How to Let a Child Grow Into an Adult

When my son graduated from college, it meant that my days as a “mom” who gave my kids their allowance, reminded them of doctor’s appointments, thank you notes, bank deposits, getting their cars washed, registering for classes, calling their grandmothers, ordering contact lenses, buying new underwear, and so many other things…those days were over. It was time for me to back away from the bits and pieces of his life and let him pick them up himself.

There is no pop-up ad on the computer screen of life that tells you when to notice the important moments, nor is there a fast-forward or rewind button allowing you to plan ahead for what’s to come or go back and fix what’s happened. The gradual moment-to-moment events of our children’s lives ensure that change, when it comes, is not a shock to our systems like it could be if, Rip Van Winkle-like, we were to fall asleep when they were 12 and wake up when they turn 21. The permutations and twists and turns in our children’s (and our own) lives are what make each transition a little easier to understand, though sometimes emotionally difficult to bear.

Like with all children, raising my son was filled with moments that defined who he would become as a man. There he was at 18 months old, getting fitted for glasses to correct his lazy eye, wearing a patch to pre-school for a year. There he was at 5, starting kindergarten and meeting friends he still talks to every day. There he was at 8, walking to school alone for the first time. There he was at 14, hitting a triple in his last year playing little league baseball. There he was at 15, saying goodbye to the grandfather he loved so much. There he was at 17, starting on the varsity football team when he was sidelined by a stress fracture to his femur, ending the best season of sports he’d ever had.

And then, quick as can be, he was almost 22, almost graduated, with a job waiting for him that he loved and...well. Had you told me this would happen when he started college, I might have had my doubts. Not that he wasn’t capable, or smart, or even motivated. He just didn’t seem to me to be fully formed yet – a little out of focus, if you will. I watched my little boy – all 6’2″ of him – walk into his dorm the day we dropped him off at school and I knew – I just knew – that it wasn’t going to be easy for him. I was right. The work was difficult, the social life was challenging, the hot, desert weather was oppressive. Just living on his own, in a dorm room with a roommate he despised – that was enough to worry any mother, right?

My husband and I tried to be two steps ahead of every possible dilemma that might come our son’s way, anxious to help smooth the bumpy road he traversed as a college freshman, if only by phone or text. We were still piloting that pesky helicopter that had been hovering over our home all of his life.

Then, after he came home junior year to go to community college for a semester – and, making the best choice he’s ever made, decided to go back to the university he had left -my husband and I finally did something smart.

We left him alone.

Not that we weren’t there for him when he called. Not that we stopped worrying or thinking or wondering. Not that we ever stopped loving him fiercely. We just let him figure it out on his own. We finally decided to trust that he would make things work. And when we did that, he started to come into focus. It was as if a pair of binoculars were in front of my eyes and I had finally found the right setting. Or maybe he had.

What we must do for our older children – especially the ones who seem a little lost – is to learn to trust them, to believe in them, to encourage them to find their own way.

Let them figure out what’s going to make their lives come together, to bring clarity to their future. Let them stumble and make their own mistakes without rushing to fix things for them. Let them find the thing that they will feel as passionate about as we do about them. Let them grow up, grow away, grow strong.

The best thing we can do is to let them go.

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  • Great article Sharon! I’m still firmly planted at the helm of the helicopter but am trying to gradually hand over the controls to my soon-to-be 17 year old, who’s becoming more of a man every day! But it ain’t easy 🙂

    • Sharon Greenthal

      No, and 17 is such a weird age…on the verge of so much, but still with one foot firmly planted in childhood.

  • I think helicoptering with a boy is more prevalent. My daughter is so independent that I couldn’t really helicopter parent her even if I wanted to. My son on the other hand is much less sure of himself. Glad your son did so well, and the fact that he already has a job is fabulous! Congratulations to both of you on a job well done.

    • Sharon Greenthal

      I agree! My daughter didn’t need management at all. Also, she is first-born, which comes into play I think. Thank you for the congratulations – he is thrilled with his job and we are so happy for him. And the best part – he did it all on his own.

