A Long Runway

A long runway.

I can’t stop thinking about it.  We had breakfast yesterday with dear friends in DC.  We were joined by their housemates, one of whom was homeschooled K-12.  He was holding his newborn when I asked him to describe his experience of homeschooling.  He said, “My parents gave me a long runway.”

A long runway.

Even before I could process what that phrase might fully mean, it hit me hard.  It nearly made me cry.  A long runway.

As he described it, it was clear that a definition eluded him as well. Instead, he gave examples.  He was baking bread at ten, doing all of the family’s laundry at twelve.  He took classes at the local community college while still in high school.

So is a long runway just another way to say that you should give your kids more responsibility and sooner? That we need to fight the helicopter parenting of our times, and let them fail often and early before they are actually in the air.  That kids simply need a paper route and more chores.

I don’t think so.  As I thought about it all day yesterday, I realized that the antidote to coddled, self-absorbed, and often incompetent young people isn’t setting them loose to fend for themselves any more than it is hovering over them making sure they never fail or get their feelings hurt.

It’s being with them.  On a long, slow runway.

The homeschooled man we met yesterday said that his parents could expose him to more and earlier because they were with him to process it.  He spent time with his father at work and with his siblings in the country.  He was out in the world with his family.

A mother I know who homeschooled her four ADHD sons told me that she kept her sons at home until high school because they weren’t ready for everything they would face at school until their characters were better formed.  But they spent lots of time building things and joining their father on overseas trips.  They were out in the world with their family.

Long runways.

Of course, you don’t need to homeschool to provide a long runway. Last year, Zach really wanted to walk to school – half a mile away across two major roads.  I went back and forth about whether to let him, eventually deciding to let him try it.

On the morning of the big day, he gave me a kiss and took off down the road.  A few minutes later, Ezra and I followed in the car.  We couldn’t take the same route Zach took because of one way streets. When I got to a corner that I assumed we would reach before Zach did, I looked to see him coming.  But he wasn’t there.

Then I looked in the other direction and he wasn’t there either.  I have rarely felt such fear.  My baby was lost.  Why had I agreed to let him try this?  No one else let their 1st grader walk from so far away across such busy streets.  Why would I let him be the first?

I continued to the school, desperately hoping that I had misjudged how long it would take him.  As we rounded the corner, I saw him racing for the playground.  When I caught up with him, he was drenched in sweat.  He had run the entire way.  When he saw me, I could tell that he wanted to cry.

“Did you run the whole way here?”

He nodded.

“Where you scared?”

He just stood there staring at me.  I thought he might be mad at me for letting him do such a dangerous thing.

“Was it too soon?  Should we have waited until next year?”

“No.  I want to do it again tomorrow.”

Then he buried his head against me so that I couldn’t see him cry. After a minute, he and Ezra headed into the school, and I got back into my car and cried.  But I let him do it again the next week.  He wanted to face his fears, and he wanted to be a boy who walked to school by himself.  I wanted to help him do that.  So I met him at the school the first few times, and had a mother call me a few times after that.  And a few months after that, I let him take his younger brother.  We kept rehearsing different scenarios, and I kept offering to drive them if it got too scary.  But I let them go.

That impulse, to let them forge out on their own, made it hard to understand my equally strong impulse to keep them home this year. To spend more time with us, where we could have more of a hand in shaping their character.  How could I understand those two impulses simultaneously?

It’s the long runway.  You let them leave the gate, rev up their engines, and start off.  But you keep them on the ground, where they can still head back to the gate if they need to make some last minute repairs.

This post doesn’t do justice to how powerful it felt to hear that new father say that what he remembered of his parents was that they gave him a long runway.  I don’t imagine that we will homeschool nearly as long as his parents did, but I can think of no tribute I would rather get regardless of what kind of school we ultimately land on: My parents gave me a long runway.

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  • Andy

    Just cried thinking about this post.

  • Wow. This is really encouraging, and comes at just the right time for me as the "coddling" question has been lurking in my mind. Thanks for sharing this.

  • LeeAnne

    T – what a powerful post that really spoke to me. I had a lump in my throat reading it. Jenna and Jon just climbed Kilimanjaro and are now safely back in Arusha. It was the hardest thing they ever did. Jenna was very sick because she couldn't take the meds for altitude sickness because of allergies. She told me that after accomplishing this climb with all that she went through, that she knows that she can do ANYTHING she puts her mind to. What a proud moment that was for me. It is so hard for me to watch each of my children leave and I have the same fears that you did with Zach walking alone to school. The situations might be different but the feelings are the same. But the pain I feel in my throat is certainly outweighed by the knowledge that we have given our kids the ability to soar in this world. They believe they can accomplish anything because all of us as parents have told them YES YOU CAN and given them the faith to know we will always be here to support them. Thanks for putting into words some of the emotions I have been feeling. God Bless You and your family! LeeAnne

  • Tara, I just discovered your blog and am so glad I did. This is a beautiful reflection, both in content and in your rendering of it. I look forward to reading more!