Independence and Isolation

We took bikes down to the park on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, an I was surprised when my younger son wanted me to keep a hand on his back. He’s been able to keep his balance for over a year, has ridden by himself many times, and is, in general, a very competent independent little person. Why would he want a mother’s hand on his back when he could do it all by himself?

As I listened to my questions, I started hearing them in a different way. Why would someone ask for support when they didn’t absolutely require it? Why would anyone want another person’s hand when they could go off all by themselves? Why would anyone choose human contact over independence? It got me started wondering again about a question that’s long been in my mind. Do we push our children too fast, too relentlessly, toward independence? IT seems that all our values are geared in that direction.

We take such pride in our children’s independence. The baby can amuse herself. He can sleep through the night by himself. She can walk by herself. He can get to school by himself. True, there is a very natural urge on the part of a young person to master new skills, to become able to do things they couldn’t do before. But I wonder how much we let this budding competence flower in its own good time, and how much we push for the earliest possible bloom.

Sometimes a child is clearly striving for mastery in some area and wants our help getting there. But how often do we push for independence because it would b convenient for us? Or because the child down the block has already become independent in that area and we don’t want our child to bethought of as slow? Or because we’re afraid other people will think that we protect our children too much?

This seems to be a particular issue for little boys. No one wants to be accused of raising a “Mama’s boy.” We’re supposed to push them out on their own, throw them in the water to sink or swim, train them to go it alone.

The messages are pervasive, but I’m not convinced. IT doesn’t seem likely that a childhood of training for lonely independence will result in a fulfilled, happy life, rich in human contact. (I was certainly trained that way, and one of the greatest struggles of my adult life is finding my way back to real contact with other human beings.)

We guess is that we might do better to stay close as long as we can. This doesn’t mean using them to meet some deep unmet need of our own--which can be very hard on children. Rather, it means offering them lots of warm human contact, inviting them towards us rather than pushing them away.

It means holding our little babies--though we can probably never figure out how to do it as much as they would choose. It means keeping a lap available to our boys as well as our girls, as they grow older. (I remember how startled I was at first seeing a fifteen-year-old boy in his father’s lap. But when I recovered from the initial shock, I saw a touching picture, a wonderful contrast to the stereotype of teenage isolation.

It means noticing when our children want us, remembering that sometimes a request for help is really a request for human contact. It means being willing to stay close to our six-year-old bikers sometimes, just for closeness’ sake--even though we both know that they could do it all by themselves.