How to Let Go As They Grow

From that first school bus ride to driving alone, transitions are as hard on Mom as they are on the child (maybe harder!). Here's how to support—not smother—throughout the parenting process.

Give Them Roots & Wings

Ann Yin, mom of two boys in Austin, Texas, remembers clearly the day her oldest son entered middle school. "I was scared for him—those 8th graders were huge! But I did my best to play it cool, staying positive and calm for both his sake and mine. I helped him with his things, quietly asked him if a hug would be too much (he hugged me!), and made my way out without embarrassing him or myself. Then I pulled the car out of sight, had myself a good cry, and got on with my day."

And so it goes. Hitting those growing-up milestones presents a challenge for both child and parent, says Ann Tiemann, founder of and editor of Courageous Parents, Confident Kids. "Often, our identity and self-worth comes from our role as mothers, which is wonderful—but it can be a problem if you're not ready for kids to go do what they need to do," she says. In fact, a recent study found that kids of parents who hover excessively may be more anxious, vulnerable, and closed-minded than kids who are given more freedom and responsibility.

Good reason to follow the advice of Dr. Jonas Salk, who famously said: "Good parents give their children roots and wings—roots to know where home is and wings to fly off and practice what has been taught them."

Calm Those Jitters

Whether it's the first day of kindergarten or middle school—the nerves of both kiddo and mama can take a hit. No matter the kids' age, knowing what to expect can help ease the jitters—and help parents adjust to the new transition too. For little ones, books are a boon: "Before school starts, share with your kid a few library books about the first day of school—like The Kissing Hand, by Audrey Penn," suggests Ann Tiberghien, a kindergarten teacher and mom.

And the more you can practice the new routine before the big first day—developing a breakfast ritual, walking or driving the route, checking out the new playground or track—the more "normal" the new school will feel. And, whatever you do, hold the tears till you're out of eyeshot. No matter their age, your child takes his emotional cues from you.

For older kids (and their parents), attending a special back-to-school event or orientation is key to staying calm in a new situation. That worked for Yin and her middle school son. "At his Back to School event, my son and I were able to get the lay of the land, talk to his teachers, and ask questions about what to expect," says Yin.

"After that, he felt much less anxious about the first day. I also pointed out to him that all of the other kids were nervous, too."

Ask the Right Questions

One of the first things children learn they can control is what they tell you. So asking the right questions becomes very important so that you can actually get some information ("What did you do today?" "Nuthin.") and so you don't pass your own concerns onto your child.

Pummeling your kid with questions about every possible problem-area runs the risk of projecting fears and concerns onto her, says Amy Tiemann. "With my 11-year-old daughter, I always ask myself, 'Is it my worry or hers?' Instead of 'Are you worried about making friends?' I might say, 'Are there any things you're concerned about before school starts?'"

Open-ended questions help foster a conversation; an interrogation is more likely to result in an info shutdown.

Take Baby Steps

No, you're not going to hand over the car keys when your child is eight years old. Independence Day comes gradually. And the truth is, as hard as it can be to loosen the reins, kids need—and crave—a gradual ratcheting up of responsibility.

Start simple: Jennifer Galbreath's nine-year-old Madison fixes her own breakfast every morning, which helps everyone get out of the house on time. And she has started wanting to do her own hair. For her mom—who admits she's pretty controlling of Madison's appearance—this was hard, but she gave in a little bit. "I've been letting her practice making ponytails, and she's gotten a lot better. She also appreciates more how nice it looks when I do her hair."

Letting a tween roam free is another giant step for mom and kid alike, but you don't have to go cold turkey. Margaret Moxley, raising her third tween now in Nashville, Tennessee, enforces a buddy rule that raises the comfort level all around. "At our house (after a certain age, which frankly depends on the kid), you can go to the movies without a parent if you have a friend with you and the friend stays glued to your side. I have a talk with the buddy, too, about the importance of sticking together. They roll their eyes, but they follow the rules. Do I know this for sure, though? No. Ultimately, I just have to trust my kid."

Make Your Home a Safe Haven

Create and maintain a safe home environment for your child, one in which they know they can always escape to if they need time alone, a shoulder to cry on, or someone they can talk to. Ensure your tween or teen knows you’re there to help and advise them, whenever needed. Keep your child healthy is key, as well. Connect with your child’s pediatrician to learn more about what you can do now to prevent diabetes, heart disease, human papillomavirus (HPV), and other health issues that can surface later in life.

Follow the PDA Rules

Just because you're the parent, doesn't mean you alone get to determine the face of your public relationship with your child. Let him or her in on the decision-making too.

"Before the first day of middle school, I asked my son what he wanted when it comes to things like going into the school, public displays of affection, and all of that," says Yin. "He tells me that he was glad he had choices because some of the other kids were really embarrassed by their parents."

A parent who knows when not to smother is likely to get a lot more spontaneous affection when no one is looking.

