A few months ago I began this post with: I am alone in the house. I am responsible, at this moment, for no-one but myself. It is wonderful. I’ve had a long shower, with no interruptions. I’ve scrubbed and flossed my teeth and rinsed using a mouth-wash – all at the same time. I’ve deep cleansed my face, and moisturised. I did all these things in a row.
Craig’s taken the boys to the playground. This might seem nothing out of the ordinary, but for us it is. He’s taken all three. For the first time.
We don’t push our children into independence. We allow them to become independent in their own time. For the highly-sensitive Owl it took much longer than it did for our more sociable Hare and Butterfly. Same needs and same parenting needed – different degree of need.
There is a concept called Object Permanence where children develop the ability to remember things exist even though they are out of sight. There is a bit of debate about when it develops, but generally it is thought to begin at around six months of age and to be completely in place some time between 18 and 24 months. Like walking and talking there are many natural variations and it doesn’t happen all at once.
The first sign that a child is developing Object Permanence is their enjoyment of the game of peekaboo. If they don’t like it – they’re not ready. Peekaboo is like a stress-release game for children. (I’ll write more about stress-release and kids one day, promise.) They can’t see Mum (stress) they can see Mum (relief and release of stress by giggling).
Until then and up until Object Permanence is developed fully children are building an imaginary comforter (a picture of their Mum) in their brain. The degree they can truly manage to self-soothe when away from their Mums (after the age of 18-24 months) is exactly equal to how much comfort they receive from their Mums. From worst to best(biological statement not social statement) scenario:
1. If a child is rarely comforted much at all, doesn’t have a mother who can/will meet their emotional or physical needs in that first few years they develop unhealthy independence. They haven’t got a warm image of their mothers which they can draw on in times of stress. (Thankfully any constantly present warm and responsive adult can mitigate some of the effects – this is where a good-quality day-care may be a better place for a child than being at home.)
2. If a child has their physical needs met, but are trained to hide their emotions or to be independent they also develop unhealthy independence. Sleep training programmes like cry-it-out and controlled-crying are forms of independence training. These kids are often the ones who grow up to be the ‘mean girls’ or ‘cool boys’. They learn social faces early in life, but underneath it all they are sad/emotionally confused and this emerges in later behaviour as cattiness or other nastiness. They struggle to process their emotions. (A highly-sensitive child in this situation will end up feeling deeply sad.)
3. A child has their physical needs met, but Mum and Dad are push-me-pull-you parents. One day the child is allowed to sleep with Mum and Dad, the next they have to sleep alone. One day it is OK to cry when they fall over, the next day they are told not to cry. One day their parents don’t give in to their demands for toys or treats, the next day they do. These children will be over-protected in physically unsafe situations. Their image of their Mum is not of a constant carer, but an intermittent one. They are being trained not to trust themselves (’cause Mum can’t trust her decisions and shows it in her behaviour) and they are most likely to be clingy past the age of four and a half or five – regardless of temperament.
4. The child as a baby and toddler has a highly nurturing parent who is responsive and warm, but no boundaries to their behaviour. The parent thinks they can do no wrong. This parent often thinks that unconditional love means accepting everything their child does is OK. ( I intend to blog more about this soon.) This child takes away a strong image of their mother as a comforting figure and will be able to quickly self-soothe (past 18 months) with separation. They may not deal well with another adult setting boundaries – to begin with.
5. The baby who has all their physical needs met and their emotional needs met by their Mum when she is able to be present and by a warm and responsive caregiver when she is not. This is particularly important for warm loving Mums who might chose to be at home with their children, but are not able to be due to financial constraints or they are aware their own emotional limits won’t let them be the parent they would like to be 24/7. Choosing a day-care with well (emotionally responsive) trained personnel or the nanny who has the right emotional connection with the child is what allows these kids to develop a warm and comforting image of their mother, which they can draw on in times of stress. It’s the constant (appropriate) responsivenss that gives these kids the chance to develop a healthy sense of emotional connection though Mum isn’t around all the time.
6. The ideal biological set-up for the child (our own emotional baggage can make this difficult for parents to manage) is a warm and responsive mother who picks up her baby when it is crying (if it’s not already on her body in a sling), assumes that crying is an attempt to communicate, plays with the baby quite a bit, ignores him/her (but may have him/her in a sling on her body) quite a bit, has excessive touch in the relationship, allows him/her to make and break eye-contact as they can and is rarely out of sight until the child chooses to move away from her. (There is more to great parenting, but these are the kinds of things which help develop this aspect of our children’s brains.) If these Mums put the washing-out or have a shower the baby is with them; if they go to the letterbox, they take the baby with them etc. If the child crawls away without prompting – that’s allowing independence.
Managing to be this constant a parent 24/7 for the first 18 months of our children’s lives is a big ask. Especially these days when women are pressured to do it all and have it all. In many circles it’s considered to be anti-feminist to be a full-on biological Mum.
I rationalised it like this: if I put in the time early (yes, there have been times I thought it was a prison sentence) then our kids would be less needy (emotionally or with bad behaviour) later.
I’ve got a good education and had a good career (thankyou suffragettes) and I have just finished my time making sure our kids were as emotionally secure as they could possibly be (OK we mucked up with Mr Hare, but he’s re-parented successfully now). Now I have no issue and no guilt about separating from the boys – if I need to go back to work, I will…knowing that all three of our boys, even Mr Butterfly at 20 months of age – have a warm and comforting image of me to draw on. They can truly self-soothe. They have Object Permanence.
The Developing Mind, Daniel Siegel
Becoming Attached, Robert Karen
The Emotional Brain, Joseph Le Doux
Why Love Matters, Sue Gerhardt
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