  • I have been where you are and it was not easy. I cried all the way home after taking him to college his freshman year. I was excited each time he came home to visit and yet, knew it was right when he returned back to school. He, too, had bumps in the road and when you mentioned the despised roommate, my son had the same issue his freshman year. It was not a good year. I was so surprised because my college years were wonderful. I tried to offer support and also stay out of the way. Now, he is moving into a home with his girlfriend (one I would have picked out myself) and starting a new life. His journey and yours is starting a new chapter. Really enjoyed your post!

    • Sharon Greenthal

      Thank you Dana. It sounds like your son is doing great. Interesting that our boys had parallel experiences in college.

  • Well, I second that. One of the MOST important things I learned was to trust that up or down, our kids will deal with their decisions. It was also one of those things I knew for a while before I actually understood and practiced it. Raising kids is full of those “Ohhh, Okay” moments, isn’t it?

  • Sharon,

    So happy for you and Adam and of course Peter – letting go is the hardest part of what we do for our kids

  • Great post, Sharon. I could relate to every step of your journey raising a son. Can there be any finer piece of advice to a parent that the one you offer…”learn to trust them, to believe in them, to encourage them to find their own way.”

  • I’m not a Mom, Sharon but having been the daughter of parents who found this hard to do, I see the wisdom of this. I think that letting go holds true of all relationships. Good luck to your son in all he does!

  • I don’t have kids, but it’s such a smart thing to do. At some point, everyone has to go it on their own and giving them time and space prepares them for it.

  • My husband used to say “You have to let the little birdies fly”

  • Sharon, this is such a wonderful walk through your son’s life with the ups and downs that went along the way. You must be very proud of all he has accomplished and are excited for his future. The tricky thing for us as parents is to know when the moment is right to leave them alone. Sounds like your timing was pretty perfect. Congratulations, and enjoy this happy time for your family.

  • Soni

    Oh I am sitting here with a lump in my throat! So many similarities in all of these comments and in your story. My son is only 14 but he has serious social anxiety. He is funny and smart and people who really know him adore him, but it is really hard for him to open up and trust people, so many think he is a sullen teenage boy. My biggest hope is that he develops some confidence by the time he heads to college or I will have an even more difficult time letting go. My first-born daughter is a Junior and is ready to go to college as far away from home as possible and I know she will succeed. Thank god for Skype and Face Time!! Thanks for putting into writing the things so many of us are thinking.

    • Sharon Greenthal

      Your son is still young! He will find his confidence and his “people” as he gets a little older. Fourteen is such an awkward age, especially for less social kids. My first-born daughter went across the country for college and loved it.

  • PeterG

    Once you come to the realization that your child is going to be what they want to be and not what you think they should be, then you will let them guide themselves. It also helps to have a great parent like Sharon.

  • Huge milestone when they youngest graduates college. Congratulations to you all! So hard to step back as a parent and let them figure it out, but that is exactly what we must do and somehow they seem to rise to the occasion. Good parenting job!

  • Beth Havey

    Beautiful post. We had ups and downs with our son and now he is thriving in Chicago. You have to let them go, to believe in them and that part of them that is always with them–you and your love and guidance. Beth

  • “The best thing we can do is to let them go.” And then be there for them when they come back, whether it’s to catch them when they fall or celebrate with them when they fly.

  • Sharon, this is so beautifully articulated. And we have had similar experiences — our boys are also graduating this spring. The four years are quite fascinating and it is so nice to get others’ perspecitves. In fact, the intention for our starting KnowsyMoms grew from a desire to share thoughts and ideas with other college parents, to showcase the collective voice of parents going through the same transitions, and provide college information and tips for parents who want to know and let go. So, we are right there with ya!

  • Endearing post, and congratulations. You all got through a huge milestone!

  • Ah….what a sweet and loving post Sharon. I believe the trust, encouragement and belief you offered your son was indeed the best gift you could give your son. Knowing we have the ability to make it on our own no matter what is something we all need. Good for you for having the strength to give that. ~Kathy

  • You nailed this! It’s true… we need to let them find their lives. We, as parents, have this vision of how their lives should be and it’s their life, not ours.

  • Congratulations on a job well done, to you, Peter, and your son. I think that we, as parents, are taking baby steps to letting go all along the way. The end of bottles, the first sleep over, the first date, etc. Unfortunately, rarely are we prepared for their big leap into life without us. My first is just finishing the half-way mark through college, and I needed this reminder more than I can express here. Thank you.

