Fly Away Home

As parents we are always sending our children off into the world. From the moment they are born we begin the process of separation. It’s easy to forget in the day to day business of living, that our job as parents is to set our people free, let them fly, give them wings so they can soar into a life of their own. It’s a temporary and delicate job of teaching, loving and leading to the edge of goodbye. We are reminded when we send them to school for the very first time, when we leave them at a friends over night or drop them at summer camp, we are reminded that we don’t own them and our role is constantly evolving throughout their life. But one remains pretty constant –the role of letting go.
I’m beyond the age of standing in pick-up lines talking about first steps and weaning off breast-milk. I have reached the time in life when many of my friends are sending their children off to college, and the topics of conversation have shifted to revolve around such things as freedom and financial aid.
I had a taste of what it might be like for my friends of college age students, when I dropped my 11 year old off at nature’s classroom. Nature’s classroom is a school run program in the back woods of New Hampshire. Students spend one week alienated from helicopter parents. It’s my daughters first time away from home for so long. It’s exciting and worrisome, and wonderful. A range of emotions flooded me as I gave her one last hug, and I couldn’t think of what else to say to make it a more effective and positive trip. I wanted to keep her from experiencing anything negative, but I know letting go is the only way for her to experience the positive and gain confidence that we will need for the future.
As I drove away I found myself going through the mental checklist. “Did I tell her to have a buddy at all times or where to go if she needed help? Did I tell her I love her? With all these questions and more stirring, there was one overarching question that shrouded the others: “Did I prepare her to be away from me?” did I give her what she needs to be successful apart from my voice of wisdom, loving shelter and cautious reflections? I had this nagging feeling that I wasn’t just wondering if I had given her enough info last week for this week, but have I given her enough tools in the last 10 years for next week.
I realized that this question grows with our children. While watching the school bus drive away for the very first time, we might ask, does she have her lunch? Will she be kind, does she have the confidence to ask for help or stay out of trouble? When they are gone for a weekend, we might wonder if we told them to brush their teeth. I saw my 14 year old walking to the bus with his head down, checking his phone. I sent him a text, “don’t text while walking down the street and walk against traffic, I saw the problem and was able to address it, but when they are gone for extended periods of time, we are asking questions like “do they have what they need to handle situations that cannot be seen or predicted?” talking to strangers takes on a different kind of anxiety when they are 2, 12 or 18. The reality is it’s not about talking to strangers, it’s that we don’t want them to get kidnapped. The real info we need to give them is not “don’t talk to strangers” but “know what to do in a situation where you feel threatened or where someone would seem strange in behavior. know how to avoid situations that might be dangerous.” Did I give her that?
This question, gets more powerful the further they go, the older they get and the more extended their time is spent away from us. When they can drive we are asking, “Do they know the speed limit and are they keeping it, did I tell them that story about the kid who was killed in a drag race? Did I show him the right way to drive? Did I speed? Did I tell them not to get in the car with someone drinking, does she know to be alone with a guy she doesn’t know, or do drugs? Did I remind her she can call me at any hour for any reason? Does she trust me? Did I tell her / him about all the dangers in the world and how to avoid them? These questions invades us as they grow. And morphs into, can I trust them to apply what they know?
These queries are infinitely bigger than did ‘they remember their lunch’? Is it even possible to teach them everything? Have I given them the rundown of important life lessons, information, tough and tender love, compassion and honesty? Have I instilled in them the importance of being cautious but having fun so life can be an adventurous and challenging journey filled with good things, rather than a looming stretch of broken roads and dark forests? Have I prepared them?
Today everything is changing so fast it’s hard to know what are those eternal, time tested, essential truths and resources that they need to know and have? Did I waste my time nagging about stupid things like, “eat your green beans”, so they eventually tuned my voice out when I did have something significant to say? Did I hug them enough, show them enough love and give them a sense of security, a good balance of independence and responsibility and power? Are they resilient enough, courageous enough and have good discernment, will they assert themselves and speak up on behalf of those weaker than they are? How do we know they will make the right choice? Did we give them the tools to make good choices? And how do we keep ourselves from staying up late at night worrying about whether or not they will make the wrong choice. Is that part of letting them fly?
My husband told me this past weekend a colleague’s college age son tried to kick through a window outside his apartment building, while drunk. He sliced his leg open from ankle to knee. He showed me the picture of this young man’s calf muscle hanging out on the gurney, and I thought, in horror, he might lose his leg! Are his parents to blame for him not knowing about the effects of alcohol or putting your leg through a double pane glass window? Of course not- he’s 20 years old. They cannot be responsible for what their son does with the information they gave him. These are the stories that scare us, that make us want to hold on. But we can only provide the ingredients – once our children are on their own, they make the final decisions. It’s dreadful what happened, but freedom to choose is beautiful. And another beautiful thing is to hear the words, “Mom – I did it!” This is the greatest responsibility, whether a shout of victory or a failure. To own one’s own life –freedom, is worth dying for.
Have I given them everything they need to be successful in life and what if I haven’t will they fail? Not just at math and science, in fact this really is the least of my concerns. Have I given them what they need to be a successful person, socially, emotionally, ethically, morally and spiritually? They might fail, this young man certainly was not “successful” in his attempt to gain entry into his home Saturday night.
Is there always ‘one thing’ we wished we had said or done to give our child a better send off? We can’t know. We really cannot predict nor prevent nor create everything perfect to make our children lead “consistently awesome lives”. We mostly do the best we can as loving parents, they are responsible for what they do with what we have given them.
But there will always be that one more thing. That one more piece of advice that we wish we gave them. But if their success rests on one piece of advice, we did a bad job. It will never come down to one thing. Life is a piece of art, with many colors. What they need comes from a lifetime of learning, their lifetime of gathered information and experiences and a multitude of counselors, teachers and moments.
We teach them to use a pencil and show them how we used it and then let them figure out what to write on the empty pages of their life. We give them some tools and teach them the basic skills, it’s up to them to wield those tools and choose what they will make out of their life. If we don’t allow them to make those choices, they will be miserable and trapped, prisoners of our fears.
Our goal in life as parents is to raise our children and send them off to the world, to freedom, independence, and responsibility and even to disappointment and occasional failures. The hope is that we have trained them in such a way that they return. We want them to see our life and be desirous of how we have lived. They will follow those they admire, that is instinctive. So live your life in such a way that your child looks at your life and says: my parents are on a good path, they got the stuff I need, and want, and how do I get to where they are?
I’ll never forget seeing a mother and 2 year old walking in the store, the child was following along beside mom. Not holding a hand or on a leash, just bopping along behind mom. And I thought to myself, how do they know to do that? What makes a child stay with their mother at such a young age? Momma has the goods, even a child knows that. We don’t have to hold on to our children to ensure they stay close. When we ask ourselves, “did I give them what they need to succeed” – if you’re letting go, you’re giving them what they need. If we have loved and cared for our children they will likely follow our examples. When we create an environment that our children feel good in and want to be in, they will follow even when you forgot to give that last piece of advice, even though we’re not perfect. We won’t have to remember everything, just the part about letting them fly when they are ready.

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