Parents, let them have their big days

DayCampDay1This week, my wife and I did something we’ve never done before—we dropped our two-and-a-half-year-old son off at day camp.

Not with Grandma and Grandpa, not with a trusted babysitter we—and he—knew, but a group environment with 30 other 2-7 year-olds he’d never met, supervised by adults who’d only learned his name just minutes before.

As we were leaving, we looked back to see him across the playground waving good bye to us from the sandbox, knowing he would spend the nine hours there in the care of people we, too, had just met. I swear I felt like we were abandoning him and that Child Protective Services would soon be investigating us.

I’ve spent every day of the last eight years writing about—among other things—the need for parents to step back and support their kids without hovering. And I’ve spent every day of the last two-and-a-half years seeing for myself just how hard that can be to do. It feels good to know that our kids are under our watchful eyes, protected from disappointment and failure and discomfort. And there are times when loving them unconditionally does in fact mean providing a certain amount of cover from things they just aren’t yet equipped to handle. That’s why we hold our toddlers’ hands when they cross the street.

But as our babies become toddlers, toddlers become children, and children become teenagers, the best thing we can do in support of our kids is to regularly let go of those hands so our kids can live, experience, and learn for themselves, not to put them in harm’s way, but to put them in life’s way. It’s not easy. It might not even feel like good parenting at the time. But it’s exactly what our kids need from us, whether they’re attending a day camp or completing a college application.

When we arrived back at the day camp at 5 p.m., our boy ran across the playground to greet us, full of stories of snacks and naps and everything else he’d just experienced.

I told him it sounded like he’d had a good day. And he replied, “Yeah. It was a big day!”

We’ve got to let them have their big days, even if those are some of the hardest days for us.