If You Love Them, Set Them Free

Parents, I don’t typically direct my blog posts to you specifically, but this week I’m going to make an exception.

You see, not only has the school year now begun for high school students, but college students have been in session for a week or so and, in many cases, the rosters for intercollegiate equestrian teams are complete for the season as well. This means that upperclass students are secure in their positions once more and the first years are assuming the mantle of team responsibility for the very first time – or at the very least, for the first time without your support.

And that’s why this post is important today.

You see, parents, the moment you dropped your child off at his or her chosen campus this fall, he or she stopped being your child for the first time. The minute he or she turned 18 and signed that all-important FERPA form – the one that entitles the college to keep students’ information private from everyone (including you!) – childhood ended and adulthood began. Your newly-minted college student assumed control of his or her own schedule of eating, sleeping, homework, and laundry (or at least we hope on the laundry!) and became wholly responsible for his or her own decisions…

…which means that he or she also became responsible for the outcome of those decisions.

Now parents, don’t get me wrong. I know that you’re close to your children and that they’ll always be your children in some way, shape, or form. And you want nothing but the best for them – which is why you sent them to their first choice college to begin with. But now that you’ve taken the leap and written the check and helped them decorate the dorm room and given that last-minute advice about separating the darks from the brights, it’s time to do them one final kindness:

Let go. 

Let them make some big mistakes and deal with the consequences. Let them fall down a few times and get back up without help from you. Let them miss a few deadlines, get reprimanded by a coach they’ve disobeyed or disappointed, and for Pete’s sake, let them write their own papers! (Not kidding about that last one, by the way.)

Of course, because I don’t have kids of my own, I realize I’m not necessarily the best one to give parenting advice. After all, I’m responsible merely for my students and a two-year-old Dutch colt for whom I have some pretty big plans. I’m certainly not qualified to give anyone advice in the letting go department when it comes to transitions of this magnitude, but here’s the thing: I am experienced with college students (the underclassmen and the upper) from both sides of the desk and I know a little something about horses based on my three decades-plus in the horse industry.

So here’s my expertise in those two areas – and I’m confident that it applies to your parenting as your kids enter college:

I sent my colt off to what I affectionately referred to as “Baby Horse Culture Camp” over the summer. At two, he obviously wasn’t quite ready to be started under saddle (those warmbloods are slow to mature), but even without sitting on him, I had the trainer put him into every uncomfortable situation I could envision so he could not only gain exposure to new and different things, but he could also learn to deal with said discomfort appropriately (e.g. by not trying to maim the people around him). That he very literally flung himself down in the wash rack on Day Three because he didn’t like the hose hissing beside him pretty much proves how important this experience was for his development – even though it wasn’t my proudest moment as a horse mom. (It was more of a face palm, to be honest.)

But the change I saw in him in just 60 days of work was remarkable; he came home with a new degree of poise and confidence and, while he’s still prone to the inevitable baby moments of confusion (and occasional stupidity), he’s grown a lot mentally. I’m excited to see this growth continue when we ask more of him next year – and in the years to follow. And what’s more, I know that this summer’s experiences have laid a foundation for all of his future success, because there’s inevitably going to come a day – or, more aptly, days – when I’m going to ride this guy down centerline and we’re going to struggle. We’re going to be uncomfortable. The proverbial you-know-what is going to hit the fan. And on those days, I need him to step up to the plate and be a grownup horse – a capable, focused, grown up horse who knows that the only mistake he can make in that situation is not to try.

It could be a rainy show day (we’re from the Midwest, after all – rain happens frequently and arenas sometimes slide into the abyss), another horse getting loose in an adjoining arena and charging straight for us (been there, done that), or something even more serious, but whatever it is, it will test him. And when he’s tested, parents, I need him to pass with flying colors – and he can’t do that if I don’t provide him with the tools he needs right now so he learns to cope and struggle and thrive on his own. If he can do that, not only should we see some victories in competition, but who knows? He might even save my life. (After all, it’s happened before with other horses I’ve shown.)

Parents, if this horse can learn to cope with discomfort and solve problems, your kids can too.

Let me provide one more example in closing:

A coach friend spent an hour on the phone last week with the mother of one of his first year riders; she was apprehensive about her daughter’s first week as an intercollegiate equestrian. As he concluded the call, he told her this, “The only thing I can promise you is that your daughter is going to be uncomfortable this semester. She’s going to be frustrated and she may even call you in tears because of it. But she’s going to learn. A lot.”

Discomfort is part of life, parents. And though these are crazy, sometimes scary times in which to live, it’s important that students learn that while they’re still sheltered a bit by the walls of an educational institution. You can’t be what a recent editorial in the Dallas News referred to as “lawnmower parents;” you have to let go and allow them to struggle a bit. You won’t get your money’s worth out of that college education if you don’t. (And you don’t want to be doing that laundry for the rest of their lives either.)

Need help to find the right college fit for your son or daughter so they can start the struggle on the right foot? Contact me or pick up a copy of my book.

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