Have you heard that story about the man watching the butterfly as it tries to break out of its chrysalis? It’s a short story, and you can read the full version here, but what eventually happens is this: after watching the butterfly struggling to break free for some time, the man decides to help by cutting open the chrysalis so the butterfly doesn’t have to continue exerting itself, to continue spending so much energy emerging from its enclosure. His intention was to assist this beautiful creature in its transition. However, the unintended result is a tragedy – the butterfly emerges with weak and unformed wings, never able to fly.
To reach its full potential, the butterfly needed to struggle so it could strengthen its wings and live its full butterfly life.
I’ve heard this story several times before, and when I came across it again recently, it pulled me up short, the moral of the story resonating with me in a much more significant way than it ever had before. I saw myself in the man, and my sons in the butterfly. With both of my boys now in the beginning stages of their own emergence, transitioning from the warm and protected life of our family to the larger world outside of it, the parallels are clear, including the man’s eagerness to help. The lesson is also clear: struggle is an essential part of growth.
Unfortunately, that’s not an easy lesson for this particular parent.
Last week my oldest son and I were researching and talking about the colleges he may want to apply to. He was focused, but kind of quiet, not really “leaning in” to our conversation or the web sites we were exploring. So, I asked him what was up, thinking maybe he wasn’t excited about the schools we were looking at or he was confused by something. He paused for a moment, and then slowly responded, “I don’t know how I’m going to make this decision. I’m afraid I’m going to make a mistake and choose the wrong college or the wrong major.” I shouldn’t have been surprised. In fact, I silently berated myself because I should have seen this coming.
My son, this almost-man, has always been a careful, even reluctant, decision maker (taking him to a toy store to choose something for his birthday was a form of torture for him when he was younger), so I have become accustomed to stepping in and offering my opinion and guidance in these situations to help move things along and minimize the discomfort. That day last week was no different. Making suggestions, laying out the pros and cons (at least as I saw them), listing the factors to consider – I jumped right into the void and did what I have always done: I reached for the scissors.
And now I see that I need to stop doing that.
I need to let him struggle, to figure out what’s important to him without my input or interference. I’ve written recently about the need to trust that things will turn out okay, and now I am realizing that patience is an important part of trust. Not only do I need to give my boys the freedom to set their own priorities and make their own choices, trusting that they have the tools they need, but I also need to let them do it on their own schedule, even (and especially) if that includes some struggling and uncertainty.
This sounds simple, even to me, and is likely obvious to other parents who have done a better job of trusting and being patient than I have. In all honesty, though, this represents a significant shift for me, and I don’t think it’s going to be easy. When I was growing up, I often felt that my parents didn’t care much about what was going on in my life, and I don’t recall that they played any role at all in the decisions I made through high school – class selections, test prep, clubs and sports, and college choices were all on me. When my boys were born, I consciously decided to do some things differently than my parents did, but it’s possible that I “over-corrected” on some things.
Looking back over the years since my boys were young, I see that backing off and leaving some space is something I should have done more of. I probably should have stayed out of the toy aisle and let him ponder his options on his own, allowing him to build more confidence in making his own choices. Yes, selecting a college and a major are much bigger decisions than a birthday gift selection, and parents do have a role to play in these decisions, but I need to be in the passenger’s seat (or maybe even the back seat), not the driver’s seat. I need to trust that he can figure out his own lists of pros and cons, prioritize the things that matter to him, and make his own spreadsheets of school information. As of today, I’m putting the scissors away and recommitting to my own transition – becoming a more trusting and patient mom who can enjoy looking up and watching her boys flying high on the strength of their own wings.
Lori Dunlap worked for almost twenty years in the corporate world, first as a management consultant to Fortune 500 companies, and then at a large research university as a program director and adjunct faculty member. She is now pursuing her long-held interests in research and writing, and recently completed her first book about college admissions for homeschoolers, “From Home Education to Higher Education“, published by GHF Press in 2017.