Having your kids leave the nest can be a difficult time for parents. They’ve been such a precious part of day-to-day life for so many years. It seems to happen all too soon. The baby days are replaced by toddler time. Then, grade school, middle school, and high school.

Then, one day, “poof.” Off they go into the wide, wide world. The childhood years are over.

Difficult? Take it from me. I have two wonderful sons who were recently struck off on their own. They live in Bellingham, Washington now, a day’s drive from my home in Eugene.

It’s Bellingham, I tell myself, not Brazil—small solace. There are days when they seem a world away.

The transition has been a challenge, for sure. When those two left, it seemed like everything had changed. What was once a house filled with diaper changes and bedtime stories and backyard frivolities and, yes, more than a little chaos was replaced with silence. That silence is often a bit oppressive. And I suddenly had free time—a little too much of the stuff.

I miss my boys very much. And yet, I’ve come to appreciate that this transition, and how you handle it, is just as important a part of parenting as all those other stages. And like those earlier periods, you need a strategy to do your best, even when circumstances change.

I stay in close touch with my kids. We talk almost every day. Of course, I love that, but I’m happy to say it’s as much their desire as mine.

This brings me to what I consider the most important lesson of this stage: Let your grown kids have the freedom to live their own lives. Let them make their own choices, even if you don’t agree with all of them. Let them take risks and make mistakes.

I look back at when I was their age. I went to three colleges, including a couple that gave me small scholarships because I was a good baseball player. Eventually, I hung up my cleats and settled in at the University of Washington. I had no idea what I wanted to do as a profession.

I eventually chose journalism, working as a reporter for newspapers on the West and East Coasts. Then, I decided to take over the family business, a small educational publishing company, and write for magazines.

In other words, I dabbled in a few different things before settling on a course that suited me. To their great credit, my dear parents were unconditionally supportive all the way through. I want to give my sons the same favor.

My youngest is enrolled at Western Washington University, where he plans to major in environmental studies. His older brother decided the college route wasn’t for him. He’s drawn to horticultural work, which suits his green thumb and intense interest in the natural world.

Here’s another thing I’ve learned. When you’re lucky enough to share time with your grown kids, make the most of it. But at the same time, relax. Don’t over-schedule. Don’t try to pack in as much as you can. Do your best to enjoy your time together, which is the most important activity of all.

My eldest came down for a visit a couple of months ago, and we spent a long weekend together. “What should we do?” I asked. “I want to go to the coast,” came his quick response. And so we did. Our destination was Yachats, a favorite in my kids’ lives. They know that little town well and love being there.

We had a great time, spending hours together exploring tide pools and looking for saltwater critters that my son knows so well. We had a delicious breakfast at The Drift Inn, which has always been a favorite family noshing place. We drove to the top of Cape Perpetua and beheld the magnificent view of the Coast Range and the unending Pacific.

His little brother is planning a Eugene visit in just a few weeks. I can hardly wait. I asked him what he wanted to do when he was back.

“I want to go to the library and take a hike near Oakridge and go bowling together and go to the top of Mt. Pisgah and go to Smith Family Bookstore and get pizza at Mezza Luna and doughnuts at Dizzy Dean’s.”

See? It’s not just parents who have the impulse to pack as much in as possible during a short visit!

We’ll keep busy, for sure. But whatever we end up doing, I know this: Both of us understand that the most precious gift of all is to simply bask in the wonderful, one-of-a-kind company enjoyed by parents and children who so dearly love each other.