You are feeling desperate to get your youngest potty trained and he absolutely refuses. Your teenagers are making bad choices. You can’t get your spouse to stop drinking. You’re involved in a relationship that is not progressing in the direction you were hoping for. Your parents are aging and you are no longer able to care for them yourself. Someone at work can’t stand you for no apparent reason. The world seems to be falling apart and there is nothing you can do about it.
Things that we are powerless over happen every day as we scurry through our lives.
My first conscious experience of letting go was when I was in college and needed to get to a final exam on the other campus, and the shuttle bus was running late. I was fervently praying for the bus to appear, willing the traffic to make way for us, the lights to be green, when it occurred to me that I would be late and there was absolutely nothing I could do about it.
When raising children, it is critical to learn the art of letting go. Priorities drastically change and we must sacrifice so much of what had previously been taken for granted: time to oneself, intelligent conversation with another adult, time with friends, order, routine, sleep, a complete thought, and the freedom to just be.
As parents we feel so protective of our progeny that we want to spare them the pain of growing up. We are inclined to intervene on their behalf when it is better to let them stand up for themselves.
Letting go is to allow learning through natural consequences. For instance, I have known many well- meaning parents to drop everything to take lunch, gym clothes or a musical instrument to their elementary student, over and over again. I was not in a position to do this, so my children learned after once having to borrow lunch money or beg off of friends; wearing the spare set of clothes kept in the phys ed department for this purpose; and having to sit through music lessons despite the fact that they didn’t have an instrument to play. Meanwhile, the parent who enables this forgetfulness to go on, continues running back and forth to school several times a month.
Letting go is understanding that you can’t do it for someone else. Your child is the one who needs to finish a project in the way s/he sees fit. You can guide and even assist if asked, but if you do it for him, he is learning that he is incompetent. On the other hand, if the teacher makes him do it over, he learns that more is expected of him.
Letting go is allowing someone to be who they are without judgment. For example, nothing we do or say will change someone who tends to be messy and disorganized into a neatnik. Changing the way we react to a child’s cluttered room (helping to clean it, or closing the door on the mess) is much less frustrating than beating our head against the wall with endless nagging.
Letting go is not trying to arrange outcomes of other people’s lives, for we each have our own lessons to learn. When we assert ourselves on behalf of our children by defending them when they get in trouble, or are graded unfairly, or not chosen for the lead in a play, we are denying them the experience and satisfaction of standing up for themselves, or coming to terms with a decision that affects them. Children grow from these experiences, and if we intervene every time they encounter a bit of rough going, they cannot learn to become independent.
There are days when the Serenity Prayer becomes my mantra: Accept the things I cannot change (e.g., my child’s temperament, the choices other people make); change the things I can; and hope that I am wise enough to know the difference. I repeat it over and over and over to the exclusion of the relentless negative thoughts that are making me miserable (he thinks I’m stupid and unreasonable; I’m always the bad guy; they don’t take me seriously). Compartmentalizing a situation in this way makes it tremendously more manageable.
Children are champs at letting go. If they squabble amongst themselves, they move on as quickly as they are distracted from the current bone of contention. They have so much to teach us. Once I threw my arms up in exasperation and pleaded “what am I going to do with you?” My wise little 2 ½ year old replied, “Hug me.” – RDW (07-03-10)