Perhaps the hardest realization in all of parenting is the bittersweet acknowledgment that if we do our job correctly, our children will have the strength and confidence to leave us to live their own lives and make their own decisions. This realization requires a very difficult journey for many parents. At the beginning of their lives, their children have an intense and complete physical closeness and dependency upon them. For many parents, this feels overwhelmingly good. Some parents feel happier than they have ever felt. There is a basic joy and satisfaction in having another human completely dependent upon you and this good feeling often interferes with our rational ability to do what we know we must do: raise our children to be able to separate from us in a healthy way.
While your child comes from both of his parents, he is also developing into his own being with his own dreams, aspirations, and goals that are likely different from yours. You must be willing to feel separate from your child in order to be able to help him in the best way possible. If your own life is full and you are secure in your identity, it is much easier to hold the following truth close to your heart: I have my own life that is separate from my child's and right now I am sharing my life with my child.
There's a metaphor I use to help people envision their parenting role and the amount of connection they have with their child. When your child is born, she begins life still connected to her mother through an umbilical cord. For the next few months, you have ultimate control over her every activity and she has no freedoms in her life. The umbilical cord connection between you is still short. In her toddler and preschooler years, the umbilical cord begins to lengthen. During her childhood, the umbilical cord gets even longer. Throughout her childhood years, you as the parent adjust the cord length—you tighten it when she needs to be closer to you or when she doesn't show you the goods and you need to constrain her freedom and you loosen it when her behaviors demonstrate respect, ability, good judgment, and self-control. As she grows older and matures, you lengthen the cord significantly to include more and more freedoms and more of the real world. As she enters adulthood, you symbolically cut the umbilical cord.
You must keep in mind your end goal—that your child will leave your home and you will cut his cord completely. Your healthy child will become a separate individual from you—no more umbilical connection to you ever. This doesn't mean that he will not be tightly connected to you. What this does mean is that the healthy adult-child's final decisions and self-control come from within himself (even if he continues to ask his parents for wisdom and input), not from his parents' ability to control him.
Parents who try to retain too much control as a child grows up raise a child who mightily and painfully rebels, often with disastrous consequences. Parents who "lengthen the cord" too fast raise a child who flounders and makes painful (often lingering or permanent) mistakes because she lacks the skills to handle so much freedom. Because your child is growing and evolving into her own separate being, you must be willing to watch and see what develops. Instead of wanting your child to become something in particular, just want her to become. Think of your role as a parent as that of a good farmer who reaches into a barrel of hundreds of types of seeds and plants one seed not knowing exactly what will develop. While this farmer does not know what type of seed he has chosen from the barrel, he knows that his seed needs soil, water, and sun to varying degrees. The wise farmer tends closely to his budding seed, adapting his gardening techniques to the characteristics that seem to help his little seed best. The wise farmer watches closely to see what emerges from the ground and adjusts his farming skills accordingly. More or less sun? More or less water? Sandy or rich soil? Following Principle #3, your "farming" technique should be one that accepts your child as a separate individual who should be prepared in the best way possible to face the real world.
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