Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Intentional Parenting - Part 10; Intentionally Letting Go

On the day my first daughter was born I held her in my arms, looked my husband in the eye and said, “I feel like my job from now on is to teach her to not need me anymore.”

I know what you’re thinking: How weird is this woman?

But in all seriousness, whether that thought was from God or not, that idea has stayed with me for the past 18 years, and it has largely shaped my philosophy of parenting. And somehow I believe that in that most significant moment of my life, I was given a gift.

The gift of letting go.

Perhaps God knew that this was one area of parenting my daughters that would be hard for me. Perhaps my past had something to do with it. Whatever it is, the idea of purposefully teaching independence and intentionally preparing myself to let my daughters go has been at the forefront of how I parent them.

I probably think about letting go more than the average mom, most likely because I experienced a forced letting go when I was young. I think every day about how my beauties are here for a moment and could be taken away just as easily.

When I was a young girl, eleven years old, my younger brother drowned in an accident at summer camp. This loss has shaped me in many ways, but it has made me examine my relationship to my kids and has forced me to think about letting them go in ways that many parents do not. Losing my brother has made me realize that, as a parent, I am only a caretaker of these three incredible gifts God has given to me. He is ultimately in control of them—not me.

Of all people, I would love more than anything to hold my daughters close to my breast and never let them go. I love my girls with a passion, and since I love them so much, I naturally want to hold them close to me. But I know that would not be God’s best for them, and so, because I love them, I choose to let them go.

And there are benefits to this letting go.

Letting go has given my girls a confidence that comes from independence. From the time they were young, my husband and I have given them small bits of freedom that have served to make them more confident as young women. Little bits . . . like walking to school alone, riding bikes around the neighborhood, driving a car all by themselves (!) . . . become bigger bits . . . like choosing a college, deciding on a career, choosing a husband. I cannot make these big decisions for my daughters, but because they have learned to handle smaller responsibilities, they are well-equipped to make bigger, independent decisions.

Letting go has caused me to trust God more. Believe me, the first time I put Kate on a bus that would take her to summer camp for two weeks was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done as a parent. If any mother wanted to protect her child from any one situation, it was me and camp.

But I put Kate on that bus when she was ten years old because I had to. I had to trust her into the care of the One who entrusted her to me. I had to let her go to camp because I had to learn to fully trust God with my children.

It worked out. She came home. And every one of my children has enjoyed many weeks at that camp. They have grown tremendously because of that camp, and I could not let my fear of the “what if” keep them from that growth.

So why is letting go of our kids so difficult? I mean, when you think about it, kids are messy, they take lots of time and money, and they don’t always say thanks for the effort. But our kids are also a part of us. We’ve poured our very lifeblood into them—so much so that there is very little of us left in the end. But we’d do it again and again and again because they are ours and we love them.

And then there’s the “what if?” which is where so many parents seem to get stuck. They give in to their fears, their worries, and focus on all the scary stuff that’s around us all the time. Yes, parenting is an incredible privilege and an incredible joy, but it can also bring incredible pain along with it.

How can we counter this fear and really learn to let go? It begins with trusting God, the One who gave you your children and the only One who can really protect them. I think often about a pastor I know who moved his family into Chicago to plant a church. Someone asked him if he was afraid for his kids in the city—would they be safe? His answer has stayed with me to this day. He said, “My children are in more danger living in the suburbs if we are out of God’s will than they will ever be in the city, living in God’s will.”

We cannot protect our children from every evil around them. It’s just not possible. We cannot protect them from failure or disappointment or sadness or even death. But when we begin to look at our children not as possessions but as gifts, we can truly trust God with them.

Letting go is kind of like teaching a child to ride a 2-wheeler. At first we hold on lightly until we knew they can do it. Then we gently let go of the bike, running alongside while our child wobbles a bit, figuring it out for herself. Pretty soon we are left just standing there with our hand shielding our eyes as our child rides off into the sunset. There is no keeping up.

There is no need.

In just a few short months I will send my firstborn off to college. I could look at this as a scary time or a sentimental time or a sad time, but I will not. I will look at her new journey as an exciting time for which she has been well-prepared. Because on the day of her birth I held her in my arms, looked my husband in the eye, and said, “I feel like my job from now on is to teach her to not need me.”

