When I was fifteen, my older brother went off to college. As far I was aware, such a step had always been a goal in our family: education is a priority. John had been accepted at Princeton, alma mater of my father and both grandfathers. We were proud of him and pleased for him. I heard nothing but comments of support and excitement as he prepared for his big adventure.
The day he left, we all accompanied him to the Jackson Hole Airport. That day was long enough ago and the airport small enough, that he left us all with hugs of goodbye at the outside fence, walked across the tarmac to the nearby plane, climbed the outside stairs, then turned to wave one last farewell. We waved and smiled and cheered. John could see only enthusiasm and support, both of which had to bolster his self-confidence and reassured him that his family had faith in him.
What made me glance at my mother at the moment, I do not know, but doing so provided me a step into my own adulthood. Mom was smiling and waving as vigorously as the rest of us, while tears — tears that John could not possibly see — rolled down her cheeks.
I was astounded, and then I thought about it. John was her first-born. He had arrived two months early, while Dad was in China during World War II. For a few months, Mom didn’t know if her son would survive or her husband return. As he grew, little Johnny and she developed a very special relationship. Mom never played favorites, but each of us shared a special bond with her.
Even at fifteen, I was able to recognize how difficult it must have been for Mom to let John go without even a shred of clinging. She and Dad both knew that anything other than enthusiasm for what lay ahead would burden their son, even just a little. There was no question that he — and my younger brother and I when our turns came — knew that he would be missed.
Our family had always been close and shared a huge range of activities and interests. We learned early how to behave ourselves in public so that we would be permitted to accompany Mom and Dad almost everywhere. They had great faith in our abilities and our common sense. While they must have had private concerns and fears, they kept those to themselves.
Fears and concerns for our children are unavoidable. We are bombarded by messages about what might go wrong, things we haven’t anticipated, things for which they might not be prepared. The fact is, such fears have plagued parents for centuries.
We believe our job is to protect our children. It is. It’s also to give them the skills and confidence that prepare them to handle the world as they encounter it. When we make too many decisions for our children or share with them the extent of our fears, we unwittingly give them the message that they are not capable and competent.
This is the time of year when all parents have to let go a little, whether they are sending children off to college or just to the next level in school. It usually helps me to think back to my own childhood and youth, remembering both the competencies I did have and the gracious ways in which my parents let go, a little at a time.
Ruth Glass is headmaster at Lake Tahoe School. She can be reached for comment through her blog at www.laketahoeschool.org.