My wife, Lori and I just dropped our youngest child, Jake, off at college--at UCLA. This was a pretty traumatic experience for us. There was weeping and wailing and uncontrollable sobbing--and Lori was upset too.
The opening scene from the movie, “Father of the Bride,” has always made me misty-eyed as Steve Martin describes his feelings after his daughter’s wedding: “You fathers will understand. You have a little girl, an adorable little girl, who looks up to you and adores you in a way you never could have imagined. I remember how her little hand used to fit inside mine, how she used to love to sit on my lap and lean her head against my chest. She said I was her hero. Then the day comes when she wants to get her ears pierced and wants you to drop her off a block before the movie theater. The next thing you know she wants to wear eye shadow and…high heels. From that moment on you are in a constant state of panic. You worry about her going out with the wrong kind of guys…Then she gets a little older and you quit worrying about her going out with the wrong guy, and you worry about her meeting the right guy. And that’s the biggest fear of all, because then you lose her.”
Letting go is tough. But it’s a primary part of life and parenting.
I suspect there are at least ten times in a parent’s life when letting go is necessary and especially difficult:
1. When our child takes her first steps. This is literally letting go.
2. When our child is one and a half to three years old.
This is the stage when a child first begins to realize that he or she exists as a separate entity than Mom and Dad.
3. When our child starts school.
One parenting expert observed: “I believe the most stirring moment in the experience of a parent comes on the day he leaves his child at school for the first time. This can be so sharp an experience that, when there are two or three children, this ritual has to be alternated between parents.”
4. When our child reaches the teenage years.
5. When our child learns to drive.
6. When our child leaves home.
“Helping your eldest pick a college is one of the greatest educational experiences of life—for the parents. Next to trying to pick his bride, it is the best way to learn your authority, if not already gone, is slipping fast.”—Sally and James Reston, “Letting Go”
7. When our child gets married.
8. When our child moves away.
9. When our child raises our grandchildren differently than how we’d do it.
10. When the roles are reversed.
It starts out that they are wearing diapers in our house, and it ends up that we are wearing diapers in their house.
Parenting seems to be all about letting go. And the season I’m in seems to be especially difficult, painful, and awkward. So how do we do it? How can we manage these letting go seasons? Let me share some lessons I’m learning:
1. We have to let go.
“’Have you not read,’ he replied, ‘that at the beginning the Creator made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife and the two shall become one flesh.”—Matthew 19:4-5
Bart Starr, the Hall of Fame quarterback for the Green Bay Packers dynasty of another day was once asked what the most important task of a quarterback is. He replied, “The handoff.”
Our job as parents is to let go.
Paul Johnson says, “It’s a law of nature that parents need to hold on and children need to find independence, and children need to win.”
“He appointed twelve—designating them apostles—that they might be with him and that he might send them out.”—Mark 2:14
Jesus started early in letting go of his followers, we need to keep the end in mind as well.
There are several parenting strategies for letting go. One is to give the child tons of freedom and very few limits early on, and then tighten the grip as they grow older. As the kids become teenagers and want independence, the parents become more strict. This strategy almost invariably leads to rebellion. Another strategy is to keep strict control over the kids when they are young and as they grow—strict, strict, strict. This results in hamstrung kids. A third method
is to be strict early, but then gradually release control. This approach generally leads to healthy kids who do well in life.
In the excellent book, “Boundaries with Kids” Henry Clay tells this story. “We had finished dinner, and I was visiting with my friend Allison and her husband Bruce, when she left the dinner table to do some chores. Bruce and I continued to talk until a phone call took him away as well, so I went to see if I could lend Allison a hand. I could hear her in their fourteen-year-old son Cameron’s room. I walked in to a scene that jolted me. She was cheerfully putting away clothes and sports equipment and making the bed. She struck up a conversation as if things were normal, ‘I can’t wait for you to see the pictures from the trip. It was so much…’ ‘What are you doing?’ I asked. ‘I’m cleaning up Cameron’s room,’ she said. ‘What does it look like I’m doing?’ ‘You are what?’ ‘I told you, I’m cleaning up his room. Why are you looking at me like that?’ All I could do was to share with her the vision in my head, ‘I just feel sorry for Cameron’s future wife.’ Allison straightened up, froze for a moment, and then hurried from the room. I walked into the hall to see her standing there motionless. Not knowing what to say, I said nothing. After a few moments, she looked at me and said, ‘I’d never thought about it that way.’”
2. We need to keep growing.
“Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.”—Luke 2:52
We need to keep growing as parents. Parenting is learned behavior, We don’t need a license to do it, but we do get a learner’s permit—our first child!
When it comes to letting go we parents need to keep growing for two reasons. First, we don’t learn how to let go naturally.
Growing up is pretty natural. Kids naturally learn to walk, they learn to be independent. But there’s nothing natural about letting go at all.
In fact, when there’s conflict with our kids over letting go issues, parents are the usually the primary problem.