Hopefully, I’ve done my job.

**Next week I will wrap up my Intentional Parenting series. If you've missed any of these posts, you can just click on the links below to get caught up.**

Intentionally Disciplined

Intentionally Truthful

Intentional Stewardship

Intentional Service

Intentional Worship

Intentional Kindness

Intentional Travel

Intentional Prayer


  1. I really enjoyed #10 - I struggle with making my child independent even though she is dependent upon me for most of her care. She is going to sleep away camp for the first time this summer. I am struggling with this now, but having read your blog realize that she is in God's hands and will do fine - Mom has to get over the anxiety.

  2. Shelly, thanks for sharing your story. You know I've heard parts of it before, but it still makes me sad for that 11 year old girl. And thanks for telling us about how God is working to redeem that sadness in the midst of your parenting.

    We are so similar in parenting style, you and I. There is a mantra I've shared with friends over the years about parenting. "My job is to work myself out of a job." My entire raison d'etre when it comes to parenting is to make myself unnecessary some years down the road. What a gift to recognize that even from the beginning.

    For me, it's been fun to figure out the ways to implement this. Whether it's riding bikes to Walgreen's with money for treats . . . or putting away their own laundry . . . or being responsible for their own sports uniform bags . . . or making their own choice about wearing a coat or not . . . some day, I hope to release to the world three independent, responsible citizens who love God and love people. Thanks for your encouragement along the journey, Shelly.

  3. Lisa, it's great that you are letting your daughter go to camp this summer. I am sure that's a tough one for you.

    Jennifer--yes! I love everything you've said there. Thanks!

  4. This is a great perspective as i start this journey. Thank you. Please remind me of this as I go.

  5. This is beautiful, Shelly!! I lvoe it! Thanks for the encouragement and wonderful advice this morning!

  6. So hard. I didn't even want to potty train, because I want Annalyn to need me. :) Seriously, though - this is a good lesson and one I wish my own mother could have learned differently. She raised me to be independent, sure - but I think she hates that she did it! She continues to cling to me, and I don't want Annalyn to feel the pressure that I feel. Another great post, Shelly - and I'm going to be sad when this series is over!!

  7. Don't be sad, Mary! Just give me another idea for a series and I'll get crackin'!

  8. Awesome, Awesome post! I am so scared about the letting go part. I am secretly glad none of my kids want bikes because I don't want them to ride all over the neighborhood. Baby steps, I know :)

  9. That was beautiful. Thank you, Shelly!

  10. Julie told me about your series, and I'm so glad she did! As a new mom (my son is two) I have so much to learn from the wisdom of the women who are ahead of me... and I'm studying Titus 2 in my bible study!

    How great to meet you!

  11. So true Shelly. It is an illusion to think as parents we have control. We don't. God does. He loves us and will be with us no matter what. I loved what you said and also what the pastor said. So true...
    Thank you.

  12. I came by way of The Gypsy Mama (by way of another friend's tweets). This post is especially interesting to me because I am the parent of a young boy with multiple disabilities and needs. I often struggle with the fear he will always be dependent upon me and the fear that he won't need me one day. So much of my life has, thus far, been about his needs and being his advocate that I haven't had time to think about the ways in which I need to encourage his independence more and prepare him for life without me. It may look different than putting him on a bus to summer camp (way to go, mom!) but I do need to give this some truly mindful reflection; time passes so quickly and no one knows wha's around the next corner.

    Thanks for a timely reminder from an unexpected source. And the gift of remembering that, no matter the circumstances, we are all united in our shared bond of parenthood.

  13. Though I haven't had to fully let go yet, since my son is 5 years old, I still do experience little things every day and stage that I have to let go and let him do. And ultimately to let God do through and with him. Still tough sometimes, even in the little things...but well worth it. God is his Father and protector much better than I can ever be his mother and protector.

    Came here via The Gypsy Mama. :o)

  14. Oh so good, so true and so HARD. I wrestle in my heart with this all. the. time.

    Thank you for the wise reminders!