Little Ways to Let Go

It’s hard but worth it

As I was shoveling snow this winter, I reflected upon the fact that in other societies, my 13-year-old son would have this job. I would love blaming the xBox he was playing at the moment, but in all honesty it is my own fault for not putting more responsibility on his very capable shoulders. If our children don’t have enough responsibilities, it is because we haven’t let go of them.

Real love is to not do everything for your child

But why is it so hard to let go? I decided to consult an expert. Jean Illsley Clarke, author of How Much is Enough? and a number of other parenting books, put it to me this way: “Parents do everything for their child because it has become a habit. We start when our child is born, and then have a hard time letting go.” If we’re honest, having them totally dependent on us probably even makes us feel good. But if we stop for a minute and think about the big picture, isn’t it our job as parents to help our children become independent from us?

We all want to raise happy children. “But you don’t become independent and self-reliable if you’re happy all the time,” cautions Clarke. In fact, her studies on overindulged children reveal that later in life such children often come to resent the fact that their parents did everything for them during childhood. In other words, ultimate happiness can only be achieved by mastering unhappy situations along the way.

When to start letting go

The irony is that the best time to let go is when we don’t think our kids can do a good job of it yet. It is so much easier to engage children when they actually want to help – think of your toddler in the kitchen. According to Clarke, if you wait much beyond age three, you are missing this crucial window. “A good start might be to let your child get dressed by herself, mismatches and all.” She also urges to work on one thing at a time. “When they come to you and need something, ask them questions like ‘Do you know how?’, ‘Shall I show you?’ and even ‘Shall I watch you?’ while encouraging them to do as much as they can,” says Clarke. To be sure, this can take up much of your time, but view it as an investment in a future where your responsible child will hardly need you at all.

At this young age, the key to success is making tasks more kid-friendly. One local mother organized her kitchen at kid level, placing plates, cups and silverware where a small child could reach and bought a fridge with a water dispenser. This helped her children get their own things, and they were put to task to clean out the dishwasher.

Foster independence

Mari Rydings of Smithville credits her investment in stepstools for more independence in her almost 3-year-old twins. “They can turn on lights, brush their teeth and use the restroom with just a little help from me,” she says. Interestingly, one of them embraces her newfound freedom more readily, whereas the other will try to “get someone to do something for her” if she can. Clarke advises parents to be mindful of such differences in temperament. “The active child will jump at the opportunity to do something new, but a low-activity child might be more of a thinker who needs time to plan ahead,” she says.

Becki Clingan of Overland Park, mother of two teenagers “and then some,” also started when her oldest daughter was around three and wanted her friends to come over and play. “Instead of my calling the mom, I had her make the phone call and talk to her friend first. Then I’d talk to the mom, but I think insisting that she make the call helped foster that independence.”

Mistakes are okay

We love our kids and want to save them from trouble. But mistakes are actually necessary. “Children’s mistakes are their opportunities,” says Jim Fay, author of Parenting with Love and Logic. If you are blessed with a teenager, you will know that they sometimes make incredibly bad decisions. Why? “The tragic truth is that many of these foolish choices are the first real decisions they have ever made,” says Fay. He argues that making good choices has to be practiced, much like any other activity, and will involve mistakes. Wouldn’t you rather they practice on haircuts and bedtimes than drugs and alcohol?

If you are unsure whether or not it’s time to let go, try asking yourself what the worst outcome could be. Is it life-threatening? Unhealthy? Unkind or unlawful? If it is none of these, embrace it as a natural consequence for your child to learn from. Show some empathy when it goes wrong and resist the urge to say “I told you so.”

“We try to use natural consequences as much as possible,” says Clingan. When her now teenage daughter was staying up really late during Christmas break, she resisted enforcing an earlier bedtime, even though she knew the transition to school nights and early mornings would be tough. Sure enough, the last night of vacation was short and the next morning painful. “It took her one night to figure out she had to have that schedule. It wouldn't have worked the same way if I had insisted she go to bed,” says Clingan.

The joys of letting go

I cannot tell you how immensely gratifying it feels when you tell your child for the first time “looks like you’ve got a problem” and realize you really mean it. You’ll feel curious, relieved and proud. To be sure, letting go is never easy. After all, it ultimately results in turning your kids loose into the world, away from you. But you’re giving them the greatest gift of their lives and are making the transition easier for yourself in the process.

Examples of letting go

Age What you can do
3-4 Dress – set rules for climate and cleanliness, but let your child decide what to wear
4-5 TV – set parameters, like a weekly “time allowance” and selection of shows, but let child decide when to watch
5-6 Money – give allowance to cover wants
6-7 Homework – once good habits are established (i.e. certain time/place), let your child have ownership of remembering and doing it without much parental assistance
7-8 Bedtime – set times for going to room and turning off electronics but let child decide when to turn off lights
8-9 Laundry – have kids do their entire laundry, or do the washing and folding for them, if you must, but insist on them bringing to and taking from the laundry room
9-10 Cooking – let your child take a cooking class, or buy a Panini maker to engage them in preparing their own meals
11-12 Travel planning – celebrate 12th birthday by letting child plan a mini-trip just with you
Teen Money – establish bank account and extend allowance to include wants and needs to foster budgeting skills

Eva Melusine Thieme is a freelance writer who lives in Overland Park with her husband and four children.

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