With apologies to Robert McCloskey, the author of this classic tale, I am going to use Mr. and Mrs. Mallard as examples of parents who find it so difficult to let go. Hey, we all know it takes a leap of faith to let your baby bird fly from the nest. But it is the greatest gift you can bestow.
In case you are not familiar with the story, it features a proud mother duck whose sole focus is to protect her little web-footed ones. The feathered parents-to-be search all over Boston for a safe home to raise their family, but potential dangers lurk everywhere – from foxes and turtles to boats and bicycles. Ultimately, they settle on a small island after vetting it thoroughly, and Mrs. Mallard contentedly lays her eggs there. She proves to be a capable mom who knows exactly how to guide her offspring in the Public Garden.

The story ends here; but if it were to continue, Mrs. Mallard could likely be caught up in the perpetual parental dilemma of knowing when it is time for those ducklings to find their own way. Admittedly, there is a very fine line between following mom in a straight one and veering off to explore life’s wonders and challenges on one’s own.

From my vantage point, I have seen some parents lead the way a little too long. As a result, these children miss out on growing-up opportunities to flap their wings and see if they can fly on their own. Clipped wings can curtail self-reliance, which in turn can thwart resilience – the ability to deal with adversity and bounce back.

Here’s an example: a college freshman, capable and intelligent enough to be accepted to an Ivy League school, has a mom in the wings who is worried sick that she hasn’t purchased enough long underwear and boots for her daughter to make it through a winter in the Northeast! Can’t you just predict that this young woman would be able to compartmentalize this perceived hardship and be adaptable enough to add another layer if she found it necessary when winter came?! Now, there’s nothing wrong with Mom suggesting a warm packing list; what concerns me is the unspoken message that only Mom can prepare this young adult for these harsh conditions.

I think this is what the professionals call “attachment parenting,” and it is a direct result of not being able to let go at the appropriate time.

This is a different child, but imagine how the college conversation might have been different if this exchange had pre-dated that one: A second-year camper had asked me casually, “Does my Mom still call every day?” She and her mother had fallen into a predictable pattern of writing “what is wrong” and Mom dutifully calling camp to “fix it.” As they saw it, they each were doing their jobs! With coaching, Mom came to understand that she was perpetuating a cycle that was preventing her daughter from being independent. As trust in the camp personnel increased, she started redirecting her daughter’s pleas, encouraging her to speak with someone at camp who could help her resolve her issues. When I responded to the camper’s question that Mom had not been calling, she quickly explained, “That’s because I stopped complaining to her!”

Test out the notion of supporting kids to solve their own problems, to use their own brains, and to develop confidence in their own ability to fix things. If it is too cold, they can don another layer. If they are away from home and have a problem, they can advocate for themselves and talk to another trusted adult. If you are a “mother duck,” you can eliminate as many obvious hazards as reasonable but not perseverate over remote eventualities. (At some point, in all instances, you have to instinctively know when to let go – and trust that you have built a sturdy layer of insulation.)

The key to knowing when to let go, I suggest, is to build your nest in a tree that provides solid roots and good shade, from which your child can safely fly when the time is right – or in the case of Mrs. Mallard, on an island that has lots of supports and opportunities, like a police officer whose job it is to look out for all residents of the community or tourists who throw peanuts from nearby boats.

Would you share a defining moment in the comments below so as to support both the intentional effort and the positive impact of “letting go” for other readers?