  • It is so hard to let go but the good news is life is a circle and when they have families of their own they all come “running home” for advise and a free meal and a babysitter. There were 23 of us together last weekend(counting the granddog) When it was over and all had returned home the solitude was heavenly. Hang on, I promise it gets better 🙂

    • Sharon Greenthal

      I love when my kids visit – and I think we all are ok with them going home again. It’s the natural order of things, right?

  • You did it!! My kids are still on the other side – but they’re getting to the point where we have to start having some trust (walking to the bus stop alone, going to the park). It’s hard to let go, you worry about crossing the street, picking up after the dog – but sometimes you have to trust. There have been a few bumps along the way – but we’re both learning.

    Glad to hear that it works out in the end. Congratulations!

  • Such a lovely flashback and look forward. Congrats to you and your graduate. My youngest, also a boy, graduated college a few years ago. It was hard to let go but now he has fully launched and I continue to learn from him.

  • So well said. As my youngest graduates in less than a month I can so relate to all of your memories and milestones. It is amazing how my days are filled with flashbacks of being a much needed Mom. I was presenting to a group of parents yesterday and sharing how the best gift you can give your kid is to ground your helicopter and let them grow into independent young adults complete with bumps, bruises and victories. I am passing along your post to that audience.

  • Ohhh, I can see that I’ll need to visit this post again as a good reminder to let….go. Argh! It’s so hard to do that, but I’m getting better every day.

  • Congratulations to him on the upcoming graduation!

    Letting them go is the hardest part, but it might also be the most important part.

  • How beautiful Sharon. As a mother of two sons in their 20’s, I know exactly what you’re talking about!

  • My oldest is a HS sophomore and it’s a delicate dance, not only with him, but my husband. I tell my son I love him enough to let him fail and I tell my husband that it’s better he learn to manage his time and such NOW (though junior year is sure to be a big wake-up call). The husband feels that without us attempting to micromanage, my son will lose out on potential college opportunities. So I’m either arguing with my husband or my eldest son. Good times all around.

    • Sharon Greenthal

      I understand your dilemma. You have the right idea, in my opinion. There will be a college for your son, and the truth is if he isn’t capable of managing his time it won’t do him any good to get in anywhere at all. I’m sorry you’re in this predicament!

  • Anita

    Got to know a little bit about Adam after reading your blog….he sounds…and looks like a really cool guy….it just takes your kids to be happy to make their parents happy….

  • This was great Sharon and so reassuring too. Even though my oldest is only a sophomore in high school, I worry so much about the “letting go” part. He has even said to us that he feels like we don’t believe in him because we helicopter, advise, and so on. And yet, he seems to ask for our help so it’s a tough balance and paradox. This post gave me hope that leaving him alone is the best thing we can do…

    • Sharon Greenthal

      When my son was your son’s age, it was much more difficult (MUCH more!) to let him go. I wish we had done it more often.

  • My son graduates next week and I am so happy for him…he is the child of my heart, the most like me, the least like me. He has gone after what he has wanted his whole life….when answers evaded us, he knew what he needed to do. After 2 years living in Costa Rica among the least of them, he learned tolerance and simple love toward people he served. He learned to accept pain as a way of life when he couldn’t get help for an injury and had to keep playing. And the best part is he never left me out of his life. Our bond is unique, we spent years going to his games together, just the two of us, singing all the songs from “Remember the Titans” together….it was me and all the other dads….and every single year he was the most valuable player. But the best thing I ever did was let him alone, I didn’t choose what he studied, or where he studied…I didn’t weigh in on his job choice….I just loved and accepted what he did. Happily, “almost” every choice has been a good one, or at least one I could understand. I know our relationship is different, but the same…he still loves laying on our couch watching ESPN, spending time with us, doing nothing special at all. I will never forget that little boy who walked over to me after scoring 4 touchdowns in his first game as an eight year old, tossed me the football and said, “what’s so hard about this?” I know my story won’t be interesting to anyone else…but what I love is how much we love our children…it is the most precious thing in my life.

    • Sharon Greenthal

      I love your story, Donna – and as a football mom I can totally relate! I agree, the best thing is how much we love our children.

