When it comes to the American canon on parenting, separation/individuation is a big deal. It involves the idea that once a child starts walking, the ideal parent’s main focus should be getting out of the way. And it all heats up in adolescence, when it is assumed that a child can only become a competent, independent adult if he or she maintains a running battle with their parents, the latter assumed to be fighting to keep the child in a dependent position. This is driven home even more when it comes to boys.
A couple of years ago, “Attachment Parenting” became a thing, and was hotly debated. (This is curious, because an unattached parent is deadly for a child.) It recommended breastfeeding, physical closeness, and an emphatic response to a baby’s signals. While women should never be pressured to either breast or bottle feed, the idea that touch and empathy could be up for grabs is truly remarkable. On the other hand, some fundamentalists groups latched onto this (pun intended) as a way to shame mothers who work outside the home.
Attachment Parenting should not be confused with “Helicopter Parenting”, also a fairly new buzzword. This involves parents who are overinvolved with mostly college-age children, including contacting professors. This is intrusive, counterproductive, and indicates a lack of empathy on the part of the parent. It is an overemphasis on academic and career success, frequently at the expense of the whole child, and generally to fulfill unmet needs of the parents.
Our culture still deifies “rugged individualism”, which was originally part of the rationalization for manifest destiny. Did you ever wonder why individualism is considered rugged? Actually, it is not, but it does make us better consumers, as we buy more stuff to try to fill the emptiness it creates.
It is authentic connection (interdependence and support without anyone coming up short) that fortifies us against the exigencies of life. From adolescence and into young adulthood, a parent needs to slowly but surely modify their relationships with their children. Parents not only need to, but are allowed to, stop being in charge, even if it involves children making mistakes. If this process occurs, they do not need to “separate”. A good parent supports individuation and independence, and thereby has no need at some point to turn into a pumpkin.
Empathy allows parents to take cues from their children, and humility must always supersede certainty. Parenting is 20 or 30 years of never being sure. But if it came with a road map, it wouldn’t be love.