Separation 101: What Every Parent of a Preschooler Should Know

Pre-school separation is poignant--but it's also so much more

Posted Oct 05, 2010

For the last two weeks, I have been sitting on a purple bench, outside a purple room, waiting. Chatting with other parents and caregivers. Waiting. Looking through the observation window. Waiting. Sometimes feeling a little impatient. Then feeling guilty about feeling impatient. And waiting.

You see, my almost-three-year-old started nursery school this Fall. And as is the case in many thoughtful, well-run preschools across the country, we are undergoing a process called "phase-in." Every day that they go to school, my son and his classmates stay in the classroom a measured bit longer until, several weeks down the road, they are ready for the full schedule-three days a week, for three hours. Seems reasonable, if not downright indulgent, right? Any non-parent might wonder, How hard can it be?

Actually, very. For the kids, some of whom are just beyond toddlers. For their parents and caregivers, too, who might have surprisingly strong and ambivalent feelings about the toddler they knew taking the next big step and becoming a pre-schooler. Not to mention the people in charge, who have been through this before, and must shepherd us through the process, often holding not just our kids' hands, but the grown ups' hands, too.

In my case, the day often begins with me telling my son we are headed to the purple room soon, and him responding, "I might cry," or "I won't go," or "I stay here and play with my trains." My son is hedging his bets, negotiating with me and himself, trying on how this might all play out. Sure, we've read the book about the purple room, and looked at the photo of his teachers that they left when they did their home visit a week before school started. All this helps. It just doesn't help every day, every time.

"Mommy's not leavin' me," he says to himself as we cross the park. "No mommy. Don't sit on the purple bench! Come with me," he admonishes as we arrive and I prepare to take up my position. In all these moments, not just the moment when he finds his motivation and walks into the classroom, "separation," a crucial aspect of the phase-in process--not to mention child development--comes into play. Separation, it turns out, is a lot more than the sum of its parts, much more than a child walking away from a parent or caregiver for an hour or two.

Attach, then separate

It turns out that you can't think about and understand separation until you think about and understand attachment, a two-way street of coming-to-care, a suite of behaviors that unfolds between child and caregiver over time. Its currency is gazing, holding, and cooing in the earliest stages, reliable care and nurturance going forward. If all goes well, we now know, the parent or caregiver will become "a secure base" from which the toddler and young child explore the world.

Back when--say, in our parents' and grandparents' day--separation between child and parent or caregiver wasn't something we gave much thought to. We just did it. Kids went off to school or, in some cases, to work. Children of the wealthy went to boarding school, sometimes at the age of six or seven. They went to the hospital if they needed to--with few or even no visits from their parents allowed

Our concepts of parent/child relations have always informed our separation practices. Throughout the nineteenth and into the mid-twentieth century, psychologists, philosophers and other opinion-makers largely concurred that attachment--a bond between parent or caregiver and child--was a simple matter of a baby requiring food, and a mother supplying it. A baby's connection to his mother, this belief held, was little more than drive-directed gratification. As for the mother or caregiver's feelings of attachment, many believed that touch, affection, and love would "spoil" kids. And indeed, for the last several centuries, mothers were instructed to feed their babies and then put them down right away, at the risk of creating an "overly dependent, indulged" baby and child.

Anna Freud's War Children, Bowlby's Notions, and Harlow's Monkeys
By the 1930s, such theories of drive-directed child "dependency" and "spoiling" were being questioned and then dismantled by developmental psychologists like Ian Suttie and William Blaz, who asserted that the need for affection and love was primary, not just an outcropping or secondary effect of the drive for food. Social relationships, beginning with the mother/child dyad, were crucial for healthy development, these psychologists insisted.

Observing young children who were separated from their primary caregivers during World War II, Anna Freud found that, even though they may have been exposed to fewer horrors of the war, they did not fare as well as those children who remained with their parents, even in terrible circumstances. And in 1951, John Bowlby published the landmark and controversial Maternal Care and Mental Health, quickly followed by Child Care and the Growth of Love. Here he asserted that "the infant and young child should experience a warm, intimate, and continuous relationship with his mother (or permanent mother substitute) in which both find satisfaction and enjoyment." Should these needs go unmet, Bowlby argued, there could be significant and irreversible mental health consequences.

The philosophy of childcare was thus turned on its head. Far from "spoiling" children, affectionate treatment, love and cuddling and kisses, was crucial for their mental development, their happiness and health, and their ability to separate and function down the road.

