The Nature of Dependency
I recently spoke to a friend who had her first baby six months
ago. She told me that she was going to start her totally breastfed
baby on a bottle so that she could get out more. What I really
sensed was that she believed she had to teach her baby to be more
independent, that perhaps his dependency was her fault. I realized
that she shared the misconception common among new parents that
independence is something that can be taught. Rather,
independence is something that unfolds out of the nature of the
child after he or she has had an opportunity to experience and
We have a cultural bias toward dependency, toward any emotion or behavior that indicates weakness, and this is nowhere more tragically evident than in the way we push our children beyond their inner limits and timetables. We establish outside standards as more important than inner experience when we wean our children rather than trusting that they will wean themselves; when we insist that our children sit at the table and finish their meals rather than trusting that they will eat well if healthful food is provided on a regular basis; and when we toilet train them at an early age rather than trusting that they will learn to use the toilet when they are ready. By assuming that we as parents know what is best for our children in regard to their inner experience, and that we must show them how and when to accomplish basic human developmental tasks, we teach them that outside standards are more important and more accurate indicators than signals from within themselves.
Two recent scientific studies reflect this cultural bias against weakness and dependency in children. One study compared children who were vaccinated while in their mothers' arms with children who were vaccinated without their mothers present. Those who were vaccinated in the absence of their mothers cried less, and thus the researchers concluded that it would be better for pediatricians to discourage the presence of mothers during vaccination because children appeared to handle the shots better without them. Obviously, the researchers in this study were biased against emotional expressiveness and believed that such expressiveness in children under stress was a weakness.
My experience is just the opposite. I have noticed that my four children are wonderful when we are on trips away from home. They handle things well, get along with one another, and accept irregular sleeping and eating experiences - only to come home and fall apart. Once at home, they fight, cry, and laze around. I believe it is normal for people of all ages to hold it together while facing a stressful situation and then to let down and fall apart, if necessary, once they are in a safe environment. For a child, this safe environment is home, mother, or father. It was perfectly normal for those vaccinated children to cry under the stress of the experience, and the presence of their mothers gave them the confidence to cry. The conclusion of this study might have been that it is better to vaccinate children with their mothers present so that the children can better handle the experience.
A study conducted by Margaret Burchinal of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and reported in the February 1987 issue of Psychology Today, compared young children raised at home by their mothers with young children who had attended daycare since infancy. This study concluded that children cared for away from home "appeared" less insecure than those cared for at home. While one might argue that assessing what "appears" to be insecurity is a subjective evaluation that does not belong in a scientific study, my experience tells me that insecurity is an appropriate response. Young children are especially sensitive to new people in their environment, and this sensitivity changes as their environment changes. Each of my children, for example, related to strangers differently, and this difference was directly connected with how many people outside the home we saw. My fourth child, who has been raised knowing the many people who work on the magazine, sometimes appears more secure as a youngster than did my first child, who was raised in a more isolated, rural environment.
Those who study animal behavior will tell you that baby animals, known for their curiosity, are even more cautious than curious. Is caution to be considered insecurity? It is as though we expect our children to arise fully socialized from the womb, and do not accept that their experiences with the world, their individual personalities, and the simple passage of time are what develop socialization. (This study has been further criticized for its biases and lack of correlational evidence.)
By rejecting the expressions of "weakness" in children - behaviors that we also reject in adults - we set children at war within themselves. For one thing, we establish an arbitrary standard of behavior that purports to dictate more about what is best for them than does their own inner experience. And for another, we pass along the habit of rejecting immediate responses in favor of intellectual rationale.
I have recently begun to learn acceptance of my children's "weaker" emotions. When my first child (now 12) was a baby, I would run to her and whisk her up each time she hurt herself. My exaggerated response taught her to believe that being hurt was a terrifying experience that she could not handle. My fourth child, on the other hand, is very noisy when she gets hurt. I don't run to her or overreact; I don't try to fix things. But she screams and carries on, and I have had to train myself to just let that be. By accepting her rich emotional response, and by treating her injury without showing excessive indifference, I have found that her "extreme" emotional reaction is usually short-lived. Fully experiencing her painful reality, she is free to leave it and move on to experience other realities in the moment.
Certainly, some checking of our inner impulses is needed to live as social beings. It is through this checking that we learn such socially acceptable behavior as using a toilet, eating with a spoon, and wearing clothing. But when this checking of the inner experience by the intellect becomes moralistic rather than practical, when it becomes too extreme, or when we continually teach our children to believe that we know what is best for them, we rob the child of the essential birthright of self-regulation.
The child who grows to adulthood lacking this sense of self-regulation and distrusting his or her own inner experience may become an adult victimized by addictions. When I look around me, I see most of us struggling in one way or another with compulsive behavior - overeating, overresponsibility, smoking cigarettes, taking recreational drugs, overworking, drinking alcohol or caffeine, seeking the guru - trying in some way to find perfection outside of ourselves or to distract ourselves from the endless striving for perfection. I believe that these compulsions and addictions have their origins in the seemingly well-intended repressions of childhood. A child who is taught to exercise control using external standards learns to set up an inner duality between what is immediately experienced and what is supposed to be, and learns to believe that there is a perfect way to be. The adult who lives with this duality finds distractions and diversions that provide respite from the overzealous striving for perfection, but the diversions that may have been harmless as a child can be dangerous as an adult.
Our job as parents is to understand and honor the nature of dependency in the child. Dependency, insecurity, and weakness are natural states for the child. They are natural states for all of us at times, but for children - especially young children - they are predominant conditions. And they are outgrown, just as we grow from crawling to walking, from babbling to talking, from puberty into sexuality. As humans, we move from weakness to strength. We move from uncertainty into mastery. When we refuse to acknowledge the stages prior to mastery, we teach our children to hate and distrust their weakness, and we start them on the journey of a lifetime to reintegrate their personalities.
I cannot stress enough the importance of trusting our children, trusting them in their entirety. Accepting their weaknesses as well as their strengths, their ugly emotions as well as their beautiful ones, their disasters as well as their triumphs, their dependency as well as their independence, is to give them the gift of a whole life. And as whole beings who are not at war within themselves, they will not be at war with others.
It is the nature of the child to be dependent, and it is the nature of dependence to be outgrown. Begrudging dependency because it is not independence is like begrudging winter because it is not yet spring. Dependency blossoms into independence in its own time.
Excerpted from: The Way Back Home (Mothering Publications, 1991), p55-59. Reprinted with permission from Mothering.