Why We May Hold Our Children Too Tight
There are two motives that cause coParents to hold their children too tight and close. The first is selfish and primitive and destructive.
No one likes to share their toys. We teach toddlers to take turns, to wait in line, and to share because that’s how living together works. At age three, it’s easy to mistake the blue shovel in the sandbox or the baby doll with the blond hair as “mine, mine, mine,” which, as any preschool teacher will testify, is certainly sufficient reason to kick all who dare come close.
By middle school, most of us are fairly well socialized. We learn that if we want to fit in, we need to let the other kids have a turn. We practice sharing and gift giving and begin to understand loss. A favorite gadget is misplaced. A treasured belonging is stolen. A pet dies. A best friend moves far away. Each of these moments is a tragedy marked by tears or rage or grief. A parent’s job is sometimes to patch the wound, but more often simply to help the child manage the pain. To cope with letting go.
But then high school and hormones complicate the process. After ten or twelve or fourteen years of practice, most kids are pretty good at letting go. Sharing and taking turns. Until biology interrupts with its visible and audible evidence of puberty. Breasts, zits and cracking voices reignite the primitive need for exclusive ownership, only now it’s not about the blue shovel. It’s about finding a partner.
Dating is about marking your territory, however briefly. It’s about posting a “no trespassing” sign on another human being. Dating is about not sharing until one partner lets the other go.
Dating, like taking the training wheels off the bike, inevitably leads to getting hurt. Rejection, humiliation, and long, swooning days of poor-me spent in candlelit rooms listening to self-indulgent music can be so much more diffcult than skinned knees and scraped palms.
Just like learning to ride a two-wheeler, dating is practice. Holding tight and letting go. Until you hold tight and swear to never let go. Marriage is the real deal. It’s a legally sanctioned, church-endorsed, publicly witnessed promise not to share. Long ago, marriage was a form of ownership. The man owned the wife and the children just like cows and horses. Conscience and culture have since made matrimony into something a bit more equitable, but no less exclusive.
Enter Bouncing Baby Billy, stage left.
The hormones associated with pregnancy and childbirth (for men and women both) induce nesting. A biological drive to build the protective walls around family high and strong. To accumulate stuff the way a bear eats in advance of a long winter’s hibernation. Today it means spending recklessly on tiny, frilly, hypoallergenic outfits and wireless HD cloud-based monitors and lots of brightly colored, expert-endorsed plastic manipulables. One way or another, the message is the same: mine, mine, mine.
The new baby belongs to Mom and Dad (or Mom and Mom, or Dad and Dad, or either one alone without a partner) the same way the blue shovel belonged to the four-year-old. Both are precious. Neither is actually owned.
Sometimes, some parents can’t let go. These parents mistake the child as a thing to be owned. Mom (or Dad) holds Bouncing Baby Billy and won’t let go. The roles are reversed. She needs him for her sense of well-being. As Billy grows, Mom’s clinginess becomes first over-protectiveness and then pathological. She doesn’t send Billy to preschool. Okay. Plenty of children don’t go to preschool. Then she won’t let him go to kindergarten. Or on playdates. She insists on homeschooling not because she finds the local schools lacking, not due to a religious conviction, not because he has a terrible illness, but because she needs him close by for her sake. She can’t let go.
Billy is taught that he is Mommy’s helper—her friend or partner or nurse. That leaving her could mean losing her. If he were away, she might drink or drug or die. For this child, the training wheels never come off. At conception he was physically a part of his mother and by age five or, left unchecked, long into adulthood, he is still just as completely a part of her.
This is the first of two motives that drives some parents to hold their children tight. An adult’s primitive and unhealthy need to feel needed thrust upon a child. A selfish drive that enlists a son or daughter to serve the parent’s needs, where a healthy parent’s job is to serve the child’s needs.
Excerpt from Holding Tight, Letting Go: Raising Healthy Kids in Anxious Times. By Benjamin D. Garber, Ph.D. Unhooked Books, High Conflict Institute Press.