Launching a Kid: A Tribute to Neil Armstrong

Photo: Creative Commons

This past weekend flags were flown at half- mast in honor of Neil Armstrong, the first person to walk on the moon, and on Sept. 13 he will be venerated in a public memorial at the Washington National Cathedral. Like millions of Americans, I was deeply saddened by his passing even though I was only seven when Apollo 11 landed on the moon.In third grade my son was assigned his first real book report. He had to read a biography of a famous American and make a puppet of the person to accompany the report.  He chose Neil Armstrong, and read all about his historic feat. The puppet, however, was not a feat, but a fiasco.

He used an orange for the head because it was easy to stick button eyes and other facial features on it. However, nowhere in the instructions did it say the puppet would be displayed at open house, three months later! Alas, the puppet was a moldy mess in no time and my son had to redo it.  At the time he was pretty upset. By high school, though, it was funny. When Mr. Armstrong died, I fondly recalled the ill-fated puppet, but I also remembered how that experience taught my son learning is not about perfection, but process.

After the weekend, I am again thankful to Mr. Armstrong for teaching us something.

Over Labor Day, thousands of parents dropped off their freshmen on the doorsteps of colleges nationwide.  I did two years ago. A very dear friend did this last year, and my best friend did this for the first time three days ago. I spent part of the weekend with her, sharing tears, tissues and wine. As I drove home and saw flags at half-mast, it struck me that we launch our kids in much the same way rockets are launched:  not straight into orbit immediately, but in stages.

I am no rocket scientist, so this is a basic layman’s recap of launch stages (with help from our friends Mr. Wikipedia and Ms. e-how):

  • It begins with the countdown, a set of carefully devised set of procedures ending with the ignition of a rocket’s engine.
  • The launch window is a precise time so that the payload can reach the proper orbital destination.
  • All vehicles will jettison hardware on the way to orbit.

There are three stages

  • Primary: the largest stage providing initial thrust to lift.
  • Secondary:  engagement that continues the rocket on its trajectory. There is considerably less work here, since the rocket is already traveling at high-speed and the weight has significantly decreased due to the separation of first stage.  It angles and sometimes dips a bit, but eventually straightens out.
  • Payload: once the payload, a satellite or a spacecraft, is in orbit, the rocket’s final stage falls away. It is on its way to its final destination.

NASA launch/Creative Commons

When we packed our firstborn off to college I thought the launch consisted of loading up his stuff, numerous trips to Target, unloading the stuff, attending parent orientations, saying our good-byes, and then crying buckets on the way home. That’s a pretty typical perspective.

What most parents don’t realize is the launch begins with the countdown, the carefully devised set of procedures we establish. In other words, the values and morals we teach our kids that will ensure a successful ignition. When they leave, they need to own those values for themselves, or at least start grappling with them in a way that is real and engaged, not just parroting them back to us. How much time are we investing in the countdown?

And then of course there is the launch window: an exact time so the payload has every chance of landing at its final destination. Leaving home has to be at the right time. Not everyone launches as soon as they hit 18.  As parents, we need to recognize when the launch window is open and when it needs a little more time.

Once the countdown and launch window are secure, the rocket lifts off.  It is explosive. It’s the physical moving of all their stuff into a tiny 15 by 15 room they now share with a stranger;  it’s the trauma of realizing childhood is indeed, over; it’s  getting choked up in mid-sentence, peeking into their old bedroom several times a day and texting “just to make sure you have everything you need.” It’s huge and it spews heat and fireworks. We will get singed.

Home Sweet Home/Creative Commons

The shock of the primary stage lessens in the secondary. The weight of separation has significantly decreased. The space craft is moving steadily, angling and dipping a bit, but on trajectory. They are learning and making mistakes and we are still letting go, but it’s not so traumatic. We’re okay with them not coming home every weekend.  In fact, we are happy they are thriving in a new place. Our son got a job on campus this summer. I was sad realizing he wasn’t coming home in June, but proud he landed the job and happy he could fend for himself.

Payload is what we are all aiming for: a child who successfully orbits the cosmos of life and reaches a final destination: meaningful life work and/ or a family of their own.  We also realize that “all vehicles will jettison hardware on the way to orbit.” The hardware is us. They need to throw off our hovering, well-meaning, but annoying interference, otherwise we create drag.  Don’t take it personally: it is what we have been counting down to since they were born.

There were so many things that could have gone wrong on the famed Apollo 11 journey, but didn’t.  So, when Houston heard those famous words, “The Eagle has landed,” America erupted in euphoria of joy, pride and relief.

May that be the same for every parent who has ever launched a child. Whether it was this weekend, three, five or ten years ago, may all our little eagles successfully land to our bursts of joy, pride and relief.

This post is lovingly and respectfully dedicated to the memory of Neil Armstrong, a true American hero, 1930-2012. Rest in Peace.

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7 thoughts on “Launching a Kid: A Tribute to Neil Armstrong

  1. Maria-Love this! It reminds me of the quote: “Good parents give their children Roots and Wings. Roots to know where home is, Wings to fly away and exercise what’s been taught them.” Dr. Jonas Salk. I love your insight that “home” is not just a place but the values/roots you built into your kids. So glad that a successful mission always brings them home again. At least to visit!

  2. HI Maria

    This should be published. I’m not sure how to write comments but I will learn. I love your rocket illustration! So many parallels to our kids. This is what I wanted to say:

    Maria-Love this! It reminds me of the quote: Good parents give their children Roots and Wings. Roots to know where home is, Wings to fly away and exercise what\s been taught them. Dr. Jonas Salk. I love your insight that \home\ is not just a place but the values/roots you built into your kids. So glad that a successful mission always brings them home again. At least to visit!

    • Hi Judy – Yes, I remember that quote as a famous poster in the early 80s. With one already launched, one on the platform, and one in the holding area, this topic has been on my mind quite a bit. Thanks for your kind words. Do you know any big-time publishers? 🙂

  3. Thank you for this very poignant article. Brought tears to my eyes as we did just launch freshman child; your words are very encouraging. Thank you also for honoring an American hero in Neil Armstrong.

  4. I got tears in my eyes reading this. It brought back memories of two,years ago when son number one left the launch pad. It also made me think about how we moms have to relaunch ourselves, now with lots more hardware of all sorts, than we had when we first set out in life. A little scary to search for new worlds! Thanks for your well written, thoughtful and insightful post.

  5. Ha! I would love to jettison some of the “hardware” I have picked up along the journey. Yes, you are so right: we do have to relaunch ourselves and find a new center of balance once the kids have left the building. Don’t be scared, though: we can all hold hands as we careen around the universe! I am so glad this post blessed you.

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