I went outside to get my mail yesterday and felt the warmth of the sun on my skin. I looked up when I heard a squeal of laughter a few hundred feet away. My heart stopped for a moment as I watched short, chubby legs race down the driveway across from me, but just as the small feet came close to the street, long, thin arms grabbed the boy from behind and lifted him up to safety. I watched as my neighbor wrapped her limbs around the small body and pretended to eat him up like a chocolate chip cookie.

I sighed at the sweet sight and was jealous of my friend with a two-year-old son; not because I miss the exhaustion of raising little ones, but because she knows where the edge is when it comes to parenting—and can pull her child back to safety.

When I was the parent of three small children, I always plucked them back from the edge to safety. I would grab their hand as we walked through parking lots, picked them up when they got to close to the ledge at the pool, made sure they slowed down as they ran towards to stairs.

I put plastic gates up and buckled car seats. I chased and grabbed and lifted them to safety over and over again. I did everything I could to protect them, to keep them alive, to make sure they didn’t get too close to the edge.

Then my kids grew into teenagers. And those scary edges I’d worked so hard to protect my kids from now feel like cliffs—and no matter how fast I run, no matter how far I outstretch my hand, no matter how hard I try, sometimes I just can’t pull them back. Sometimes I don’t even know where those edges are.

And I recognize I’m no longer supposed to envelope my kids, I understand that they need to make decisions on their own, I know that they need to teeter on the edge—but it’s just so damn hard.

Over that edge is the rest of the world, and it is full of scary things. Will they be safe when they walk through the doors of their school each day? Will they remember not to respond to a text number they don’t recognize? Are they empowered enough to retain their self-worth when dating and strong enough to say no when offered alcohol or drugs? Did I ever tell them not to put a drink down at a party or leave with someone they don’t know? Will they remember to be careful when they walk too close to the edge?

And although holding on tight to their hands feels so good, I know that letting go is the most profound expression of love I can give, and the only way I may get my children to return from the edge. My heart still sees three little kids, but I can’t deny their growing independence.

I watch my neighbor and her son for a few more moments. He runs around the side of his house and then peeks around the corner to see if she is still there. He smiles at her, contemplating taking another step, but then giggles as he turns and races back to her, wrapping his short arms around her long legs.

I can’t help thinking that this is also the appropriate protocol for parenting a teenager. You stay back in the distance while your child ventures away independently, hoping they know you’re behind them, waiting to be a safe haven if needed.

It is a difficult thing for a parent to watch their child at the edge of danger, of choices, of independence; yet, I sit on my hands, monitoring from a distance, and resist the urge to pull them back.

Because it is at the edge I know they will one day jump, and hopefully soar to new heights.

And God willing, fly back to me again.

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Whitney Fleming

Whitney is a mom of three teen daughters, a freelance writer, and co-partner of the site parentingteensandtweens.com You can find her on Facebook at WhitneyFlemingWrites.