The Independence Principle
The Independence Principle is the antidote to such parenting fads. I apply it in my own home, and I’ve seen my patients’ parents reap immediate benefits when they try it. They’re amazed that, in just a couple of weeks, their babies sleep through the night; their toddlers nap without them stretched alongside; their school-age children dress themselves, make breakfast, do their homework, and even resolve disputes with little parental intervention. What’s more, their kids take pride in these achievements, delighting in saying, “Look, I did it all by myself.” What greater gift could you give your child than the joy of competence?
This book will explain the whys and, more importantly, the hows of instilling independence and self-reliance. The time to lay the groundwork for future accomplishment is right from the start, in the years from birth to age six, when children’s brains are getting organized. Brain-based research supports this fact and also affirms the value of instilling independence and, ultimately, self-reliance in your child.
In the 2011 book Welcome to Your Child’s Brain, neuroscientists Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang review the latest research to create a fascinating portrait of the developing mind. In essence, many of our essential early learned tasks—facial and speech recognition, language acquisition, the ability to walk, and so on—are hard wired. They happen automatically as babies simply exist in their environment. Parental attention can help the process along, and I encourage parents to smile at their babies and talk to them in sweet voices, but it’s amazing how much occurs without intervention.
For example, newborns quickly show a preference for their native language and can distinguish it from other sounds, like the barking of the family dog. This discrimination occurs because genes map out basic brain connections, and the roads are filled in when the child interacts with his environment.
While the brain, more than parents, governs the language-learning process, the more parents talk and respond to a baby, the richer his brain maps become. Parents don’t impose language on a child but stimulate his development through verbal connection, which engages the brain’s natural language mechanisms.
The same applies to sleep. We all have internal clocks, referred to as circadian rhythms. When cued by light and darkness, these internal clocks time the release of hormones (the body’s messengers) that determine our cycles of hunger, fatigue, and alertness. In the womb, a baby’s circadian rhythms are regulated by his mother’s. But from birth, as any new parent can attest, that clock goes seemingly haywire and days and nights get confused. Newborns sleep up to sixteen hours per day, but, initially, seem to be awake more at night than during the day.
By around three months old, the child’s brain is primed for regulation, though not quite ready to embrace the night-and-day cycle. That’s when parents can make a difference. As with language, they can’t impose sleep, but if they’re alert to the onset of drowsiness, they can capitalize on the brain’s natural sleep mechanism by quickly putting the child to bed. Regular feeding times can make drowsy periods somewhat more predictable and help the infant brain sort out time patterns. Similarly, establishing a bedtime ritual can cue infants that each day is divided into intervals, filling in another brain map.7
The key is neither the Tiger Parent’s coercion nor the strict controls and schedules that Druckerman credits with civilizing French babies. As Aamodt and Wang wrote in the New York Times, “Fortunately for American parents, psychologists find that children can learn self-control without externally imposed pressure. . . . The key is to harness the child’s own drives for play, social interaction, and other rewards. Enjoyable activities elicit dopamine release to enhance learning, while reducing the secretion of stress hormones, which can impede learning and increase anxiety, sometimes for years.”8
Excerpted from Raising a Self-Reliant Child by Dr. Alanna Levine. Copyright © 2013 by Dr. Alanna Levine. Excerpted by permission of Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.