A few months ago, I watched my eighteen-year-old daughter walk away from me through the departure lounge of the Johannesburg Airport. She was on her way to board a South African Airways plane bound for London. She had been planning this trip for several years and saving every cent she could. It was going to be a two-month holiday during which she hoped to listen to her favourite punk bands, visit some art galleries, and experience life in another country. It was also her first time away from home for any length of time.
As she turned to wave goodbye, I felt conflicting emotions. On the one hand, I was happy for her.
She was growing up, leaving behind her childhood dependencies and beginning to explore life on her own. I wanted her to know that she was going with my full blessing. In spoken and unspoken ways, in the days prior to her leaving, I had tried to convey the message, “I love you; I trust you; I am proud of you and send you off freely. You are my deeply beloved daughter, and I delight in you”.
But on the other hand, I was not finding it easy to let go. While I knew with my head that it was important to start giving her freedom, a part of me longed for those days when she would sit on my lap and uncritically take in everything I said. Those times, however, were long gone. I knew that I needed to put behind me the way I used to relate to her. I knew I needed to learn to connect with my daughter in a new way that would give her more space and allow her the freedom to become more of the person she wanted to be.
I found those first few days of separation very difficult. At night I would toss and turn in bed, unable to sleep. I experienced levels of anxiety that I had not known before, wondering how she was, where she was, what she was doing. I knew that she was going to face some difficult challenges that come with looking after yourself in a strange land, not knowing a soul. She would need to make her own choices, find her own way, and deal with life on her own. The fact that some of my friends thought I was crazy to allow this trip didn’t help to reduce the high levels of my worry!
So why did I encourage this trip? My answer can be summarized in one sentence: I wanted my daughter to grow up into a greater freedom. Freedom to find herself. Freedom to make her own decisions. Freedom to experience the consequences of those decisions. Freedom to become more mature, not only within herself, but also in her relationships with God and others. Such freedom she would not experience unless I was willing to let her go.
In the remainder of this article, I want to explore more deeply this experience of letting go. It is a complex action, fraught with both opportunity and danger.
Sometimes it seems far easier just to hold on to our children. Then we feel that we are in control of what happens. In contrast, letting go invites us to relate more freely, to risk, to trust. No longer do we then call the shots. Instead, we enter that scary space where things beyond our control may happen. What, then, is this letting go all about?
01. Letting Go
If we want our children to become their true selves, we must learn to let them go in a balanced and healthy way. Obviously, the ways in which we do this need to be appropriate to the age of our children. We can begin this process of letting our children go in small ways: letting them out of our arms to take their first steps, allowing them to play with a friend, giving permission to cycle down the road, and so on. During adolescence and early adulthood this letting go becomes more difficult and complex. Certainly, it won’t be smooth and untroubled. I have often been comforted by the crisis that Joseph and Mary went through when Jesus began to show the independence of a teenager. But they got through it. For them, as much as it is for us, letting go is essential to the growth of our children into a greater freedom.
We find a wonderful model for letting go in the relationship that God has with each one of us.
Have you noticed how free we are in relation to God? I cannot speak for you, but I have never personally experienced the divine presence forcing itself on me. Nor have I ever known God to coerce or pressure me into a particular course of action. The gift of God’s personal love is freely offered, and we are free to respond in our own way. We can decide to go God’s way, or we can go on our own.
There always seems to be a divine respect for our freedom to choose what kind of people we want to be.
In the same way that God relates to us, we need also to relate to our children. On the one hand, we really want to be able to express our love and care for them. On the other hand, we should do this without holding on to them. We need to learn gradually how to take our hands off their lives. This is what it means to let them go. In effect, when we let them go, we are saying to them something like this:
I believe that you were created to live freely.
I place your life into the loving hands of your Creator.
I let go of my clinging hold on your life.
I am willing for you to begin making your own choices.
I no longer want to play God in your life.
I will not believe that I always know what is best for your life.
I want you to live your own life
according to your best understanding and light.
I respect the image of God in you.
I want to learn to love you with open hands.
I love you, and I bless you.
I have confidence in you and
Letting our children go in this way can also deepen our own relationship with God. Those who are more mature on the spiritual path constantly remind us that, if we want to grow closer to God, we must learn to let go. Intimacy with God, they tell us, is all about yielding, surrendering, and trusting. However, these kinds of letting go experiences cannot happen in a vacuum. They are not abstract or theoretical. We need real life situations in which we can actually experience letting go in a personal way. As I have tried to describe from my own experience, the parenting experience provides us with ample opportunity to do this.
One further word about this action of letting go. It really does not mean a passive acceptance of all that comes our way. For example, if we are rejected by a teenage child we love, we do not just give in. We try to overcome the rejection with all our strength, wisdom, and love. Sometimes we need to fight for our friendships and relationships. There is a crucial difference between a gospel-shaped letting go and fatalism. We must always be careful not to just accept too quickly a setback or a problem in our relationships.
