Saying bye-bye when it’s time to walk out the door


Rachel Biale, MSW, is a Berkeley-based parenting consultant who has worked with parents of very young children for more than 25 years. Her website is www.parentingcounseling.net. Reach her at rachelbiale@gmail.com.

Paraphrasing one of the great wise men (well, actually “a bear of very little brain” and ample proportions), I am lucky to have had something that makes saying goodbye hard. Yes, the time has come to say goodbye to “Parenting for the Perplexed.” I’ve been writing this column for over three years. I have decided to end it before I start repeating myself or, worse yet, boring myself … and my readers.

Let me sign off with some thoughts about saying goodbye and young children. Why is it that we are so eager to teach babies to wave goodbye? It’s the first gesture and among the first words we teach them. Yet, unlike “Dada,” “Mama,” and “nam-nam” (or another word for “food”), does it really address a pressing need of every baby 7 to 9 months old?

Well … it does. Saying and waving goodbye is all about mastering separation and “object permanence.” The Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget (who learned much about infants from observing his own three children, born in the 1920s) posited that infants only gradually develop an understanding that objects are constant and distinctive and, thus, separate from them. Approaching 8 months, babies gradually grow to understand that an object partially hidden from sight is still there. They reach for a toy behind a screen even if only half of it shows.

Between 8 and 12 months they master object permanence: that objects exist even when they cannot see them. They also develop intentional actions. Pairing the awareness that the person disappearing behind the door is going away with the volitional act of waving goodbye is baby’s great new accomplishment. And we adults enjoy this so much, we give our baby ample practice and effusive admiration, gradually fostering the impression that it is their waving and saying “bye-bye” that makes the person disappear. Talk about superpowers!

For the same reasons, around 8 months babies will cry — even wail — when their mother or father leaves the room and when someone else comes in. This “stranger anxiety,” while vexing for parents, is sign of a great developmental leap. The baby now fully distinguishes between primary caretakers and all others. Up until this point the baby responded to the sensory experience: the comforting touch, smell and sound of a nursing mom or the soothing hold in a dad’s arms. Experienced caretakers, be they grandparents or babysitters, could easily take Mom and Dad’s place. Not anymore, now it’s conceptual!

This phase passes as the child enlarges her circle of trusted caretakers. A new challenge arises as baby grows into a toddler and she becomes more acutely aware of how long people are gone when they say goodbye. She becomes conscious, too, of missing them when they aren’t there. Separation anxiety kicks in and can break parents’ hearts, especially those who have to leave their child with a babysitter or at day care for longer than they’d wish. Goodbye rituals are very important in helping your child transition through this period.

Instead of lingering at the door and giving one tearful hug and kiss after another, try a short and simple routine. When you prepare to leave your child at home with a caretaker or after you arrive at day care and situate your child (preferably in the lap or at the side of a teacher with an activity to start on):

1. Tell your child when you’ll return (e.g., “After you wake up from nap and have your snack, Daddy will be here”).

2. Sing or recite a little “bye-bye” jingle you’ve made up.

3. Have your child shake a noisemaker specially reserved for this moment.

4. Walk out the door.

And now it’s time for me to say goodbye, shake my imaginary noisemaker and “walk out the door.” Thanks to J. for hosting me and to all my readers — the steady ones who have sought me out at community events to tell me they’ve enjoyed reading the column, and those who just stumbled upon it once or twice. I hope you have found it useful, interesting and compassionate. And I hope you have had nearly as much fun reading as I have had writing.

Rachel Biale