Relax, They've Got This

December 4th, 2013

Maybe it’s all the times my nineteen-year-old son has put his hands on my shoulders, looked me in the eyes, and said sternly, “Relax.”

Maybe it’s the time–last night–when we were discussing her schoolwork and my sixteen-year-old daughter said a simple “Trust me.”

Maybe it’s the time my oldest son (wisely) switched his college major and waited until it was done to tell us about it.

Maybe it’s all the times my youngest son has searched out information on his own, just because he wants to know more about something.

All of my kids, in many different ways, have let me know over and over again that I need to step back and  let them take care of their own lives. Oh, they’ll talk things through with me, but in the end the message is usually Give us some space. We’ve got this.

It’s hard to step back. I’m sort of amazed when I think of my own mother, who was incredibly loving and nurturing when we were little, but who let us make all our own choices as we got older. My father used to joke that I would never be able to leave her side because I was so attached, but at sixteen, I headed off to college without a moment of hesitation. She had nurtured me, but she had also given me my independence.

I try to do the same with my own kids, but I’ll admit it’s hard. I mean, it’s easy to step back when you have a kid (and I do have ONE of these) who’s a self-motivated hard worker who sets high goals for himself. It’s harder when your child is more of a drifter. But my mantra now that I have older kids is “I can’t want this for you more than you want it for yourself.” There’s something wrong if the parent is setting the goals and not the kid. You can shove your child into achieving something, but it’s going to feel empty for him if it wasn’t something he wanted in the first place.

Many of my adult friends talk about how the hardest thing growing up was having to put a parent’s emotional needs ahead of their own, even if they were the ones struggling. They couldn’t grieve over their own sadnesses or rejoice over their own triumphs because there was always someone in the house having a bigger reaction, and the discomfort of always having to subsume their own emotions so they could deal with their parents’ left them frustrated and sometimes even bitter.

That’s not to say that you shouldn’t be all in with your kids–you should– just that you should take your cues from them and not the other way around. I could write another five thousand words on how I think parents are way too invested in their kids’ college process (um, which one of you is actually going to be living there for four years?) but I won’t bore you with that. I’m sure you get the idea–that’s an area rife with over-the-top parental investment.

Everyone needs a little space.

Everyone needs a little space.

And think back to your own childhood. When something bad happened to you, did you want a parent to freak out and get worked up about it? Did you want your mother to sob if you didn’t get into the college of your choice? Did that kind of thing ever make you feel better? Or did it help more to have a calm, rational listener during any disappointment or crisis, someone who would support you and give you any help you wanted, but who wasn’t more distraught than you?

It is, of course, much easier to point this out than to be good about it. I’ve inflicted my anxiety on my kids way too often. I’m lucky, because, for the most part, my kids feel comfortable calling me out when I do. (I don’t necessarily FEEL lucky at those moments, but I know I am). But I’ve only been doing this parenting thing for about twenty-two years. I’m sure I’ll have it perfected in the next twenty or thirty.