by Leslie Morgan Steiner
“Sometimes, you need to let your kids go – so that they can come home.”
I’ve never forgotten the mom with older children who mentioned this paradox to me. She was explaining why she supported her teenage daughter’s decision to go to boarding school far from home, at a time when the family wanted the daughter close by. Her wisdom paid off. After two years away, her daughter returned “home” to college in the same town where she had grown up and her extended family still lived.
This advice came in handy three years ago when my nine-year-old daughter dramatically announced that she wanted to go to sleep-away camp. She’d seen a camp website at a friend’s house – swimming holes, horses, Indian-themed cabins. Plenty of friends sent their kids to camp or teen tours or their grandmother’s farm for the summer, with happy results for kids and the adults. However, my husband and I had always avoided encouraging our kids to go away. We wanted them HOME, with us. Especially at nine years old.
Our daughter couldn’t articulate why she needed to go away to camp. But she was adamant.
We let her go for a 14 day session, despite our misgivings and despite the fact that we missed her desperately. Leaving her in the middle of West Virginia with 300 other girls (and 70 horses) was like cutting off my own leg.
But we did it.
This year, as I’ve been helping her pack for her third summer away from us, she found the words to explain why she needs to get away.
“Mom,” she said while we were labeling t-shirts. “It’s not that I love camp so much. It’s really that I need a break from this family. And you guys need a break from me.”
I nearly dropped my black Sharpie. When did she get so darn articulate, so ridiculously insightful?
She’s our middle child. Fiery. Uber-responsible. Downright bossy. Since she was two years old, she’s battled to run our household. She set her sights high, as her father and I are first in line as household captains. Plus she’s got a dominant, athletic, outgoing older brother who is unlikely to cede his position as oldest child anytime soon.
As a result of these control dynamics, our family is loud. Doors are slammed on a daily and sometimes hourly basis. Some days, every decision requires an explosive argument: Who sits where at the dinner table. What hour constitutes a reasonable bedtime. How much tv is allowed. Who gets the middle seat in the car. Which radio station. Windows up or down? How often one needs to shower, brush teeth, change clothes, use deodorant.
Of course she needs a break. And as much as we love her, we need a break too.
Our nine-year-old saw this when my husband and I could not. Sometimes, smart parenting means listening to your children and letting them go. Sometimes, they understand themselves and family dynamics better than we do.
So tomorrow I will drive our daughter to West Virginia and drive home alone. This year she’s staying for six weeks. She’s happy to go. And I know she’ll be happy to come home too.