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Independent Child: How to Foster Healthy Development

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Vanessa Lapointe, parenting expert and registered psychologist, about the topic of separation anxiety. In the first part of our interview, we discuss the independent child — where true independence comes from and how we can best nurture it. 

Dr. Vanessa has been supporting families and children for more than fifteen years. She’s the author of Discipline without Damage: How to get your kids to behave without messing them up and Parenting Right From The Start: Laying a Healthy Foundation in the Baby and Toddler years (afflinks).

Make sure to watch the full interview about separation anxiety and the independent child here:

Welcome to today’s segment on the independent child.

Hello there. I am Sarah with Dandelion Seeds Positive Parenting, and today I am so excited to talk to my friend, who is — I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say — a golden goddess of good parenting.

I am such a fan of this lady and I want you to know her, too.

Dr. Vanessa Lapointe, thank you so much for talking with me today.

Dr. Vanessa Lapointe:

Thank you for having me on. This is a really, really cool thing to be doing with you.

Watch this segment of Dr. Vanessa Lapointe discussing the independent child here.

Sarah of Dandelion Seeds Positive Parenting: 

I’m so excited. Well, today’s topic is separation anxiety in the context of healthy attachment and growing an independent child. 

Diving right into this topic, let’s dispel one of the biggest myths that I have heard in all of my parenting circles, which is “An independent child should start showing this independence basically from the time we first hold them. A healthy baby, a healthy young child, is the one who doesn’t really need his or her big person in their life all that much.”

Can you talk a little bit about the validity of that and what healthy secure attachment actually is? 

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Dr. Vanessa Lapointe on raising an independent child:

Yeah. So, that idea of having an independent child — that seems to mean you’re winning, and you’ve nailed this parenting thing.

If your kid’s independence comes from a surface look at who children are, and what it is that they need, and that surface look is that this kid is functioning independently, which then we say is functioning — .well, that’s really convenient.

It means I don’t have to worry that they’re not on track. I don’t have to worry that I’ve done anything wrong. I just get to be like, “Cool. Look at my independent child.”

The problem is that independence is not the natural state of the human child.

The human child is born into the world very deeply dependent — so deeply dependent that from an intuitive space and place, they know from the moment they arrive and get their little eyes open for the first time, and they start blearily looking around (because they actually can’t see very well), they know to find your eyes.

Because they know already, from moments old, you are their best bet. And without you, they’re hooped.

So kids know. They come out looking for us because they know that dependence is the natural stance of the human child. 

We have a really curious pop culture around parenting that has sprung up touting the virtues of the independent child because it’s kind of convenient for the grown-ups, but it isn’t actually the need of the child. 

And when we can allow our children to deeply depend on us, to really lean into the embrace of our care, literally and figuratively, then what happens is that — out of the gift of deep dependence — emerges true independence. – Dr. Vanessa Lapointe on the independent child

I have a child psychology clinic where I have about 10 colleagues that work with me. Our practice is full of 15-, 16-, 17-year-old young people whose parents come in and say all the time,”My kid doesn’t care about school. I can’t get them to care about it. My kid doesn’t care about our family. My kid doesn’t care about helping out. My kid doesn’t care about following the rules.” 

I always know beyond a shadow of a doubt that that apparent lack of caring began when the child was forced into independence before the heart and the soul of the child were actually developmentally ready for that.

And so when we give them the opportunity to lean in, then what happens, it’s like this potentiality is building, building, building, building, building, and they emerge, right?

And we all know when it’s going exquisitely well, you’ll have a two-year-old in front of you and you’ll go into you know, swoop and scoop them up and carry them somewhere and they will plant their hands on their hips and get really indignant with you and they’ll say to you and their toddler big voice, “ME DO SELF!” 

And you’re like, that’s right. You’re emerging. So that’s what it is.

We want them to be deeply dependent because that’s how you get to true independence. 

When you force the facade, the behavioral facade, of independence too early in life, you actually perpetually render the child immature. – Dr. Vanessa Lapointe on the independent child

Sarah of Dandelion Seeds Positive Parenting:

I love everything you just said because it goes directly against so many of the lies that we are told as parents. I know how many times I was told, “What are you doing picking up that baby? She needs to learn to self-soothe!” 

And lo and behold, we learned that developmentally, self-soothing is one of the biggest myths on the planet.

Dr. Vanessa Lapointe on the independent child:

That’s right. Yeah.

Sarah of Dandelion Seeds Positive Parenting:

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I love the toddler reference you made because we do start to hear these big voices emerge in them. All of a sudden, there is that magical moment where they say or do something and it might not be “I’m ready for Grandma to take me off to the park without you, Mama or Daddy or whoever,” but it might be, you know, “I am going to be the one to try to cut my own uncuttable peas on my plate.” I am going to the death over these peas, and okay.

