There is nothing about parenting that is easy. From the first cry to the day they leave home, our kids grab us by our fingers, pull at our hair, push us away and yank us back to them, leaving us both thrilled and depleted. We think we know them, because they are ours, but as they grow up they begin to develop into people, separate from us, uniquely individual, sometimes unrecognizable, often fascinating and occasionally infuriating.
Parents believe that we can shape our children, guide them to be the most excellent versions of who they are. With all of our wisdom and insightfulness, what parents often forget is that we are doing this parenting thing for the first time, over and over, with each child. Ask any siblings once they are grown about their parents and you will hear about mothers and fathers who, in some cases, bear little resemblance to each other – even though those siblings are speaking of the same people. Where one child flourishes under the bright spotlight of attention that her parents shine, the other may scurry to a dark corner to escape the intense gaze. Unfortunately in most cases it’s not until years later that parents can see the mistakes they made – or what worked especially well. For better of worse, we do what we can, the best we can, and hope for our children to be decent human beings.
My husband and I have often – too often, I think – ruminated on what we might have done differently with each of our children to have shaped even more perfect versions of the near perfect (in our eyes) people they are. None of these conversations matter, since our children are now adults. We are still their parents, of course – still available to listen, advise, commiserate and occasionally criticize and share unwanted opinions, because that’s what parents do. But as far as guiding them, molding them, helping them to develop as people – that job is done. We know we are very fortunate, but we also know how much hard work went into these two grown children of ours. And we know, too, that it’s partly a great deal of good luck along with all that hard work that has made our experience raising our kids a successful one.
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I have listened to parents of teens discussing what they can do to keep their children from making mistakes, from getting in trouble, from having their hearts broken or being terribly disappointed. They worry about all of the same things I did when my kids were nearing the end of childhood – where they will get in to college, how they will manage on their own, what will happen if they drink too much or fall in love with the wrong person. The ease of electronic connection makes it harder for those kids to keep from constantly reaching out to their parents. Many parents feel entitled to a constant stream of information from their children, and in turn those children expect their parents to be there for them, any time, for any problem big or small.
At some point, particularly when children begin college, parents need to understand that their kids must be given the privacy and independence required to become adults, even though it may mean that parents will lose some of their connection to those children. On the same note, college students must begin to rely on their own instincts and on the advice and input from other adults and authority figures to develop a sense of competence and self-reliance. Parents, as loving and concerned as they are, may not always have the right answer to questions newly-minted adults have. Seeking out others – professors, mentors, employers, older friends – for input is not only a good idea, but can broaden the scope of understanding about oneself, which is what the college experience is supposed to do.
We look at our newborn babies and imagine all of the things they might become. Once they are grown, we must look at our children – now young adults – and appreciate all the things that they are. In between, we need to guide them, counsel them, advise them – and we need to give them room to grow. Letting them go and find their way without us always there to help them may be the most challenging part of parenting of all.