Helping Children Become Independent

By Shoshana Hayman, director of the Life Center/Israel Center for Attachment Parenting,

Shoshana HaymanThere are some things that simply drive us parents crazy: One is when your child insists on doing something that you want to do yourself. You are trying to feed your 1-year-old mashed potatoes and carrots, and he clamps his mouth shut while squashing the mixture through his fingers. You finally finish dressing your 3-year-old so you can make it on time to work, only to find that she has undressed herself 2 minutes later because she wants to do it herself. And as you are carefully unpacking the groceries, your 6-year-old silently volunteers to put the tray of 36 eggs into the refrigerator. (These examples are just for starters. I’m sure you’ll think of many more)!

Another thing that drives parents crazy is when your child refuses to do something you know he can do by himself. Your 3-year-old will only eat supper if you feed her. Your 5-year old will only get dressed if you dress him. And your 7-year-old will only put away his toys if you do it with him. (Yes, there’s more).

Hard as we try to keep our composure, our frustration rises and we lose our patience. When our children need our help, why won’t they let us help them? And why won’t they do things for themselves when they can?

There are several dynamics operating together when children are growing up and learning to do things by themselves. One of these dynamics is the process of emergence. This is the budding expression of your child’s creativity. It is an energy that drives your child to venture forth into the world. It is an inner spring that leads him eventually to be able to stand on his own two feet, an autonomous human being. When your child is young, there are signs of this energy — sudden bursts that appear when he shows you he zipped his jacket by himself, takes all the groceries out of the shopping bags, builds a tower out of blocks, or presents you with a homemade birthday card and proudly declares, “I did it myself!” We can celebrate when we see this process in motion. It means our children are normal and on the path of maturation.

Another dynamic that operates together with the emergent process is counterwill. If a child is to discover himself — his own thoughts, his own feelings, his own preferences, opinions, and ideas — he needs to feel dissonance and contrast with those of others. Counterwill is the normal resistance a person feels when he perceives he is being forced to do something against his will. When you think of all the things parents tell children to do, you can see how a child’s counterwill will arise throughout the day. “Get dressed now.” “Eat.” “Brush your teeth.” “Put your toys away.” “Play nicely.” “Sit quietly.” “Wash your hands.” “Don’t hit.” (There are many more). When children are pushed, they will resist. This is a good thing because it means your child is in the process of developing a will of his own.

You might think it puzzling, illogical, and even ironic that children are created with a natural inclination to resist their parents if parents are meant to take care of them. Dr. Gordon Neufeld, developmental psychologist, explains these dynamics and solves the mystery of this puzzle by explaining another dynamic called attachment.

Attachment is the natural drive to seek closeness. Children need to be attached securely and deeply to their parents, and vice versa. When the attachment is deep, there is little or no counterwill because attachment activates your child’s desire to listen to you, to please you, and to find favor in your eyes. This will not make your child dependent, as one might think.  Independence cannot be taught, pushed, or rushed any more than you can force a plant to grow faster. Independent and original thinking is the fruit of attachment. Through secure attachment, your child receives the rest and security he needs for the emergent process to unfold without getting stuck. Have you ever walked out of a room and left your toddler playing nicely, only to find that seconds later he came crying to look for you? Your presence provided the security for his emergent energy to unfold. When you left, his need for attachment overshadowed his emergence.

There are many more dynamics that interface with these, but one thing is for sure. You can never go wrong by nurturing your relationship with your child.  The next time your 5-year-old wants you to dress him, do it with a generous heart. He’s telling you he needs to feel how much you care for him. He’s telling you he doesn’t have enough fulfillment of attachment. Find other opportunities to step in, to be the answer for him, and provide the comfort of your closeness until he is filled up again.

This is especially true when a new baby joins the family. The older children need the reassurance that their attachment needs will be met. Rather than displaying more independence, they may regress and show more dependence. Rather than pushing independence, this is the time to deepen attachment. This is a daunting challenge for parents, but we can meet it because love is infinite and the real work we need to do is make more room in our hearts.

When we understand what our children need in order to grow, we develop our own capacity to grow and create a greater context for our relationships with our children.

4 thoughts on “Helping Children Become Independent”

  1. I agree with you overall, however might it not also follow that children who are securely attached would also feel “safe” to disagree and have their own opinions and wants so that just because they are displaying some counterwill behaviors does not mean the are insecurely attached?

  2. Emi makes a good point. I have noticed that my most securely attached child (last of 6, first truly AP child) displays his dislike for things openly and feels free to let us know when he is not finished with something if we are ready to change gears before he is. Counterwill doesn’t necessarily mean insecurity. Or perhaps I am misunderstanding the definition of Counterwill?

    from the article,” Through secure attachment, your child receives the rest and security he needs for the emergent process to unfold without getting stuck.. ….Your presence provided the security for his emergent energy to unfold. When you left, his need for attachment overshadowed his emergence.”

    I have not yet found much info here on parents new to AP trying to re-attach with children older than 10. An older child”stuck in immaturity” needs lots of physical touch adn reassurance. It is one of the reasons we decided to homeschool midstream….I would love to hear more form older families in remediation!

  3. Our children need to learn from a young age to be independent. They do not need to be as independent as an adult because they are still learning from right and wrong. As parents we should still give them small tasks around the house to get them ready for adulthood.

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