Today, my fifteen-year-old pulled into a parking space, albeit a bit crooked, in front of the drivers’ education school. He had driven us there, on the highway, and done well. We both opened our doors and climbed out.
“You’re not coming in with me, are you?” he said, with a hint of alarm.
“No, don’t worry. Just getting into your seat.” I moved around the front of the car and slid into the driver’s side. Already he was walking up the steps to the building. I paused to notice his tall, slim body open the door and disappear without another look.
It would’ve been weird if he had turned and waved as I sat in my car watching him. He’s not five anymore. Yet a myriad of other boy backs flitted across my memory as he vanished.
Boys, climbing on school buses, wearing backpacks, eager with anticipation. Boys running onto soccer fields, kicking their soccer balls ahead of them, their faces flushed with excitement. I recalled standing with them while they rang doorbells on the front porches of their friends’ houses; as I chatted with their friends’ moms, I remembered my boys racing away, upstairs or outside to play, with no concern about a pick-up time, just that it might be too soon.
Oh, the years of dropping them off, watching their backs recede into classrooms, concerts, try-outs, music lessons, programs, youth groups, interviews and summer jobs. Always, I watched their backs moving away from me, toward challenge and personal growth. From climbing on tour buses for sleep-away camps to boarding planes for missions trips and study-abroad semesters, I’ve stood transfixed by the symbolism of the backs of my children. (Read Gone! to commiserate over the impact of a long separation.)
Leaving is growing. It’s self-education. It’s good.
So how do you help them walk away with heads held high and smiles on their faces? It doesn’t matter what age they are, the principles are the same. I think a parent must tell them and show them:
- That they are ready for this–they can do it. Just be sure you’ve showed them how to prepare. Confidence is groomed through experience, not dolled out like candy from a positive parent. They become confident through practice, failure, and work ethic. Many kids will need talk through possible scenarios, role play with you, or participate in the activity with you several times first before they leave you to do it alone. But be careful how much information you give an anxious child; too much detail can make the anxiety worse.
- That you are ready for this–that you are happy about this change. You need to embrace the maturation process of your child, whatever the stage. If you tend to control, over-protect, or insulate your kids from new experiences, you will have a hard time selling excitement about them leaving you to try something new. Learn to take the following advice for yourself, too. (And cry after they leave.)
- That trying new things is exciting! Spend time talking about goals and what it will take for your kids to reach their potential. Demonstrate how growth necessitates change, and that hard process of both will propel them toward their goals. Stretching yourself also models for them how a person grows. By meeting new people and challenging yourself, you will show your kids that growth is not only good, it’s achievable.
- If you’re a Christ-follower, that God lives in them and stays with them wherever they are. Teach them that when they pray for courage or help, God will hear them. Letting your kids leave you models your faith and teaches them to cleave to the heart of God–to trust Him first and foremost. This is the greatest lesson they can learn in life. Your goal in parenting children should be to navigate them away from your control and into God’s.
- And if all else fails–That “This is good for you. This is your responsibility. You committed to this.” Kids must learn and accept that in life we all have to do things that are difficult, nerve-wracking, and necessary. Somethings are necessary for their development, whether they like it or not. As my mom used to say: “It builds character.”
Noticing the backs of my departing children is acknowledging transformation. It’s being a witness to the independence I’m instilling in them. I find a surprising blessing in the turn of their backs, not because I won’t miss them, but because their walking away shows me that they’re maturing. I’m thrilled to watch their confidence and optimism develop and bloom.
And yet, sometimes, there’s a little twinge, deep down in my gut. It tugs at the bottom of my heart, with grief over the age that’s passed. The twinge gives me a slight longing for chubby arms in a strangle-hold around my neck at the church nursery window. I don’t want to go back to that stage, but it does make me savor memories of the days when my boys didn’t want to turn away.
As I sat behind my steering wheel today, I felt that slight twinge again. It vanished in an instant, without tears or misgivings. It was a wee little prick, accompanied by a strong longing for him to become an excellent, independent driver. Soon.
But it brought back a memory, and I was thankful to catch it.
image by George Hodan