Love and Let Go

Stepping back and letting our kids be independent can be hard, but when we do we allow them essential opportunities for growth and self-reflection.

By Denise King Gillingham, LMSW, ACC, CPM

As a mother of two teenage girls, I find that daily life provides myriad opportunities to put my tools and experience as a life coach to work at home. Recently, an interaction with one of my daughters led me to reflect on a key lesson of parenting: knowing when to step back and allow our kids to embrace independence.

I was on my way out of the house when my 15-year-old (an honors student, by the way) asked me if it would be alright if she baked a batch of cookies—from premade, store-bought cookie dough. I told her that would be fine and left on my errand. A few minutes later, my phone rang: “Mom, what temperature should the oven be to bake the cookies?” I replied, “Read the side of the box.” A minute later the phone rang again: “Mom, how long do the cookies need to be in the oven?” Again I answered: “Read the box.” A minute later, another call: “Mom, can you call me in 11 minutes when it is time to take them out of the oven?”

Feeling exasperated and laughing a little, I started thinking about parenting and what might have contributed to this behavior. My daughter’s instinct to turn to me for answers made me pause. Had I been stepping in too soon too often?

As parents it can be easier to take action when we see our kids face a challenge, big or small: we might buy Velcro sneakers because tying a shoe takes too long; we might intervene with a teacher to help our kids through an academic or social issue at school; we might help a child fill out an application or craft an essay, overly invested in his or her achievement. In all of these cases, we are motivated by our love for our kids. But are we helping or hindering?

For our kids, as for most of us, making mistakes leads to growth. If we don’t have the opportunity to fail, we won’t be able to learn from those experiences.

Reflecting on this further, I considered my younger daughter, specifically her choice of friends. She loves spending time with friends who are engaged in activities that, to my mind, present considerable risk. The parents of my daughter’s friends, for the most part, step back and allow their children to figure out their environment and learn through logical consequences. Looking at these kids, I see some bumps and bruises, but I also see fearless, confident, and independent people.

For those of us who may be hesitant to watch our kids face challenges and, sometimes, fail, understanding that our children are resilient is an important step. From there consider taking a few further steps to set your child on a path to independence.

1. Identify parenting habits that might be limiting your child’s independence—and then commit to changing them.

Research says it takes about three months to develop a habit. Identify parenting behaviors that don’t foster your child’s independence; write them down, pick one, and think about how to change it.

For instance, maybe your habit is to check your child’s backpack in the morning to make sure she has all of her homework ready to take to school. Instead let her know that it will now be her sole responsibility to check her bag each morning; if she forgets something, she will have to face the consequences.

2. Learn to let go.

Many issues with teens, especially, revolve around control. We are invested in our kids’ success, and it can be hard to let go. But children need to be empowered by the knowledge that they are in control of their own success—that they have the power to make choices that lead to different outcomes.

Maybe you are thinking that letting go and allowing your child make a bad choice (academically, for instance) will limit opportunities (college) later in life or affect their future in other negative ways? This is precisely why they need to learn those lessons: understanding the concept of consequences, accountability, and responsibility will produce better coping skills and independence in the long run.

3. Keep the conversation going.

Stepping away doesn’t mean stepping out of your child’s life or not contributing in meaningful ways. Make it clear that you are available to discuss choices—and the resulting success or challenges. Sharing your own experiences or research related to specific issues can help your child make informed choices. But the choice needs to be theirs alone.

For instance, maybe your teen wants to do homework with music on. You haven’t had success working with music, so you worry that it will be too distracting. Instead of taking that choice away from your child, tell them about your experience and then make a deal: The child can try it for a period of time. If the work gets done and grades are maintained, it can be continued; if not, no more music during study time.

Whether it’s about homework or anything else, the key is to keep the discussion going. Let your child discover that there are different perspectives and different ways of seeing and doing things. Discuss possibilities together. Model the behavior you want to see in your child. Children learn what they live.

And remember: When you face challenges of your own as a parent, know that you are being the best parent you can be. Celebrate your successes and learn from your losses. Share the good and the bad with other parents and learn from their experiences. Joining a community of other parents who have wisdom to impart—and challenges of their own to describe—can help you make empowered choices, too.

Denise King Gillingham, LMSW, ACC, CPM, is a certified coach and mediator. Denise creates and facilitates workshops for corporations and organizations throughout the United States and Europe. Her areas of expertise include social and emotional intelligence and relationship coaching. Her coaching clients span all corners of the globe and all walks of life, from the international business executive to the stay-at-home parent. She received her MSW degree from Columbia University and has worked as a family therapist at The Paine Whitney Clinic in New York. She has also been a substance abuse therapist at the Bronx VA Medical Center in New York and had a private therapy practice in Prague, Czech Republic. Prior to receiving her MSW, Denise held various leadership roles in the financial services industry. Contact Denise at