So I love that you referenced toddlers because that is oftentimes the first time we see the emergence of self.

Dr. Vanessa Lapointe on the independent child:

That’s right.

And in the process of individuation, which is what we all want for our children, we just want to trust in nature’s timeline, rather than the world’s forced timeline.

And in that process of individuation, it’s somewhere around 24 months of age where the human child realizes for the very first time that they are in fact a separate being from you. Up to that point, they think that you and them, as the primary attachment figure, are one in the same.

And so it also is at that point where you’ll see the first spike in the general population of kids displaying this separation anxiety. And how brilliant is that? 

Might you be a little freaked out if like your entire time on this planet you actually thought you were one in the same as another person, and then you’ve realized you’re not. You’re like, “Hold on a second. I’m really struggling with this here.”

It’s a beautiful thing for us to honor the truth of who our children are and to really come alongside child development rather than fight against it. – Dr. Vanessa Lapointe on the independent child

Sarah of Dandelion Seeds Positive Parenting:

Yeah, for sure. Let’s talk a little bit about what we as parents and caregivers can do to let our children grow naturally, as you mentioned, and foster a sense of security, rather than separation anxiety and all of the ways that insecurity can manifest for the child who has been forced to do things independently too soon. What really grows an independent child?

Dr. Vanessa Lapointe on the independent child:

Yeah. I love this quote from Kitty France, which is, “You are not managing an inconvenience. You are raising a human being.” 

It’s the idea that we, as parents, are going to be swimming upstream a little

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bit because, even as you were alluding to earlier, we have a lot of voices in our ears, you know about how we’re supposed to do this and there can be a lot of pressure.

I tell parents all the time — listen, I was like a graduate student in the field of child development and psychology for 13 years and had a baby and had all those same voices in my ears, and actually questioned whether I was on the right path or not. 

I found it really challenging to hang on to my inner wisdom and all of my acquired knowledge about all of that because the pressure of swimming upstream is so significant.

So when we’re working to come alongside children, especially children for whom there’s maybe been a few bubbles along the way as far as allowing that deep lean in and the deep dependence, understand that first and foremost — 

You are here in the service of your child. You are not here in the service of the world.  – Dr. Vanessa Lapointe on the independent child

And what a wonderful thing for your own growth as a human being, and for sure for the growth of your child, for you to step in to the greatness of who you are, and stand solid and certain not against the world, because if you go against the world, you will feel like you’re drinking poison all the time.

So you step in not against the world, but rather, for your child; for yourself. And when you can really get that that’s your job as a parent, to step in with swagger, with conviction, with power, with grace, and you determine the path that you shall chart for your child to be able to move through development without any unnecessary obstacles in the way.

And then you get busy with figuring out how you can fill up their connection cups, as sort of just a way of going about your regular day. 

And in the separations that cannot be avoided, how do you be with your child when you cannot be with your child? 

So it’s about front loading and then also coming alongside our kids to be with them even while we’re apart.

Sarah of Dandelion Seeds Positive Parenting

I love all of that. And what you just said, in a nutshell for me, is it’s okay, we have permission to emotionally and physically show up for our children when they need us; we don’t “make” the independent child by forcing it. 

This isn’t some rule book that says you need to step away and let your kids figure it out because that’s what independence comes from.

You have turned that around 180 degrees and you have said show up, be there, connect — and that’s part of that bucket filling process that enables the future separations, doesn’t it?

Dr. Vanessa Lapointe on the independent child:

Yeah, and not only do we have permission, but we be writing our own rulebook.

Yes. Because I’ll tell you what, I wrote a rule book for my first son, figuratively speaking, and it was a completely different rule book for my second son, because they’re their own unique little people who needed very different environments and very different kinds of ways of going and being and doing. 

And so, it’s sort of like, I always find I’m kind of stepping in with this like but it’s kind of that like, “I’m going to tell you how this is going to go because I’m this child’s mother or father and ain’t nobody know my kid like I know my kid, so I’m going to let you know how this is going to go.” 

It’s that inner confidence that can be such a challenge.

Sarah of Dandelion Seeds Positive Parenting:

Yeah, absolutely. I love the idea of writing your own book. 

That really is such a different mindset from, “Hey, what do I do? Tell me world, tell me society,” because society doesn’t know your kid at all. You do.

Dr. Vanessa Lapointe on the independent child:

That’s right. Love that.

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You may also like this information-packed mini-course: Setting and Enforcing Healthy Boundaries with Kids

Make sure to watch the full interview about separation anxiety and the independent child here:

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