David Treadwell

David Treadwell

When my wife Tina’s youngest son Andy — ours is a second marriage — was four years old, he left Curious George, his favorite stuffed doll, at the library. Tina told him he’d have to call the library to see if they had it. Andrew agreed to call the library or, because he had a problem with saying “r,” libwawwy. Tina dialed the phone, gave it to her son who said, “This is Andrew Barker. I left Curious George at the library. “ (Read that sentence without using any “r” sounds for full impact. Think Elmer Fudd.) Sure enough, the library had Curious George, and all was well. Moreover, Tina had conveyed a valuable lesson to her son: You have to learn how to solve some of your problems. I can’t do everything for you.

That story came to mind when I dropped two first-year international students off at Bowdoin so they could move in to their residence halls. (They had been staying with us for a few days during International Student Orientation.) The campus was alive with poignant scenes of parents saying good-bye to their sons and daughters.

I remembered when my own parents dropped me off at Bowdoin in September, 1960. Actually, I don’t remember what my parents said or did at all! I do remember being greeted by upperclassmen eager to carry my bags and, I later discovered, convince me to join their fraternity. Like most 18-year-olds, I was focused on what lay ahead, not on my parents and their feelings, whatever they might have been.

I recently talked with a man who had just taken his daughter to college. “She was like a frog you put in a pond — she was off !” And that’s the way it should be, even though it can be hard for parents to let go.

This summer I’ve been doing some informal college counseling with two high school seniors-to-be. One of them, a supremely talented writer and mature young woman, will be like the frog in the pond when her parents take her to college a year from now. No doubt about it. The other one – a student from Virginia — may have a rather different experience. In that case, the mother has taken all the initiative in the relationship: indeed, she dominates the conversation during conference phone calls, her daughter rarely speaks. The mother often uses the term “we,” as in “We are looking at private colleges out of state.” or “We have to think about the application essay.” I’m guessing that her daughter would not have had to call the library at age four — or even fourteen — if she had left Curious George there or anything else.

The message? At some point, sooner or later, all parents must be willing to let go, even though it’s painful to see a son or daughter make what seem to be unsound decisions. Every person must be free to struggle — to make their own choices, face their own challenges, solve their own problems, write their own story.

That said, the parent-child relationship is always tricky, ever evolving. Remember the story about the girl who said to her parents, “All I want is for you to take care of me and leave me alone.”

As parents, we never lose our desire to “take care of” our kids. And most “children” want to be taken care of by their parents to some extent, no matter the age. My oldest son David was an independent sort right from the womb. If he’d left Curious George at the library at age four, he would have snuck out the back door and walked to the library to get it back. Now a high-level Microsoft executive, he seems to enjoy being treated to things — meals, events, etc. — during his visits to Maine. He likes to take the role of the son, at times, even though, nearing fifty, he’s totally an adult.

There are no easy answers to how and when parents should let go. People differ; relationships differ; dynamics differ. But it’s good to keep the issue in mind — even when the issue is as small as the whereabouts of a stuffed toy monkey.

David Treadwell, a Brunswick writer, welcomes commentary or suggestions for future “Just a Little Old” columns. [email protected]

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