Parenting milestones: Knowing the right time to let go (even if it breaks your heart a little)

It's a delicate balance; keeping charge of your offspring while prepping them for world domination. But its also an emotional minefield, as Amanda Cassidy experienced recently...


I sat in the car with a lump in my throat. The world looked exactly the same that bright morning in September... except that everything had changed.

This latest milestone had caught me off guard -— an innocent-seeming walk from the local church carpark through neighbourhood estates and into the children's school, as part of their green initiative to reduce car-use in the area.

Five minutes, maybe six, was all it took.

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Three days in and two imploring faces announced that they were ready to do it by themselves. 'There are no roads, it's safe and there are loads of people doing it,' was their pitch-point. I agreed if I could follow them a few paces behind to monitor and after a few trial runs, I let them out of the car, begged them to mind each other and then they were gone.

"I just didn't expect to feel so...redundant, conflicted, heartbroken".

Much more than when I let go of their hand on the first day of school, this moment felt monumental. The emotions when they are leaving you to start big school or playschool are indulgent, collective — we know they will be looked after and kept safe; we just feel a tug that it isn't by us.

This was different. I was surrendering them to real-life dangers like cars, trusting them not to get lost or distracted or injured. Exposing them to all the dangers I'd protected them from, fiercely, since they were born. They wanted independence and I felt it appropriate to give it to them — I just didn't expect to feel so...redundant. Conflicted. Heartbreaking.

These siblings are almost eight and nine — sensible and, as it turns out, pretty responsible. The tangle of lanes on their route would be lined with other parents, teachers, school pals (I'd done an elaborate risk assessment), but the severing of ties still felt sharp. Keeping them safe and under my control was my raison d'être for the past nine years. Suddenly, now they had a roadmap all of their own.

And while pride also overwhelmed, anxiety prevailed; Had I given them the right tools? Was it too soon? Surely they still needed me?

Baby steps

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We read that parents these days are too overly protective, but is 'free-range' parenting actually beneficial to our children? We've always been told that good parents give their children roots and wings. And while independence day comes slowly and at different times for each child, getting the balance right between allowing your child to figure things out on their own, and still feeling that connection, isn't straightforward.

Too little and you are overparenting. Too much freedom and you are in danger of being 'trop laissez-faire.'

Meanwhile, the numbers of Irish children walking to school has plummeted. According to research, one in five cars on the roads during peak hours are doing the school run. Whether due to cossetted kids or safety concerns, this is dramatically different to children in other countries. In Germany, 76% of children walk to and from school. In Japan, six years olds take the train alone.

The proliferation of 24-hour news and social media scaremongering means that our biggest concern is our child being abducted en route to school. The reality is that there are only around 20 such cases here in the last four years and the majority of those were by an estranged partner or relative of the child themselves.

But unwrapping the cotton wool is different for everyone — different for each milestone and depends entirely on the child. My motivation is showing my children that they can accomplish small goals. I try to nurture their confidence by increasing their responsibilities that must be met.

How to let go as a parent

So I acted breezy to them, but I was never going to acquiesce to unsupervised morning jaunts without sating my control-freakery. I hid behind parked cars, around bushes and eventually watched those two little heads bobbing safely through the black metal gates of their primary school.

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"One more kiss, then watch them walk away".

Their only delay was stopping to stroke a friend's puppy and chatting to some of the other mums who I presumed thought I was an incompetent and irresponsible parent. Later, the same mums tell me they were impressed and motivated to follow suit, and no, they didn't see me hanging out of the Portuguese laurel at the end of the avenue.

My guys arrived home chuffed with themselves, their quiet confidence building nicely. They would still describe me as strict, but freedom comes dropping slow. I've unfurled the first layer of protective coating.

It's hurt my heart, but I'm learning to let go, one literal step at a time. Today, it is the walk to school, I'm painfully aware that soon it will be bigger milestones, the stakes higher, the decisions of what to let go of, harder.

One more kiss, then watch them walk away.


Read more: One dad's survival tips: Never babysit your own child, forget nap time and leave the cauliflower at home

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