I watched him ride down the hill to school on his scooter, going fast enough to make the straps hanging from his backpack flap behind him. As he got to the flat part at the bottom of the hill, he took his hands off the handlebar for a second and hooted with exhilaration.
Just minutes before. he had gotten out of the car, dragging his scooter and his backpack behind him. “Don’t forget your helmet,”I said while getting out of the drivers seat.
“I know, I know,” he said with a classic eyeroll. Then more quietly,”You don’t have to walk me, mom. “
Eagerly, too eagerly, I said, “I like to walk you. It’s our thing in the morning.”
“But I can do it myself,” my eight year old told me. “Ok, see you later”, I said, trying to be cool.
He is doing exactly what his three siblings have done before, and yet it still caught me by surprise, leaving me feeling a little sucker punched. A developmentally appropriate assertion of independence, some childrearing book would call it. I, however, would call his six words and the ride down the hill, the start of letting go.
I don’t mean that melodramatically. I know there’s still a lot of parenting to do with a third grader. This change is not the family transformation of a kid leaving for college or getting married. But there is something momentous in the small incremental steps of your child beginning to slowly shift away from being just yours to being part of a bigger world; after always being at the center of their universe, needing less of you and wanting more of others is the big bang theory of parenting.
The start of letting go is hard because it signals the end of always: of always knowing where they are and what they are doing, always being their favorite playmate, always hearing all that went on in their day down to the minutiae of bathroom humor or playground fights, and always being willing to give you a kiss goodbye in public.
It’s the beginning of the mumbled answer “nothing” to your question of “what did you do today,” or the shrugged shoulder response when you ask what’s wrong. It’s the start of bumps and bruises — the emotional ones — that you can’t put a boo-boo bunny on to make all better.
This declaration of independence from you starts as a small journey and each year they take tremulous steps further into self-sufficiency. Another set of wheels will be paving this path to independence in our house; the 16 1/2 year old drives now, and he’s planning to go a lot farther from us in a car than the big hill at our elementary school. Letting go of him will be more challenging, because the world expands exponentially with gasoline propelling you.
I plan to take a lesson from his youngest brother, who after he let go of the handlebars at the bottom of the hill, stopped, turned around, and gave me an excited wave. I waved back, smiling at his joy over his newfound independence. The art of letting go is all in how you handle it.
Lisa Perez Tighe has been an attorney, writer and a professor. She attended the University of Notre Dame and New York University School of Law. A native of the Bronx, Lisa currently resides outside of Boston with her husband and four children.