From the time my daughter Erika, now three and a half, was a few months old, I’ve been learning to let go. Learning that I can’t, and shouldn’t try, to protect her from minor bumps and bruises, from small disappointments, from making mistakes. I know that if I try to protect her from everything, I risk keeping her from growth and independence. Perhaps I even risk damaging our relationship when she sees that I don’t trust her.
But sometimes it’s hard, and I know it will only become harder as both the opportunities and risks become greater.
Recently, she had a play date at her friend April’s house. She was having trouble leaving, but we really needed to get home to meet her father for dinner. As we talked about the problem, she explained that she wasn’t done playing with April’s two plush yellow rabbits. April’s mother offered to let her have the rabbits, and although we’d never done anything like that before, I decided to let Erika take one of the rabbits home — both seemed too large a gift to accept from someone we really didn’t know very well, and I wasn’t entirely comfortable with the precedent of being allowed to take other children’s toys home.
Unfortunately, she really wanted both of the rabbits, and wasn’t able to choose one. Time was pressing, and I was having trouble talking with her about the issue while trying to keep an eye on her one-year-old brother, Karl. I finally decided that we really just needed to get moving, and took him out to the car, asking her to choose one of the rabbits while I was putting him into his car seat.
When I came back, April’s mother explained to me that Erika had come up with a novel solution. She had offered April her own pink rabbit in exchange for the second yellow rabbit, and April had accepted the trade. Thoughts flashed through my mind — did she really understand what she’d just done? Would she miss the pink rabbit, pink being her favorite color? Was it OK for her to give away a present my mother had given her only a week earlier? I figuratively took a deep breath and decided that she ought to be allowed to make decisions about her own $5 stuffed toy, that creative problem-solving is something I wouldn’t want to discourage, and that I’d just hope for the best. April’s mother assured me that if my daughter wanted to trade back later, it would be fine.
Erika played with those rabbits for the next week, until we went to April’s house again. As we were getting ready to leave, she announced that we needed to remember to take the yellow rabbits back. I realized only then that she hadn’t envisioned the entire thing as a permanent trade, but rather a temporary exchange. So we took the yellow rabbits back, April returned the pink rabbit, and both children were happy. I was relieved that the exchange had been resolved so painlessly, but I also know that if there had been conflict and disappointment, it would have been OK. She would have been able to work through it, and I would have been there to help her.
I only hope that I will have as little angst about letting her go on a band trip in high school, travel with a friend after her senior year, or go to college half way across the country. I do know that if I don’t practice letting go now, I won’t be able to then — and in the mean time, I will miss the opportunity to watch her achieve the competence and self-confidence that only comes from having had the opportunity to fail.