The Art of Letting Go

The Art of Letting Go, Part 1
Alan W. Carson
ACPI® Coach for Parents

While working as a middle school guidance counselor, a young 6th grade teacher called me from her classroom telephone and asked if we could talk about an e-mail she received from a parent. I said, “Of course,” and went up to her classroom during her planning period. The teacher had printed the e-mail and handed it to me. It read as follows:

Dear Mrs. Doe:
My daughter was very upset yesterday when she got home because of the grade she got on the test she took in your class. Amy put a lot of time into studying and strives for perfection in her school and co-curricular activities. She is a first chair violin player in the orchestra, she was chosen to ice-skate between periods at a professional hockey game and she sings with an elite children’s choir. She was thrilled to earn a 100% on her test, but to have that taken away from her because she forgot to put her name on the paper seems a little harsh.
She is not a repeat offender so why take a perfect grade away from a child because she didn’t write her name? It was an accident probably due to being apprehensive and surely something that could and would not happen again. Was it necessary to take a perfect grade away from a hard working child? Wouldn’t a simple reminder have been OK?

I don’t need to use this space to discuss my conversation with the teacher. But we do need to address the difficulty this parent was having with letting go. The teacher did not rip Amy’s test up and throw it away, she did not give Amy an “F,” she simply took two points away from this 6th grader’s test score. In my opinion, this teacher was trying to gently teach Amy an important lesson. Mom didn’t like seeing her daughter upset and took it upon herself to contact the teacher.

One of our essential roles with our kids is to gradually let go and permit them to accept more responsibility for their own lives. If we don’t let go, our kids will lack the internal strength and skills to function independently when they leave home for college or work. The goal is to let go gradually so that our children will either experience success or will succeed after learning from their mistakes.

For the purpose of this article, we’ll assume our child is entering middle school as a 6th grader. What skills, traits, and abilities to hope our child possesses? To name a few, he can:

– Complete homework independently
– Ask teachers for help when he is confused
– Gets himself ready for school on time
– Pack his own gym bag
– Resolve conflicts peacefully with others
– If necessary, wash and dry his clothes, and make a simple dinner

We cannot parent a twelve-year-old the way we parent a ten-year-old. We have to expect and demand steady growth. However, accepting this philosophy requires that we be comfortable with our kids making mistakes. Let me ask a question: would we rather our child make a mistake when he is young or make a mistake when he is in high school? This is a no-brainer. The mistakes high school kids make are far more serious: drinking alcohol, having sex, vandalism, skipping school, drag racing– you name it. What mistakes to 4th graders make? Forget to do their homework, go to school without their lunch, gossip about another kid, talk in class, stay up too late and get sick to their stomach from eating too much junk food.

Therefore, we want our kids to make mistakes when they are young and the consequences are normally short term. We want them to experience what it feels like to do stupid things so they learn that making poor decisions leads to things not turning out well for them. We hope that these experiences will leave a lasting impression and they will learn to consistently make good decisions.

Here is one simple example with my daughter. One of my duties was to take my daughter to dance class. In October, it might be fairly warm at 6:00 pm, and Sarah would not think she needed a coat. Well, by 8:30, it might be really cold and Sarah would be shivering in the car until the heat kicked in. I chose to let go of the coat issue and allowed her to make that decision. It didn’t take long before she started asking my opinion and following my recommendation.

If we want our children to develop a sense of responsibility, make good choices, become self-disciplined and listen to our point of view, we have to let go and allow our children to accept more ownership for their lives.

Here is part two, the art letting go when our tweens and teens want freedom.

Alan is an ACPI® Coach for Parents, and author of Before They Know It All: Talking to Tweens and Teens About Sexuality, which is available from his website as an e-book–

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  1. Thank you, Alan, for this article. My oldest son is 11, and these issues of independence come up in my mind every day!

  2. My daughters are 4, 6, and 8. I tend to do lots of things together as a family, like setting out all the girls’ clothes, and I’m starting to realize that my oldest can do a lot of the things that I’m in the habit of doing for her! It’s a big realization for me as I watch some of her friends who are far more capable than she is in the kitchen, etc. Thanks for this food for thought.

  3. I also struggle with giving my 11-year-old more independence. I don’t want her to make a mess in the kitchen, but I know that I’m hindering her growth by “spoon-feeding” her so much!

  4. Is there a resource which can guide us as parents for what types of things are appropriate at what ages — from the youngest ages up?
    And do any of these take into account some of the issues brought up in the parenting retreat about different personality types and the differences between how they will react/behave?