Intrigued by Bowlby's work, psychologist Harry Harlow sought to prove its central tenants. By placing infant rhesus monkeys in cages with two surrogate mothers--one made of wire who offered milk, the other milkless but constructed from touchable terrycloth--Harlow determined that infants are in it for much more than the milk. The monkeys strongly preferred the terrycloth "mother" and those with only a wire one may have had full stomachs, but they also developed diarrhea and other markers of stress (follow-up studies with rat mothers and their pups found that lack of touch had negative effects including elevated cortisol levels and weakened immune systems). Harlow concluded that the absence of contact is profoundly psychologically stressful for young monkeys and, presumably, human infants as well.

Far from spoiling our infants with touch, affection and attention, these theorists asserted, we are meeting one of their most basic and crucial needs. And in failing to meet them, we put their psychological health at severe risk.

When It's Time to Let Go-and the Good that Comes of It
What's it all got to do with the purple bench outside the purple room--or wherever parents and caregivers sit anxiously each Fall as their pre-school age children get it together to walk through the door into the classroom, and hold it together for an hour or two or three apart? Before Bowlby, there was a sense that children could be removed from their parents with little consequence. Fast-forward to today, and we may have been too selective in what we took from Bowlby, et. al.

"It was unhealthy when we denied that emotions and feelings of connectedness--and actually being connected--mattered," says Elizabeth Kandall, Ph.D., a psychologist in private practice in Manhattan who also leads the "2x2" discussion group for parents of toddlers at the 14th St. Y. Now, Kandall observes, there is "an oversensitivity, almost a phobic feeling, about separateness." She notes that we currently attend to the poignancy of separation--you and me feeling those pangs on the purple bench--but in focusing on that exclusively, we are missing a big piece of the puzzle. Kandall hopes parents and caregivers might rethink separation as "a really dynamic and exciting process, something that can spur growth in the parent/child relationship." Separation, it turns out, ideally brings us closer even as it requires us to be apart.

How so, exactly? It's not simply that "they need a challenge, they need to get big and go into the world away from mommy and daddy," or that being in a schoolroom alone "toughens them up," a belief that may have been ingrained in us by a culture that places a high value of individuality and independence. No, Kandall stresses, the point is more that once the child is ready, if you separate you get a chance to get together again in a whole new way.

For example, a child who has separated and had experiences you haven't had with him or her now has something to tell you about, certainly. But he or she also knows something you don't know. "That mental separateness is a chance to enhance one another," Kandall points out. In the telling of what he did, your child amends his sense of who he is and what he is capable of. And while she's there painting and playing with playdough and listening to a story, your child is also experiencing the unfolding of time in a new way: "Daddy will be here after story time to pick me up." With that realization comes another one: "Daddy's not here but he's thinking of me and I'm thinking of him." Holding you in mind is a skill that shifts your child's concept of you, and herself, profoundly. "You become the not-here mommy, the ‘there-mommy,'" Kandall points out, and for a child who is developmentally ready, that realization spurs growth and security--which in turn paves the way for further exploration. The point of separation is not a progressive weaning into nothingness, then. It is to enhance connection, and experience it in new ways. Yes, there are plangent moments to separation, the ache of leaving your child, but there's so much more.

Whatever you do on your separation journey, experts caution, don't make the common mistake of expecting it to be a neat, straight line. "Development is messy," Dr. Kandall observes, likening it to a spiral staircase. It might seem like we're in the same place--back on the purple bench as our child clings to our leg one more time--but we are in fact at another place, a higher level. Every day we separate, and so we learn a new way to reconnect.

Coming up in Part 2: Practical Separation Tips for Parents

Further reading/sources:

Bowlby J. Child Care and the Growth of Love. London: Penguin Books, 1953.

Freud A, Burlingham DT (1943). War and children. Medical War Books.

Jutapakdeegul N, Casalotti SO, Govitrapong P, Kotchabhakdi N.
"Postnatal Touch Stimulation Acutely Alters Corticosterone Levels and Glucocorticoid Receptor Gene Expression in the Neonatal Rat," Dev Neurosci 2003;25:26-33 (DOI: 10.1159/000071465)

Laudenslager ML, Rasmussen KLR, Berman CM, Suomi SJ, and Berger CB. "Specific antibody levels in free-ranging rhesus monkeys: relationships to plasma hormones, cardiac parameters, and early behavior," Developmental Psychology 1993;26:407-420.

Schanberg S, and Field T. "Maternal deprivation and supplemental stimulation," Stress and Coping Across Development, Field T, McCabe P, and Schneiderman N, eds. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum; 1988.

Suomi SJ. "Touch and the immune system in rhesus monkeys," in Touch in Early Development, Field TM, ed. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc.; (in press).

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