daddy many years ago, I received disturbing news from a friend. My little baby girl was not really mine, I was told. She was on loan from God. This bit of homely theology didn’t sit well with me at all! My wife and I talked about it frequently. Over the years this idea wobbled around in our brains nonstop. It deeply affected our parenting.

My children (Ok, the persons in my care who are on loan from God) have been the recipients of food, shelter, clothing, and education. The daughters are successful in their vocations and are happily married. Our son is a sophomore in high school. And with each of them we have been faced with the decision to “let them go” at certain times.

A notable expression of this attitude involved homework. In our home the kids were allowed to come to us with specific questions regarding homework, but then had to return to their homework area. We did not hover or cajole. It worked well for us and for them in the long run. But it was not particularly easy, especially if the homework involved building a project or poster (which I love doing even to this day!). We made the purchases for their school supplies, we provided a place for homework, and we took a lively interest in their education. The grades were up to them.

Please don’t think we’re looking for the blue ribbon award in parenting! Most of what we did appears to be a happy accident when we look in the rearview mirror. It was probably due to mimicry of the way we were raised. But once in a while we had to be intentionally overt, to be agonizingly purposeful, in allowing the children to fail in their decision making processes.

Why? It’s about love. Love, in its truest sense, is functioning for the well-being of another. And daily we parents are faced with issues concerning the well-being of our children. How often does the child learn from failure? Maybe we should remember just how many falls the toddler had while learning to walk.

Here’s some more wisdom. It doesn’t get any easier to “let go” when the kids get older. Holding a sobbing daughter for hours after her heart is broken, trying to explain that not being accepted to the first choice college is not the end of the world, or even saying that “the cell phone bill is now your responsibility” are all examples of real love. And they are not easy.

Each life event ought to prepare our children for the next experience. Schools do this with sequenced curricula. Parents do this nonstop with their behaviors. And if a parent swoops in to protect the child from failure at every turn, well . . . the toddler is going to have a mighty hard time standing up straight.

So now I’m going to take some of my own advice. Sophomore son is in New York City on a choir tour. I am not there to keep his money or his belongings or his person safe. I am not there as his safety net. And something “might happen”.

In the movie Finding Nemo you may recall that Nemo’s dad is frantically worried about his son. “I just don’t want anything to happen to him!” he cries. Dory, the forgetful-yet-helpful regal tang give an aside: “Why would anyone want that?”

Why indeed?