At the end of this week we will make a significant two-hour journey down the M4. The car will be packed to the gunnels with all the essential items for a young person starting the next stage of life as a student. The contents of Ikea posters, frames, mugs, bedding, towels, rug, coat hangers, laundry basket, pot plant, and (parents of first-year students take note) the all-important door stop, will be crammed into every available nook and cranny. The bike will be strapped to the roof, and we will set off on a journey that in truth began 18 years ago – the day our son took his very first step.
As parents, from the very beginning our goal is to equip our children to make the journey into independence. But it’s a difficult task for us because we are hardwired to want to protect them. When our children are born they are entirely dependent on us for their every need. We wake in the night to feed them and to change them. We wipe runny noses and tie shoe laces. We put plasters on cut knees, read them stories and tuck them in at night. We decide what they will eat (or, more realistically, what food we will put on their plate!). But as they grow and change through the primary and then teenage years, our role as a parent also needs to change. We need to move from being a ‘controller and carer’ to a ‘consultant’ offering advice but then, as hard as it is, standing back and leaving the ultimate decision (and its consequences) to them.
Some mums and dads known as ‘helicopter parents’ fail to make that transition. These parents are often well intentioned, but they ‘hover overhead’, rotor blades spinning. They give their offspring an early morning call to make sure they get to lectures or to work on time; they visit to fill the fridge or to provide a laundry service. In so doing, they deny their child the opportunity to discover how to stand on their own two feet, and maybe learn some lessons the hard way.
In navigating the road to independence one of the most helpful pieces of advice I received was to ‘keep the children on elastic, not string’. If we hold them tight on a short bit of string it will pull taut and eventually snap. If, however, we keep them on elastic from the beginning we can gradually let it stretch, giving them more responsibility and more freedom appropriate to their age. This makes the journey to independence easier both for them and for us.
When our children are little we can give them choices over what to eat or what to wear (even if it is a pink flowery, orange check and red spotty combination!). As they get older we can give them freedom to choose how to spend pocket money, what colour to have their room (or even their hair!), and how to spend their time. The teenage years often stretch the elastic to the limit as our teenagers are generally more ready for risk and adventure than we are. There will undoubtedly be some tumbles on the way, but learning lessons while we are around to pick up the pieces is generally easier than learning them once they have flown the nest.
If we are parenting alone or in a blended family the steps along the way to guiding our children to independence can be challenging in additional ways. Jen comments: “As a single parent I’ve found it incredibly hard to allow my daughter more independence as she has grown up. Our family is just the two of us, and I have really needed the support of friends in helping me to have the courage to let go and to allow her to do new things.”
I will approach next weekend with a healthy mixture of excitement, sadness and anticipation. We will make the journey, unpack the car and say our goodbyes. Our son will begin a new adventure with a new set of friends, and I will sob all the way home. Despite the fact I can text/Whatsapp/Skype or even phone him at any time, I know something will have changed. He will have passed a significant milestone on the road to independence … but that, after all, is exactly how it should be.