Letting go

September 16, 1994|By Lila Lohr

ALTHOUGH my eyes were closed and I was intent on maximizing my hour in the sun by the Florida pool, the words I heard produced vivid images and a string of remembrances that I could not ignore.

Come on. I've got you. I won't let go.

You're OK. You're not sinking.

I'm here. I won't let you go.

Most people can think of a similar scene in which they were either cast as the parent or the would-be swimmer. Both parties recognize and are unnerved by the implicit lie being told. "I won't let go," is a ridiculous statement. The whole point of the exercise is to let go, just for a moment at first but more and more as the child is able to take a few strokes. As a parent you can tolerate your lie because you know in a split second you can grab hold again.

As a parent, you live with the inherent risk in the situation because the child needs to learn to swim.

I recall having a hard time deciding when to grab my sinking child and when to let her take one more stroke. I was appalled at the parent who steadfastly refused to grab her child; the rest of us more timid souls were sure the child was about to drown. That child learned to swim weeks before ours did, but I was never quite sure of the price she paid for that accomplishment.

As parents we know we have to let go and, in fact, encourage and insist that our children take the risk and learn to swim. We accept the inevitability of some discomfort and possibly some tears. Teaching your child to ride a bike seems to fall into the same small category where there is a clear, desirable goal, an expectation of some tense moments along the way and a high predictability of success. Both skills involve some risk and require initial parental support and, equally important, the withdrawal of that parental support.

Few other parenting tasks seem so clear. How often in other learning situations do we utter those words that were so crucial to the success of the swimming lesson: "I've got you. I'm here. You're OK. You're doing much better." Those messages could be a lifeline to a child who is struggling with angry friends, a weight problem or the mysteries of algebra. How often do we convey that same confidence that our children will succeed, will accomplish the tasks they are pursuing?

The flip side is probably equally under-used in parenting. How often do we really encourage our children to take risks, to pursue something that is at first elusive and difficult? How often are we willing to not grab them prematurely but let them thrash a little in a difficult situation before we try to scoop them out? When my son relates a story at the dinner table about how someone at school has treated him unfairly, I have to fight a deep maternal instinct to pick up the phone and "try to fix it." The fact that he resolves the situation is perhaps more important than the final resolution. Adolescents who can't seem to make good decisions often have rarely been allowed much less encouraged to make any choices. Our children need to choose and live with the consequences of their choices. They need to know that they, not their parents, can solve many of their own problems.

I'm reminded of my pediatrician's advice to not interfere in my children's spats until I saw blood flowing out of the playroom. I bought the theory, but had trouble applying it. Looking beyond his intentional hyperbole, he was suggesting that parent-imposed treaties and relationships are neither as desirable nor durable as those forged by the combatants themselves. Brothers and sisters will not love, respect or even just leave each other alone because their parents tell them to. Eventually, they will have to buy into those responses or the parents will never feel free to leave the house.

We understand that it is hard to learn to swim. As parents we don't enjoy but we can live with the fact that our child is going to struggle, may be scared, may cry, but eventually will learn to swim. Few of us entertain fantasies of our children winning Olympic medals or swimming scholarships. We want our children to learn to swim and we applaud and are relived when that is accomplished. I wish we could bring that same understanding and realistic goal-setting to other tasks our children must tackle.

This will be hard. This will require work. I cannot do the work for her. She does not have to be the best.

I know with enough practice she will succeed. I will be supportive and cheer loudly.

I'm going to practice repeating those words.

Lila Lohr is headmistress of St. Paul's School for Girls.

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