This is really embarrassing but it’s time to put it out there:
I just quit sucking my thumb last year.
Okay, not really, but let’s just say that I was a thumb sucker until way, way, WAY past the normal window for that behavior. I’m mentioning this because today we are tackling myth number three in this series about extended breastfeeding and my childhood experiences will be taking center stage. Just wanted you to know how the story ends. Or actually, how it didn’t end for a long, long time ; – ) Shall we jump in?
Myth #3: Extended Breastfeeding Will Make Your Child Uber-Clingy
Before becoming a mother I read The Nanny Diaries, which is both a sad and hilarious account of our cultural obsession with getting our kids “ahead.” It really brings to light the question of whether promoting independence to give our kids an edge is a healthy priority. Setting that aside for now, I’d like to ask four questions:
- Does pushing our kids toward independence make them more self-confident? More successful?
- Will kids that are weaned early engage the world in a more secure way and become more productive, successful members of society? On the other hand, will kids that are breastfed into toddlerhood be socially awkward, unproductive members of society?
No, maybe, no and no.
Breastfeeding & Independence: Is it Either/Or?
Unlike Myth#1 and #2, there is some actual research on this subject. Dr. Jack Newman recently wrote an excellent article called Breastfeeding a Toddler: Why on Earth? As a consultant with UNICEF for the Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative in Africa who has also published several articles regarding breastfeeding in Scientific American, he’s considered by many to be an authority on the subject. Here’s an excerpt:
But I want my baby to become independent.
And breastfeeding makes the toddler dependent? Don’t believe it. The child who breastfeeds until he weans himself (usually from 2 to 4 years), is generally more independent, and, perhaps, more importantly, more secure in his independence. He has received comfort and security from the breast, until he is ready to make the step himself to stop. And when he makes that step himself, he knows he has achieved something, he knows he has moved ahead. It is a milestone in his life.
Often we push children to become “independent” too quickly. To sleep alone too soon, to wean from the breast too soon, to do without their parents too soon, to do everything too soon. Don’t push and the child will become independent soon enough. What’s the rush? Soon they will be leaving home. You want them to leave home at 14? If a need is met, it goes away. If a need is unmet (such as the need to breastfeed and be close to mom), it remains a need well into childhood and even the teenage years.
Of course, breastfeeding can, in some situations, be used to foster an overdependent relationship. But so can food and toilet training. The problem is not the breastfeeding. This is another issue.
So, the answer to question number one, do children that are weaned before the typical world average of 2-4 have greater security and self-confidence, is NO.
Does Independence = Success?
I am always amazed by what parents are proud of. Admittedly, I have been proud of some pretty silly things with Katie. Like when she was teeny tiny and let out a huge burp I thought it was awesome. When I visit with other moms they are always proud of the milestones. Is he eating solids yet? Is she sleeping through the night? When did he start walking? Most people seem to think that reaching these milestones early is a good omen that their child will be successful. But is that really true?
Question number two, whether children encouraged towards independence are more successful, is difficult to answer. You see, I hope to raise my children with the concept of freedom, but not necessarily the popular ideal of independence.
Independence, as it is represented in our culture, typically implies a separation from others . . . a sense of being self-sufficient. Which honestly, is nothing more than a pipe dream. When we focus on independence as a goal we downplay our need for one another . . . our needs for relationship, community, and survival. What we need to be teaching our children is how to be interdependent and still remain free.
Here’s what I mean: Remember how Dr. Newman said a satisfied need goes away but if it is unmet it can carry on into the teenage years? Well, that was me. When I was six weeks old my dad insisted that I be initiated into the world of independence by being dropped off at a daycare center. (This was not based out of a financial need in our family, it was simply a preference.)
Without my mom there to breastfeed me I quickly found my thumb. When my mom weaned me at a year old (she’d never heard of anything different), my parents divorced and I had to pack up and go to a new house, my thumb and my yellow blankie got me through it.
It’s hard to overstate what an insecure child I was. I don’t mean I didn’t like myself, I mean I felt disconnected from others and that terrified me. The world was a big, scary place and most of the time, I felt alone. When I entered school things only got worse. I begged to stay home, faked illnesses, did whatever I could to prevent separation from my mom.
In every area that I was forced into independence I became anxious and clingy. As I got older and continued to feel the ache of those unmet needs I grew increasingly resentful. Then angry. And THEN I learned independence.
The people I needed most in life left so many needs unmet that I didn’t feel I could trust them. I didn’t want to need them, and eventually I convinced myself I didn’t need anyone. By the time I got to college my nickname was Femi-Nazi. It’s true! When Daddypotamus transferred to my college and asked some of the guys about me they told him, “Don’t even bother. That girl is FIERCE.” And they were right.
But you know what? The accelerated independence program had worked in one respect. I was successful. Seventy-five percent of my tuition was being paid by scholarship, I was in a program for intellectually gifted students, and my GPA was, well . . . good. I drove a nice car, blah blah blah. Success. You know why? Early childhood had not taught me to cherish and nurture the interests and needs of others. How could it have when my needs and interests were mostly cast aside? My childhood taught me that if I needed something from people I was going to have to become powerful enough to take it by force, because no one was going to give a crap otherwise. That’s where my will to succeed came from. That’s where I think it comes from for many people in America.
While many parents and teachers may point to external successes as a sign that pushing the independence issue is good for kids, I would encourage more of a wait and see approach. I looked successful on the outside but I was falling apart within. If I hadn’t met Daddypotamus and began a very painful but healing journey with him I don’t know where I would be. But I can tell you it would not be good.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against many of the things parents think of when they hope their children will become successful. I pray that my own children will find fulfilling careers and earn a good income. But my goal is that they will find their calling by recognizing how they can best contribute to the world, not control or exploit it. And I do this by intentionally cultivating a focus on our interconnectedness without veering over in to co-dependence.
Someday my daughter may be almost successful. Maybe she will be an up and coming fashion designer that gets offered a shot at her own line. I can almost imagine it. Millions of dollars right there at her twenty-something year old fingertips. And then she learns her clothes will be made in India. In sweatshops filled with malnourished five year-old children that work 12 hours a day.
And she walks away from the deal. The opportunity of a lifetime.
I can almost see her, intrepid as she will most certainly be, finding another way to fulfill her dream without sacrificing the lives of people she’s never met and would never have had to answer to.
Nothing would make me more proud than a decision like that. Some people may think it’s a shame that she “almost” made something of herself. But you know what? I think those are the kinds of cultural values that gave us Enron.
I want Katie to recognize that we are all interconnected, that we need each other, and that when we exploit others we destroy ourselves. I want her childhood to be filled with experiences in which her needs are met deeply, because someday she will be a reservoir of hope in a way I have not yet begun to imagine. Whether it’s breastfeeding, co-sleeping or going to the nursery with her, that’s what I’m shooting for.
My last thought on the subject is this: I am not saying that extended breastfeeding is the only way to raise a connected, compassionate child. That is just ridiculous. Some of my best friends only bf to a year and their kids are awesome. This is just one of the tools I have chosen because it’s absence in my life profoundly affected me.
This is me, a reformed dominator, trying to make good on my life ; – )
If you’re still reading I am simply amazed. Thank you!