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Letting Your Children Go, So They Can Grow

by Joe A. Martin Jr., Ed.D.

The toughest thing about being a parent (or a teacher) is learning when NOT to be one. You don’t have to take my word for it, just ask Marlon. His wife was brutally attacked and killed by a man-eating barracuda, thrusting him into the role of a “single dad.”

Before you get too caught up in Marlon’s story, I must explain that Marlon is a fish, and his son’s name is “Nemo.” Yes, the scenario I just described is a scene from the Pixar blockbuster movie, “Finding Nemo.”

Although only an animation film, “Finding Nemo” portrays the real life struggles many parents face in “letting go of their children.”




As in real life, most parents (and children) don’t see the potential dangers of a parent being overprotective. And it’s easy to understand why many parents would respond the way Marlon did. Growing up in an inner city ghetto myself, there were many barracudas waiting to devour me.

Like most children, Nemo became very upset with his “loving” father’s obsession with protecting him from unforeseen danger. During one heated exchanged, Nemo uttered the phrase that strikes fear in the heart of every parent, “I hate you.” As a result of his father’s controlling behavior, Nemo intentionally rebels against his father and is consequently “fish-napped” by a diver.

After seeing this movie with my wife and my own son, three profound lessons about parenting came to mind:

1. We can only prepare our children for life’s mistakes, not prevent them.

As a child, I was amazed by how cool and calm my Mom, who was a single parent, always appeared to be raising me and my younger sister. Personally, I was scared to death of my environment. On any given day walking to school, I could be solicited by a prostitute, dodging bullets, assaulted by a gang, or watching a drug deal take place. As a child, this experience almost seemed surreal. If there’s anyone who should’ve been overprotective and controlling, it should’ve been my 4’ ft. 11” mother.

After I graduated from college, I asked my mother how she was able to remain so balanced as a parent, and at the same time, teach us to be independent and strong. My mother simply said, “I didn’t do much; I just taught both of you right from wrong, and I just prayed that the mistakes you were going to make wouldn’t kill you.”

In contrast with Marlon, my mother didn’t control our mistakes; instead, she prepared us for them before we made them. And God answered her prayers, because even the bad ones (mistakes) didn’t kill us.

2. We have to treat our children as if they’re already the person they’re capable of becoming.

Instead of putting the labels of “needy” and “helpless” on our children, what would happen if we gave them a label of “greatness”? I think we would be literally shocked by how great our children could become and how well they could “swim on their own.”

For instance, this past week, I asked my 7-year old son if he wanted to go to the park and shoot baskets on the “big people” basket. Of course he enthusiastically agreed. However, after his first shot, he soon realized that the 10-ft. basketball hoops were too high for him. He immediately became discouraged and started to cry. The “Marlon-nature” came out in me as I got the sudden urge to put him on my shoulders and let him make a basket the easy way -- to “protect” him from disappointment. But I immediately came to my senses, and said something totally outrageous, I said, “Kendall, before we go home today, I believe you’re going to make a basket; just keep trying.”

Well, by changing my son’s label from “you’re too small” to “you’re tall enough,” he continued shooting, for what seemed like hours (actually 30 minutes), until he eventually made his first basket ever on the “big people” basketball goal. And to be quite honest with you, I don’t know who was more thrilled, me or him. But it was an experience I’ll never forget. By the time we left the park, I watched my son score 19 baskets all by himself! Nemo would’ve been proud.

3. We need to let ourselves “off the hook” by giving ourselves credit for being good parents.

Too many times, we become our own worst enemy by becoming our biggest critic when it comes to parenting. No one will argue that being a parent is one of the toughest jobs on the planet, but we shouldn’t complicate things by beating ourselves up over every mistake we make; we just need to admit them, learn from them, and not repeat them.

Sometimes it’s good to be tough on yourself, but parenting was never about perfection; it’s all about connection. Connecting with our children in a way that they will always feel comfortable in coming to us to discuss their joys and pains. Because regardless of how good or bad we think we are as parents, the only question a child really cares about is, “Were you there when I needed you most?” Being “there” emotionally for our children will cover a lot of parenting mistakes.

Marlon learned from his mistakes. But more importantly, he learned that being a parent is learning when NOT to be one. And as parents, we must come to the realization that we can’t grow the tree without first letting go of the seed. So let it go, and watch it grow.


Joe Martin is an award-winning national speaker, author, professor, and educational consultant. His mission is to help students, teachers, and administrators learn, lead, and live with purpose and passion. To find out more visit his web site at


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