This past weekend, our sweet little girl demonstrated a little bit of this. For the first time, she entertained herself alone in her room for over an hour. There were only two catches. First of all, she would occasionally come to the door and call for me. Secondly, she was supposed to be napping.
I’ve written before about the developmental process of a child developing the “capacity to be alone.” This is an essential part of early childhood, where the child learns to have her own experiences in the presence of her parent who is not making any demands on her attention or time. Early on, this requires the actual presence of the parent, who provides a sense of safety and “holding.” But even though the parent is physically proximal to the child, the child is “able to become unintegrated, to flounder, to be in a state in which there is no orientation, to be able to exist for a time without being either a reactor to an external impingement or an active person with a direction of interest or movement” (D.W. Winnicott, “The Capacity to Be Alone”). I wrote about this exact thing happening back in May 2012; Curly Fries was happy to “read” books to herself in her crib, but required me to be in the room while she did it.
I’m happy to report that my daughter is now able to forgo the actual presence of a parent. Nine months later, she is at ease wandering around her room and playing with her stuffed animals, her books, and her blankie. She talked out loud to all of these objects with happy, cheerful tones; she dressed them and undressed them; she arranged them across her bed and paraded them through the floor. She was able to entertain herself without any direction from a parent. In Winnicott’s words, she was able to unintegrate, flounder, and exist without reacting or directing. This is “the equivalent of what in an adult would be called relaxing.”
Of course, then there are the two mitigating circumstances. On the one hand, she still required occasional “recharging” – calling out to me to make sure that I was still around to provide a safe container. Although the walls and setting of her room provide a physical holding environment, there is still the requirement of a safe presence of an “other.” All children need this. Kids on the playground still run back to their parents on occasion to make sure they are still there.
And then, on the other hand, she was supposed to be napping. All this play, while adorable, was a distraction from the sleep and rest that she desperately needed. As might be predicted, she was pretty much a miserable creature for the rest of the evening because she was cranky and tired. I had a hard time recognizing what a wonderful developmental milestone this truly was because I knew what a complete pain in the ass this was going to make her for the rest of the day.
Now that days have passed and I’m not wrangling a cranky monster, I can appreciate and treasure what took place in her room that afternoon. As an introvert who prizes solitude and quiet, I know that our culture is an overwhelming mass of noise and forced collaboration. Corporate offices are designed with open layouts meant to facilitate group interactions; curricula in schools is increasingly geared towards group learning; and it is the charismatic speakers who our culture most commonly looks to as leaders and innovators. Getting time to yourself is a subversive, countercultural act.
I don’t know if my daughter is an introvert or an extrovert; it’s still too early to tell, and a toddler introverts and extroverts differently than an adult does. It’s fine if she’s not an introvert like her daddy. But even if she is an extrovert, it’s essential for her to learn how to carve out solitary time for herself. Our society doesn’t teach this behavior, or even reinforce it when it’s exhibited. The need for sleep notwithstanding, I see it as good parenting for me to encourage her to take time for herself to relax and play alone and to respect the distance she needs when this takes place.
Everyone – introvert or extrovert – needs to unintegrate, flounder, and exist for a time without having to react or direct. I might need it more than other people I know (like my spouse), but it is a worthy celebration to acknowledge my child’s capacity to be alone, both psychologically and actually. And if it gives me the chance to find a little quiet and solitude, well, there’s certainly nothing wrong with that.