Any parent will tell you that from the moment that little baby lets out their first cry, life becomes a roller coaster of happiness and heartbreak, balance and bittersweetness, pride and patience. Parents will also tell you that the roller coasters have many different loops and turns, each with their own invigorating experiences. As our children grow up and transition through the different life stages, so does our parenting.
With each new year comes a new adjustment to the type and amount of parenting your son or daughter needs. Infants and toddlers need us for everything, school age children are more independent but still need meals and cuddles, and high schoolers and college kids seem to just need parents to act like human ATMs.
Going through these “parenting growth spurts” is painful at times. We love our children, and we’re excited to see them maturing into the people God planned for them to be before they were even conceived. Yet as parents, we can’t help but reminisce and wish for our children to always be the bundled little infant we brought home from the hospital.
As a mom, I sometimes find myself “grieving” my children growing up. For example, when my son went to college, I felt like I had abandoned him there. This child I had given birth to 18 years ago. The sweet, precious boy who had charmed me since his first breath. I drove him 500 miles away and left him!
I knew it was time for college, and he’d picked a good one. I knew he was ready. I also knew I had a Carter-size hole in my heart. Life would never be the same.
I cried all the way home. My husband, daughters, and I went to lunch after church the next day. When the host asked us how many in our party, we started to answer five, but then had to change it to four. We all cried. I kept picking up his favorite chocolate milk at the grocery store, but then remembering no one would drink it. The loss was deep.
After continuing to cry every single day for the next six weeks, I began to process my pain and the reasons for it. I was one of those moms who did a cartwheel when the kid started kindergarten. Why was I having such a hard time? I have been truly happy for my kids with every milestone they’ve reached. Yet, somehow, there was also mourning associated with each phase.
What causes these tears?
What if they don’t have a friend to eat lunch with? My daughter actually experienced eating lunch alone on her first day at a new high school. I agonized, but guess what? She was actually motivated by it. By the next day, she actively pursued new friends who shared her lunch period. How did she get that smart? What could happen? Bullying? Mean kids? Getting lost? Making friends with the wrong crowd? Failing?
This five-year-old is missing from my home, and I really miss him. This 16-year-old now has a driver’s license, and I only catch glimpses of her coming and going. I don’t know everything that’s going on in her life, and I can’t control it.I won’t get to scratch my boy’s back for months while he’s at college.
Have I prepared him enough? I should have encouraged better study habits. I should have made him take Home Ec and Shop. Does he even know how to change a tire? Have I been a helicopter mom and taken care of too many things for him? Does he even know how to organize his own school work and monitor his own grades?I should’ve homeschooled. That way, I could have spent more time with him. (This was a real thought I had, but absolutely ridiculous to anyone who knows me!)
This is not about the kids’ identity, really. This is about MINE. Now that my kiddo is in school, how will I fit in? Now that I have kids in high school, does that make me OLD? Once my kids are in college, who needs me? What will I do when it’s just that man I married so long ago and me? Will we even know what to do with ourselves when the nest is empty? Their identity is in Christ, and so is ours.
As our kids reach these transitions and milestones, it is totally normal to have mixed feelings. We grieve for the loss of what was. We are sad they don’t need us so much any more. We have to readjust the way we think of ourselves. On the other hand, we are so excited for them to grow up and become who God intended them to be. We celebrate with them as they learn new skills and become increasingly independent.
Parents, we MUST let them go, one step at a time. Don’t fight it, plan it. What skills should a kid their age need to know how to do? (If you don’t know, ask their teacher!) For example…
- Elementary age children should be doing chores at home and be responsible for bringing Mom their take-home folder or agenda to sign each day. By 4th or 5th grade, for sure, homework should be self-directed, not forced by parents. NEVER do the kids’ diorama or science project for them! (This makes me crazy. What are you telling them? That they’re not capable? Yikes!)
- Middle school is about learning time management and friendship management. Kids should be making decisions on their own, and then be held accountable for the consequences of their decisions. People learn better from making mistakes. At this point, kids should be doing laundry, dishes, and sharing more in the household responsibilities.
- High school! It’s getting real now. Where do you want the kid to be at 18? Independent, confident, and ready to go? Then you’d better start now with teaching the life skills he will need at college. Some things on our list that we’ve prayed for our kids to experience while still in our home are: getting their heart broken, having a minor car accident, suffering a major disappointment, experiencing failure, and finding new friends. It’s better to guide them through these things while you still have influence, right? Or do you want the college roommate to be the sounding board? Have they ever experienced finding their way on their own? Set up experiences like letting them take a train or navigating a theme park by themselves. (You’ll totally be tracking them by GPS, of course!) We send our kids to “Camp Aunt Amy” where our kids shoot guns, ride four wheelers, and do other stuff they don’t get to do at home. Independence is the goal.
- College is the time to totally back off. They need room to fail, within limits. Set boundaries and expectations. Then let them fly. For our firstborn, this means setting a time for a weekly check-in. We also wrote a contract for financial responsibilities, working, studying, social, etc. Some kids need this type of direction, but some don’t. Ask your kids what would make them feel safe and comfortable. Do they want you to monitor their bank account or not? Work together to decide the right amount of parental input and continue to back off progressively.
Moms, let’s admit our mixed emotions and work through them to get to a healthy place. Pray, pray, pray for these kids. Give up control and trust God to take care of our precious offspring. After all, HE is the one who made them. HE’s got this. And HE’s got you, too.