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The other day I realized a half gallon of milk had gone bad in the fridge -- and I almost cried. That's because my kids, 16 and 15, recently decided to leave our little house in the sticks and move into town with their father, 12 miles away. And on some days, reminders like sour milk or empty laundry baskets still sting.
It shouldn't have surprised me. After all, they're now just minutes from friends and school. They get to sleep an extra half hour in the morning. And as much as they say they like my new husband and the three stepsiblings who occasionally visit, they're very clear that this whole blended family idea was mine, not theirs. Yes, it's not as if I didn't know they'd be leaving pretty soon anyway, what with college looming in the near future. But did it have to happen so soon? Ouch! While I'm putting up a fairly brave (and phony) front, it's obvious to everyone around me: I'm lousy at letting go.
I'm not alone. Hyperparenting -- that 100 percent involvement in every aspect of our kids' lives -- is epidemic. In fact, being in on such decisions as whether they take Spanish or French in middle school and what the average ambient temperature in their college dorm room should be is almost the norm. "When other parents see you stepping back and allowing your child to make a mistake, for example, or not showing up at every single basketball game, some see it as neglectful," says Madeline Levine, PhD, author of The Price of Privilege (HarperCollins).
It doesn't have to be that way. Letting go will always be complicated. But you can do it with a little grace, boosting your children's independence and easing your own angst. Take a look at how to make it work for your kids -- and for you.
Repeat after me: Your children are wired to build a separate identity. "Most of us just don't notice it until they turn into teenagers," says Missa Murry Eaton, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at Penn State Shenango in Sharon. Baby boomers -- who don't think much of aging themselves -- have sidestepped the issue by not letting their kids grow up. Only a generation ago kids in their early 20s were marrying, starting careers, and having children of their own; today parents are increasingly regarding young adults as overgrown kids, helping them out financially, even encouraging them to live at home. "We used to refer to people in their 20s as grown-ups," says Eaton. "Today psychologists call this period 'emerging adulthood.'" Some college kids are even referring to themselves as "adultalescents."
An acquaintance recently scolded me for letting my 16-year-old get her learner's permit, saying, "I'm making my kids wait until they're 18 to drive." (She's not alone in pushing for a delay: Massachusetts is considering raising the age of driving to 17 1/2.) In a heartbeat I went from feeling like a good mom, responsibly guiding my daughter toward an important milestone of independence, to a reckless parent.
Only later did I realize how warped this ever-escalating sense of protectiveness is. At 16 I was driving to an after-school job. My mother was operating tractors at that age. And my grandmother -- with no money, no job, and no English-language skills -- was hopping a boat to America by herself, knowing she'd probably never see her parents again. So how could I doubt my own daughter was capable of parallel parking?
Take-home test: Brainstorm with your husband for some new "rights" your child might be ready for: A later curfew? A checking account? Moving into an off-campus apartment? Then, talk with your teen about new "responsibilities" she could take on to earn those rights, such as doing more chores or making a small contribution toward family expenses.
We live in an era when parents are judged by how many fundraisers we chair, how involved we are with our kids' research projects, and how carefully we police MySpace pages. But all these well-intentioned actions have a downside: self-centered kids who have minimal problem-solving skills.
What's more, hyperparenting deprives kids of input from other adults. "When we trust coaches and teachers to be in charge, it tells kids, 'I know you'll do fine in the world without me,'" says Richard Bromfield, PhD, author of How to Unspoil Your Child Fast (Basil Books). Save the intense involvement for real problems. For the rest of the time, do you have to know every quiz score?
Take-home test: Imagine you've been abducted by aliens and that your child has to do everything for herself. Let her figure out how she'll get to the movies, find clean clothes, or start her science project. Ask her to schedule herself a dental appointment. Don't be surprised if she doesn't like it. Kids swing back and forth between neediness and independence. "That's okay," I say, when my son complains he can't find any clean socks in the chaos of the laundry room. "Growing up is messy."
Pamela Miller Hornik is raising four kids, 6 to 12, in California's Silicon Valley. "I pride myself on things like having them get their own breakfasts and make their own beds," she says. Still, when her 12-year-old offers to venture out for a gallon of milk or her 10-year-old asks about crossing a busy street, she balks. "Even when I do let them go, I insist they bring a cell phone," she says.
Part of the problem is the fierce conviction among parents that the world is filled with people truly intent on hurting children. "And just when I convince myself that a lot of my fears are baseless, I'll get an e-mail from the school warning me about known pedophiles on the playground," says Pamela. "I wonder how rational these fears are, and if parents use them as an excuse for stopping kids from developing their independence."
Pamela's dilemma is real, says Bromfield. "But parents have to avoid sheltering kids so much that they short-circuit experiences that teach kids how to cope with life as a grown-up."
Take-home test: Think preparation as well as protection. When Sarah Piazza's son, 10, started fourth grade this year, she and her husband decided he was old enough to ride his bike to school alone. A few other parents, angry that their kids were now requesting the same privilege, quickly let her know that they thought she was being reckless.
She stood her ground. "It was less than a half mile on well-monitored streets, and we practiced with him over and over," says Sarah, who lives in State College, Pennsylvania. "I know that there's a small risk, but it's acceptable and necessary if I'm going to raise a child who's able to make his own way in the world."
Admittedly, there are parents who enjoy building their whole lives around drama practice and the lacrosse schedule. But for most, all this helicoptering is sucking the fun out of family life, says Peter N. Stearns, PhD, provost at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. "We see parents getting worked up and truly anxious about day-to-day problems their college-freshman child is going through, and it's unnecessary," he says. "These are almost always minor issues a child could -- and should -- straighten out without any help." In fact, according to Eaton's research, parents who are overinvested in their kids' lives are more likely to be depressed.
Take-home test: First, admit that letting go hurts. "Sure, you'll still be your child's mother, but with each step it will be less hands-on than it's been," says Levine. "If kids see you're developing your own interests, they won't have to worry about leaving holes in your life when they move on with theirs."
The day after the incident with the spoiled milk, I was sitting in a coffee shop downtown when I noticed a messy red topknot happily bouncing down the street -- my daughter! My knee-jerk reaction was to worry: Wasn't she supposed to be at work? I thought about running out to get a hug or to ask where she was going. Instead, I sat still and decided to just watch her walk by, enjoying the sunny afternoon on her own.
And yes, it still hurts right now, that my son and daughter are not living with me full time. But soon they'll call college home, and not long after that, have places of their own. I smile, the very last one to get the joke: To my kids, home is where they are, not where I am.
Get your new high school graduate ready for the next big adventure.
Originally published in the August 2008 issue of Family Circle magazine.