When my daughter was in second grade she transferred to a new school. That was 20 years ago, but I remember it all vividly. On either side of the classroom door there were narrow glass panels, and if you stood at just the right angle, you could see into the room. The first day I watched my daughter fight back tears when the other girls huddled together with their friends while she sat alone. In the afternoons, when I arrived early for pickup, I would see her sitting by herself at one of the big round tables, bending over a workbook, her long blond hair hiding her face, her leg tucked under her like a small bird in a nest.
Then one afternoon the following week I peered through the panel and saw all the kids sitting on the floor looking at the teacher. They appeared to be making up a story together, each student contributing a sentence, while the teacher wrote the story on a big sheet of paper clipped to an easel. My daughter sat between two other girls, and a third girl sat behind her, braiding her long hair. When it was my daughter's turn to come up with a sentence, she tilted her head in a way I knew well, then said something that made the class laugh. The teacher said something back that made her laugh, and two things dawned on me at once: Oh, she's going to be fine. And oh, she is a complete person, separate from me. It was as if I'd turned on the kitchen light in the middle of the night and discovered that all the forks and knives were dancing.
Of course I had always acted as if I believed both my kids were complete people, separate from me. I asked their opinions. I gave them those fake empowering options you're only supposed to use for 2-year-olds (Do you want to put on your pajamas or brush your teeth first?) but that actually work for all ages (Do you want to finish those SAT forms now or wait until after dinner when the rest of us will be watching Friends?). As they got older I respected their privacy (which does not mean I didn't know who their friends were and where they were going and whether or not a grown-up would be there) and let them make as many decisions as I could stand without losing my mind.