Letting go has the reputation of being the result of defeat or the result of disappointment or grief. But it is also seen as a healthy act, one that allows for growth, opportunity, or transition to a new state or next level. When it comes to our kids, we have been letting go since they were born. Letting go is a process, not an event. Letting go can be life-giving and empowering. Letting go without warning – that can be at the very least disappointing and at the very worst, dangerous.
How can we know when to let go and when to hold on tight?
1. Make room in your life for your children’s plans. We’ve orchestrated much of our children’s lives. Unfortunately, being a member of the orchestra means you only get to play the conductor’s choice of music. Start including your kids in the planning of events, outings, trips, and even meals. Eventually, let them take the lead to plan each of these on their own. That way you’ll both get used to them making and executing their own life plans.
2. Help your kids keep track of their own progress. Following through on a project to completion and managing one’s time are what we call “executive functions.” Executive functions are needed for managing oneself and one’s resources in order to achieve a goal. They are a direct pipeline to self-regulation and independence. Encourage your kids to post on a family calendar their upcoming deadlines and events (e.g., science fair project, soccer tryouts, field trip, etc.) and then help them create a checklist of what has to be done when in order to meet those deadlines. Make the checklist public so that both you and your children can see the progress they are making toward their goals (deadlines).
3. Teach your children to stand up for themselves. How often do you find yourself running interference for your children? Fighting our children’s battles only makes them weak, not stronger. Look for opportunities for them to stand on their own – to challenge a grade, to respectfully disagree with an elder, to express their likes and dislikes, to confront a bully, to ask for time off at their job for a family event, so that they can be the warrior that someday will battle for someone they love and care for.
4. Encourage critical thinking so they can think for themselves. Decision-making and problem-solving are crucial adult skills we need to foster in our children. We’ve spent a lot of time offering our children choices – do you want this or do you want that? Usually these are equal choices; ones that we have decided on ahead of time. Although a good behavior management approach, it doesn’t do much to help our kids translate the choices in real life. Choices are rarely equal. Possible solutions are rarely readily apparent. Start by asking your kids to come up with their own choices and possible solutions to problems. What do you think might improve this situation? Or In what ways might you try to make sure you get up on time for school each day? Or What are your options for college? They can still talk through a problem or choice with you, but ultimately they need to make the decision.
5. Let your children learn from their mistakes. It is so tempting to shield our kids from the fallout of a bad decision. We want to be their net in case they fall from the high wire of their lives. Most of their mistakes won’t be life-threatening, but instead can be life-giving. Encourage your children to examine what they could have done differently to avoid a particular mistake. Learning from their own mistakes will make their future successes theirs – not ours.
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Dr. Vicki Caruana is the author of 20 books and the blog Apples & Chalkdust—named after her bestselling book that has touched the lives of a million educators around the world. Caruana is one of four parenting experts on Starting Points, Focus on the Family’s parenting DVD series. Formerly a public school teacher and a homeschooling mom, Vicki is now an assistant professor of education at Mount Saint Mary College in New York. She lives with her station wagon loving husband, Chip, in Newburgh, New York and has two grown sons in Colorado Springs.