Tracy Hogg, in her book The Baby Whisperer, recounts a funny exchange between herself and one of her clients. She tells the newborn mom to put her baby in a crib when she gets home from the hospital because she wants to start helping the baby along the path of independence. The newborn mom, shocked, says, “Independence? But Tracy, she’s only two days old!” And Tracy says back, “Ok, well when would you like to start?”
This is especially funny to me now because, four babies in a row later, I know exactly what she’s talking about! From the time your precious newborn arrives to the moment they leave for college, you are trying to move that little person along the road to independence. They get a big start when they’re born. They come whooshing out (or some, more slowly 😉 and, Boom! They’re in your arms. No longer connected to you, no longer eating the food you’re eating. Of course they are far from independent, truly, and if you choose to nurse, you will have that baby stuck to you for several hours a day for quite some time. But in the largest sense, they have gone from dependent to independent, from your flesh to their own. And this process, of dissociating, will aptly describe their journey for the first five years of their lives.
For some of us, this sounds harsh. Or ridiculous. Just like Tracy Hogg’s client we think considering independence when our babies arrive is the silliest thing. They just got here! They can’t do anything for themselves! What mother in their right mind would look at their newborn and think, “How can I start helping you be self-sufficient?”
The wise one. While I truly believe in savoring your baby, especially those precious newborn days, I know that what looms ahead is the toddler and preschool years. In those years, your child will try you to no end in the ways that they are immature and refuse to take responsibility for themselves. And I’m not talking about ensuring their own health or safety. That’s silly, that is your job. But I mean putting on their own shoes, keeping their own place at the table clean, putting away their own toys, getting into their own bed, putting on their own seatbelt, keeping track of their own backpack, avoiding things they shouldn’t get into, telling you when they feel sick, and a thousand other things that are in their spectrum of control and responsibility. These are the things that drive most moms crazy, and which most children are reluctant to pick up on their own.
I think this is where our current generations are most different from previous ones. I get the sense that in the old days of our parents and grandparents, when society was crueler and parents more strict, that they got the realization at an earlier age that they were supposed to be responsible for themselves. Again, not to ensure their own direction, but to take care of themselves, their things, their bodies, their educations. While they weren’t always cherished as much as I wish they had been, there was no room for regression or stagnation. Maturity was held up as the bar, the goal. And that was the WWII generation, who defended freedom against the Nazis and Communists. And whose women stepped up to the plate as full citizens defending their homes.
But today we’re afraid to put the burden of maturity on our kids’ plates. All of a sudden it seems like too much to bear. Why? Are we so stressed and fearful as adults ourselves that we don’t want our kids to grow up? Are we ourselves reluctant to be adults, and to take on the responsibilities that adulthood carries? I confess I suspect this, but I’m not sure.
But let’s do our children a favor and not project that onto them. Let’s see maturity as a good thing. And let’s rush full into helping our children (even babies) gain independence. Because if it’s one thing I have noticed myself with a 4,3,2, and 9-month old, it’s that children are ready to learn things and take on stuff independently way before I thought they were. Just little things, like waiting one’s turn or saying I’m sorry—my two year old can learn these things! I was reluctant to enforce manners and morals on my four year old because I thought he couldn’t handle them (or maybe, I thought it was too much to expect from him). But as soon as he learned them, I saw his two younger siblings pick them right up. The same with hanging up his jacket, putting his towel in the laundry basket, getting his own socks from downstairs, or turning off the TV when he was finished. All these small things which I kept off the plate of responsibility from my oldest were quickly soaked up by my two- and three-year olds once they were foisted upon my oldest. And you know what? They all liked it. Not one child balks when I give him more responsibility. Not one child frowns when I give him a job. They may protest if they are currently doing something else they like at the moment, or if it means bedtime is coming. But not one person expresses or demonstrates stress from having more responsibility. In fact, they relish getting to do it.
So “By Myself” is now the new theme of the house. I wish I’d enforced it earlier. I wish I’d not been so afraid to expect obedience, good manners, the normal rules of give and take. Because now I know that little children are typically ready to try things at least a couple months before they are really ready to do it successfully, and that this imprinting period contributes much to their overall intelligence, problem-solving abilities, and motivation. I think I was influenced by the attachment parenting camp in this area, though, somehow expecting that independence would cause my kids to feel insecure, like I didn’t love them or they wouldn’t get what they need. Or at least that I shouldn’t encourage independence if they weren’t demonstrating “readiness.” But some kids hardly ever demonstrate this, or maybe won’t in a certain area, like toileting, that cannot be postponed forever. Plus, some things like picking up food or trash you dropped is actually easier for a two-year old to remember than it is for a three year-old. Now that I know this, “by myself” or “You try it” now ring happily in our home. I pounce on signs of readiness when I see them, but I don’t wait for it necessarily.
This doesn’t mean I leave the kids out to dry. It doesn’t mean I give them age-inappropriate tasks or expect them to take care of themselves without reminders. It simply means what Tracy Hogg said it meant… starting from day one (or two), and working to stretch that little infant’s ability to stand on its own in whatever way is upon their radar at that moment. They weren’t ready to be born, probably, but they were anyway! They might not seem ready for a crib, or shots, or to learn how to nap, but they must become so anyway. What about starting food, holding their own cup, crawling for their own toy? These are types of things that move babies forward, and we can partner with them to help them obtain independence from us, lovingly and attentively. I remember being shocked that my seven month old wanted to lift my shirt and control my breast when I was ready to nurse him, my nine-month old wanted to crawl up stairs, my two year old wanted to fasten his own carseat, and my three year old wanted to fill the dishwasher… all way before I thought I was ready for them to have those responsibilities. But now I take time for them to help them master these abilities, even though it can take huge amounts of time that I’m not really ready to invest. I now realize that they are ready before I am, and I try to keep my own protests out of it unless I know, by wisdom, they are getting into something that is beyond their maturity to handle. I suspect I will be doing this for quite a long to come. So if you have struggled with attachment, coddling, regression, or fear in your home, I encourage you to try this new perspective on yourself and see the joy and freedom it will bring.