Almost a century ago, the Lebanese American poet Kahlil Gibran wrote:
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you. (The Prophet, 1923)
Gibran’s words capture perhaps the greatest paradox of parenting. On the one hand, parents are—and need to be—deeply attached to and invested in their children.
On the other hand, a primary task of parenting is to prepare children to take responsibility for their own lives and let them go so they become their own best selves in the world.
Results from a new Search Institute study of 671 parents of 9 to 18 year olds reflects this parenting paradox. (See figure.) Similar patterns emerged in previous studies, including Don’t Forget the Families and Relationships First.
Parenting adults are most likely to report that they express care in their relationships with their teens—perhaps the essence of “holding tight.” In contrast, they are least likely to report sharing power and expanding possibilities—key dynamics in “letting go.”
The survey examined parent-youth relationships through Search Institute’s framework of developmental relationships. The framework identifies five elements of relationships that help young people learn, grow, and thrive. The five elements are:
But, just because these five elements really matter, it doesn’t mean they’re consistently easy to do. Different actions can be particularly challenging at different times for different families in different circumstances. It can be hard to express care and warmth when a 13-year-old is being snarly. It can also be hard to share power and decision making when you’re not sure they will always make wise choices. And, it can be hard to encourage expanding possibilities when some of those possibilities may take children to places that seem risky or unfamiliar. And yet, these are inevitable dynamics in youth-parent relationships that require the parent to let go.
What might help parents and families navigate the paradox of holding tight while letting go? Here are some ideas and questions for reflection.
Two additional couplets in Gibran’s poem remind us that, in the end, a primary goal we have as parents is to prepare our children to be responsible adults:
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts. . .
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you…
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
That’s hard to think about sometimes, particularly as we cherish the moments we hold them close and hold our breath as they discover who they are and their place in the world. At the same time, letting go and seeing them become themselves is perhaps the greatest joy of parenting.
Learn about Keep Connected, Search Institute’s new resource for schools, programs, and coalitions that helps parents and middle school youth explore these relationships dynamics as they enter middle school and adolescence. The Keep Connected Institute on December 6-8 is filling fast. You can also sign up to be notified of future opportunities.
Visit ParentFurther.com, which offers quizzes, discussion starters, family activities, and other tools to strengthen parent-youth relationships.
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