Today, Grace had her first dance class. She's 2 years, 8 months old. The teacher wouldn't let parents inside the studio. She didn't even want us gawking from outside the glass doors. If we were in the kids' line of sight, she reasoned, separation would be less tidy and more painful.

The First Day of Class

This is the first time Grace has taken any type of class or been on her own, away from the family. She occasionally plays at a nearby swing set with a friend, but she's never had an official-I use this word advisedly and under great duress-play date. To be honest, she spends the vast majority of her time at home playing with her sisters, mom or, most of the time, me (sorry, kid).

The teacher's mandate to scram took me by surprise. I had intended to skulk in the back of the dance studio, maybe propped on a stack of blue vinyl-covered floor mats, watching class and surreptitiously reading a book. I worried that Grace might be nervous or upset without me, not having been forewarned. I quickly gave her a kiss and a hug, explaining that I'd be right outside, that everything would be fine. She nodded. "Yeah, hm, OK." I don't think Grace was paying attention. She was eyeing an older girl in a purple princess dress embroidered with white lace, perhaps wondering if her pink leotard and ballet skirt were sufficiently chic.

"OK, girls," the teacher said, raising her voice to gather the pink- and purple-clad ballerinas hovering nearby. "Time to start. Follow me." She spun, en pointe, and floated into the studio, followed by a gaggle of tiny girls who tried to imitate her form. Inevitably they fell over, crushing juice boxes and artificial taffeta flouncing. Grace smiled and ran after the crowd, shaking her bottom. We've tried to explain the principles of ballet, but she still thinks rump-shaking is one of the positions.

I looked at the other parents. Most were younger, sending off their first child into the treacherous hinterlands of life. I saw parents rubbing hands, picking cuticles, biting lips, twisting hair, cringing painfully. They looked as if they were sending their children to war, and in a sense, they were.

Moments later I heard the first child cry, behind the glass door, and others soon followed. One girl, who had refused to take off her hat and gloves, came running out of the studio and flopped on the floor at her mother's feet. The embarrassed mother was comforted by supportive, empathic looks from the other parents.

I peeked into the classroom. Grace was standing very straight, hands on hips, just like the teacher. Every few seconds she looked up to make sure she was faithfully replicating the woman's posture and bearing. She does this with me, too. She's learned to slouch and crane her neck, stuff her hands deep into coat pockets, and lean against the wall like a 44-year-old man with chronic back issues and a festive array of rugby injuries. Soon enough she'll learn that copying adults isn't cool, unless you're being sarcastic.

Raising Confident, Independent Girls

Grace loved ballet class. She was given a Dora sticker afterward, for excellence in not throwing a tantrum. There was no separation anxiety. In fact, she couldn't wait to let go of my hand and rush into the studio. Her older sister Kate has always been the same way. It's rather humbling, in fact, perhaps even humiliating, the speed with which she darts off to teachers, uncles, aunts, friends' parents. It's almost as if she doesn't want us around.

But I prefer to see it another way. We've raised two strong, confident, independent girls who aren't afraid to step into the world on their own. They still want their hands held, of course, and they want to be tucked in at night, but when something new and exciting comes along, they rush out to grab it.

It was different with out oldest daughter. We hovered a bit too much, I fear, and she's always been more tentative than her sisters. We helped her with homework too often, worried too much when she climbed on the jungle gym. I'd like to blame genetics or fate, but I'm afraid it was our fault.

The epiphany came when she entered the secondary program at a British-curriculum school in the United Arab Emirates. This would be the equivalent of 6 th grade. She had more homework, more responsibilities, more tests and more challenging courses. She was confused by some of the assignments and wasn't accustomed to, or comfortable with, asking the teacher to elaborate. In large part, this was because we'd always asked the questions, and tried to answer them, for her.

Every few minutes she was asking for help with her homework. When she came to a difficult question, she froze. Realizing our mistake, we established some new ground rules. She had to ask more questions in class, work through more problems on her own, and not ask us for so much help. Suffice it to say, she did not appreciate the new protocols. A few tears were shed, our parenting skills were questioned, and it was a long, tense afternoon.

Cutting the Cord

The next day was different. No tears, no objections, no requests to obtain foster parents. She finished her homework quickly, easily and-with a few minor exceptions-correctly. My wife helped her fix the mistakes. It was much easier, more productive, and ultimately more healthy to look over the work after it was finished than to hold her hand all the way through. We'd finally cut the cord and were certain it was the right decision. Our daughter was flourishing instead of floundering. We only wished that we hadn't waited so long. In fact, we felt pretty bad about it.

Today, our oldest daughter is a well-adjusted middle-schooler who gets straight A's. We rarely discuss homework. Helping her become more independent has proven much more successful than helicopter parenting. I'm not even sure what she's studying, what grade she's in, or what school she goes to. Her teachers say she's a leader in the classroom, and her soccer coach says that she's fearless. She made the All Star team her first season. Well done.

I recently explained to my daughter that her success was due to the fact that we stopped helping so much. "I don't want to call myself a hero," I said, "but, you know, you owe everything to me. And your mom. To a lesser extent." My daughter stared at me with he look, the terrifying Look, which she filched from her mother. "Sorry, Dad. It's not because of you. At my old school, we had to wear uniforms. It was so stupid. That's why my grades weren't as good."

A compelling thesis, if also rather improbable.

Twinkle Toes

On the other hand, Grace loves her new uniform. She wore her ballet get-up all afternoon, along with the Dora sticker plastered to her right hand. She checked every few minutes to make sure it was still there. She couldn't stop talking about ballet. She claimed to have made friends with every student in the class, though she doesn't remember the teacher's name or anything they learned. I also don't remember her speaking to anyone.

Grace was still smiling when I put her to sleep. Her first day of "school" has not led to emotional trauma or distress of any kind, so we have that to be thankful for.

We manage not to fret when she cries or gets hurt. We tell her to slow down on the stairs, but don't freak out when she falls down. We give her a long-ish leash and try not to be persnickety or germophobic when she plays with mud and worms. However, our oldest starts high school in the fall, and then pretty soon she'll be off to college. I'll have my own separation anxiety to contend with.