Too Close For Comfort
Benefits of Other Bonds
While I was grateful and happy that my kids had such great care, I couldn't help but feel a little distressed by how much they loved being with Mary. It's a primal sort of jealousy: I want my children to like me best. And it can arise not only in response to seeing our kids grow close to a caregiver, but also to a relative, teacher, or any of the other adults who enter their lives as they grow.
But just because a child delights in the company of another adult, it doesn't mean that something's lacking in his relationship with his own parent. In fact, experts say, the opposite is true: A youngster's ability to form attachments with others is indicative of a strong bond with his parents. "If the parents are loving, the child learns how to trust other people," says Lewis Lipsitt, professor emeritus of psychology and human development at Brown University.
And the more bonds he forms early in life, the better. L. Alan Sroufe, M.D., a professor of child psychology at the University of Minnesota, likens these early attachments between a child and his parents or his caregivers to building a house. "Just as a house can only be as strong as its foundation," he says, "the ability to form close relationships later in life depends a great deal on the strength of his early bonds."
Knowing that early attachment to others is good for your child, however, doesn't make it any easier when you see how much he loves someone else's company -- especially if that person spends more time with him than you do. The first few weeks that Karen Conway, of Newburyport, MA, left her 6-month-old daughter, Kelly, at family daycare, Kelly cried. Although Conway hated seeing her daughter unhappy, she'd expected her to have some difficulty with the transition and wasn't worried, since she knew that her caregiver, Betty, was experienced and caring. Sure enough, the morning tears soon stopped, and Kelly seemed happy when she was left at Betty's.
"Then one day, about six months later, I arrived at daycare to pick up Kelly, and when I called to her, she turned her head and clung to Betty," Conway remembers. "She didn't give me a hug or pay any attention to me at all. She just wanted to keep playing with Betty."
Sheryl Cutler, of Glen Cove, NY, still remembers clearly the time she picked up her 2-year-old daughter, Heather, from daycare and heard Heather call the caregiver "Mommy." "She did it accidentally, of course," says Cutler, "but it was one of those moments that makes you stop and reevaluate your whole life."
But no matter how close a child is with a caregiver, you need to keep in mind that even the smallest infants know who their parents are. A child may grow to love someone else, but no one can take the place of his mother and father. "Kids of any age have a wonderful capacity to bond with multiple caretakers, and the closeness of their attachment to any single person doesn't diminish the importance of their bond with another," says W. Peter Metz, M.D., who directs the division of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center.
There are a number of reasons besides affection behind a seeming preference for a daycare provider. If, for instance, your child resists leaving daycare when you arrive, or runs to his caregiver instead of to you for comfort after he bumps his elbow or scrapes his knee, his actions have more to do with routine than with his preferring her to you; his caregiver is the one he's used to getting comfort from regularly during the day.
"Also remember that there's a real difference between attachment and preference," says Becky Thomas, the director of the Early Childhood Center at the Center for Comprehensive Health Practice, in New York City. A child may prefer to play with a caregiver simply because she has more time to engage in one-on-one games than you do, not because he loves her more.
And if your child greets you at the end of some days with a tearful meltdown, as my son sometimes did, it's often because young kids -- especially toddlers -- expend an inordinate amount of energy holding themselves together until their parents reappear at the end of the day. "When a parent walks in to pick him up, she may be treated to a blast of bad behavior because she's the one he trusts most. He's tired, he's ready to have some quiet time, and he finally feels safe enough to show his true emotions," says Thomas.
Most important, don't consider firing a good caregiver because of your jealousy. Instead of worrying about being replaced, make your own relationship with your child as strong as it can be.