Leaving home. Every healthy child eventually does it. Every healthy parent wants it to happen. But the actual leaving (and being left) can be extraordinarily painful for everyone involved.
Parents frequently ask me how to make the transition go smoothly. Fortunately, they are thinking about it. Thoughtful transitions almost always go better than those that are allowed to simply happen. But unfortunately, parents usually ask the question many years later than I would ideally want them to.
Leaving home isn’t an event, it’s a process. The process begins from the moment children leave their mothers’ bodies and continues until they leave the parents’ home and assume the responsibilities of adulthood. For the child, growing up and, for the parent, letting go, is the central process of family life. Children develop more and more skills and push for more and more freedom. Parents develop more and more trust in those skills and loosen supervision.
This is not to say that it always goes smoothly. As a matter of fact, it’s more usual for the process to be awkward and uncomfortable. Growing up and letting go happens in fits and starts as children’s skills develop unevenly or parents feel unsure of how much oversight is needed at particular times.
A useful exercise.
Think about what you want your child to know to be able to live on her or his own when she or he is eighteen. Think about what skills will be important for physical, emotional and spiritual survival out there in the adult world. Make a list. It will be a long one! It will include everything from how to balance a checkbook, change the oil and manage time, to how to be a good friend, choose a mate, interview for a job and feel morally centered.
Now back up from eighteen to whatever your child’s age is now. What skills have you already been teaching, reinforcing, and refining in the appropriate way for each age and stage? What skills do you wish were already in place but have not yet introduced? Which really need attention now? Which can wait? Which skills need to be fully developed before your child leaves home? Which ones require you to lay a foundation upon which your child can later build?
Make a plan. Involve your child. Ask him or her to review your list and make any revisions he or she thinks are important. Start filling in any gaps you identified while making up the list. Start with steps that match your child’s age and develop an idea of how you want to develop the skill as your child grows.
One example: Building money management skills.
Suppose you want to teach your child how to manage money. At age four, you start a little allowance and open a savings account to show her how to make a deposit of a dollar each week. By age eight, your child has a little budget, using her allowance to pay Girl Scout dues and put money in the church collection plate, as well as for an occasional treat. Now you match every dollar she puts into savings.
No extra money for an allowance? Teach your child how to redeem bottles, work for the neighbors, or take on a paper route to get a little cash. Kids can only learn to manage money if they have some money to manage.
By thirteen, you are giving her allowance to her in larger chunks (perhaps once a month) so she has to think ahead. Whether she is earning money on her own or you are providing it, she should be encouraged to set some goals that require saving. Involve her in some of the major purchases for your household so she knows how to shop wisely. By sixteen, she has a job and is putting her own money into a savings account and a checking account. You have agreed on what items she pays for and what items you will continue to cover. By eighteen, you’ve shown her how to file her income taxes and perhaps how to invest some of her savings so they will grow.
A more complex example: Developing relationship skills.
Let’s take a more complicated topic: how to be a good friend. By three or four, most kids are starting to find people they think of as special friends. At four, if kids get into a tussle about something, adults need to help. But even at four, parents can ask them to think about what is fair.
As children get older, parents can help them learn to be generous, considerate and thoughtful, and to negotiate conflict with more and more sophistication. During the years between ten and twelve, friendships get more complex. Parents need to help children see that there are rarely just good guys and bad guys; that most people have a mix of qualities that we do and do not like.
Teens need to be reminded that you don’t have to love people to work with them. Teamwork requires focus on the sport, problem, or task, not on popularity. Successful people know that there are many levels of friendship and operate accordingly. With this kind of training, a child will know how to maintain and nurture eventual adult friendships successfully. Knowing how to be a good friend also lays the groundwork for choosing a mate.
If your child is sixteen and you are just beginning to think about these things, you may need to develop a few “crash courses” in growing up. Enlist your teen and figure out how you can do a speedier version so she or he gets needed education in basic life skills.
Can we do it all?
Can we really conscientiously and systematically teach every skill our children will need in adulthood? Probably not. But there do seem to be a few key issues. When kids are gradually taught how to manage time, money and possessions as well as how to relate well with others, they are much more likely to be successful adults.
What about self-esteem? People often argue that building self-esteem is more important than a clean bedroom or knowledge about how money works. I have found that positive self-esteem grows from feelings of competence. A positive self-image develops naturally as children learn how to get along with people and to get along in the world. Once set in motion, these areas become part of a wonderful positive loop: The more competent I feel, the better I feel about myself. The better I feel about myself, the more willing I am to take risks to develop more competence. And so on.
Families that have dedicated time and effort to skills building derive a great deal of confidence through this process of readying children to enter the adult world. Parents experience the satisfaction of knowing they have done their job and done it well. Kids feel self-assured and prepared for what lies ahead. For these families, a child’s leaving home is not a shock or an ending – it is simply the next logical step in a process that everyone has been working toward from the beginning.
Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counsellor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central’s Ask the Therapist feature. She is author of the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart.