“If there is anything we wish to change in the child, we should first examine it and see whether it is not something that could better be changed in ourselves.” - Carl G. Jung
Q: My three year old son clings to me and wont play with other children. He wants to be with me when I shower, eat, sleep…and in play groups he just sits on me while other children seem to have so much fun. My father in law tells me that I am destroying his ability to develop independence. He thinks our co-sleeping and breastfeeding and all this holding is the cause of his lack of independence. Am I doing something wrong?
A: Not only are you doing nothing wrong, but, clearly, your son does not lack independence at all. In fact, he is your teacher of self-reliance. How you know what is best for him is by observing and responding, which is what you are doing.
We assume that independence means that the child does things away from mum and dad, on his own. But what does this have to do with independence?
Independence is not about what the child does or who he is with. Instead, it is about the reason for his choices. Is your child choosing his actions with a goal of impressing others, or is he making choices independently based on his own inner guide (which can include consideration of others)?
Children who play together may or may not be choosing independently. Some could be playing together out of compliance; responding to peer pressure or to parental expectations; others may indeed choose autonomously. The actual playing with kids is not, of its own, an indication of independence.
I hear that you wish for your child to make choices based on his own inner guidance. You want him to be able to rely on himself so that instead of seeking approval, he would have the emotional freedom to act authentically and autonomously.
Young children sense our expectations and are eager to please us (even when you are unable to see it.) When trusted and respected, they cooperate and try to fit in with our lives. This is the basis for the gradual development of consideration and partnership.
However, when it comes to the childs autonomous choices about himself, it is crucial to keep him free from needing to please others or live up to anyone elses standards. We please another when we do something for them, not when we do something for ourselves. Only a confused mind will do something for herself with the goal of satisfying another (kind of like eating so your neighbour will be nourished.) Many of us suffer the insecurity and anxiety associated with making personal and parenting choices with the goal of pleasing others.
A child who is used to making choices about himself based on parental coercion will do the same with peer pressure later on in life. Indeed, if we direct the childs personal choices, we take him away from independence and teach him to follow others, even against his own wisdom.
Your sons dependence on you is his independent choice. He chooses to be close to you. He is not swayed by your anxiety, by his grandpas concern, or by being the only one not playing with the other kids. Your son is independent!!!
Nurturing your childs self-reliance from babyhood on:
From day one, a child is learning how to make choices; she either learns to listen to herself or to seek cues from others. When the infant signals to her mother and receives a prompt response, she learns to rely on herself because its working for her.
Sleeping choices are a useful example; is the baby who sleeps by herself developing more independence? Indeed not. Left to cry herself to sleep alone, she will eventually sleep, but her ability to rely on herself has been eroded. The mistaken thought is, “she is sleeping independently and learning to be self-reliant.”
Yet, the baby is actually learning to succumb to the will of others and become dependent on cues from outside of herself. In other words, sleeping by herself in negation to her own need, she gives up her independent choice and is learning to be dependent. In contrast, when sleeping by her mothers body, the baby is peaceful and feeling right about following her inner voice.
One of my three children never left my side for many years. Even while at home he would insist on being in the same room with me. A couple of times, at age five, he wanted to go to a play group and to a pottery class. On both occasions he sat on my lap the whole time and then asked to go home. His choice to stay close to me was an independent choice. I respected him totally. His younger brother dragged him to his first group activities when he was ten or older and he still wanted me to sit close by and watch. He grew up to be extremely social and incredibly independent in every way. Like birth, many developmental stages burst all at once and never when we expect them to.
At the end of the road, the happy balance is when the child is rooted in herself with such confidence that she is free to choose when to learn from others and when to thank for the help and move on. You can read more about protecting your childs self-reliance in chapter five of my book, Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves.
The difficulty is not your son, but your wavering trust in yourself; your own independence. Your father in laws comments plant doubt in your heart. You believe him instead of believing you. Learn from your son to be powerfully rooted in yourself. Notice how no one can take him away from himself. Learn his ways till nothing outside of you can shake your direction. When you are rooted in yourself, peoples ideas wont threaten you. You will be able to hear them with no defense; learn from what is valuable to you and discard what is not.
Without your self-doubt, you would realise that the word, “clingy,” is an emotionally loaded judgment; as though something is wrong. In reality, your son prefers to be with you much of the time. How wonderful for him and for you.
Responding to grandpa as an independent you:
Without the need to please your father-in-law, how can his words have any consequence inside of you or in your sons choices? Lets see how the conversation would go without your need to fit in with your father-in-law:
FIL: He will never be independent the way you always hold and cuddle him.
An independent you: I hear you and I love how much you care. Are you worried that breastfeeding, holding and co-sleeping prevents Josh from becoming independent?
FIL: Yes. I want to see him play with children and be his own self.
You: I hear you; you would like to see Josh engaged away from me sometimes. You find it hard to watch him with me all the time.
FIL: Yes. So, what are you going to do about it?
You: I used to worry about it and wonder, like you, if I should push him. But, then I noticed that he looks content and am not worried any more.
FIL: But, he clings to you all the time. He is never away from you. What are you going to do about it?
You: Since it is not my concern, I have no need to do anything but I will be watching and learning. I appreciate you sharing your concerns with me. Josh is lucky to have such a loving grandpa.
A persistent FIL: Hmn. So you dont want him to be independent?
You: I want him to be however he is and I am not worried about his ability to be himself and I hear that you are. Would you like to read some of what helps me feel so confident in Joshs choices and development? I will be happy to share with you.
This conversation is void of any defense of opinion. No convincing; no argument. You listened, you showed understanding and appreciation, you connected with him, and you kept your own parenting path independent of his mind. You stayed you – independently.
Why do we worship independence anyway?
Independence as we perceive it in regards to children is hardly a goal worth pursuing. Peer groups are modern indoctrination; not a natural development. Whats wrong with a bond of dependency between parent and child? Why cut this beautiful cord and substitute less intimate relating skills? What is the rush away from a deep one-on-one love-based bond as model for relating?
True self-reliance comes for the self who finds his own inner voice worth trusting and following, including the healthy voice that says: I want to stay close to mum all the time.