What does society tell us?
Conventional American parenting philosophy says that if you want your child to be independent, you need to make it happen. The idea is that an independent 3-year-old will undoubtedly become an independent adult, so you should try hard to get your 3-year-old to be independent. In fact, just go ahead and start training them to be independent at birth–or by 6 months at the very latest. We all want to raise happy, healthy, secure, independent adults, don’t we?
People have said:
“You should let her cry it out because she needs to learn to self-soothe”
“He needs to toughen up a bit”
“If they’re old enough to ask for it, they’re too old for it” (referencing breastfeeding)
“Oh she’s fiiiiinnnne. Sometimes they just cry for no reason”
“If you start them off in your bed they’ll never leave”
What’s the truth of the matter?
The problem is, none of these statements is true. Neither the bible nor current child-development research supports pressuring young children to be independent before they are ready.
In fact, humans are more dependent at birth than any other mammal, because of our unusually large brains (Morris & Masnick, 2008). It takes much longer and more intensive care to successfully socialize a human baby than it would for a chimpanzee, for example. It’s challenging for parents, but it’s one of the things that makes us human. Young children simply need to be dependent; babies need to be “babied”.
(Just to give you an idea: at birth the human brain only weighs about 25% of its adult weight, but by age 3 it will weigh 90% of its adult weight (Bigner & Gerhardt, 2014). The first 3 years are important! What we experience in the first 3 years shapes our brains for the rest of our lives.)
And in order to socialize a baby well, parents must be responsive (Bigner & Gerhardt, 2014). Research shows that the more responsive parents are to infants, the more trusting those infants become. They are either learning trust or mistrust.
Erik Erikson, a German-born American psychologist in the 1900’s, came up with one of the most widely accepted developmental theories. He suggested that each stage of development is mainly characterized by a particular crisis (don’t think of crisis like a scary thing happening, but crisis like an important distinction being made). The first crisis we all face in life is that of trust vs. mistrust.
Even though we now know that development doesn’t really happen in sequential stages like Erikson thought (it’s always 2 steps forward, 1 step back, rather than progressing from one stage to another like a staircase), his basic crises in development are still widely recognized. Babies really do either learn to trust or to mistrust the world around them, and it is extremely important that they learn to trust.
This conceptualizes the purpose of infancy: learning to trust the world around them. And they’re only going to learn to trust under one circumstance–if their caregivers are trustworthy! If when the baby cries she only gets the attention of her caregiver 85% of the time, she will not learn to trust. She may start to cry less, but it’s not because she feels secure and loved; it’s because she doesn’t think anyone is coming anyway, so why bother?
I remember once when my son was just tiny, and he was riding in his car seat as we were coming back from an out-of-town visit with his grandparents. He began to cry, but we were only 20 minutes from home so we didn’t want to stop. Oh, how he howled. It broke our hearts. Both of us were in the front seat, so no one was even comforting him. But we were so close to home, so we drove fast. About 5 minutes from home he suddenly stopped crying and my husband looked at me with such helplessness, I’ll never forget it. As we pulled him out of his car seat and saw his little tear-filled eyes and felt the anxiety in his body, we knew that he had not “self-soothed”, he had given up. When we picked him up he began to cry again as if to say, “Are you listening now? I need you! Help me!”
I fear that a parent whose intention is to “teach independence” from an early age will inadvertently teach mistrust instead.
What about young children, though?
Many people may accept that babies don’t need to be pushed to independence, but still believe that a 2- , 3-, or 4-year old does need to be “taught” independence. So let’s talk about how independence actually develops.
Back to Erikson’s stages: the second crisis that humans encounter is that of Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt. This is thought to occur between 2 and 3 years of age. As toddlers grow in their mental and physical capabilities, they learn to explore and manipulate their environment (the beginnings of independence), and they begin to feel a sense of autonomy and self-control. If, however, they are unsuccessful in how they explore and manipulate, they will instead be filled with shame and doubt.
Or if they are made to feel unsuccessful in their endeavors, they will be filled with shame and doubt.
Having a sense of competency is a basic psychological need of humans; we need to feel like we’re able to do the things that we need to do. We need to feel worthwhile. And it starts in toddlerhood.
