Today I witnessed a heart-wrenching scene. Three year old Stella was being dropped off to a child-care class for the morning. Her mother was attending a week-long event for moms, and Stella had been placed in a small class with other preschool age children and several loving adults. The morning was packed with appealing activities led by dedicated adults. Nevertheless, each morning, Stella had some difficulty separating from her mother. Today was the fifth and last day, and apparently, the final staw for Stella.
She simply fell to pieces as her mother departed. A teacher picked her up, but Stella did not want to be held. She did not want to be taken to her classroom, and she gripped anything she could get hold of in order to prevent it. The teacher peeled her little hands off of railings and doorways as Stella’s cries became shrieks of anguish. She became so difficult to carry that the teacher had to sit down on the floor and hold on to her. She sobbed for her mother, tensely rigid, trying desperately to escape. At one point she nearly threw up. In the end it took four different adults about ten minutes to calm her.
It upset everyone…the adults trying to soothe her (although they remained outwardly calm), the passers-by, my two-year old who couldn’t take her eyes off of Stella – and me. Not that I haven’t seen such scenes before. But today, as an unschooling mom, it really got me thinking…
Why on earth would we do this to a child?
There are several answers, and they are not hard to figure out. The most powerful motivator is our acceptance of the conventional wisdom that tells us all children experience separation anxiety, but that it is necessary for them to experience it. We are instructed that the best way for parents to help children to move through separation anxiety is to remain calm, cheerful and confident that the child will be fine. We are told to say a fairly quick goodbye, send the message that we are certain they will be okay, remind them we will be back, and then move on out. Sort of like ripping a band-aid off; get it over with quick and decisively. Conventional wisdom assures us that our children will benefit from this approach, even the ones who fall apart at first. Teachers reassure us that after a bit the children calm down and have a good time.
The second motivator is a future-based fear. We worry that if we don’t help our little ones learn to separate easily, then we will cripple them. We believe that if a child is not “pushed from the nest” a bit then he will never get comfortable separating from us. That teen-age Billy will be attached at the hip, missing out on all kinds of opportunities. That twenty year-old Brittney will end up living at home forever, terrified by the idea of independence. Of course we don’t want this to happen! We want the best for our children, and are willing to do whatever it takes, even if it’s hard or counter-intuitive.
The third motivator is also fear-based. We worry about how we appear to other adults. We’ve seen the parents who linger at drop-off time, torn by their desire to do what they’ve been taught is right, and their desire to rush over and comfort their children. We know parents who won’t leave their kid with a babysitter. And we know how most of them are labeled: overprotective parents. The overwhelming majority of parents believe what convetional wisom has told them. Parents who do not buy into it are seen in a negative light. It can be hard to stand up to that kind of judgement, especially when it’s coming from educators and “experts”.
So we ignore our own inner wisdom, the instinct we all have when we hear our child sobbing for us not to leave: to run back, scoop that child up and comfort her. We turn away, with a cheerful, “I’ll be back soon, honey. I know you’ll have a good time!” surreptitiously wiping away our own tears as soon as we’re out of sight. We allow our hearts to break a little each time, shoring ourselves up with the belief that we are doing what’s best. But is it?
The Unschooler Approach…
Talk to radical unschooling parents who didn’t push their kids into separating before they were ready, and you’ll often find those kids turned out just fine. Children learn to walk, talk, wean, and stay dry through the night at their own individual pace. Some will master these skills sooner than others, and yes, some will need some extra help along the way. But eventually, they all get there.
Similarly, children develop their sense of independence at their own pace. Research shows that a child first must be “securely attached” to a parent. Secure attachment means a child is totally confident in his connection with his parents. The securely attached child will then experience – on an instinctual level- the need for independent exploration. When left to nature, this works out beautifully. Meddling with it because we no longer believe it works causes unnecessary heartache at best, and erodes the trust between parents and children. At its worst, it can actually truamatize a child so badly that we produce exactly what we were trying to avoid: a child who is terrified of leaving us.