My three-year-old nephew Dexter opened-wide his big, dark eyes, tugged at his mother’s sleeve and asked, “How old to have a department?” Although my sister was fluent in kiddie-speak, this one baffled her. Then the lightbulb went on: they recently had visited Dexter’s grandparents, who lived in an “apartment.” Talk about a declaration of independence: this toddler was contemplating a break from the mother country. And to prove that he was almost emotionally—albeit not chronologically—ready, he didn’t say he wanted to take on solo living yet, just that he wanted to plan for it. Way in the future when he was, say, six. Clearly, there was a lot of deep thinking going on behind those big, dark eyes.
Putting up a roadblock to Time’s wing-ed chariot’s hurrying near, my sister explained to her tiny Thomas Jefferson that he would be ready to live on his own when he went away to college. Then she did some thinking herself. This child would not need gentle pushing to explore the world; he’d need gentle restraining not to stray too far.
Finding the proper balance of parental prodding and restraint can be tricky at each age and stage of your child’s development. When my first child was born I literally couldn’t let go of her. Although the hospital urged—practically required—mothers to leave their newborns in the nursery for the first night, I insisted on keeping Emma in my arms so I could talk to her. Then, when I got her home, I wouldn’t put her down, even to sleep.
After nine days of constant togetherness, my mother pried Emma from my arms and threw me out the door to go food shopping with my husband. If my mother hadn’t taken that drastic measure, I might still be holding on to Emma, which would be annoying to her husband Hal. I was like the mother, in the old joke, who is struggling to carry her twelve-year-old son. A friend sees them and, distressed, blurts out, “How terrible! Can’t he walk?” To which the mother replies, “Of course he can … but thank god he doesn’t have to.”
Not surprisingly, all of my clinging to Emma as a baby translated into a two-year-old who didn’t want independence. When I took her to nursery school, she was the last child in the class to separate. I spent hours and hours sitting outside the classroom door so she could peek through its window to ensure that she had back-up. But once she did decide—in December—to release me, she never looked back. She got the idea that, at school, moms were to be acknowledged cordially, but not familiarly.
Picture the scene in middle school when I arrived to work at the book fair and all her friends gathered around, like a troupe of vying-for-favor courtiers, to greet “Alice” with hugs, but Emma gave me a Queen Mother wave from the other side of the room.
I thought that over the years I had learned my lesson on proper independence etiquette, so when it came time to say goodbye to my son Teddy in his college dorm room on the first day, I waved and headed to the door. He was surrounded by his four strapping roommates, all of whom had already taken leave of their parents. I felt the sting of tears that invariably comes on such a momentous occasion, and then I felt two strong arms around my shoulders. Teddy had broken free of his new posse and, in full sight of them, gave me a bear hug. And then, in a moment I deposited in my memory banks for future withdrawal, he boldly and loudly declared, “I love you, little Mom.”
When my youngest, Libby, went to college, I was the one who found separating hard. On some visits, I would insist on doing her laundry and straightening up her room. My older kids were put off by my coddling her, but I wanted to take care of her maintenance to maximize her productivity. Libby and I were fine with this occasional regression, as were her roommates, who whispered to me, so as not to hurt Libby’s feelings, that they appreciated the tidy room.
Our society’s thinking on parent-child independence seems rather muddled these days. On one end of the spectrum are the Tiger Parents, who want to control every aspect of their cubs’ existence. On the other end are the free-rangers, who want their kids to experience life, as much as possible, on their own without parental interference. Somewhere in the middle, sanity seems to lie. You need to know yourself and your child. Personality and circumstances play a large role in what amount of independence is reasonable and safe for a child.
As a parent it is important—even necessary—to share your knowledge and experience, but it is also important to allow a child to gain those for herself. Remember the end of The Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy’s sidekicks say they could have told her the all-important lesson (there’s no place like home) but Glinda insists, “She had to learn it for herself.” Glinda, while annoying with her tinkly voice, is right, at least about many things. It can be tough to stand back while you watch your child navigate the windy road of life. As Oscar Wilde quipped (did he ever say anything that wasn’t quippy?), “Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes.”
So independence is a worthy goal, but providing a secure, solid foundation is essential. Give your child an understanding that you’re ready to help, but that you’re also ready not to help. My three children have all taken their freedom to heart and live on the other side of the country; I’m on the east coast, they’re on the west. I would be lying if I said I don’t miss them (truly, madly, deeply), but I’m also exceedingly proud of the self-sufficient adults they’ve become. Emma calls each day but, although she doesn’t let on, I know she does it more for me than for herself.
And what about my nephew, Dexter, who wanted to live in a “department”? This fall, he’ll finally achieve that far-off goal of starting college. I’ll bet it won’t surprise you to know that he’s leaving his parents and older brother on the west coast for a dorm room in the northeast.
“Talk about a declaration of independence: this toddler was contemplating a break from the mother country.”
“So independence is a worthy goal, but providing a secure, solid foundation is essential. Give your child an understanding that you’re ready to help, but that you’re also ready not to help.”
“She got the idea that, at school, moms were to be acknowledged cordially, but not familiarly.”