By Shoshana Hayman, director of The Life Center/Israel Center for Attachment Parenting, http://lifecenter.org.il
A father of an 18-year-old boy recently consulted with me because, among other things, his son had totaled the family’s car. As any parent would be, this father was very worried about his son’s poor judgment, impulsiveness, and lack of consciousness. How could he give him responsibility if his son could not handle it?
As our children get older, we expect them to be able to handle more responsibility and become more independent. We intuitively know whether or not we can count on them to cooperate with us and be able to make commitments in order to achieve a goal. They should also be able to sense danger and exercise caution accordingly. In addition, they should experience the feelings of caring that are needed to temper their reactions and impulses. True independence also requires of them to be able to consider different sides of a situation, different points of view, and different contexts in order to make mature decisions. We also hope that they will be conscious of the values needed to guide them through life.
As children get older and develop these abilities, we naturally and spontaneously live together cooperatively. It doesn’t even occur to us to ask questions about how much independence to give a child, because we can see that he is moved by consideration and a growing desire to take more responsibility. He is developing the character traits of a mature person.
Young children, of course, do not have these capacities and so we are not surprised when they behave impulsively, refuse to cooperate and forget to act on their good intentions. We know that self control and self discipline will still take years to develop. But when older children behave this way, we are puzzled because it is so incongruent with their age. It’s as if they are small children in big bodies. Indeed, they are stuck on the path of maturation. Without understanding the inner springs of mature behavior, we are driven to look for ways to teach them how to behave like adults. But maturity cannot be taught: True responsible behavior and social consciousness must grow from the inside.
Why does this fail to develop in some children? There is a basic blueprint of development called the Orthogenetic Principle. This principle can be applied to how children develop. In order for a child to consider the needs of others while considering his own, cooperate with others even when it is difficult, respect the opinions, ideas, and viewpoints of others without losing his own, accept responsibility in the face of hardship, recognize and overcome his shortcomings – in short, to become fully independent – he must first have his own thoughts, ideas, opinions, feelings, values, goals, preferences, and desires. In other words, he has to become his own person. To become his own person, he needs two things:
- He must have rich, deep roots of attachment to parents who convey to him their warmth and take delight and enjoyment in his presence, make it easy for him to depend on them, see themselves as the ones who take the lead and give him direction and guidance as well as provide comfort in times of frustration and sadness;
- Within this relationship, he must have ample room for expression of his feelings, thoughts, ideas, opinions, and preferences.
In other words, first the attachment relationship must unfold and develop deeply. This provides the fertile ground for the child’s emergence as his own person. The fruit of this is then the development of a mature sense of responsibility, balanced perspective, self-control, and independence.
There is much that we can do to help our young children behave responsibly until they become mature enough to become self-directed, and this is part of our responsibility as parents. But we always want to have in the back of our minds what is required for the spontaneous growth of the true qualities of maturation and independence during adolescence so that we don’t unintentionally cause this miraculous process to get stuck.
The good news is that even when this process gets stuck, it can be activated again. But there are no shortcuts. Just like the father who wanted to help his 18 year old become more responsible and independent, we must start at the beginning and provide the right conditions for growth to unfold. It truly is a miraculous process.