Children can learn to be independent people, but only if we let them

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images 

My home office is a mishmash of dog-eared magazines and board books, scribbled-in notebooks and copies of Hello magazine. There is a Bumbo chair secreted behind my reading chair, a toy drum next to my carefully lined-up slippers. On my desk: a pile of marked-up pages from my book manuscript, pay stubs that have yet to be filed away and my daughter's Munchkin Snack Catcher. On a good day, Em sits quietly in her own reading chair, flipping through "Wild" or "Chicka Chicka Boom Boom," or she will toddle about the living room playing with her maracas and puzzles. On more challenging days, she thrusts a book into my hands and begs me to read to her, and then cries when I say that I can't, not right this moment. And then my heart dissolves and slithers into the pit of my stomach, and I feel so much guilt over the fact that I have work to do when she needs me.

As a work-at-home-mum, I feel acutely the pull between success as a writer and success as a mother. It doesn't seem fair that I should have to forfeit the career I love because I am a mum. At the same time, it doesn't seem fair that I can't spend hours with Em, reading book after book, blowing bubbles in the back yard, helping her learn her letters and numbers and colours. In trying to negotiate this balance, it seems that everything I do suffers.

According to Pew Research Center data, women are usually the ones who alter their schedules and make compromises to take care of their children and family. One 2013 survey in particular showed that mothers were much more likely than fathers to experience an adverse impact on their career because of family-related responsibilities. And while asking for help is all well and good, additional survey results paint a picture in which women feel cultural pressure to be the default parent, shunting their careers aside in service of their children. All of which makes it difficult to build a career when my time would so obviously be better spent micromanaging my daughter's developmental progress via structured playtime and educational activities.

At the same time, I've recently noticed push-back against these vaunted cultural ideals. Julie Lythcott-Haims, a former dean at Stanford University, wrote "How to Raise an Adult," criticising our tendency toward over-parenting. She says it only causes children to grow into adulthood without the ability to negotiate life independently.

Anthropologist David Lancy echoes this in his work, writing that children learn best without much adult direction and when they are allowed to acquire new knowledge at their own pace. "There's a heightened sense of responsibility for keeping our children entertained and busy and learning at all times," said Lancy in an interview, referencing a study in which a comparison was made between time spent on "developmental child care" in the 1960s and in the 2000s. "But there's no evidence children demand more care today than they did 50 years ago."

Similarly, researchers in Maryland -- curious about the trends in intensive mothering - delved into whether the amount of time mothers spend with their children actually matters. They found that the time mothers spend engaged with and available to their children doesn't have a significant effect on their child's future behaviour, emotions or academic performance. Could it be possible that when I leave my child to her own devices, I am not holding her back but am instead enabling her to engage in self-directed learning?

All signs point to maybe, but what is she learning? According to Lancy, children learn independently when they have the chance to observe their elders. This opportunity to study their parents' behaviour eventually leads them to imitate their parents, in turn allowing them to develop critical life skills. But what kind of example do I set for my daughter - and what skills can she learn - when what she sees me doing 99 percent of the time takes place in front of the impassive glow of my computer screen?

Lancy recommends that we, as parents, ask ourselves how we can make what we do more visible to our children, in turn giving them more opportunities to replicate what they're seeing. And while the computer may not be the best place to start, for WAHMs, it can be the place that makes the most sense.

"It's definitely a challenge," Lancy said. "It's very, very difficult to nurture that flame of autonomous learning. I think it's possible parents can tempt their children with various intellectual pursuits that can be satisfied through books and the internet so they have meaningful 'work' to do on the computer just like mummy. But that takes cultivation."

In the meantime, I've observed no signs that my daughter has been developmentally hindered by my embrace of what, for me, is an incredibly fulfilling career. Despite my screen time, she has managed to learn from me that books are worth spending the majority of one's time with, that singing and dancing are pure fun if you do it without inhibition, and that the best part of making pudding is licking the whisk. She has also figured out how to use keys, crayons and mobile phones, and is well on her way to becoming an independent woman who can skillfully filch my wallet, steal my car and go on a book-buying spree at our local independent bookshop.

I'm curious to find out what she'll choose to learn from me - and from others - as she grows older. In the meantime, all I can do is continue to find that balance between active engagement and suitable distance.

Washington Post