Jacob, you may remember, wrestled all night. Only after a nightlong struggle did he give in, knowing now that it was God he was fighting against. Then he let go and surrendered.
02. Readying Ourselves
Since we cannot simply manufacture or create these letting-go moments at will, we need to be ready for them when they come. Otherwise, we could miss them, and so rob our children of their potential to help them become their true selves. I believe that we as parents can cultivate a genuine readiness to let go in several ways. Here are a few that I am discovering:
We can pay attention to the ways in which we exercise our parental authority. There is a clear biblical command that parents should exercise authority and that children should subject themselves to it. But there is also a gospel-way in which we are called to do this—a way of courtesy and respect and nonviolence. While it is true that we may sometimes have to force our will onto our children when they are small, when they reach adolescence and older, our style needs to change. The question I often ask myself now is, “How can I exercise authority in such a way that, together with my children, I can grow up into a mature freedom and selfhood?”Eugene Petersen, Like Dew Your Youth: Growing Up with Your Teenager (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1994). We can learn ways of honestly sharing what we think and feel about certain issues, and then respect the right of our children to see things differently. At the time of writing these words, American forces have invaded Iraq. Our children have strong—and different—views about this. They express them forcibly. Together, as a family, we are learning to listen to each other. We are learning to honour each other’s perspectives even when they differ radically. Having a safe space to put into words what we truthfully think and feel always helps us to develop a clearer sense of who we are and what we stand for.
We can reflect regularly on the simple truth that our children are not really ours. They are given to us, on loan, for a brief time, and we are asked to be their mothers and fathers, their teachers, mentors, and guides. Perhaps also friends. But they never actually belong to us. They always belong to God and to themselves more than they belong to us. As Ronald Rolheiser has pointed out, there is both a deep challenge and a deep consolation in understanding and accepting this truth. The challenge is for us not to act as owners, or to manipulate our children for our own needs, but “to love, cajole, challenge, and correct even while giving them their freedom.” The consolation, when we realise that our children are not our own possessions, is coming to realise that God “is the real parent, and God’s love, care, aid to our children is always in excess of our own.”Ronald Rolheiser, Against an Infinite Horizon (New York: Crossroads, 2001).
We can surrender ourselves and our children to God each time we pray. Recently I have been learning a simple way in which to do this. Whenever I pray, I cup hands as if to drink water from a stream.
Imaginatively I put each of my family—Debbie, my partner in marriage, and each of our two children—into God’s hands, one at a time. I lift them up and relinquish them into God’s loving care, with all my love and longings for them. It’s my childlike way of reminding myself that, when it comes to the lives of my loved ones, I seldom really know what is best for them and for their future growth. Lastly, I place myself in my cupped hands and offer myself to God with the words, “Abba, into your hands I place my life.”KeithMiller, The Secret Life of the Soul (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1997).
We can pray about the feelings of anxiety we have about our children so that they can draw us into a closer relationship with God.
Here is part of a prayer that I wrote out in my journal the morning after my daughter had left for overseas: “Dear God, I come to you this morning feeling really anxious about Joni. I couldn’t sleep last night. I was worried about her accommodation, whether she was going to be warm
enough, whether she would cope on her own. Please draw me, Lord, through my anxiety, into a deeper trust in you. Help me to know that you care for her more than I will ever know and that you watch over her, even now. Whatever happens, please keep her safe in your love.” Praying my anxious feelings like this helped me to connect with God in spite of my inner feelings of turmoil and worry.
We can come together with other parents and encourage each other in our parenting responsibilities. The biblical witness makes it clear that we are not meant to deal with life alone. Gospel life is life together. When we meet together as parents, share our troubles and learnings, celebrate a common grace, we help each other fulfill our parental calling.
Most of the insights shared in this article have come from conversations with sisters and brothers in the faith who are also seeking to bring up their children in the spirit of Christ.
03. Closing Word
It was wonderful to sit down with our daughter when she returned from London. We spent hours listening to her recount her many experiences. She had made some difficult and painful discoveries.
Life can sometimes be tough. People can be uncaring.
Loneliness can be a terrible thing. But there had also been some wonderful times. She had made new friends. She had developed her ability to make her own decisions. She had stood on her own two feet. As we chatted away, her face radiating a new aliveness and zest for life, some words that I had read many years ago floated back into my mind. Somehow, I could understand them now at greater depth. They were written by the poet Cecil Day-Lewis when his son was growing up. The scene was a sporting event at the boy’s school during which the son turned away from his father and went off with his friends. In his poem titled, “Walking Away” Lewis wrote,
I have had worse partings,
but none that so Gnaws my mind still.
Perhaps it is roughly Saying what God alone
could perfectly show —
How selfhood begins with
a walking away,
And love is proved
in the letting go.Cecil Day-Lewis,. “Walking Away,” The Complete Poems (London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1992).
This, I believe, is what parenthood is all about—letting our children go in love so that they can become free and whole.