"Mrs. Kent? Can Melanie sleep over?"

One of my daughter's friends, who had been among the crowd of first-graders playing in our basement for most of Sunday afternoon, had phoned her mother to be sure it was all right before asking me. The kids had the next day off from school.

I have to fight my tendency to say "no" automatically, especially when it comes to my daughter becoming more independent, straying farther from my nest. But I know she needs to stretch her little wings now and then. Feeling torn, I resorted to that famous non-committal line that mothers for generations have used: "Well ..."

Melanie had done one-and-a-half sleepovers in her short lifetime. One, a birthday party, she handled successfully. Another, with a friend, resulted in a 10 p.m. phone call from a quavery-voiced little girl and a trip down the block in the mini-van to pick her up. It was the stuff MasterCard commercials are made of.

"Their TV was too loud and I couldn't sleep," she had announced as she buckled her seat belt.

"Couldn't you ask them to turn it down?" I had asked.

"No, I want to go home."

"OK."

I gently reminded my daughter of that episode, and asked her if she was ready to try again. "Well, I might get scared," she said. "But maybe I could try."

"I have a nightlight," her friend offered.

"Well ... I guess so," Melanie said.

"If you decide that you want to come home, you can just call me," I told her.

But, she didn't call. Well, actually, she did. But only to ask us to drive her teddy bear over. My husband, who was not expecting her to make it the whole night, was so surprised that he was more than willing to bring the bear.

The next morning I picked her up and not long after she got home, she was off again to spend the entire afternoon with another friend.

I know that she is her daddy's girl: social to a fault, thriving on interaction with others. Her favorite saying is, "Can I have a friend over?" But more than just being genetically disposed to being extroverted, she is nearly 7 and making her own way, testing her wings.

I know that parenthood, if you do it right, is a job you work yourself out of. But it's not easy watching her take these fledgling flights. She has been gradually letting go, separating from me, from the moment she was born and no longer contained in the safety of my body.

But certain milestones -- the first time she said "NO!"; the first day of kindergarten; and now, these first occasional nights away from home, and entire days spent with friends -- remind me of the fact that, although she occasionally flits back, she is gradually moving away from me. And that is as it should be. It doesn't make it easy, and I battle the urge to reel her in, confine her, shelter her from growing up too fast.

So the next night, as I tucked her in, I was deeply comforted by the fact that she told me, "I don't really like sleepovers."

"Really?" I said, trying to keep the enthusiastic relief from my voice. "You know, honey, you don't have to say yes if you don't want to go."

"I know, but I don't want to hurt my friends' feelings," she said.

"Honey, if you don't want to go, you can just say no thank you. That's OK." I reminded her that some of her other friends, who are even older, simply don't do sleepovers because they don't feel comfortable with it yet.

And tonight, a day later, she climbed on my lap after dinner and said, "I love Mommy" and snuggled for more than a few minutes. When I tucked her in, she wanted me to lay beside her and whisper reassuring words and rub her back while she hugged the ragged blanket that has been her comfort since she was a baby. After these bouts of independence, she circles back to the nest.

Reflecting on my little bird, one word keeps coming to my mind: fledgling. So I look it up. The dictionary says it means "a young bird just fledged." So I move up the column to read the entry for fledge: "to rear until ready for flight or independent activity."

That's my job, in a nutshell. To fledge my children. It takes a lot of prayer, a lot of faith, and more courage than I think I have. But it doesn't happen all at once. She is not fledged yet, and thankfully, in the human species the process takes almost 20 years.

At my small group meeting this morning, we read the passage from I Corinthians 13 about love. We listened to the familiar words, then each person said which verse stood out in their minds.

"Love protects," was what God impressed upon me. That's my job, to protect this little one that I love. The hard part is figuring out how to do that. Because if I isolate or shelter her too much, it may protect her in the short run, but it won't help her develop the survival skills she needs to protect her own self in the long run.

So what does it mean, to protect her? I don't have all the answers. I'm just glad that I have a Heavenly Father who loves me perfectly, protects me perfectly, and does the same for my little girl, even when I have to let her fly away.

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Copyright 2001, Keri Wyatt Kent