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Let Them Fly

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Tears of pride. Tears of joy. And a trip of a lifetime visiting our younger daughter, Jackie, during her college semester abroad in Europe. While it actually wasn’t our trip of a lifetime, it has been her trip of a lifetime. She has matured from being a shy, quiet world-watcher when she was younger into a confident, independent adult navigating with ease through cities new to all of us.

As happens with most children, it hasn’t been easy getting her to this point. It required some tough parenting decisions along the way. At the root was a basic parenting philosophy that my husband, Ron, and I shared—it was our responsibility to raise independent, good citizens of the world—not to be our children’s “BFFs.” That meant giving them space to fly…encouraging them to step outside their comfort zones…and helping them to not be afraid to take those steps.

We taught our daughters to ski when they were four and seven. They fell…a lot. But rather than express fear and concern about their falls and rushing to help them up, we stood nearby and waited until they picked themselves up. Sometimes it was hard to get back up on their own, and they needed some encouragement. Sometimes they really did need help when their skis were all twisted up. The trick was watching and seeing what they needed, rather than imposing our parental fears onto them.

In the past, I have written about my concern that Boomer and Xer parents are undermining our children’s development with our incessant need to “help them.” All of that help and love is, in fact, crippling our children’s ability to face the world with confidence and independence. They lose self-esteem when their parents fight their fights for them. And they become fearful when told about the dangers that lurk around every corner.

It’s a fine line to know when to help and when to give space.

As an example…during the week we were away, our older daughter texted to say that there had been a shooting in NYC less than three miles from where she works. At the time, the incident was still in process and full details were not yet known. Just a short time later, we learned that the police had shot a man who had driven a truck into pedestrians and cyclists, killing eight people and injuring nearly a dozen. Our daughter was upset that my first question was, “Did they catch the person?” rather than asking about her fears and concerns. Why was I so unfeeling? Why couldn’t I empathize with her very real fear of living in a city that is a “sitting duck” for terrorist acts, especially when she was preparing to run in the NYC Marathon just a few days later and was worried about security at such a public event?

Here’s why—it wasn’t that I wasn’t fearful for her. I was scared to death, as I am every day that she walks the city streets alone in a world full of abductions, college rapes, random shootings and more. But I don’t share that with her. What good would that do? Worry is worse than useless, and it places destructive stress on your body when you can’t change a situation. Random events are random events. If I imposed my fears on her, it would simply reinforce her own insecurities—and that would be totally counterproductive.

I asked her if the person had been caught because I wanted to assess the situation—was the city still in danger? Or had the person been apprehended? With that information, I could give her what she needed, instead of reinforcing her fears. Had I responded like those mommies on the playground or parents on the ski slope with, “Are you OK?” or “Are you hurt?” it would have just fueled her fears. Instead, I felt it was far better to acknowledge the situation, then help her work through how to face the challenges. This helps her build problem-solving skills, and that in turn builds confidence. Had the shooter not been caught, I probably would have advised her to stay in her office rather than walk through Times Square and Rockefeller Center—two of the biggest terrorist targets—as she does every day.

As I think back on it, I realize that both Ron and I were fortunate to have parents who similarly gave us space to explore…guided us to learn…and trusted us to work things out. I think that was common in prior generations. When I was seven, my neighborhood “gang” would walk around the block to the playground without any parents chaperoning. A few years later, we all went trick-or-treating at night with no parents holding our candy bags. Ron grew up in the mountains and spent his teen years on hiking and skiing adventures. And I drove down to the Jersey Shore in my teens. And neither of us had cell phones to keep us connected.

Prior generations somehow understood that risk was part of life and that children needed to learn to stand on their own. Of course, back then children didn’t have the safety net of technology that allows parents to monitor their kids every move—Internet monitoring, cell phones to stay connected, websites that track kids’ schoolwork and scores, even GPS trackers. And yes, I know that kids in prior generations had accidents and were hurt or even died, but today’s technology is not necessarily solving those problems—it simply is making parents more fearful and kids less able to face challenges on their own.

While our daughter is living across the ocean, I do stay in touch with texting and Facetime, but Jackie has been thrown into a whole new culture and has had to fend for herself. Her school gave the students some orientation to learn school rules and a little about the country’s culture. And before her departure, we worked out a budget that allowed her to purchase groceries (she is in an apartment), travel to/from school and go on weekend excursions to other places. Other than that, she has had to learn to plan and cook her own meals…manage her budget…pay her credit card bill…make travel plans…and live in a new environment with a new language. While she is learning a lot in her classes, I believe that the lessons she is learning by being on her own and figuring out life’s day-to-day challenges are the ones that will help make her what her father and I had dreamed she would be—an independent good citizen of the world.

As we said good-bye in the Venice airport, us heading back to the US and Jackie returning to her temporary home in Vienna, I knew that the grades she gets in her academic classes will be inconsequential. She has already passed her semester abroad with honors.

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