Parenting Is a Progressive Letting Go
A dear friend of mine has a brand-new baby boy, and when I talk to her on the phone, I can hear his newborn baby burbling. Like all new moms, she wants to slow time down so she can snuggle him a little longer. Even in her son’s infancy, she senses the painful truth all parents know: parenting is a progressive letting go.
At every age and stage, our children’s maturation demands that we let them grow up. We launch them gradually into the world: to school, to spend the night at a friend’s house, to drive a car, to college, and so on. Bit by bit, we step back and let them make their own choices, praying that they will listen closely for God’s voice. Perhaps the trickiest part is knowing when and how to let them take the reins of their own lives. It often feels easier to maintain control rather than run the risk of our child making a poor decision.
I’m not going to lie to my new mom friend – this letting go business gives a parent’s faith a serious workout. But in God’s marvelous economy, as parents release their children into His care, He brings both children and parents to greater maturity and deeper trust in Him.
In his book Our Greatest Gift, Henri Nouwen tells this story about the Flying Rodleighs, trapeze artists whom he befriended:
One day, I was sitting with Rodleigh, the leader of the troupe, in his caravan, taking about flying. He said, “As a flyer, I must have complete trust in my catcher. The public might think that I am the great star of the trapeze, but the real star is Joe, my catcher. He has to be there for me with split-second precision and grab me out of the air as I come to him in the long jump.” “How does it work?” I asked. “The secret,” Rodleigh said, “is that the flyer does nothing and the catcher does everything. When I fly to Joe, I have simply to stretch out my arms and wait for him to catch me and pull me safely over the apron behind the catchbar.”
“You do nothing!” I said, surprised. “Nothing.” Rodleigh repeated. “The worst thing the flyer can do is try to catch the catcher. I am not supposed to catch Joe. It’s Joe’s task to catch me. If I grabbed Joe’s wrists, I might break them, or he might break mine, and it would be the end for both of us. A flyer must fly, and a catcher must catch, and the flyer must trust, with outstretched arms, that his catcher will be there for him.”
Think of the flyer, learning this skill. He must prepare himself to do three things: to trust, to let go, and to fly. In the same way, we parents must prepare ourselves to let go, to allow our kids to “fly” into the scary uncertainty of letting them make their own (age appropriate) decisions.
Learning to Trust
Although God has proven Himself trustworthy since the beginning of time, human beings are quick to trust in things other than God. We might trust ourselves most: our feelings, our experiences, our intuition, our effort. We might be tempted to trust the experts or current popular wisdom. But no matter if he is headed for kindergarten or college, when your child walks out the front door of your home, God is the only one who can go with him. And God is the only one with the power to catch him, hold him, and bring him safely home to Himself.
Learning to Let Go
We don’t relinquish control haphazardly; we pray, we think, we talk with more experienced parents, we examine our child as an individual. We work to hear the Holy Spirit and we dedicate ourselves to discipling our kids in Christ. We remember that we are not releasing our children into a godless void, even though it may sometimes feel that way. Parents let go in faith, trusting that Jesus is the perfect Catcher whose skill and timing never fails.
Learning to Let Our Children Fly
Parents have to be willing to endure discomfort and uncertainty as our children learn to fly. (This pain, by the way, is a sure sign that we are growing, just as our kids are.) Just as the flyer must resist the temptation to “help” the catcher by grabbing him, we have to resist the temptation to play God with our children. We have to be willing to let them fail.
It goes against my protective instincts to release control of my child’s choices, and it is even more counterintuitive not to snatch control back when I am afraid. But helicopter moms and lawnmower dads stunt their children’s growth as well as their own. Ultimately, we cling tightly to our kids not only for their sake but for ours as well. We try to avoid our own pain by preventing theirs, yet we sacrifice growth, maturity, and thriving for our whole family when we are unwilling to trust God with our children.
One Father’s Story
For a dramatic example, let’s flesh out the story of the prodigal son in Luke 15. Imagine yourself in the father’s place. When his younger son demands his inheritance (tantamount to wishing his father dead), this father has no illusions that his son is going to start a non-profit to care for widows and orphans. His beloved son heads straight for a far country to squander his inheritance on reckless living (Luke 15:13).
This son is an adult. His dad has known him all his life, and he knows exactly what his son will do with his money and his freedom. But the father is willing to endure faithfully, surely in great sadness and anguish, trusting that his son will remember who his father is and return to embrace his sonship.
Our Heavenly Father
As a parent, I must remember who my child’s Father is. God will speak directly to my kid without any help from me. The Holy Spirit is responsible to sanctify my child, not me. My role is to teach my children the Truth, but it is up to them to obey it. And when they do, it’s not because I coerced their obedience or made their choices for them, it’s because my child has their own relationship with God the Father. God is responsible for catching my child. I am responsible disciple him well, then trust God, let him go, and let him fly.
I am well aware that my children, like their mother, will choose poorly sometimes. But I want my new mom friend to remember this as her son grows: God’s faithfulness does not depend on us. God is love and love never fails. In fact, “If I make my bed in hell, behold, Thou art there” (Psalm 139:8 KJV). If someone I love makes his or her bed in hell – God forbid, I shudder to even type that – He is there. It’s not up to me to control my kids’ choices or to manipulate their futures. If I cannot even “catch” myself – if I must learn to trust God with my own life – how much more I need to learn to trust Him with these children I love so much.