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.
New Research Insights
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:
- Express care: Show me that I matter to you.
- Challenge growth: Push me to keep getting better.
- Provide support: Help me complete tasks and achieve goals.
- Share power: Treat me with respect and give me a say.
- Expand possibilities: Connect me with people and places that broaden my world.
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.
- Recognize that it’s a normal part of growing up. Families have faced versions of this paradox across many walks of life, family situations, and cultures, and for centuries (as reflected in Gibran’s poetry). In our survey of parents, we didn’t find any meaningful differences between how parents reported the five elements of a developmental relationship based on their marital status, educational attainment, immigrant status, or their child’s age. Although white parents were slightly less likely than other parents to report providing support, sharing power, and expanding possibilities, the underlying story is that, across many differences, parents and families have to deal with this inevitable paradox of holding tight and letting go.
- Reflect on the interplay of these dynamics in your relationship. Holding tight and letting go are not necessarily in conflict. When young people know that someone “has their back,” they’re more able to be confident, take responsibility, and try things that aren’t comfortable or familiar. The challenge, then, lies in discerning what’s the right balance for a given situation and being intentional in what we do.
- Adjust as needed. Holding tight and letting go are, by definition, dynamics that shift from day to day—and sometimes from hour to hour. Being intentional to think through what’s most needed in a given situation can guide us. Of course, sometimes we (and our children) hold on too tight, or we let go too quickly, setting up frustration, disappointment, or failure. Those can be moments for reflection, conversation, forgiveness, and trying again next time.
- Gain wisdom and perspective from other families. Since the broad spectrum of families faces this paradox, there is much to learn from each other, including those who have been there before. How are others navigating and negotiating and adapting how they let go and hold tight? How do you keep from holding on too tightly or letting go too quickly? And how do you recover and recalibrate when you don’t get the interplay right? Exploring these kinds of questions with others is one of the values of finding time to connect with other parents and families.
- Navigate it together. Parents aren’t the only ones who are trying to navigate this paradox of holding tight and letting go. Young people are also adjusting and finding their way. In our experiences with Keep Connected, a program that brings parents and youth together to explore these dynamics in relationships, we find that families treasure opportunities to talk together about how they they both hold tight and let go—and how it’s changing as they grow up.
“Life Goes Not Backward”
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.
Strengthen Family Relationships
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.