by Pat Blackwell, Ph.D.
My only child graduated from high school in May and is off to the East Coast for college later this summer. Like most parents, I’ve always dreaded this transition. But now that it’s here it’s not so bad; it seems right. I attribute my peaceful feeling to the long process of separation and independence that characterized Olivia’s development.
Separating, the early years
In the toddler years the physical separation begins with walking. Away she goes to the lawn next door, looking back occasionally to her secure base. ‘How far will she go?’ you wonder. Then she comes back with a rock to share and a hug or just a touch on your thigh and off she goes again. For the child this is an exercise in trust and security. Parents begin to set the tone for the child’s sense of self confidence and initiative by allowing the coming and going and all that this independence brings.
Then there is the frustration and physical pain that parents observe from the sidelines of their child’s early years. She’s pushed down by a neighbor kid and called “poo-poo head.” As she careens through a gravel patch at full speed her wiggly bicycle wheel signals a fall and scraped knees well before it happens. Your heart leaps then you offer comfort and encourage her to get back on and ride away again. She fails tests, is excluded from a circle of mean girls, has her heart broken and there you are as the secure base to encourage her to get back to it all again. No parent enjoys being witness to this pain and frustration, but it is necessary to forge the confidence for parent and child when it is time to separate for real.
As parents, our job is to use these situations to teach—coping, problem solving, and resiliency. Naturally we protect our children from trauma and legitimate harm, but being called poo-poo head is neither harmful nor traumatic. Allowing consequences is sometimes more difficult than protecting; we feel less heartache and anxiety when we shield our children from pain. But what are the consequences to the child if we are over protective? Not only does he loose out when it comes to learning real world coping skills, he may also get the message that his parents do not trust him to work things out for himself.
Testing limits, the later years
Allowing consequences does not get easier as the child gets older. It is less stressful to watch that golden head toddle into the neighbor’s garden than to see it driving away for the first time in your car. How I longed to lock Olivia in her room until she was 18… But away she drove on her 16th birthday.
Some children take more risks and test the limits more than others. I am most mystified by the teenagers who do not give their parents hell as they grow, although I admit to feeling very envious of the parents of these rule followers. In the midst of the “dark days” of adolescence, when the child is transformed into a stranger, allowing consequences becomes very hard. The stakes are higher for teens than toddlers—pregnancy, drug use, car accidents, tarnished reputation, jail! But the benefits of navigating the wake of their own choices are golden. Yes, parents must set clear limits, supervise, and discipline while still allowing reasonable freedom. It is better for the child to experience loss and negative consequences when you are still there to help her derive the life lessons that make experiences matter (and you are still there to hold her if she will let you).
When I was a college instructor I worried most about the freshmen who had never mastered survival skills. They were the ones who partied the hardest or fell apart emotionally when faced with real-world stress on their own. Sending the new college student off for the fist time feels much less frightening after you have seen her withstand some serious scrapes with her drive to explore and take risks independently still in tact.
So off my daughter goes again, well beyond the neighbor’s garden but with lots of experience and security to direct her back home when it’s time.