Tuesday, August 16, 2011

On kites, kids and college: Hold on. Let go. The perfect combination.

For every parent packing up their own personal BBBBB (Best Buy / Bed Bath Beyond) for a son or daughter about to move out and begin a college career: hang in there. You did your best - most of the time anyway - and now you need to step away.

What follows is a piece that may speak to you. It's been a few years since I published it but maybe it will give you a little something to think about as you make the transition. So if I could offer a word or two, it would be these: Hold tight. Let go.


For many years, one of our annual summer vacation rituals was kite-flying on the beach. We’d arrive just as dusk was on its way out and nightfall on its way in. For years, we guided the kites our boys held in anticipation of the perfect breeze. Some nights, we found that perfect combination of air, string and nylon that resulted in soaring specks of color in the night sky. Other times, we couldn’t seem to catch the wind, or we pulled too tightly on the string and crashed the kites into the sand, or we somehow lost the string altogether and watched our kites drift away and out of reach.

We still carry on that ritual, mostly for my niece who is younger than her cousins and enjoys our mini-kite festival every year. (Lately, my boys, their dad and their uncles toss around a football while my sister and I wrestle the kites into the air.) The thing is, even when we’re successful, and one or more of our kites have reached a high point, we turn to each other and ask: now what? Hold that thought.

Last week, we moved our oldest child into college. Because I can’t seem to relax about managing all the details about situations like this, I spent a lot of time leading up to moving day checking off lists and times and logistics about the process. I spent almost no time checking on myself and the new place I would move into once our son left home.

So we packed and then unpacked. Plugged in and wired up everything, made a bed, hung up clothes and found a new place for the bits and pieces of his life that he carried with him. We met the young man - the stranger - who would share the dorm room and possibly share a lifelong friendship with him. We met his parents, too, and tried to answer, in a matter of twenty minutes, these questions: who they were, what they believed, how they raised their son and whether or not they were people of character and principles. (I told you I couldn’t relax about stuff like this.) Thankfully, my first impressions told me the following: friendly, approachable, bright people, who held the same values in terms of education and love of the arts. They raised a polite young man, who was clearly dedicated to his studies, and they were committed to supporting him to help him succeed.

As the moving in ended and the moving on began, my son and I hugged goodbye – and spent an extra couple of seconds hanging on while we did. Then, just eighteen and half years after he arrived, my oldest son walked away in one direction and I in another.

A few months ago, I received an email from a friend who read a column I wrote about my children growing up. In it, Joanne artfully expressed the challenge we all face in raising our children. She reminded me that raising children is kind of like flying a kite: hold on too tightly, and a kite doesn’t get very far. Give it too much slack too soon, before the wind has really caught hold and it can move freely without danger, and it comes crashing to the ground. But when you can find that perfect ratio of give and take while holding the string that connects you and the kite, it soars almost effortlessly into the sky.

I experienced the “too much slack vs. too tight” ratio last week during the move into college. In fact, it almost felt like I dropped the string. I gave my son a generous amount of freedom. He was ready for it; it was the right time to set him on his own path. He took off; maybe with a bit of shakiness at first, but he’s soaring now.

The kite is airborne. Which brings the inevitable question: now what? I don’t have that answer yet. Maybe we just enjoy the flight. We watch the kite flutter, and even dive a bit from time to time. We help it move ever higher, and keep letting that string out even more, more than I would have ever believed would be possible. We watch it climb and dance and create its own path as it crosses the universe – and are amazed.

But we never quite let it go.

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