The week my son Lorenzo turned three he put his shoes on by himself, opened the front with a “Ciao”, and said he was going to catch the bus to daycare alone.

That same day, he had woken up wanting to be held and played at being a baby who needed to breastfeed.

This pull between independence and the fear of growing up is typical of his age and of our relationship. It happens to me too. There are days I just can’t wait for him to be ready to play by himself so that I can sit in a corner and enjoy a book. But then I also want to hug him tight and make sure I kiss his chubby cheeks as much as I can before they stop being so baby-like.

In childhood development, this tug between a desire and fear of independence often results in meltdowns, as I discussed with Andrea Diaz Stransky last year. “Meltdowns are not necessarily a bad thing. Children experience ambivalence and they don’t have the language to articulate this very complex feeling that they’re experiencing,” Diaz Stransky told me.

Remembering her words, I became more aware of what Lorenzo was going through and tried to be extra patient with his ups and downs last week. At his birthday gathering, after blowing out the candles in front of other children from his daycare, he wanted me to hold him again. He was telling everyone he was three years old, but he wanted to know from me that I would still hold him, no matter what.

Independence Is Also a Matter of Geography

Toddlers seem to have certain clarity about what they want and don’t want and what they like and don’t like. They are ready to scream out loud for hours on end to get the object of their desire. This is not necessarily a bad thing: there are positives to understanding what you want and doing something for your own benefit, and not just being “nice” to others.

When I started thinking about independence, I asked myself if I really understood what it meant. So I went back to the dictionary: “Freedom from outside control or support.” While I don’t wish for outside control, I definitely wish for outside support, and I hope my child will be able to count on that too.

I found an interesting study that indicates that more independence can become a predictor for better health in the United States, a country that pushes towards a more individualistic approach, while in Japan the lack of strained relationships are correlated to better health. The theory is that Japan values interdependence more, hence individuals feel more stress when their relationships are strained.

It’s Nice to Be Rude — Sometimes

My Italian culture mirrored Japan because it also valued family and interdependence above all. Maybe because I was also a girl, I was raised to please and make sure I would not “fare una brutta figura”, which means “make a bad impression” but also “look bad”. As a child, I was conditioned to put what others thought of me first and foremost. Looking back, I wish I had learnt how to understand what I wanted for myself, not what others wanted from me.

There are some drawbacks, maybe. Rude behaviour may be seen as a bad thing in children, as U.S. science and parenting journalist Melinda Wenner Moyer explains in this article, telling her real life story of how her own child spoke rudely to his grandfather during a Thanksgiving gathering. Wenner Moyer also explains that a child that feels secure is one that will feel confident to show their true self. Without being worried about “a brutta figura”.

As with everything, the ideal would be a middle ground. To make sure that your toddler feels safe enough to say goodbye and get on a bus to go to school (and to tell their grandparent they want their full attention), while also knowing that they can ask for a hug (and receive one) if they need extra support that day.

What I’ve been reading

A short read that I’m partial to. Dottoré is a series written by Mariateresa Fichele, a psychiatrist in Naples, my hometown, and translated by me for Worldcrunch. Last week’s edition was particularly close to my heart because Fichele talks about the importance of abortion rights and what role doctors and nurses can play to support the people who decide to have an abortion — beyond their religious beliefs. Dottoré is a weekly column that you can sign up to receive straight in your inbox if you are into mental health with a twist from the land of Elena Ferrante.

What I’ve been listening to

This song, Stupid, put me in a good mood. It may not seem uplifting because it essentially talks about anxiety, but there is something liberating about singing along the refrain: “I am a stupid piece of shit”. I found the song useful to humour myself and counter my bouts of self-doubt, like the one I am having this week, when I am feeling that I simply can’t write anything good. Naomi in Blue is Naomi Larsson, a journalist I briefly worked with while at The Correspondent, and I recommended another song of hers last year.

What I’ve been watching

The animated film Robin Robin, released on Netflix last year, has just been nominated for this year’s Oscars for Best Animated Short Film. Produced by Aardman Animations, the Oscar-winning British studio behind Wallace & Gromit and Shaun the Sheep, the 30-minute film tells the story of a little robin raised by a family of mice, and how she slowly figures out who she is. There are cats involved, and a magpie, as well as some nasty humans. I loved the colours and feel of it, and finding out how it had been transformed from drawings by Canadian illustrator Matthew Forsythe (I recommended his book Pokko and the Drum months ago!) into 3D puppets.

Who’s been inspiring me

Eight-year-old Dillon Helbig sneakily put his 81-page handwritten Christmas tale onto a bookshelf at his local library in the town of Boise, Idaho, during a visit with his grandmother. The librarians were happy with the finding. “Dillon’s book definitely fit all the criteria that we would look for to include a book in our collection,” the library manager, Alex Hartman, said. Over 50 people have joined the waiting list to read the manuscript, which is called The Adventures of Dillon Helbig’s Crismis, written by “Dillon Helbig His Self”. It tells the story of how Dillon was decorating his Christmas tree when the latter exploded and Dillon magically found himself back in the year 1621.

With love and care,
Irene

📣 The First 1,000 Days is edited by community member and friend, Shaun Lavelle, who worked on it in between watching many episodes of “Fireman Sam” with his nephew — an activity he’s happy for his nephew to pursue independently, at least for a few days.

Photo credits and alt-text: birds flying under blue sky, photo by Saurav Mahto on Unsplash

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2 thoughts on “Do we really want our children to be independent?

  1. On being rude.. I always model nice manners: “you are crying and screaming right now, but if you ask for it we can talk about it. You could say: mom, can we watch paw patrol please?” Most of the time this doesn’t work straight away, so next step is talking about emotions: I see you can’t calm down, what way would you calm down? Or -I’m only human- you can calm down in the hallway. When calm i explain they can ask anything, as long as they do it politely, but the answer can also be no. Even with my one year old this works fairly well. His cute questions in partly spoken and made up words are adorable. My 3 year old feels it is fair they both have to ask. And of course we ask them and each other questions (mostly) politely. And we try to talk about our own emotions in front of the kids. I could ask my husband “I feel sad because of this or that, can i have a hug?” Or: “X makes me so angry, i would like to throw things but it won’t help me. How could i solve this?” Children learn from what you do, not from what you say..
    I took most of this from a parenting app: the happy child.

    Someone online said to remember you are raising children for the long run, not just for a nice day together. Because a nice day with no whining might include an ice cream, which is fine, but not every day.

    And my sister nailed the independence thing regarding clothes: she only sees if it is weather appropriate. And her kids turn up in the most colourful (sometimes horrible) outfits, but perfectly happy. 🙂

    1. Oh Wies, I love the idea that a nice day with no whining might include an ice cream, “which is fine, but not every day”. It is very true that we need to take into account the long haul and what can be a (temporary) way to clear the mood is not necessarily the way to help our children. I remember that Tom Hosbon, the US teacher I interviewed weeks ago, said that it was important to let children experience all sorts of emotions, without distracting them from them (as long as they are not destructive or dangerous). With that in mind, long live colourful and horrible outfits too!

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