Leaving home. Every healthy child eventually does it. Every healthy parent wants it to happen. But the actual leaving (and being left) can be extraordinarily painful for everyone involved.

Parents frequently ask me how to make the transition go smoothly. Fortunately, they are thinking about it. Thoughtful transitions almost always go better than those that are allowed to simply happen. But unfortunately, parents usually ask the question many years later than I would ideally want them to.

Leaving home isn’t an event, it’s a process. The process begins from the moment children leave their mothers’ bodies and continues until they leave the parents’ home and assume the responsibilities of adulthood. For the child, growing up and, for the parent, letting go, is the central process of family life. Children develop more and more skills and push for more and more freedom. Parents develop more and more trust in those skills and loosen supervision.

This is not to say that it always goes smoothly. As a matter of fact, it’s more usual for the process to be awkward and uncomfortable. Growing up and letting go happens in fits and starts as children’s skills develop unevenly or parents feel unsure of how much oversight is needed at particular times.

A Useful Exercise

Think about what you want your child to know to be able to live on her or his own when she or he is 18. Think about what skills will be important for physical, emotional, and spiritual survival out there in the adult world. Make a list. It will be a long one! It will include everything from how to balance a checkbook, change the oil, and manage time to how to be a good friend, choose a mate, interview for a job, and feel morally centered.

Now back up from 18 to whatever your child’s age is now. What skills have you already been teaching, reinforcing, and refining in the appropriate way for each age and stage? What skills do you wish were already in place but have not yet introduced? Which really need attention now? Which can wait? Which skills need to be fully developed before your child leaves home? Which ones require you to lay a foundation upon which your child can later build?

Make a plan. Involve your child. Ask him or her to review your list and make any revisions he or she thinks are important. Start filling in any gaps you identified while making up the list. Start with steps that match your child’s age and develop an idea of how you want to develop the skill as your child grows.

One Example: Building Money Management Skills

Suppose you want to teach your child how to manage money. At age 4, you start a little allowance and open a savings account to show her how to make a deposit of a dollar each week. By age 8t, your child has a little budget, using her allowance to pay Girl Scout dues and put money in the church collection plate, as well as for an occasional treat. Now you match every dollar she puts into savings.

No extra money for an allowance? Teach your child how to redeem bottles, work for the neighbors, or take on a paper route to get a little cash. Kids can only learn to manage money if they have some money to manage.

By 13, you are giving her allowance to her in larger chunks (perhaps once a month) so she has to think ahead. Whether she is earning money on her own or you are providing it, she should be encouraged to set some goals that require saving. Involve her in some of the major purchases for your household so she knows how to shop wisely. By 16, she has a job and is putting her own money into a savings account and a checking account. You have agreed on what items she pays for and what items you will continue to cover. By 18, you’ve shown her how to file her income taxes and perhaps how to invest some of her savings so they will grow.