Parents often ask questions such as: “I have a three year old. I am not sure how much to help him when he is struggling with something. Do I make him sleep in his own bed? Try to wipe himself? Clean up when he has made a mess with his toys?”
Sometimes we wish that there were a rulebook about such things! We do have a framework that can guide you. This framework was originally developed (in a slightly different form) by a prominent child psychoanalyst by the name of Erna Furman.
Four stages of dependence: Infants depend on their caretakers for virtually everything, while adults without special limitations independently take care of their own basic needs. The balance between dependence and independence evolves through life, and can be described as going the four phases first described by Erna Furman. Each phase can be illustrated by the type of interaction that occurs between parent and child while dressing.
Phase 1, Being done for: During this phase, caretakers completely provide for the child. Consider an infant who is a few months old. During this first phase, the parent chooses clothes and fully dresses the child, who does not participate constructively.
Parents can help children during this phase by making the task pleasantly interactive. When a task is embedded in the pleasure of a loving relationship, a child will be more motivated to ultimately take over the task, because it conjures a feeling of a loving connection.
Phase 2, Doing with: The key to understanding the second phase is to recognize that the child is beginning to participate in the task as a helper, but cannot achieve the task without a caretaker.
When dressing, a 6-month-old infant may wiggle her arm excitedly when she sees a blouse. Over time, her participation will actually help. Parents may need to ask a 12-month-old to be still, and an 18-month-old might try to put on some clothes by herself.
At this stage, a parent can support the child’s effort to participate and show pleasure in the child’s involvement. Parents can encourage and praise the effort rather than focus on “getting it right.”
Phase 3, Standing by and watching: During this phase, a child does most of the task himself. Parents are literally or figuratively standing back and watching, occasionally reminding a child. (If a great deal of reminding is required, the child is still in the later part of phase two.)
When getting dressed at this stage, a child may complete the task while a parent watches or hangs around. The child has the functional, but not emotional, capacity to carry out the task with some parental support.
This is a hard phase for many parents. Some might be tempted to hold back the support that children need, wondering why they need to be so involved when their child “really can do it.” Does the child just want attention? The answer is “no”; children in this phase want continued parental involvement because they have not yet grown to fully own this function. Other parents struggle with a sense of not being needed as much, and may be tempted to linger in phase two, providing more help than their child needs.
Phase 4, Doing for themselves: At this point, the child can really do the task himself. A 5- or 6-year-old child in this phase will dress herself with only occasional help from a parent.
Handling the balance: Any young child will be at different phases with different tasks, and he or she will fluctuate in his or her capacity from day to day within a task. One night a child might be able to sleep in his or her own bed if mom or dad lies down with him or her for a while for settling in, and the next night that child might be able to sleep with their parent putting him or her to bed and returning occasionally to check.
Parents should consider each area individually, Identifying the phase that best describes their child’s function in that area and help him or her to grow within that phase, one phase at a time. So, if a child is still asking to be wiped after going to the bathroom, accept for the time being that he or she is currently in the “being done for” phase in that particular area. The child has the coordination and cognitive capacity to wipe himself or herself, but is at the first phase emotionally. In such a case, a parent can encourage their child to join them so he or she can progress to the “doing with” phase. Perhaps a parent can begin by asking that child to tear off the toilet paper. When a child is lovingly guided through the second phase, he or she will be ready to move on to remaining phases in a secure and stable way.
Children will always fight autonomy to some extent since it brings the loss of the pleasures of dependency. With parental support, children’s wishes to grow and be capable will win as they simultaneously feeling increasingly good about themselves and their loving relationships.