Aha! Parenting Blog

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How kids develop independence

“There are two lasting bequests we can give our children: One is roots, the other is wings.”  -- Hodding Carter

My Aha! Parenting Moment this week was realizing what the familiar Hodding Carter quote about roots and wings really means. I always thought it was about giving kids a secure foundation so they can fly.  And it is.  But I think it's really about independence.  Here's why.

When we think of an independent child, we usually think of a kid who separates easily as a toddler, who can take off on sleepovers without looking back by the age of five, heads off for a month to sleep-away camp at the age of nine.  That’s an independent kid, right?  

But my Aha Moment came while reading the research on this. Turns out that these scenarios have nothing to do with independence. They’re about separation from the parent, and they aren’t necessarily a good thing.  

Let me tell you about “The Strange Situation,” a lab protocol involving a brief but stressful separation from the mother at the age of 12 months, which is routinely used to evaluate toddlers’ attachment to their parents.  Turns out that babies respond in particular predictable ways to this separation and reunion in what to them is a strange place. Researchers classify 12 month olds as:

1. Secure – These babies protest the parent’s departure and are easily comforted by the parent when he or she returns. These babies, referred to as Securely attached, turn out to have better relationships with the parent to whom they’re securely attached, but that’s not all. As they develop, these children are ranked as better adjusted in virtually every way, including interpersonally and academically.

2. Resistant/ambivalent/preoccupied - These babies protest the parent’s departure but reject comfort from the parent upon his or her return. They have learned that their parent is not always dependable in meeting their needs and find it hard to be comforted by the parent. As they mature, these children stay focused on seeking the reassurance of relationships, but because of their anger and neediness they tend to create unfulfilling involvements. Their focus on the search for love keeps them from appropriately attending to other age-appropriate developmental tasks, such as learning and experimenting with independence. These children often become over-involved with peers in an attempt to fill unmet attachment needs.

3. Avoidant - These babies may not protest the parent’s departure and they do not seek comfort upon the parent’s return. These toddlers do not express age-appropriate comfort needs, apparently because they assume those needs will not be met in the relationship. Although they seem more independent in this laboratory situation, they are no more independent at home or in school, and in fact are rated by daycare teachers as more whiny and demanding than other babies the same age.
As they grow older, these children find their emotional needs overwhelming and frightening, and thus repress them. Unless they have the opportunity to experience therapy or another transformational love relationship, they may not develop much capacity for intimacy. While they may succeed in school and sports, their lack of social skills often limits their happiness and even their career success.

So, let’s go back to our toddler who doesn’t look up when mom leaves him for the first time at daycare.  Is he independent?  No, he’s Avoidant.  The Toddlers who did not notice the parent leaving the room were NOT the kids who grew up to be independent.  They were the kids who had given up on having their needs met.

So when we think about encouraging independence in kids, we have to put it in the context of age.  We wouldn’t expect a four month old to be independent, that would be an indicator of abnormal development.  And we’ve seen that the one year olds who are the best adjusted don’t look the most independent.  That makes sense, given that they’re still babies, and babies need their parents.

But we definitely want our children to become more and more independent as they grow up, right? So how do we do that?  Is it about separating from us?  I think it’s more about their ability to interact with the world without us always next to them. So maybe instead of thinking about independence as having to do with our child’s separation from us, we need to think of it as their ability to feel confident and competent in interacting with the world.  

So let’s re-define independence as being able to meet the age-appropriate developmental tasks required of kids as they grow up.  That means engaging with other toddlers without hitting them, or interacting appropriately with the kindergarten teacher, or participating in a sports team without tantrums, or taking responsibility for homework. In the beginning, these tasks usually involve the parents, but over time, the child begins to interact with the world on his own.  We call that independence.

So what makes a kid independent?  

Turns out there are two things.  First, having their emotional needs met – knowing that mom and dad are there when needed.  Once kids know we're available if they want us, they can be more independent, and focus on their appropriate developmental tasks.  If they don’t know if they can rely on mom and dad, kids have to be preoccupied with trying to win parental attention and approval, and it gets in the way of their developing independence.

Kids need an attachment object -- it's hard-wired for survival -- so trying to encourage independence from the parents will backfire. When we "push" kids into emotional independence, research shows, they become more needy.  If we insist on them becoming independent by not meeting their emotional needs, they’ll get over-involved with their peer group and fixate on other kids as attachment objects.  So instead of encouraging separation, we need to encourage them to attach to another adult, such as a babysitter.  True independence results from having emotional and dependency needs met, allowing kids to get on with the age-appropriate developmental tasks of growing up.

The second factor in independence?  Feeling powerful! When we "allow" their natural assertiveness to blossom by giving them control over the aspects of their life where that's appropriate, we are also encouraging their developing independence. It starts early, at about 12 months.  As kids pass the one-year mark they become more opinionated and assertive.  They need the experience of power in the most positive sense  -- that they can act on the world and get the desired result.  They also need to know that we are still there for them to help them interact with the world.  That developing sense of agency in the context of our guidance and support is what helps kids develop competence and confidence, which is the beginning of independence.

So my Aha! Moment was realizing that this is what Carter meant in his quote about Roots and wings.  Our rock-steady support and willingness to be there to meet our child’s dependency needs is the roots.  And the wings?  Knowing they’re powerful creators of their own lives, that when they act, it makes a difference.  Those are the kids who can fly.

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