“There are two lasting things we give our children. One is roots and the other is wings.”

I have had this quotation on my wall since my children (now grown) were very young. This phrase sums up perfectly the role of well-functioning parents who love and nurture their children.

A child who feels a deep sense of belonging to the family believes that nothing will disrupt this connection. Even if there are difficult times, the parents will stand by and try to help the child learn from adversity.

Roots of this depth allow for experimenting with different kinds of behavior and, eventually, for the development of autonomy.

Roots allow for the development of wings, because they create the grounded child necessary to feel safe in exploring the world around them. The 2-year-old explorer, tasting toys and testing limits, will not be stopped by a parent’s anxiety, but rather supported and encouraged to learn about the environment. The 16-year-old experimenter, trying a new hair color or a pierced ear, or pushing curfew will learn about personal responsibility, but will not fear to venture out into an unpredictable and changing society.

A healthy family provides a secure environment for growth and learning. There is a sense of “we-ness” and belonging on the part of each member. There are fair limits that are understandable and can be discussed. There are boundaries that protect members and boundaries that expand to let in new members and new information. There is a sense of loyalty that is strong and does not impede one from developing into a person with individual ideas, dreams, and behavior. Humor in a family improves its general health and well-being. There is no question that the way a family functions will define, to a large measure, how well a child will develop.

Too often today, parents focus only on the roots and don’t give children the wings they need to grow to become a balanced, thoughtful adult who is willing to take risks and do things outside their comfort zone. It’s easy to want to err on the side of protection and keeping children close to home. Yet it harms the child’s development and most importantly, their learning autonomy. If everything is a structured play activity or sport, then the child learns virtually nothing through experimentation and trying out something new, because they’re never given the chance to just play, to just be a child.

Roots — a knowledge of belonging — and wings — a recognition of the need for autonomy; these together are what children need from their families to become productive, well-functioning and happy adults.