Ken Ginsburg
Source: Ken Ginsburg

We are not empty!

“Are you ready for an empty nest?”  I never liked that question, and every time it was asked it only increased my anxiety about the presumed life-altering change to come.  But I grew to despise that phrase after my girls left home and close friends and near strangers checked in by asking “How are you doing with your empty nest?”  “Empty” is such a charged term.  It suggests we are “done,” “useless,” or “barren.”  I miss my girls with a vengeance, but our home isn’t "empty," my wife and I are still here!  We have a full life together yet to live.  We are excited about the ways we can spend our time together and have newfound time for friendships and to contribute to our community. 

Most importantly, our girls are not gone forever.  They are welcome at any time to return to us for nurturance and guidance . . . or just to build new memories.  Our house will always remain as a safe landing in a sometimes unpredictable world.  Our girls are “in flight” and we are proud that we raised children who can navigate the world independently AND who choose to cherish interdependence. 

 (I’ll tell you a reassuring secret . . . my girls are independent, functioning well, and we are closer than ever. If only more people had prepared me for that likelihood rather than using the foreboding language that made me mourn my girls leaving.)

Independence is a step towards our goal of interdependence

Our overemphasis on independence may undermine what has allowed us to thrive throughout the millennia.  We thrive best, and indeed survive, when we remain connected.  Although we raise our children to be able to fly on their own, we must also prepare them to understand connection is the most important force in their lives.  We do this neither by blanketing them with overprotection nor by demanding their full attention. We do this by taking care not to install the control buttons from which they must flee.   We do this by noticing their growing wisdom and development . . . and honoring their increasing independence. We do this by recognizing them as the experts in their own lives, and by sharing our own experience when needed.  We do this by backing away from believing every moment with our children must be productive and by returning to what has always worked – being together.  Just being.  Yes, they will fly away and the launching may even have its painful moments.  But ultimately we want to raise children who choose interdependence, knowing that nothing is more meaningful or makes us more successful than being surrounded by those we love.  

Bottom Line: Independence is a critical stepping stone towards healthy interdependence.  Children who feel controlled during adolescence are more likely to fly away and leave an empty nest.  Children whose growing independence is nurtured are more likely to take flight while looking forward to returning home for frequent landings.

Better language sets the tone for a healthier culture

Words matter.  They create the tone for our mood and behavior.

Expectations matter. Expectations create reality.

As long as we continue to use the phrase “empty nest,” we will mourn as our children prepare to take flight.  After they leave, we will feel empty.  Perhaps worse, our children will leave us with anxiety and guilt because they worry we will feel “barren.”  We can begin to make a shift in our expectations and attitudes, and therefore our realities, by shifting the tone of our language.

Out with the old –

  • “I don’t know if I am ready for an empty nest.”
  • “How are you doing with your empty nest?”

In with a more positive tone –

  • “I am preparing for my children to take flight . . . and will always look forward to their return landings.”
  • “My daughter is in flight, finding herself.  It’s wonderful.”
  • “Tell me about what you and your wife are doing with your extra time now that your son is “in flight?’

We initiate this mindset within our families, but it will be easier, more meaningful, even more protective to us, if we have a new common language that supports this healthier approach to launching our children into adulthood.  If you agree, consider sharing this new phrase "in flight" with your friends. Let's decide that "empty nest" will become one of those phrases we used to say before we knew better. 

Remember:  We should be like lighthouses for our children; beacons of light on a stable shoreline from which they can safely navigate the world.  We must make certain that they don’t crash against the rocks; but trust they have the capacity to learn to ride the waves on their own – and prepare them to do so. 

Part of being a beacon of light is that the signal we send does not grow dim because our children are in flight.

Dr. Ken Ginsburg is the author of “Raising Kids to Thrive: Balancing Love with Expectations and Protection with Trust” which he wrote with his daughters before they were “in flight.”

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