So, a parent who pushes their toddler to independence by requiring that they fall asleep by themselves, use the toilet by themselves, dress by themselves, etc, etc in order to please the parent, is setting that child up for failure.
If we require more independence than the child is able to give, it will hinder their development of independence. Those feelings of autonomy, which again come from feeling successful, will be lacking if the child rarely feels successful enough.
“But Johnny CAN get dressed by himself! I’ve seen him do it, he’s just refusing to!” you may say.
I hear you. You’ve been dressing that child for 3 years now and you’ve got an infant to care for as well and you just really think that Johnny should be able to do it himself. But that’s really not your call. Even if he’s done it himself in the past, if he doesn’t have the confidence to do it today, then requiring him to do it independently anyway will cause him to feel unsuccessful and contribute to his feelings of shame and doubt. The reason why he didn’t have the confidence is irrelevant. Remember, development is 2 steps forward, 1 step back.
That’s not to say that you shouldn’t gently encourage him to dress independently. You can express your confidence in his abilities and ask him if he’d like to try it by himself, but he must have the option to have your help instead, without your judgement. Then, when he’s ready, he will one day choose to dress himself, and you’ll have an awesome opportunity to tell him how proud you are of his courage and abilities! He’ll feel like he’s on top of the world! Boom. Feelings of autonomy achieved.
It’s automatic, really.
You didn’t have to convince your baby to start crawling, or your toddler to start walking, or your 3-year-old to start dressing himself. They develop these things naturally as their motivation to become independent grows. As parents, we get to step back and let Junior take the driver’s seat in his own development, providing responsive love when needed, and providing space when needed (trying to help Johnny get dressed when he wants to do it himself is also harmful–it says that you don’t believe in him).
We all want the best for our kids; we want to see them grow up and take on adulthood with confidence and gusto. The best way to support them in that direction when they are little is to allow them to be dependent as long as they say they need, and to step back and watch them grow when they say they’re ready.
A word on co-sleeping and independence
My inspiration for this post came from a conversation I had with a friend of mine. She grew up in a family of 8 kids and every one of them co-slept with mom and dad as long as possible. Now the oldest ones are launching into adulthood from a place of security and independence. As we discussed her perspective on these things, I realized how uptight many American parents are when it comes to their children’s development of independence. And how this attitude causes many parents to never even consider co-sleeping with their babies. So I wanted to address that directly.
First of all, when I say “co-sleeping”, I mean sleeping in close contact with the child, usually in the same bed, called bedsharing (being sure to alter any unsafe situation such as heavy bedding).
These research findings are found in La Leche League’s Sweet Sleep book (pg 42), a guide for new mothers. They also have excellent information on how to co-sleep safely. Because co-sleeping is the biological norm for humans (all traditional cultures co-sleep, as do all other mammals), these statistics take co-sleeping as the norm and compare separate sleep to co-sleeping.
- Children who never bedshared were more fearful and less happy then children who always slept in their parents’ bed.
- They were LESS self-reliant at tasks such as dressing themselves and had a harder time making friends on their own.
- They had lower self-esteem.
- They were more likely to need counseling than those who had bedshared.
- They had higher cortisol (stress hormone) levels at 12 months.
- Children who never bedshared were harder to control, were less happy, had more tantrums, and didn’t handle stress as well.
- At 5 weeks, a baby who’s been sleeping alone responds to a simple bath with greater stress then the one who’s been bedsharing.
In conclusion, please don’t avoid bedsharing for fear of hindering your child’s development of independence. The opposite is actually true: children who are allowed to co-sleep tend to develop independence in a much smoother, easier manner than those who are required to sleep independently. It sounds counter-intuitive, but the research doesn’t lie. Just ask any co-sleeping family.
Bigner, J., and Gerhardt, C. 2014. Parent-child relations: An introduction to parenting. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.
Cox, F., and Demmitt, K. 2006. Human intimacy: Marriage, the family, and its meaning, 10th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.
Wiessinger, D., West, D., Smith, L. J., & Pitman, T., La Leche League International. 2014. Sweet sleep: Nighttime and naptime strategies for the breastfeeding family. New York: Ballantine Books.