The child needs to break from the mother in order to learn about his environment and about himself; the mother needs to let her child go and learn how to maintain their connection over a longer distance. As with so many aspects of discipline, it’s a question of balance, giving the child enough slack to become independent, yet keeping the connection. Mother does not let the child go off entirely on his own, nor does she keep him hanging onto her apron strings because of her own fears or need for his continuing dependence. Throughout the second year, parents may feel they are walking a fine line between being overrestrictive and being negligent. One way carries the risk of hindering a baby’s development, the other of allowing the baby to hurt himself or others or damage property. Here are some ways of keeping connected while helping your baby separate.
Play “out of sight” games. Beginning around nine months or earlier, play peek-a-boo and chase around the furniture. As you hide your face with your hands or you hide your body on the other side of the couch, the baby has the opportunity to imagine that you exist even though you’re out of sight.
Separate gradually. Best odds for a baby developing a healthy sense of self is for the baby to separate from the mother and not the mother from the baby. Discipline problems are less likely to occur when baby separates from mother gradually. When the baby inside the toddler remains connected, the toddler part of this growing person feels more secure to go off on his own. The connected child takes a bit of mother with him for comfort and advice during his explorations. It’s like having the best of both worlds — oneness, yet separateness. We learned to appreciate this feeling during our family sailing adventures. Because our sailboat was fitted with an electronic homing device that kept us “connected” to a radio control tower on land, we felt secure venturing farther out into the ocean. Connection provides security.
The problem with many of the modern theories about discipline is that they focus so much on fostering independence that they lose sight of the necessity for a toddler to continue a healthy dependence. Try to achieve the delicate balance between maintaining the connection and encouraging self-reliance.
Take leave properly. Our eighteen-month-old grandson Andrew has very polite parents. Bob and Cheryl are careful to let him know when one of them plans to “disappear” into the next room. Because Andrew is separation- sensitive, he taught them to do this from a very early age. Especially important is saying “Good-bye!,” “See-ya,” and “Daddy’s going to work.” Andrew is able to handle even his mother’s leave-taking because there have never been any rude surprises. Including your child in your leave-taking helps him know what the score is at any given moment. He can trust his parents to keep him posted.
Be a facilitator. Babies will naturally become independent. It is not your job to make them independent but rather to provide a secure environment that allows them to become independent. As your child is struggling for a comfortable independence, you become a facilitator. You are like a battery charger when the little dynamo needs emotional refueling. One moment he is shadowing you, the next moment he is darting away. How much separation can he tolerate and does he need? How much closeness? The child needs to maintain the connection while increasing the distance. Toddlers who behave best are those that find the balance of attaching and exploring as they go from security to novelty. Your job as facilitator is to help the child achieve that balance. That’s the partnership you and your toddler negotiate.
Substitute voice contact. If your young toddler is playing in another room out of your sight and starts to fuss, instead of immediately dropping what you are doing and rushing to baby’s aid, try calling to him instead, “Mama’s coming!” Maintaining a dialogue with a toddler outside the shower door has prevented many a separation protest.
Shift gears if separation isn’t working. Sometimes even a baby who was “easy to leave” suddenly becomes a toddler who is separation-sensitive. If baby isn’t taking well to your absences, you might try more creative ways of staying happy yourself that don’t involve leaving your baby. What you may perceive as a need to escape may actually be a need for you to give yourself more nurturing.
Provide “long-distance” help. Exploring toddlers get stuck in precarious places. The protector instinct in all parents makes us want to rush and rescue the stuck baby. Sometimes it’s good to encourage from the sidelines and let the young adventurer get herself out of the mess. While writing this section, I observed two-year-old Lauren trying to negotiate her doll buggy down a short flight of steps. Halfway down the buggy got stuck and Lauren began to protest. Instead of immediately rushing to help her, I offered an encouraging, “Lauren do it.” That was all she needed to navigate her buggy down the rest of the steps. Encouraging toddlers to work themselves out of their own dilemmas helps them develop a sense of self-reliance.
Watch for signs of separation stress. There are times when toddlers still need to cling, some more than others. On days when your usually fearless explorer won’t leave your side, honor his wishes but try to figure out why he is staying so close. Does he feel ill? Have you been distracted or too busy to attend to him? Has he had more separation than he can handle lately? Refuel his connectedness “tank” with some time together, and he’ll be off on his own again soon.
Have “just being” time. Take time to let your toddler just be with you, on your lap cuddling and talking, if he wants, at various times throughout the day. First thing in the morning is a favorite time for our Lauren to want this, especially if she’s slept in her own bed that night, or if I (Martha) got up before her and we miss that snuggle time in bed. If I let her “be” until she calls a halt, she charges herself for a nice long stretch of independent time. It’s not always easy for me to sit still long enough to let this happen, yet I’m always glad when I do.
