Cutting The Parental Cord

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As a parent of a high school student, I’ve had a hard time navigating the balance between staying involved in my teenager’s life and giving him the independence he craves. 

On the one hand, research shows that engaged parents have kids who are less likely to use drugs and alcohol and are more likely to do well in school. On the other hand, I sense that he is pulling away from me – “indviduating,” as the psychologists call it – and I want to encourage him to become his own person.

I had a big “mom” wake-up call the other day when I told my son that I was going to email his basketball coach to tell him about an upcoming family vacation we were taking.

“No Mom!” he yelled. “You can’t email the coach!”

Apparently, the coach had told the team that he didn’t want any parental involvement – including emails and texts about game times and scheduling conflicts. They were high school students now. If they had an issue, they were to contact the coach directly, not via their parents.

It was time to cut the parental cord.

Part of me was relieved. After all, I’d spend the past 15 years planning my son’s life and taking care of his every need – from changing diapers and taming toddler tantrums, to cooking meals and driving him all over God’s green earth. I deserved a break. Besides, I was never much of a meddling mom when it came to sports and school. My philosophy has been to “outsource” the kids’ academics and sports to the experts and intervene only when necessary.

But part of me was sad. My son was telling me to let go – to cede control – which, for a control freak like me, was no easy task. What if my son forgot to call his coach about a conflict? What if he needed me to intervene on his behalf?

As parents, one of the most difficult things we have to do is “cut the cord” – to let our kids take responsibility for their own lives; to let them experience the often harsh consequences of their (sometimes stupid) actions.

The reason for this is simple. Your kids come out of the womb attached to you, then spend the next 18 or so years dependent on you for food, shelter, clothing and care. As they get older, they move away from your rules and hands-on guidance, and towards your advice and counsel. At a certain point, they are out of your control.

Part of letting your kids go is allowing them to take ownership of their lives. When I told my son that, sure, he could get another pair of basketball shoes, as long as he paid for them himself, he looked at me like I had four heads. Guess what? He got a job as a Little League umpire and earned enough to buy the shoes himself. The look on his face when he received his first real paycheck was priceless. He was proud and excited to earn his own money, For the first time, he didn’t have to rely on his mom and dad to buy him what he wanted. 

I was fortunate to have parents who paid for my college tuition. That ‘s not the case for many families these days. But when I graduated, I was on my own. The cord was cut. No moving back home with mom and dad. I had to find a job to pay the rent for a tiny apartment I shared with three roommates in San Francisco. It wasn’t my dream job – I didn’t even like it, in fact – but it paid the bills. And after a few rough years in the city, it felt great to fly on my own.

My instinct as a mother is to hold my teenage son close and protect him from the rocky road to adulthood. But I know that I have to let go. Although he is many years from “flying solo” at this point, his small moves towards independence are part of the process of growing up.  

As a parent, it is my job to let him try, fail, pick himself back up, scare the hell out of me (!) and try again -all while trying not to hold my breath.

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