Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Beyond Babies

It's easy to practice attachment parenting with a baby. And it's next to impossible to practice attachment parenting with a baby. And it's somewhere in between. 

As we all know, any of these statements could be true, depending on a bunch of things: the temperament of your baby (which can change from day to day, hour to hour, or minute to minute), your own personality (which may also turn on a dime), and whatever's going on in your life (is there anything going on in your life other than diapers, poop, and breastmilk?).

But what about older kids? I'm talking about the age where kids naturally start to disconnect a bit from Mom and Dad. You know, that age where they start to say, "No! I wanna do it myself!" or "No, Mama. I can go into the bathroom by myself!" (which is okay unless you're in Target or a movie theater and some creepy-looking dude just walked in). 

For some that means kindergarten, for others it means preschool, and for yet others it means elementary school.

Lots of parents find it difficult to get a handle on attachment parenting when their kid begins to develop his or her own personality and want the independence that starts coming with maturity. So how much do we let go, and how much do we hang on?

It turns out that there's no easy answer to that. The answer will depend (again) on the child and on the situation. 

So what do we do? For some parents, the answer seems to be to give up attachment parenting and go along with society's flow. After all, in kindergarten the kids are dealing with earning tokens, getting a "red light" or a "green light," and working toward earning the coveted gold star. Ah, the gold star.

When they're anxious about their cavernous, new classroom with lots of unfamiliar kids, sights, and sounds, they're told to "be a big girl and smile! You have such a pretty face when you smile!" Mom is asked gently and politely to leave, since sometimes "kids act out when Mom is around."

Even in the very best of schools, with the most caring and sensitive of teachers and the friendliest, accepting kids, the fact of the matter is that your child is depending on others to take care of his needs. He's away from you for a huge part of the day and looking to others to guide him, help him, and soothe him.

Yes, some kids want, need, and beg to go to school. That doesn't mean that they want to be separate from Mom and Dad; it simply means that they're ready to test their wings a bit. My kids were these: they really, really wanted to go to preschool. So we did, and it was great. Most of the time. But there were days that they wanted to wrap themselves in Mama's lap and curl up like a puppy. That was okay too.

So let's say your child has decided she wants to test her limits a bit, try out a little independence, and stretch her comfort level. For some parents, this is the sign that they interpret to mean that it's time to unattach. All that attachment up to this point has laid a good foundation, right? Absolutely. Thus, they've done their work and can watch their little one venture out on her own. Right?

And let's face it, sometimes it's just easier to follow in society's path and do what the mainstream parents are doing: not worry that your child's lower lip was trembling when you walked him to the door ("he'll get over it") ... sneak out of the classroom when his back is turned ("I don't want to create a scene") ... force him to face those other boys in class who are giving everybody else wedgies ("he needs to learn how to survive in the real world").

But hold it! For me, this was a time that required at least as much - and sometimes even more - active attachment! Look at the world through your kids' eyes. Up to this moment, they've been secure in their knowledge that you were always no more than an arms' length away, that you would respond when they cried, and that you would listen to their feelings. 

Now suddenly, they're being thrust into this new world of lunchboxes, circle time, and forced friends. Of playgrounds and homework and carpools. Of after-school playdates and school carnivals and class celebrations.

It's exciting! (... and scary). It's grown up! (... and intimidating). It's independent! (... and paralyzing). 

There is never a time when a child is ready to be completely separate from their parents. This age of new beginnings is a time to strengthen that bond ... to make sure your child is completely secure in knowing that you'll be there for him. You may question what you're doing when you pick him up from school and he totally breaks down in the back seat and cries for ten minutes. But try to remember that this is a good thing: he's been holding his emotions back all day and can finally let them go in the comfort and security of his mother's presence. He knows he's safe and can totally be himself, without judgment, with someone who will accept him for who he is. And he knows that he can talk about anything with her, be it easy or hard.

So what specifically can you do to stay connected to that child who is first venturing out on his or her own? Here are a few ideas ...

--Put sweet notes in her lunchbox so she'll have a reminder in the middle of the day that you're thinking of her.

--Have a special item waiting for her in her carseat that shows that you thought of her, maybe an apple or her special lovey.

--When you go somewhere fun while he's at school, especially if you do it with a younger sibling, save something from the experience to share, maybe a balloon or an extra piece of birthday cake from the party that little brother attended.

--Talk about your day with him and ask his opinions on what you did. "I went to the grocery store today, and I couldn't decide what to have for dinner tonight. I settled on lasagna. How do you feel about that?"

--Ask for his suggestions and then take them. "I went to the grocery store today, and I couldn't decide whether to have lasagna or tacos for dinner tonight, so I bought ingredients for both. Which do you think we should have?"

--Wait on making decisions regarding anything that has to do with the family until she's home. If you're trying to decide on a color to paint the living room, make sure she gets her say.

--Wait until she's around to do some of the family work. I know this sounds crazy, but kids need to feel valuable. Don't tackle all the big projects when she's at school, even though it would go faster. :) It's important for her to know that her help is needed at home.

--Ask him about his day. Listen. Ask him more. Listen. Some kids need time to decompress after school, so don't bombard that child with questions right away. Other kids need to talk to process what went on at school, so expect to spend some extra time with that child every day right after school.

--Continue to love, hug, sleep with, talk to, cuddle, wrestle, debate, and appreciate your child. This time of expression and expansion is thrilling and frightening. If you stick together, you'll come out the other side just fine.

--Most of all, respect your child. This is can be a difficult time, even after the routine is established. Listen to what your child tells you instead of what you think he's saying. Sometimes that extra word or turn of phrase can make all the difference in really connecting.

This is a time that's scary for both parent and child. Treat your child the way that you want to be treated, maintain the respect that you've established throughout his childhood, and trust that your bond will continue. After all, you're attached at the heart.


  1. This is a very wise post, Camille. I think it is so important to remember that every child and parent is different. And, not to underestimate the differences of circumstance.

    While parenting a baby was certainly not easy for me, I'm definitely making more mistakes as my child grows older. The challenges are to 1)figure out how to acknowledge the mistakes, and back-track, while still demonstrating confidence and 2) remembering that these mistakes are opportunities to learn.

    Lack of sleep for the first three years was hard hard hard for me. Day to day is certainly not harder now. I am stronger and more creative for getting more sleep. But often individual interactions or events certainly are more difficult. I also agree that relationships with others...teachers, friends, other parents, grandparents...add a different level of complexity as well.

  2. These suggestions are wonderful. I like the idea of the children participating in family decisions.