Flo was a loving mother and very attentive to her son, Flint. He was too emotionally attached to her and that was the problem. He was not maturing and becoming independent as he needed to be doing. He was nearly five years old and that is too old for a chimpanzee to be so closely bonded to his mother. It was time for Flo to bear another baby. She tried to wean Flint. She tried pushing him away. When denied the comfort of his mother’s breast he threw violent temper tantrums, hitting and biting. Flo couldn’t cope with his behavior and so she gave in to him. Even after baby Flame was born Flint continued to pester his mother and she gave into his demands. Within six months Flo became ill. She could not sustain the demands of caring for a baby and a five year old. One day the baby disappeared. In her sorrow Flo became more sedate and coddled Flint even more. Then Flo died. Flint lost his whole world. He stayed close by her corpse. Lethargy and depression set in and within 4 weeks Flint too died. This is a true story that took place in the Gombe National Park in Tanzania, Africa and was observed and recorded by Jane Goodall, renowned chimpanzee researcher. Goodall observed three generations of chimpanzees over 22 years. Flint did not gain independence or maturity and it cost him his life and the life of his mother and sister. Fortunately, in the human family the results of the lack of or delayed maturity are not usually life threatening. But it is still a problem and can result in a lack of quality of living or other problems for parents and child. Some children seem to naturally seek and desire independence and others need to be pushed and prodded. Some parents cannot release their children and cling to the need to be needed or are not ready for the relationship changes which occur with adult children. As parents our goal should be to train and prepare our children to be mature and independent adults. Many parents accomplish this very successfully and others do not. For some the greatest test of releasing is the day when their son or daughter departs for college. Fear, anxiety, hope, worry, joy, guilt, excitement, sense of loss, a measure of regret, emptiness, and loneliness are a lot of very confusing emotions. These describe the conflicting feelings of the typical American parent as their high school graduate leaves the nurturing nest of home to enter collegiate life. The student is also feeling some turbulence, but for different reasons. I know. I was that neurotic parent. It started in 1978 when Dan, our first child, was born. When he was four years old we decided home schooling was the best choice for our family. I became his teacher. When he entered pre-adolescence I was asked to be the youth director at our church, and eventually I became his youth pastor. I spent a lot of time with this son. We were very close. Dan is a terrific son. I actually liked being with him. Could I really let him leave home and go 700 miles away to college? Would he be okay? Would I be okay?
I actually told myself that coping would be awful. I let my anxiety exaggerate the situation. So I concocted a plan to help cope with his leaving. I convinced my husband, Howard, that we needed to take a trip to get out of the house and go away for a while. The week after our son left we borrowed a camper, packed up the children (yes, we have four other children) and went camping for three weeks. I guess I slightly overreacted. I did miss our eldest son, but I was not alone and I was not lonely. Life went on. I was still home schooling our other four children. I still had a husband who enjoyed my companionship. I was still the youth pastor of a growing youth ministry. But I did experience a stressful transition.
Psychiatrist Thomas H. Holmes has developed a Vulnerability of Stress Scale with a numeric measurement of various events that cause stress in a person’s life. This scale has 42 events listed on it. Number 23 on the list is “son or daughter leaving home”. I found it interesting that this event in the parent’s life is considered more stressful than event number 27 “begin or end school” is for the student. This chart just acknowledged my personal experience and my observations from working with other parents in youth ministry who had a rough time with this transition.
Christian parents need to have only a few major goals with a multitude of finer points. Goal number one is to nurture and teach their child to know and love God as Heavenly Father and his son, Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord. The second goal is to raise a mature, independent and functioning adult. The third goal is somewhat of a blend of the first two. We desire our child to be a psychologically and emotionally healthy person who is altruistic, loving, and capable of rearing a family of his own in a godly manner. Parents invest years and years of time and measureless amounts of self-sacrificing love and energy implementing these goals. It is perfectly understandable that when the pursuit of these goals comes to a conclusion the parent is left in a new and perhaps scary place.
This transition should not be abrupt. Our approach to parenting should be continually changing with the development of the child. Dr. James Dobson describes this aspect of parenting “It is better, I believe, to begin releasing your children during the preschool years, granting independence that is consistent with their age and maturity. When a child can tie his shoes, let him – yes, require him – to do it. When he can choose his own clothes within reason, let him make his own selection. When he can walk safely to school, allow him the privilege. Each year, more responsibility and freedom (they are companions) are given to the child so that the final release in early adulthood is merely the final relaxation of authority.”
“Releasing their child to the great unknown of college – large or small, secular or Christian – is a major and scary, life passage for parents” claims my friend and author, Virginia Vagt. Parents’ anxiety can be reduced when they intentionally address and train their child with the specific goal of developing mature and independent adults. In preparing the child you are also preparing yourself. Preparation creates a self-confident young person which also gives you confidence. Of course, you will greatly miss them and your relationship changes. But your relationship with them has been changing day by day since their birth. Embrace the changes.
Parents flounder and mess up and say and do the wrong things as they try to release their children. It is so very difficult to let them go. There are many things that parents can do to prepare their children and themselves to let them go.
How do we reach the goal of being able to confidently release our mature and independent adult children? We help ourselves by doing the extremely hard work of preparing them. I agree with Dr. Dobson who says to begin when they are preschoolers. The rest of this blog focuses the many areas that need to be addressed.