Dr. Jules Spotts on Separation

It’s a poignant, important experience when a child goes to school for the first time or returns to school after a summer away. Here, TCS’s esteemed clinical psychologist, Dr. Jules Spotts, offers his thoughts on the pang of separation and the first days of school:

“I often think of child development as ever-expanding spheres of independence. Our kids start out as totally dependent on us: the adults, the caregivers, the avenues through which their growth and development will take place. As parents, we all watch various milestones take place: the first time our babies held a bottle by themselves, the first intentionally dropped object, the first clanging together of pot lids to make sounds, the first time they stood up and walked unsupported. Each of these moments is a step toward greater independence and autonomy, having a significant effect upon or mastering something in the world.

“One of the biggest steps toward independence is separating from one’s parents. The beginning of this process is usually bedtime, when young children learn to trust that they will be safe in bed on their own, and that the world and the people they love will be the same upon awakening as when falling asleep. Child development researchers have been able to demonstrate that somewhere between seven and 11 months of age, babies first become aware of their separateness as an individual from their primary caregiver. The two are not one unit; they are, in fact, two separate individuals. Toddlers going into another room on their own, using the bathroom alone, or playing for some period independently are all examples of this move toward independence, autonomy and individuation, and all involve separation from caretaking adults.

“A very significant growth point in the separation and individuation process involves attendance at school. For an extended period of time, children are separated from their primary caretakers, and although they are in the company of kind, caretaking teachers, they are experiencing the process of self-development. Many of us can still recall our first moment of letting go when we said goodbye to our parents and, with varying degrees of confidence, entered the school environment on our own.

“So here we stand at the start of another school year. Your children will be entrusted to the care of TCS’s loving, thoughtful, well-prepared educators for significant portions of many weekdays. Your children will be away from you, their parents. But they will not only be fine on their own, they will be encouraged to thrive as independent, competent beings. They will be encouraged to engage in guided exploration and discovery, a wonderful example of how independent learning is pursued at TCS. Whether this is your child’s first school experience or the next in a series, both of you will be aware of the separation. However, your children will carry representations of you in their heads and their hearts, in their thoughts and feelings. These are a continuing source of comfort in the journey to separate personhood. Know that this process is vital for your children’s development as a separate individual and for developing confidence in their own competence.”

As Dr. Spotts notes, even when we are separated from the people we love, we carry them—and their encouraging words—in our hearts. It is at these bittersweet moments, when children become newly independent, that the wise words of Christopher Robin come to mind: “Promise me you’ll always remember—you’re braver than you believe, stronger than you seem and smarter than you think.”

Looking forward to the first days of school,