I imagined this day.
My 7-year-old sleeps all night. My 5-year-old does too. Miraculously they learnt to do it all on their own despite napping exclusively in my arms as babies. Despite being told I was creating a problem for them and they needed to be independent.
I’m glad I ignored that advice and carried on with what felt right.
I’ve written before about how we encourage independence in our home. I believe children want to do things for themselves, and like to do meaningful work. They like to help out, feel important, and know that they are a valuable part of the family. But, there is a big difference between providing opportunities for a child to develop their independence, and forcing a child to be more independent than they are ready for.
Being independent is something society values highly and it seems to me that this has meant that we are pushing our children to be more and more independent at earlier ages, to their detriment. Independence also appears to mean not being too attached to your parents. As soon as our babies come into the world we’re told they need to learn to ‘self-settle’. This little person that’s spent the last 9 months growing inside you better step up and get used to doing things for themselves!
When our babies become ‘clingy’ we’re told we have to fix it. Like being attached to your caregiver is somehow a problem that needs to be tackled head on.
We’re told we need to train our toddlers. We need to toilet train them, get them to sleep independently, let them get used to being away from us, use numerous punitive techniques to get them to act how we want.
When they become school aged it’s definitely not OK for them to still need you! They have to adjust! If they cry when you drop them off at school you just leave as quickly as possible and let them get used to it.
But, independence is not something that can be forced. You can try, but you’re not creating true independence, and you may be doing some damage along the way. The baby who is left to cry in his cot eventually goes to sleep. But has he become an independent sleeper? Or has he learned that his cries are just not important and no one will come when he needs them?
All this ‘training’ may appear to work, but is it really? I don’t think so. Our children just learn to eventually hide their feelings, or they find other ways of coping which may not be ideal. It is our job to teach and guide our children on how to deal with their big emotions, not leave them to it until they work it out themselves. That is not a recipe for learning good emotional regulation. When we try to force children to be more independent than they are ready for what message does that send? Maybe, ‘I don’t accept you the way you are’, ‘I want you to please me’, ‘I want to change you’, ‘your feelings don’t matter’?
“We worry about what a child will become tomorrow, yet we forget that he is someone today.” -Stacia Tauscher
Independence comes naturally, when a child is ready. They are not going to want to sleep with you forever, they won’t be in nappies at age 12, and one day all too soon they will be happy to spend time away from you. Childhood is a gradual move away from being totally dependent on our parents, to being completely independent. Trying to force or manipulate this process only causes problems. Let it come naturally. Pushing someone away only makes them hold on tighter.
Independence is a great characteristic to have. It feels good to be able to do things for yourself. And, as a parent you feel pride watching just how capable your children are. But, wait for true independence. Encourage them to do as much for themselves as they want to. Support them whenever they try new things. Create an environment that allows them to practice being independent. Just don’t force it upon them before they’re ready.
When they need your help, go to them. Comfort them when they need it. Do the things they need you to do for them, for as long as they need you to. Listen to them and acknowledge their feelings. Show them that how they feel is important. Knowing that we are always there to fall back on gives them the confidence to be more independent in the future.
Encourage and support independence, but don’t force. Never force.
One day those little people will sleep all night, by themselves. And then we will miss them.