My background is in Marketing but my most recent venture has been homeschooling my two children exclusively for 17 years. I recently came to a point on that journey that I suspect many of you either have recently experienced or anticipate in the next few years: saying goodbye to a child as they leave for college or other adult pursuit.
For us, it was college: potentially, a BIG shock to a homeschooling family. In some ways, this was true; I would be lying if I claimed the sting was not still sharp sometimes and definitely right under the surface. But. It was also not a devastating blow. Maybe that was purely a gift from God. I do think it had a bit to do with a few ways we prepared – both knowingly and otherwise. I would like to share a few thoughts in case they are helpful to you and your family as inevitable change comes.
The time to prepare for separation is when they are born. It may sound harsh but I have held onto a piece of advice I read in a parenting book when I was pregnant. I will paraphrase it as “Raise your child to be a God-honoring, functional adult from day one”. Knowing the possible dependency I could create by homeschooling (I had decided to homeschool before having children), I took this advice to heart, trying to foster independence with every lesson, interaction, and skill we taught. I would try to be self-aware and course-correct when I realized I had lost sight of that goal. Was this difficult? Of course! It is so much easier and peaceful in the short term to do things for your children: to smooth their path. I heard a lot of criticism. Independent kids can present as a bit counter-cultural and, frankly, rough around the edges. Was this scary? Yes, often. More on coping with fear in a bit. So – perhaps your child is a teen already. It is never too late to begin to give them ownership over their own decisions. A resource I would recommend here is The Self-Driven Child, by William Stixrud and Ned Johnson. What emerges is a youth who has made mistakes (wrecked a car, failed a class, gotten in trouble for bad decisions) but has also learned to recover from them under your guidance and, with your help, can see a way forward out of failure. This is a key life-skill.
Understand that the basic relationship you have with your nearly-adult offspring will be pretty much what you have built to this point. If you have trust, good communication, humor and mutual forgiveness, that is what you have built. Think of your relationship as an individual with a personality. The character of the relationship will remain, despite the distance. What does (and should) change are logistics. It is a good idea to give your child a voice in what the logistics of your future relationship will look like: How often will you text/facetime? Will you visit campus and what are everyone’s expectations? Being in “their” space means your child is the expert and guide and you are the guests, with things to learn. How often will they return home? In considering these relationship logistics, remember many young adults have a much smaller amount of time in their expectation of what will transpire. This is natural and healthy; their world just got so much bigger. Your world, in contrast, shrank when they left. If you are uncomfortable with quantity of time available, trust in the character of the relationship you have built. No matter how sweet your child, they just may not miss you as much. Yes, this pinches the heart. This point also assumes you have a healthy relationship with your child. If that is not the case, take the initiative to consult a therapist or counselor together. Don’t wait! Just the effort you make to acknowledge the issues communicates value to this child.
A side note here is to remember the unique relationship between the departed child and siblings who remain at home. Be ready to pull back and let them carve out their own relationship – this is one that will hopefully outlast your lifetime. Also, it is good to remember the younger siblings are also missing them and dealing with new home dynamics, including parents increasingly focused on them!
A sub-consideration to the relationship is financial. Try to discuss financial expectations up front. Things like a bank account and credit card in their name are something to consider. Will they be working at school? What will that money be used for? Will you be paying for miscellaneous expenses, strictly educational expenses, or none of it?
I highly recommend doing some thinking and soul-searching alone regarding your opinions and expected level of involvement with career path/choice of major. It is a rare parent that does not have some basic expectations. Know what yours are. Maybe have a conversation about your expectations with your child. Once. Then, trust your child to choose. If and when your opinion is asked, be honest and try your best to distance yourself from any sense of unfulfilled dreams or perceived failures in yourself. That is solely your junk to deal with – not at all an appropriate burden to place on your child. That said, you have fears and probably good reasons for them. Your child will sense this anyway so it is best to be honest. You may need to help them think through a deal, compromise, or plan B. These conversations are difficult and may take a few tries and some forgiveness along the way. Ultimately, the key is to assure your child of your unconditional love and support of who she is and a pledge to help in any way you are able with her path to vocation.
There will be bumps. Don’t panic.
Finally, what helps me most through times of anxiety or the surprising pain of loss is remembering that this is grief. While your child is still alive (and probably thriving), their childhood in your constant care is over. And that is a death. So to work through it by mourning is ok and appropriate. That said, this part is NOT something I share with my daughter, for fear of burdening or unhealthily giving her emotional responsibility in this process. I take my emotions and thoughts to my peers and also to a group of parents about 10 years older. My friends have been (knowing and unknowing) lifelines in this grief. If you have no go-to group of other parents, start one. People NEED this kind of support and are quite responsive, I have found. We are here to help each other through fear and pain. And, even in our weakness, there is comfort and a light for the future. Chances are, whatever you are facing, someone you know has walked that path already. Give yourselves grace and move forward together. This time of change will be a time of growth for your child AND for you!