    • Naomi:

      I will give your question additional thought, but I am inclined to say “Follow your heart.” If you feel your child is ready to take on more responsibility with his personal care, school, chores, etc., then talk him about it. I also feel that the older our kids get, the more freedom they want (next article) and these are good times to say, “OK, you want a Facebook account, but I continually have to nag you to do your chores.”

      I recognize that there are personality types and personal styles, and some things come easier to some types than others. But the way I see it, we have to have expectations for our kids regardless of their strengths and weaknesses. For example, some kids who like everything to be in its right place, have very neat, orderly lockers at school. Other kids can’t even close their locker door because papers are everywhere. As a counselor, we teach these kids strategies to be organized. It takes much more effort, but they need to become organized.

  5. My son just turned 18. Years, that is. I think we are both, at least I am, waiting for divine intervention as to how we will cohabitate. Where is my instruction/rule book? I am trying to rationalize reasonable limits while being sensitive to his age; trying to gently encouraging goal setting while not taking over; suggesting options for getting involved and really trying hard not to just sign him up and let him know where and when he is expected. He is not a go-getter, so how does a single mom motivate, support, nurture and care for a young man such as him?

    • Holly:

      Hopefully my next article will help, but if a parent is going to own a teen’s problem, the teen won’t own it. It sounds like you are trying to balance encouraging your son, but not pushing him. At age 18, it seems if you step back he will fail to display initiative. If this is true, how long will you continue to prod and push? Do you want to be doing that when he is 21-years-old? I think you have to let go and say, “Joe, I love you and want you to be happy and make great choices. But it seems like I am working harder than you are. You have got to start making decisions for YOU. IT IS YOUR LIFE. I can’t want you to have a great life more than you want a great life. I am here to support you, but you have to care more than I do. I have faith in you, but you have to start thinking about where you want to be 4-5 years from now.”

      Your son is 18, and this is tough. Sadly, he may have to lose out on opportunities before he becomes a go-getter. You son is too old to be micromanaged by his mom. But the alternative is unpleasant too– mistakes.

  6. Thank you for this reminder, of letting the kids make their own decisions (at times). I have a 13 year old boy and twin boys aged 10 and they always fight me when I tell them to take a coat or sweatshirt. I know that they may not be as “cold” as I am, since I’m older, but I just try to teach them to take weather changes into account, or the morning and evening cooling period. I have started to let go a little… 🙂

  7. Julie Lachance says:

    This is definitely my philosophy of parenting. My goal is to raise a thoughtful, responsible, respectful and compassionate human being, not a pampered prince! My son (11 1/2) can cook a complete meal, do laundry, mow the lawn and clear snow (on our tractor), etc. Yes, he messes up the kitchen and maybe doesn’t do things “perfectly” (ie the way I would do them!), but it’s a “work in progress” that I am proud and privileged to be a part of. Erma Bombeck, one of my favourite comedians/writers/philosophers/moms, summed it up in the following:

    Children Are Like Kites
    By: Erma Bombeck

    You spend years trying to get them off the ground.

    You run with them until you are both breathless. They crash … they hit the roof … you patch, comfort and assure them that someday they will fly.

    Finally, they are airborne.

    They need more string, and you keep letting it out.

    They tug, and with each twist of the twine, there is sadness that goes with joy.

    The kite becomes more distant, and you know it won’t be long before that beautiful creature will snap the lifeline that binds you together and will soar as meant to soar … free and alone.

    Only then do you know that you have done your job.

    • Wow, I LOVE this poem from Erma Bombeck; I’ve never read it before! Thanks for posting it, Julie:)

    • Not to be a killjoy but when they snap the string….the kite crashes. To make the analogy better, think of the string as the connection to God’s Word. As long as they stay tethered to that, they can be filled (with the Spirit) and soar. If you root them in God’s Word, then you will know that you have done your job.

      • Clarissa says:

        I do not want to make this a religious discussion, but I would like to make a point.

        My parents rooted me in God’s Word from ages 0-13 (to give you a point of reference, I am now 16). From then on, I made my own decision not to actively attend church. To be honest, I’m agnostic. I still honor many of the values I learned in church, for example, The Golden Rule, but I’m not tethered to the Spirit anymore.

        Your kids are growing up in a new generation: one built on logic, critical thinking, and new ideas. Once your kid reaches age 13 (when they are supposed to be Confirmed), ask them what they want to do with their religion. Pushing a religion on a child is like pushing a sport or a field of study on a child. “You have to be a doctor because I am a doctor and it is the best profession in the world.”

        I was permitted to make my own decision, and though I respect the church, I have never looked back. It has not harmed me. I have not dropped my morals in the least. But I have gained freedom from the fear that God would control my destiny. I now feel like who I will become is entirely up to me, and that is a responsibility I heartily accept.