“Parental insensitivity is the number one reason for the causes of an unhappy home.”--James Dobson
The turmoil that comes with parent/child conflict is most often our fault. Think of those stages. For instance, when the child gets to be about two, they naturally begin to develop the understanding that they are separate from Mom. It’s a natural growth process for them. So, what do we do as parents? Instead of growing ourselves and learning how to handle this phenomenon we blame the kid. We’ve come up with this ridiculous label that really bothers me—“The terrible twos.”
That’s a pretty inflammatory label we don’t use on other ages. We don’t say, oh he’s going through the awful eighties. She’s in her fiery forties.
Think about it, it’s not the kids fault we haven’t learned how to gently discipline them through their two-year-old discovery.
And what about teenagers? There’s an ugly rumor out there that says when a kid gets to be a teenager he goes nuts. It ain’t necessarily so. There is no Biblical passage that says “Train up a child in the way he should go and when he gets to junior high watch out!”
It is more likely that it’s the parents that have gone nuts. They get caught up in this lie that teenagers are all bad, and they go crazy until their child hits about nineteen and then they return to normal.
I was youth pastor for a year and a half—the longest decade of my life. And these parents would drop their kids off at youth group at 7pm on a Wednesday night and scream, “I’ve messed this kid up for fifteen years, you need to fix him for me. I’ll be back at 8:30.”
(I do want to go on record and say the teenage years have been the most fun parenting years for me. Our house has been full with our kids and their friends, the conversations have been real (okay, they usually don’t start until midnight) and the relationships have been great. Don’t buy into the myth that teenagers are terrible!)
And what about caring for aged parents, why is that so difficult? Isn’t a large part of the difficulty due to parents who have not grown to accept the senior season of life?
We need to keep growing because we might be the major problem.
Secondly we need to keep growing because we probably don’t learn how to let go from our parents. Perhaps we’ve not had good parenting models.
Before you get all upset at me for saying the problems with our kids are on us, let me say it is really not our fault. We’ve only been doing what our parents showed us to do.
My wife, the counselor, often tells me that it is very difficult for people to parent beyond that which they were parented.
My parents did a pretty good job raising me—until I turned twelve. At that time my oldest sister got married and moved away, my two older brothers moved out, my dad got promoted to a traveling position at work and my mom took up drinking. And I was left wondering, “What happened here?”
And that’s pretty common for most of us. Why do we struggle with teenagers? Is it because they are really bad or is it because our parents had no clue with us so we’ve never seen a good example of parenting at that stage?
Our parents did the best they could, but unless we grow beyond their parenting we’re not going to get a lot of this parenting stuff down—certainly not this letting go stuff.
Before we go on let me pause to talk about how God offers forgiveness for us parents. I do not want to burden us with more guilt about parenting. Jesus died to take away our guilt. No matter what mistakes I’ve made as a parent—and there have been plenty—God offers forgiveness. And he does the same for you.
3. We need to keep connected to them.
Jesus said, “Surely I am with you always.”—Matthew 28:20
"How'd you get along with you new daddy while I was on my business trip?" asked the recently-remarried woman. Fine, Mommy," responded her eight-yea-old. "Every morning he took me out on the lake in a rowboat and let me swim back to shore." “Gee, honey, wasn't that kind of a long swim?" "Not too bad. The tough part was getting out of the bag first!"
It is possible to give up control, but retain the connection.
One big mistake we make as parents is holding on too tight. But another mistake we can make—on the opposite end of the spectrum is not holding on at all—abandoning our kids.
There’s another parenting myth out there that says, “When they turn 18 they’re on their own.”
Again, that isn’t true. The Bible never says, “Train up a child until he is eighteen and then relax!”
I have 40 nieces and nephews--a big family. They range from five-years-old to 37. And I would say that the older ones need parental connections a lot like the younger ones.
Why are so many 18 to 25 year-olds lost these days? Is it because we’ve just dropped them? They are the ignored generation—and they are ignored at the time when they are making some of the most influential decisions of their lives!
I’ve got to go out of my way to keep the connections with my kids.
Let me end with a silly story. Three turtles went for a picnic in the country. One carried a basket of food, one carried a jug of drinks, but the third carried nothing. As soon as they got to the picnic site it started to rain. “We can’t have a picnic without an umbrella,” the first turtle said. “One of us will have to go back and get one.” The first two turtles decided that the third should go get the umbrella because he hadn’t brought anything. “I won’t go,” the third turtle said. “as soon as I leave you’ll eat all the food and drink all the drinks and there will be nothing left for me.” “We promise to wait for you,” the others promised. “No matter how long it takes?” he asked. “No matter how long it takes,” they pledged. So the third turtle took off while the others waited. They waited an hour, two hours, four hours, a day, two days, a week. Finally the second turtle said, “Maybe we should go ahead and eat.” Just then they heard the voice of the third turtle call out from the bushes, “If you start eating, I won’t go!’
As a parent I’m tempted to refuse to let go, to hide in the bushes and to not trust my kids or God. But He is in control, he’ll take care of them and He’ll take care of me.