Behave Yourself on the Field

Are you out there on the soccer field or in the swimming lane in the pool? No, you are not. Which is why you need to let your child do his sports thing on his own.

Cheer loudly (that's expected embarrassing behavior), bring a snack and a water bottle, but butt out of everything else. As a mom of two talented sports players, but never an athlete herself, Fernanda Moore, mom of two boys in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, was surprised to discover how intense the parental pressure on the field can be—toward the kids, and one another. "You have to remind yourself that the whole point is to have fun, not to have your kid be the best," she says.

Let them celebrate their victories and defeats without your interference, and they'll learn teamwork and lots of other valuable lessons.

Hands Off Their Homework

Everyone's seen those science fair projects that were obviously slaved over— by the parents—at the 11th hour. "You want your child to break a project down into big parts, set goals along the way, and work independently," says Kristin Lagattuta, Ph.D., an associate professor in Psychology at the University of California, Davis, and mother of three girls.

"With a fourth grader who generally turns things in on time, you can check in each week so you know when big things are due. If your kid is repeatedly turning things in late, mentor a bit more. Ultimately, they need to learn to do it by themselves, and when they show that they can, back off a bit."

And let them make mistakes. "Sure, my kids are going to mess up or fail sometimes when mom's not around," says Samantha Bean, mother of two boys in Franklin, Tennessee. "But I've tried to teach them that it's in the failing that we learn the greatest lessons. I'm also honest about my mistakes. They need to know that we as parents aren't perfect, and that they will never be perfect, and that's OK."

Lay Down the Law—With Humor

Sure, it may sting when your once-adoring child becomes a tween who's mortified by your presence. But on the bright side, it can be hilarious—and useful.

"It's so funny that you can embarrass your kid just by standing there," says Moore. "A little teasing can keep your relationship lighthearted—it's a way of disciplining without being heavy. When my oldest, Zander, was going to tons of bar mitzvahs in the 8th grade, I said, 'You have to be outside to be picked up by 10 or I'm coming in to dance with your friends' parents!' He thinks I'm little crazy, so I think he believed me. It was a fun way to get him to do what I wanted."

Zander felt like he had his freedom, within reason, and Mom felt like she still had some authority. Win-win!

Be a Great Co-Pilot

The combo of teens and driving can create lots of sleepless nights for parents. But you'll both be better prepared if you play co-pilot.

"It's hard to let go and trust a 16-year-old behind the wheel, but for me it was a good lesson in relinquishing control before the college stuff," says Barbara Brown, a mom of two teens in Nashville, Tennessee. Brown enrolled both her kids in drivers' ed ("I paid them to do the hard part!"), and then let them drive with her, interstates and all, with permits, before the big solo experience.

"I know of other parents that forbid their kids from driving on the interstate for a year, and that didn't make any sense to me. I'd rather them have that experience with me, on a permit. I felt a little trepidation but tried to give them as many tips as I could for being a defensive driver," she says.

Teaching Fiscal Responsibility

Managing money is another fertile training ground. Whether your child is 5 or 15, letting them manage a small allowance gives both of you confidence.

This school year, rather than dole out a weekly allowance, Ruth Stewart of Nashville, Tennessee, plans on giving her 15-year-old son $100 a month "for everything: school supplies, lunches, clothes, gift giving and going out." When Stewart tried a similar plan over the summer, her son drained his account quickly, but he says he learned his lesson.

His mom hopes it's true. "We want to show him why he's got to stay within a budget and plan accordingly." By letting him fail and try again (and not bailing him out with extra funds), Stewart is teaching her son that she knows he can learn from his mistakes. And he will.

Give Everyone Breathing Room

Your kids are in school all day, and when they come home, you feel like you should have fun activities planned until bed? Relax, and let everyone enjoy some downtime.

"Kids need a lot of time and space to be creative," says Spike Gillespsie, mom, teacher, and author of All the Wrong Men and One Perfect Boy. "Micromanaging free time is as bad as pushing your kids away because you're too busy. There's that classic balance to strive for."

The same goes for butting into your children's dreams. Gillespie has always let her son, now 19, pursue his ambition to be a musician, even if it didn't fit her vision of his future. "If I had tried to shape him into my idea for what he was supposed to be he wouldn't have been happy, and he probably wouldn't spend time with me," she says. "Today, he's passionate, kind, makes his own way in the world—he's awesome."

Enroll Yourself

Phew—you've done it: Your child is now grown up and off to college! Now, take the golden opportunity to take a class, learn a new skill, travel—anything that allows you to "live through your own life and accomplishments," as Tiemann puts it.

You'll be too busy embracing your own challenges to over-worry about those of the budding college kid. "It opens up this whole new phase of life that I hadn't given much consideration to," says Barbara Brown, a mom in Nashville, Tennessee, whose son starts classes at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville this fall. "Things can happen that couldn't happen before."

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