        I feel this might be another area in which you need to let your child make their own choices. It could be best for your child to open their eyes to the world. If they want to continue how they’ve been raised, then okay. If they want to consider other possibilities, I beg you not to condemn them for it. There are billions of people who do not live under God’s Word and I believe a great many of them have good hearts and make right choices. Again, it could be time to let go, as the article says.

  8. Chris Kindlesparger says:

    Great article! My oldest (14) is doing well and I am ok letting him make mistakes and learn from them however, it is a different story with my baby (11). I am really struggling with letting him grow up. Looking forward to next article.

  9. I would like to know how to guide my son on managing his stress when he is in a Golf Competition. He gets very upset and does not concentrate and after making an error he keeps on making errors. He is very competitive. I do not know how to coach him on this specific situation.

    • Ivette:

      I believe strongly that one mistake leads to more mistakes because your son’s playing errors activates negative self-talk. He begins to pass judgment on himself and becomes very self-critical. Your son needs to leave personal criticism and praise out of the equation until the round of golf is over. Athletes cannot be good players if they are going to judge their performance during the performance. He just needs to be a neutral observer of why he shot the ball poorly, and tell himself how the skill needs to be performed. Stick with the facts. Mistakes are part of all performances– the best athletes in the world make mistakes, but they have the ability to get themselves back on track quickly. Your son needs to practice positive self-talk (“I will hit this ball straight”).

      Also, your son needs to develop mental toughness. The best golfer in the world is Tiger Woods. He has phenomenal mental toughness, bouncing back after a poor shot or a poor round.


  10. Hi , I liked the poem by Erma bombeck . It was very touching. I have a 13 year old girl and a 12 year old boy. They can do alot of things by themselves, like cook dinner etc. how do I encourage them to do more with out having it look like they will have to do it all the time. how does it become something they want to do instead of looking like a chore? Anne

    • Anne:

      I doubt if most kids would ever want to do more cooking, cleaning up laundry, etc., and wouldn’t even give that consideration. But please realize that, by doing more, they do feel better about themselves and their self-esteem goes up! And we prepare them to be self-sufficient adults.

      We encourage kids to do more when we make it clear we’re doing less. For example, when school is no longer in session in the summer and if our kids have much more free time, we tell them that they are responsible for doing their own laundry.

      On occasion, young teens like being nurtured and taken care of– which is a good thing. It is the safety and security of childhood.We can display our love, understanding and compassion by temporarily doing nice things for them.


  11. Thank you so much for posting this article! As a 5th grade teacher, I have had my own personal experiences with parents that are having a hard time letting go. I have been teaching at the same school for my entire ten year teaching career and I have seen a drastic change. In the past, parents could not wait to meet with me for our conferences, had no hesitation calling me with questions, and could be seen eating lunch with their children a few times a week. More currently, I am lucky if parents will return phone calls and respond to emails. The neighborhood around our school has drastically changed, and so has our “clientele.” More parents are raising their children alone and working more than one job. This is a sad fact-there are just not enough hours in the day for these parents to get it all done. My question is this: what is the happy medium between being unable to let go as your child gets older, and being too busy or complacent to take an active role in your child’s education? It truly does take a village and I am more than happy to fill some of the gaps in my students’ lives. Luckily, an area church sends mentors once a week to visit our “high risk” students, we also have a mentoring program on our campus between teachers and students, and many teachers do home visits, drive children home after tutoring programs at the end of the day, and have been known to pay for their students’ lunch if they have no money. The community is stepping in and assisting these children and this is amazing! The best we can do as educators is adapt to the changes in our students’ lives and step in when they need it most.

  12. Hi Alan,
    I have a son of 18 and a daughter of 17. My daughter has graduated from high school 1 year early. My wife and are finished with that period of schooling. No university on the horizon yet though this is a posibility later. Both of the kids do some work, but generally swan around with little or no direction.
    My wife and I are arguing more and more about how much to let go of the parenting. It is getting to the point where we are better off living apart, when in fact I feel we should be looking toward spending more time doing things for us together. My wife is spending more time worrying about the children, checking on them, molly coddling them and generally in my view over parenting when its not needed. I have tried pointing out that we have to let go and give them space. We have been very much hands on parents and they are both great kids…bright, intelligent, healthy. They just lack any sense of direction at the moment. They have never really wanted for anything and they have heard the no word on more than one occaision though. I have grave concerns for our marriage of over twenty years and this is one ofvthe biggest challenges I have faced. My wife has done a great job of parenting, I maybe not not quite as good and I am sure we have both made mistakes along the way. I tend to be more “old school” in my parenting attitudes, but we have struck compromises all along the way.
    How do I manage the situation without pushing my wife further away, and allientating all of us in the family?

    Regards, Peter