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You will know when it is time

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You will know when the time is right.

First…

Day of preschool

Activity with grandparents

Day of elementary or high school

Overnight with a friend

Summer camp

School trip

Solo driving

Time off to college or a new job

Life is full of tiny separations and milestone-sized separations. We make a lot about how the firsts our children experience. Some are hard for our children and for us parents.

My youngest turns 16 as I write this and solo driving is very much on my mind.

I was struck many years ago watching preschoolers go in from the preschool playground while I had my toddler by the hand. I couldn’t imagine my daughter being able to handle leaving me very well to be able to go into the preschool without me, or me handling it well either.

I now know that possibility was not even a remote thought because it just wasn’t time for me or her to experience that separation. That understanding is more clear in the context of sending a child on a trip alone or driving alone–of course that doesn’t make sense. The more narrow that timeframe makes it easy to question what makes us unsettled about the separation.

On Sunday mornings, my daughter and I walked by the nursery on the way to my own classroom. The teacher and I would talk and watch Camille play, giving her the chance to insist on staying. It would be many months before she did stay, but we were both ready when the time came. There was no unsettled feeling because she trusted I would return and she was in a safe space with caring and loving adults I knew.

Fast forward just a year, and my daughter turns over her shoulder walking outside to get in her car seat and with a grin that says, “Cry, mom, cry.” She’s leaving for her first day of preschool with her father. She’s ready, and I’m standing on the porch waving and laughing instead of the crying we both might have expected.

After many years of separations with three all nearly grown children and an exchange student I call my own too, I have learned that society really pressures you to make those separations happen. In fact, there is almost no scenario where the opposite happens.

From the day a baby is born, we want it to sleep through the night so we can separate to have our own sleep even though we know babies are not designed that way. People do not ask, “Is your baby waking normally and eating well each night?”

A significant amount of parental wisdom comes from working through these small and big separations and understanding them for what they are, without caving to the pressure. Parents who’ve been there know that it’s worth the effort to:

Get to know and help your child know the grandparent, other family members, or caregivers

Respect your child’s readiness for transition by transitioning slowly

Prepare your child for the transition, saying when you will be back, and then be sure to be back at that time

Listen carefully to your child and trust your child’s behavior or words about any anxious feelings — and pay attention to your intuition as well as there may be good cause forgo the plans

Use creativity to help your child’s developing mind to understand the transition, find the joy, and reduce stress

Be honest and respond to the child’s sensitivity to the transition with comfort and caring, not words that shame or cajole

Learn about child development and wait for some transitions until your child is more verbal or has the emotional and intellectual skills required for the new milestone

You know you and your child are ready for the transition when it’s the choice you would make without feeling pressured by others or societal norms, and the same goes for your child.

Forcing or artificially imposing independence creates the opposite of our intention and delays natural development and increases clinging. Relish the days with your children as your foster trust and interdependence as they grow in their own trust and confidence

Children will separate when they are ready as growing up is a lifetime of separations. You will find that while it may be a hard experience to imagine, you will be ready too.

Samantha Gray is a mother of three and the Coordinator of Bristol’s Promise Parenting Education Network (BristolsPromise.org), Nurturings Board Member (Nurturings.org), and the author of Directing Confidence: Cathy DeCaterina’s Theatre Bristol and Let’s Dress up and Pretend (TheatreBristol.org).

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