Encourage relationships with other significant adults. Grandparents, family friends, a substitute caregiver you use regularly can help your older toddler learn to depend on adults other than his parents. Invite significant others into your child’s life so that as he separates from you he learns that he can depend on a variety of people for help.
Remember, children’s behaviors are more challenging to deal with when they are making the transition from one developmental stage to the next. By easing the transition, you lessen the discipline problems that tag along.
Many child-rearing theories teach that a prime parenting goal is to get the child to be independent. This is true, but gaining independence is only part of becoming an emotionally healthy person. A child must pass through three stages:
- Dependence: “You do it for me.” The infant under one year is totally dependent on his parents.
- Independence: “I do it myself.” During the second year, the exploring toddler with the encouragement of parents, learns to do many things independent of parents.
- Interdependence: “We do it.” This is the most mature stage. The child has the drive to accomplish a feat by himself but has the wisdom to ask for help to do it better.
For a child to have the best chance of becoming an emotionally healthy person, she should be encouraged to mature through each of these stages gradually. Getting stuck in the dependent stage is as crippling as is being forced out of it too soon. Remaining in the independent stage is frustrating. Maturing into interdependence equips children with the ability to get the most out of others, while asking the most of themselves.
Interdependence means the parent and child need each other to bring out the best in each other. Without your child challenging you as he goes through each stage, you wouldn’t develop the skills necessary to parent him. Here’s where the connected pair shines. They help each other be the best for each other.
Learning interdependence prepares a child for life, especially for relationships and work. In fact, management consultants teach the concept of interdependence to increase productivity. The ability to know when to seek help and how to get it is a valuable social skill that even a two-year-old can learn: “I can do it myself, but I can do it better with help.”
Throughout all stages of development a child goes from being solitary to being social, from wanting to be independent to wanting to be included. In fact, going back and forth from oneness to separateness is a lifelong social pattern among interdependent people. You want your child to be comfortable being alone and with other people, and which state predominates depends on the child’s temperament. Interdependence balances children who are predominantly either leaders or followers. The independent individualist may be so tied up in himself that he misses what the crowd has to offer. The dependent child is so busy following the crowd that he never gets a chance to develop leadership.
Learning to be interdependent ties in with the child learning to be responsible. When children get used to seeking help from other persons, they naturally learn to consider the effects of their behavior on others. Truly happy and healthy persons are neither dependent nor independent; they are interdependent.
Part of self-discipline is the ability to enjoy playing alone. Before eighteen months of age, a baby will do this only in short spurts and will be eagerly checking in with mother frequently, either physically come to her or finding her with his eyes. Attachment-parented babies may prefer to be in touch with mother almost constantly, and this is healthy. It seems as though allowing the baby to have his fill of mother’s presence as an infant and young toddler prepares him for time on his own. He will know how to manage himself and won’t need to be entertained as much as the baby who is not well connected.
The time between the ages of fourteen and eighteen months is very hard for mothers. The high-energy toddler wants to do everything, but he still needs mother involved “big time.” Mothers of one-year-olds need to gear up for this marathon spurt of giving, because the tendency is to think “Ah, now he’s one – I’ll be able to ease off.” You will eventually, but not yet. Hang in there through age eighteen months, then be alert for signs that your toddler is trying to make space between you. Some mothers might tend to hover and smother and continue to hang on, but remember, the one-and-a-half-to-two-year-old needs to become his own person. You will see these efforts more and more. At first you won’t believe your eyes. Your toddler will do what he sees you doing. She will tend doll babies, get out pots and pans, want to play at the sink, dig in the dirt with spoons. You name it – the possibilities are endless. She’ll want you to pretend with her a bit. It’s fun to be a dog or a lion, but she really only needs you to get her started. Pretend tea parties or picnics where you gobble up everything she hands you don’t require much involvement from you.
By age three, a child’s imagination and creativity will allow him to be able to have fun with anything. Keep toys simple and basic – building blocks, balls, dolls and blankets, cars and trucks (no batteries, please). A four-year-old alone in a room with nothing to play with will figure out how to use shoes and socks as cars and people or as cradles and dolls.
By the time your child is six, you will have reached what one psychologist we talked to calls “planned detachment.” Your child will check in for breakfast, be out the door, check in for lunch, and be gone again. You’ll say “You’re looking well, dear,” you’ll write a note to remind him of chores, and finally at dinner you’ll get to talk some. After dinner some card playing, singing, or other family-oriented activity reconnects you with the individual who used to stick to you like Velcro.