The destination was Massachusetts. The plan was for a trio of 17-year-olds to drive there, visit colleges separated by many miles within New England, and return to Washington at the end of three days. Adults attached to one of the 17-year-olds pointed to the down side: They would be exhausted after the 10-hour drive to Massachusetts, they would be up all night in strange dormitories and therefore tired on the shorter journeys from school to school, and doubly exhausted for the drive back to Washington.

Would the adults have believed it if a small, quiet voice had told them that they were just having trouble letting go? Loosening that grasp of the hand as children prepare to step out into the world has never been easy, even for those of us who believe deeply that the child's life is his or her own and that our job is to help children find their direction and let them take it. Intellectually we believe this, but the emotional commitment sometimes lags behind.

However, the trip to Massachusetts was reluctantly approved, with orders to call home every night. "We had a pleasant, very uneventful trip," our family caller said triumphantly the first night. "I drove all the way from Delaware," she said, exhausted, upon her arrival home.

On Thanksgiving Day, I called a friend whose daughters, a college freshman and a sophomore, were involved elsewhere and did not come home for the holiday. I asked the source of her equanimity about letting go. "I think each individual child has her own place and it may or may not be in physical proximity to mine. I really believe their place is secure in the plan that God has. I try to look at the side invisible to our human eyes . . . to look at the spiritual side. It is the desirable thing when they leave; the end product is an individual who can make their own decisions and make their own way.

"Certain parts of a child you don't know anyhow. You don't know the level of intensity with which they approach things, for instance. Even sitting next to you they are separate, for there are certain levels on which they don't permit parental intimacy. The levels on which I have been involved, I am still involved -- still a great part of what I do is toward their needs . . . . You can be together physically, but mentally and emotionally apart."

Another friend shared her experience of letting go. Her 17-year-old received a scholarship to study dance with a noted company in New York City. She is living alone in an apartment there. "My heart goes pitty-pat all the time at the thought of her living alone in New York," she says, but her pride at her accomplishment ameliorates the fear.

Letting go of our children may be harder today because of the way their peers look in America of 1982. A report by the Maryland Task Force on Violence and Extremism recently warned that young adults, especially those under the age of 20, were beginning to show signs of becoming racially or religiously less tolerant than had been indicated by previous surveys. "There were signs of turn-around, or backlash, among the youngest adult age groups," the report said, adding: "This may be part of a larger national trend."

It is a cold, uncertain world into which we must release our children these days, and that makes it all the more difficult. The instinct to hang on becomes even more compelling.

One mother coping with letting go in this atmosphere put it this way. "Now, as in the past, we parents are forced to arm our young people with tactics which could possibly lead to militant behavior or teach them to shelter themselves against discrimination's harm. These are not easy tasks. Our children are bright, intelligent, and gifted people who have a lot to give this country if they are given the chance to grow and develop into productive citizens. Why do they have to pay such a price?"

But we must let go anyway.

It is, I supppose, at times like these that we take a deep breath and recall the words of Kahlil Gibran: "You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth . . . ." But a child's growth from riding carpools to driving cars to Massachusetts comes awfully fast.