All parents need to know, they learn in kindergarten:
Children grow up and go away.
“It’s been 5-1/2 years, but it still seems like this day came up all of a sudden,” said Tim Drowley as his son, Spencer, took his seat at Freeman Elementary last Wednesday.
In his first 20 minutes at kindergarten, Spencer got an owie on the playground and forgot a stuffed animal. He recovered.
In the hallway, his mother, Jamie Drowley, watched her youngest silently, her eyes filled with tears.
At schools and colleges across the country this week, the bittersweet lesson for parents is that a child stepping forward in life also steps away.
“I’ve spent a lot of time this morning consoling,” said Freeman Elementary Principal Nancy Comstock.
Letting go can be so difficult that if a child resists, a surprising number of parents turn around and try to take the child home.
Comstock was one of those parents 15 years ago, before a principal convinced her that her son would survive. Now, starting in the spring, she provides an orientation to other parents that helps children start school.
It’s the same kind of approach many colleges take.
Each summer, Western Washington University in Bellingham brings parents and students in for early orientation. Staff deliberately separate parents from their kids during the activities.
“Symbolically, we’re making them take that step,” says Kay Rich, director of residences.
Amid the excitement of children entering a new phase of life, parents grapple with a student’s independence and autonomy. They worry whether their child will be safe, liked and successful. And they grieve, for both the passage of time and the loss of a clear role.
It’s the grief Rich felt the day her oldest daughter walked into day care by herself.
“I sat in the car and cried, ‘she doesn’t need me anymore,”’ Rich said. “When we take our kids off to college that same feeling is: They don’t need me anymore.”
Sue Borders, a Spokane mother of six, recognizes it well.
“I cried every time one would need to go to school,” she said. “Everyone of them has a special place in your heart. You feel that they’re pulling away and it’s not going to be the same.”
In the years since, she and her husband, Garry Borders, president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Spokane Stake, have sent one daughter on a mission. This month another daughter married and three others are preparing for college.
“We just look at each other. We taught them to be independent but they’re really going to do it!” said Sue Borders.
“It’s a sweet sadness,” her husband said. “You’re happy for them but it’s a change in your life.”
Parenthood may be the only profession in which the goal is to work yourself out of a job. Separation is necessary for success.
“Just as we don’t want to rush children into things developmentally inappropriate, neither do we want to hold them back,” said Brenda Boyd, director of the child development center at Washington State University. “Parents can do a disservice by being overly clingy and not encouraging them to fly.”
When Kristen Comer left in January to serve two years in the Peace Corps in Thailand, her parents made a point not to cry at the airport.
This after all, had been Kristen’s dream. They had watched her grow up over the years, as small acts of responsibility and capability widened the trust between them.
The Peace Corps provided the Comers with parental advice on the separation. But there was no predicting the ache.
When Kristen calls, Joanne Comer has a hard time hanging up, she wants to keep talking. Her husband, Tim, writes a passage to their daughter every day, sometimes silly, incidental stuff, that connects her to them.
“We’ve encouraged her to be independent all her life,” Joanne Comer said. “But it is hard for me not to see her. I have to remind myself, she’s OK.”
Experts say it is important for parents to pay attention to those feelings and not diminish the upheaval they feel. Parenting, after all, changes you.
When the Borders were newly married, an observer noted they were a beautiful young couple and when they learned not to have such selfish love, they’d be OK.
It took years for them to understand.
“There’s no question being a parent causes you to think about somebody other than yourself,” Garry Borders said. “It’s been a real blessing to care about somebody else more. Kids come first and that makes you a better person.”
Part of Western’s program is to help parents realize children still need them but in a different way. By listening, and not rushing to their children with advice or money.
Kindergartens routinely offer “round-ups” or early orientation that ease students and parents through the separation.
Seasoned parents, such as the Borders, offer encouragement from the other side.
“It’s very rewarding to see them go out and succeed. It’s satisfying in reflective moments to realize, hey, they’re going to be all right,” said Garry Borders.
What helped them and other families let go?
Preparing their children for the change. Paying attention to their spouse or partner, their other children and to family rituals.
The Borders’ church help them prepare for the eventuality of a mission and children leaving home. But they also mark each milestone with family dinners, praying together and formal blessings.
Rituals can make families feel closer, children feel supported and the event feels like the rite of passage it is. Experts say in American society, there are precious few rites of passage left.
Today, Patti Godwin of Spokane will take her twin daughters Amy and Sarah to Hamblen Elementary for the first time.
They’ve carefully shopped together for school supplies and new dresses. The family will walk to school together. They will stop long enough to take pictures.
Godwin’s 84-year-father taught her to seize these points of time, to mark the journey.
“My dad is constantly telling me, “We’re making memories. That’s the essence of family and of life.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: READ IT AND WEEP Some books to help parents let go: “How to talk so kids can learn at home and school,” by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. “Letting Go: A Parent’s Guide to Understanding the College Years,” by Karen Levin Coburn and Madge Lawrence Treeger.