Like a switch flipping, summer is here. Our days are longer and move with the sun. We adventure in the morning, rest in the heat of the day, and maximize our evening hours biking to the neighborhood park after dinner.
When the seasons change, I’m always struck suddenly with the changes in my children, and I find myself taking stock of how quickly it seems their baby days passed by. My once timid oldest hangs confidently upside down from the monkey bars. My middle guy tackles sliding down the pole without any help. And my sweet once-baby-now-toddler stretches out her tether to my side as she explores.
While relishing the summer heat with a splash pad/park/picnic morning, I found myself squinting past the water spray to see my youngest investigating an old tree stump on the other side of the splash pad. Amazed at her adventurous wanderings, my friend remarked that she seemed like a completely different and more independent kiddo than the last time we got together a few weeks previously.
I had to agree. It wasn’t long ago that she journeyed no father than a 5-foot radius from my feet. But here she was, confidently navigating the splash pad and nearby play structure with stops back to the home base of our picnic blanket in between.
In the course I’m taking to become a Certified Infant Sleep Educator, we’ve been learning about the evolution of parenting ideas across the past century and the way in which our culture still voices truisms of early 20th century “experts” whose underlying philosophy we’d no doubt reject in a heartbeat -- such as John B. Watson's childcare writings that prohibited hugging and kissing your children beyond one nightly peck on the forehead. The legacy of that and other behaviorist ideas about children can be found in these pearls of wisdom that one hears or reads about so often:
“Don’t let him use you as a pacifier.”
“You can’t always pick her up when she cries.”
“You need to train him to be more independent.”
“If you hold her too much, you’ll spoil her.”
“You’re just making a rod for your own back by getting up with him at night.”
“Ignore her when she cries. She’ll get the message that she can’t get anything by crying.”
Behind all of these commonplace observations lies one great fear - that by showing our little babes too much affection, we undermine their ability to successfully separate from their caregivers as children and later adults. In this view, independence must be taught, separation must be imposed, and emotions must be squelched in pursuit of toughening our children for life ahead.
So what about my almost Miss 2 who suddenly felt comfortable exploring the splash pad and playground instead of staying in my lap or my arms? What lessons did I teach her to make this independence flourish?
Or rather, no lessons on independence, per se.
Topping the list of the lessons I hope she has learned so far in her nearly 730 days earthside are the following:
That her parents are always there when she needs us.
That our laps, our arms, or our voices will be there whenever she needs reassurance.
That we respond to her distress whether the sun or the moon lights the sky.
That we will listen to her feelings with empathy and respect.
That we will set boundaries to keep her safe and hold them with love.
That we make mistakes, but we also ask for forgiveness and work to make things right.
Like the picnic blanket at the park offered her a home base from which to check in and depart, the closeness of our relationship offers her the steady support to explore and embrace the work of growing up. We don’t need to force her to explore or to grow. When she’s ready, she’ll do it just fine.
In fact, our house fairly echoes with declarations of “I do it MYSELF.” All. Day. Long.
Even as she needs the closeness of a parent to drift off to sleep, she needs the space to experiment with her own capability, but on her own time. Instead of demanding that she take a step toward independence and feeling frustrated when she pushes back, I wait with confidence. And, I leverage the help of a spouse and self-care time when my own frustrations or triggers get in the way of me parenting her with the patience that confidence requires.
Because in a way, I’m parenting myself as I parent her and my other children. Instead of living in a place of fear and opposition, I choose to give confidence to her, and in the process, to myself. That she is enough and right where she needs to be, and I am enough, too.
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Johanna received a Ph.D. in English in 2014. Now a postpartum doula and educator of childbirth, breastfeeding, and infant sleep, she blogs about pregnancy, birth, postpartum, and parenting.