Have you heard that Kenny Chesney song "Don't Blink?" If you haven't, it's good - look it up. This time of year many parents are really feeling the meaning of the lyrics, especially the line "Life goes faster than you think." You've also probably been told by someone who meant well, when your kid was melting down in the grocery store, to "Appreciate these years because they go by in the blink of an eye." Typically not helpful when you are tired and stressed and your kid is misbehaving, but they are resonating for me now. With the end of the summer brings the start of school and that can mean mixed emotions for parents, especially for those who have kids experiencing milestone moments - starting kindergarten, middle school, high school, or college.
Personally I'm about to send my 18 year-old off to college for the first time. My oldest kid, who just yesterday was a teeny tiny baby (and now is a 6-foot tall young man), is moving a few hours from home and about to start the next chapter of his life. And, while I know he's ready I'm not sure I am. Anticipating the forever change in our family and how the dynamics will shift makes me nervous. Yes he will be home to visit but it won't ever be the same. And there isn't a damn thing I can do about it (I'm also losing my driver helper who helps shuttle siblings to activities which just rubs salt in my open wound)! When he was born this moment seemed so far away, then I blinked, and 18 years went by so incredibly fast. I’ve learned a lot along the way and I thought it might be helpful to share some things that have helped us over the years prepare for this next step:
Let your kid fail. Yup, that's right. During the teen years kids are developing their sense of self and of course independence. They may have ideas that are silly or a waste of time. They may blow off responsibilities. It's important to let them have some ownership over their own life and that means allowing them to make mistakes. Don't bring homework to school when they forget it. Don't email the teacher on their behalf. You can guide and help them problem solve but so much learning comes from stumbling and falling and making mistakes. Of course if your child has learning differences or other limitations you may need to provide more support.
Encourage your child to pursue their own interests. Some kids need more nudging than others but set an expectation that they need to participate in some sort of extracurricular activity (within your means). That activity may be different than what you imagined for them and that's okay. Encourage them to try different things through the years. Music, sports, scouts, volunteering, art, dance, drama - there are so many options for your child to build confidence, social skills, and discipline/responsibility.
Set expectations. Screen time limits, grades, curfew, behavior…the list goes on. Enforce consequences even when it's inconvenient for you. Remember you are their parent and by putting the work in now you will reap the rewards later.
Support your kid emotionally. Kids have big feelings and what feels like big problems. Oftentimes parents minimize their child's experience which can lead to your child not seeing you as someone to trust. Connect with your kids every day, even if it's only for a few minutes, even if you are tired. Send a text. Tell them you love them. Give a random hug.
Don't fret about college. If your child plans to go to college, don't stress too much about which college your kid will get into. It's evident there is this pressure in society to send our kids to "the best". On some facebook groups geared for parents whose kids were applying to college I was amazed at the agony some parents were experiencing because their child didn't get into their "dream" school. Or that parents were willing to send their kids to schools out of their budget because they feel if they don't they are selling their kid short on their college experience. But they lose sight of what's most important about college - getting a degree, gaining independence, and exploring new friendships and opportunities. Helping your child cope with disappointment and learn that sometimes things don't go their way is more helpful to them than paving the way and making things as easy as possible for them.
Help them lean into hard feelings. Part of our job as parents is to help our kids learn to tolerate distress and discomfort, not avoid them completely. It's okay to disappoint them, it's okay to push them a little out of their comfort zone so they can learn that uncomfortable feelings are able to be worked through. Doing so often leads to improved resilience, learning, and growth.
Take lots of pictures - and make sure you are in some of them!
Be real with your kid. Don't sugar coat what college is going to be like. Kids get this message that college is "the best four years of your life." But for many there are really difficult times throughout college. Classes are hard, demands are high, relationships and friendships change, and more. It's important to let your kid know that it’s okay if there is some tough stuff to deal with and you are available to counsel them and provide support as needed.
Work on being the best version of yourself. No one is perfect but model to your child the values you want them to have. Be human in front of them. Own your mistakes. Find time to do things that fill your cup.
Cut yourself some slack. Parenting is so hard and unpredictable. There are many times I made mistakes as a mom - yelled when it wasn't warranted, forgot something they needed, made a decision that somehow negatively impacted my child, etc. It's important to know that no parent has it figured out. We are all winging it. But what matters in the end is the relationship you build with your kids. That foundation starts early and takes effort. Don't expect perfection and give yourself grace. It's a difficult job and there is no manual.
So, as I am about to send off kiddo #1 into the world I am allowing myself to feel all the feelings - grief, excitement, pride, anxiety, sadness. Whether your child is starting daycare, kindergarten, or any new venture in their life, know that you are doing your job well and building the stepping stones so one day, when you set your child free, you know they will soar.