Good-byes, separation and re-connections are fraught with some of parenting’s more challenging moments. In this season of summer-camps, not to mention drum-rolls of off to college time for some high-school grads, it seems like a good time to give some thought to the patterns of hello and good-bye.
In a nut-shell, we are born still attached to our mother by a cord, but we don’t understand anything but symbiotic and floating oneness. We encounter the rude awakening of hunger, hot and cold, fear, rage and being soothed—and thus we learn to emotionally attach and depend (in contrast to the former state of non-conscious attachment). We develop a basic trust that we will be fed, soothed and protected… or we do not. If not, we may become despondent and depressed from a very early age. In fact, some of the saddest images I have ever seen are photographs of orphans in the newly “improved” clean and orderly orphanages of the new scientific age where kids were no longer subject to disease the way they were in the “dirty” orphanages that preceded them, but they withered and failed to thrive without touch.
Basic trust is not specific to the mother, but to whatever village is raising the child. Around seven months, the child that formerly could be passed happily around the Rose Bowl suddenly realizes that not everyone is mom. This is the birth of “stranger anxiety” and it is actually a healthy and normal stage in development; it furthers the mother-child bond and sets the stage for deep and intimate relationships. An indifferent kid who will still go to anyone in this stage may be a red flag for unhealthy attachment later on (think of the abused child who has no healthy boundaries, is hungry for any attention and is thus vulnerable to potential victimizers).
Through the navigating of the stage of bonding with and trusting with a few specific people (mom, dad, nanny, grand-parents) a child develops secure attachments and becomes ready for a wider sort of attaching that happens in pre-school and then school proper. The dance of exploring the play-ground and then running back to mom’s or dad’s leg to touch base is the basic paradigm of learning to trust the world. A child is ideally given the freedom to explore, and to return without rejection, guilt or indifference to the parents’ knees, and this instills a map in the child’s mind of venturing forth and successful rapprochement.
If we keep these dynamics in mind as our kids go off to unfamiliar day-camps, sleep-away camps, weeks abroad and college it may help us anticipate problems and better understand underlying fears. Firstly, we tend to regress under stress, so we might ask ourselves not how old is our child chronologically, but how old are they feeling to us developmentally? We want to provide our best equivalent of a knee to cling to, or a lap to curl up in rather than a shame-blast about how they need to toughen up. We develop independence through healthy and secure dependency.
Developmental leaps often are preceded by a regression, much the way we might take two steps back to get a running start to jump over a stream. Another common factor to keep in mind is that children will often provoke fights with us before they are about to separate from us (lovers and spouses are not immune from this pattern as well). The thinking is that it’s easier to let go of someone who is devalued rather than highly valued, and the unindividuated good-bye is therefore the angry good-bye. The more deeply and compassionately we understand this, the less we will retaliate or take it personally when our kids reject us and provoke us just as we are dreading (and looking forward to) the separation. Our own unconscious aggression can also be stirred up, with maudlin mental scenes of tragedy that only deepen our despair when our kids appear to be “mean to us.”
The flip side of this dynamic is the child returning from a separation (be it a day at preschool or a summer at camp); we’ve heard nothing but all about how great they did, and then they turn around upon their return and are little demons. This may well be a reflection on how they held everything together, and stuffed their fear and anger inside, and once they get safely home they unpack their emotional baggage like an explosive bout of diarrhea. Best parenting advice for big good-byes and hellos: Get a large sturdy mental bowl to put your child’s fear and rage into, wear an imagined raincoat and hat, and think about channeling the love of the ancestors—be it grandma or Mary Poppins.
So, let’s dedicate today to greater mindfulness about hellos and good-byes in the service of our children and all our collective kids.