Learning to Let Go, a Little

By Tom Sturges

I was sitting with my then twelve-year-old son Thomas at dinner, just the two of us. As the conversation unfolded, the hair on the back of my neck began to stand up. I could not help it, nor could I believe the words that were coming out of his mouth. He wanted more what? More space in his life? More time on his own? What? It was like the band was breaking up, and reforming, without me. Without me? I suddenly knew what Pete Best must have been feeling all those years.

Thomas was in the middle of telling me that he needed more room to operate, more time to be himself, more space, and basically, less me. Me, his soccer and basketball and baseball coach, chauffeur, message and package delivery service, masseur, minor-injury miracle worker, and party organizer? He needed more time away from me? I was the person who almost never turned down a request, who was happy to role play concierge to his hotel guest. All of these years, whatever he needed, I tried to get for him, as long as he asked me nicely. But he did not want any of that suddenly; he needed more space. If I had been wearing a hearing aid, I would have pulled it out and checked the batteries.

We were in a restaurant and he was looking at me just a little too sympathetically. Getting to the conclusion of his statement, very sweetly he said these words: "Dad, I think it's okay for you to have your own friends again."

It took me a minute to get my emotional balance back, to find my bearings and to realize what was happening and what had just happened. The caterpillar was clearly nearing its chrysalis stage. My little boy had begun to realize he needed a change in his life, that he was now ready to move to the next stage, and maybe he was not so little a boy anymore.

I knew exactly what he was asking for, even if he did not know exactly. Yes, of course it broke my heart, a little. Yes, it made me feel sad. Yes, I felt rejected and unimportant. But I also knew this was part of his coming-of-age and that he had found a way to tell me what he needed. I told him I wanted to think about his request.

After a few days, I agreed to his request to give him more of the space that he needed. He started to enjoy a few more freedoms, though not so much as to leave him room to get into any serious trouble, and he was never so far away that he was not within easy grasp, both literally and figuratively. I gave him a little more wiggle room. I was not going to punish him for making the request, nor was there even a breath of resentment that I was no longer the number-one pal in his life, no matter how badly I wished that I still was. 

Not all sons and daughters will need distance and room from their parents in order to discover themselves in the midst and mist of adolescence. Not every parent will be willing to provide the space in any case, regardless of how badly or urgently the child might need it. These are individual choices that each family must make. Age is a guide. but in truth it is just a number. At some point in the near future, prepare for your...child to start to break away from you a little, and at some point very soon thereafter, you will have to learn to let go, a little.

Excerpted from Grow the Tree You Got by Tom Sturges,Tarcher/Penguin, Penguin Group USA, Penguin Random House. © 2011.