  • Loved this post Sharon and very timely advice for me as I send my son off to college in the Fall.

  • I put off reading this for a few days because my son was home for the holidays and I was busy facing everything I did wrong. LOL. No, I was actually putting off reading it because it’s such a tender subject to me, even after all of these years. But you are absolutely right….about everything. They do come into their own, and the timing belongs to them. That’s the hard part. I have learned to “let go” a lot–it’s past time. But I did cry on the way home from the airport yesterday, knowing I was letting him go back to his life 1,000 miles away. Congrats to your son on his graduation and new job!

    • Sharon Greenthal

      Thank you Lisa. I know it’s going to be tough for me to have him living far away, but it’s such a great opportunity for him and that’s the most important thing.

  • Carol Carrasco

    The universe works in mysterious ways…somehow I stumbled on your blog??? Lo and behold just the message I needed to read…our youngest is struggling with adulthood…he had to move home after college and I find myself over-mothering. Thanks for reminding me to trust in him, it seems I’ve forgotten to do that lately. I look forward to reading your blog now that I’ve found you.

    • Sharon Greenthal

      I’m glad you found me, Carol. Over-mothering is hard to stop doing, isn’t it? I found myself being angry at my son because I was doing this!

  • So beautiful! Thank you for reminding us what is priority one for parents.

  • Tami

    Aww Sharon –
    I loved your story about your son –
    I have read your blog from time to time and have loved it!!
    I wish there were some sort of empty nest support group in my neck of the woods – ughh!! It’s a tough one!!
    I have struggled a million times with “my kids” problems and delemias and gladly at that! But my own? No… I don’t like it… And honestly this is the for me the most difficult time I’ve ever had. My whole identity was my girls, being their mom and having a home that they could grow and thrive in. They all are – that is the goal…
    Yet, trying to find my goals has been quite a challenge –
    I’m thankful for your words and need to
    Look you up more often for that pep talk you so beautifully and sincerely deliver 🙂

    • Sharon Greenthal

      Thank you for the kind words, Tami. I know how tough empty nesting can be. Finding something to replace the devotion you had to raising your children isn’t easy.

  • Ohhhh Sharon now you’ve gone and done it—-got me teary-eyed on this one. Very relatable as my youngest is 18 and in a few years will fly from the nest. My other three are grown and flown. You are so right—we have to let them go and fly on their own. This beautiful post really hit home for me. Thank you! XO

  • My college sophomore son is finding his way too. I had to let so much go, and it can be hard watching him move slowly. But he is doing it. That’s what counts.

  • Oh Sharon- this is so timely for me. I love when the perfect blog post comes to me at the perfect time! I needed to hear this. This patenting thing isn’t always easy and I am so appreciative to receive guidance from moms who have been where I am, and where I’m headed. Thank you so much for sharing!

  • Terri

    Love your posts and your timing is everything as I get ready for my third child’s college graduation in a few weeks and watch my 5th grader navigate his way. Seeing my oldest two become delightful competent adults, navigating their lives far away from us (I wish they were closer) makes me so proud of them. You are right, They figure it out on their own. Thank you again for your insights.

  • So happy I just read this from a link via Huffpost’s FB page. Beautifully written. Particularly timely, as my oldest is headed into 9th grade. You’ve given me hope that he will learn to do his own laundry eventually (at least). Thanks for this piece. Sharing it all over the place.

  • NL

    I love your thoughts on trusting them and letting go but it is easier with some kids than others. Our older son is 20 and we’re doing ok with the letting go part and things are working out well . But our younger son is a high school junior with major depressive disorder. He was hospitalized at the beginning of this school year after a suicide attempt. It’s a whole different ballgame. Since I didn’t see the suicide attempt coming, I don’t trust myself anymore to know when to step back.

    • Sharon Greenthal

      Oh my goodness, I am so sorry you are going through this. I would feel just like you do if I thought my children were in danger of harming themselves. Do whatever you feel best doing and I hope your son gets better very soon. Hugs to you.

  • What a great post! I think parenting is the most difficult job in the world but also the most rewarding. My two adult sons continue to amaze me every single day with their wisdom. Thanks for a great post.

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