Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The REAL Report on Attachment Parenting

In light of the recent media buzz attachment parenting is getting, I have a few things to say (certainly more than the reporter I spoke to quoted from the long talk we had for the not-so-well-written article in my local paper).

Little remarks like, "And [sic] she breastfeeds, and will continue to do so until such time that her child opts to swap breast for sippy cup. Or maybe just a regular drinking glass." made in the article speak to the underlying misconceptions people have about what is generally called attachment parenting (AKA intuitive parenting, responsive parenting, peaceful parenting, gentle parenting and several other monikers, too, no doubt).  

I won't dwell on this point long but I want to mention that toddlers and preschoolers don't breastfeed like newborns do.  There is a slow transition where breastmilk becomes a supplement to food instead of food being a supplement to breastmilk (bonus: no worrying about gaps in nutrition for picky toddlers or sick little ones).  As this happens, nursing sessions are dropped and, organically with time (and little to no encouragement from anyone), the child cuts back to only nursing a couple or few times a day, usually for sleep or comfort (interestingly, the last nursing sessions to go for most families are the ones associated with sleep - brains grow during sleep and breastmilk is loaded with all the best stuff for this job).  The child slowly needs breastfeeding less and less, just the same way a child needs their inanimate comfort items less and less, or the way a child needs help with tasks less and less.  Even in countries where children are allowed to self wean as the norm, the children all stop eventually.  

The idea that children raised in AP homes are needy, coddled, 'ruling the roost', being done a disservice, poorly behaved or that AP parents are unstable, poorly adjusted, permissive and damaging their children (and a host of other awful things on top of that) couldn't be farther from the truth. Unfortunately, attachment parenting and permissive parenting often get lumped together into one large category and that's just plain incorrect. 

A good friend of mine and the co-leader of the local group I run for attachment minded families often says, "Attachment parenting isn't about not saying no, it's about saying no with compassion." and she is so, so right. One need only read the comments on the article linked above to see what a bad rap us gentle parents get from un/misinformed individuals. People are sure we're insane and so permissive that we're totally ruining our children. One person goes so far as to comment, "Children need to be told No [sic], often and firmly." Wow, I'd hate to be that person's kid...  And for the record, permissive parenting is something altogether different from attachment parenting.  That's why one is called attachment parenting and the other is called permissive parenting.

Being AP isn't about keeping to a set of actions that are required from some list in a book or on a website, as the media has been making it out to be. Sure, there are things which are known to assist in fostering healthy attachment, such as Attachment Parenting International's principles or Dr. Sears' Baby B's but all the focus on the actions - particularly breastfeeding, babywearing and close sleeping - is missing the bigger picture. To be AP, you don't have to do all or even most of these things, necessarily. Attachment parenting isn't about things or actions at all, it's about feelings and connection. It's about understanding and empathy. It's about the fact that children are people, too and are worthy of just as much respect, love and understanding (in my opinion much more, actually) than any adult. It's about imagining what it must be like to be a child and remembering how things made you feel when you were little. It's about remembering that children have a very smal frame of reference for life experience and hardship coupled with immature emotional processing capabilities and a very small set of coping mechanisms. It's about understanding that children look to you for guidance. It's about treating your child as an individual with specialized needs and desires, with feelings and dreams, with a strong desire to please you and not abusing your position of power in their lives. It's about setting an example for your child of the kind of person you want them to be.

I want my child(ren) to grow up to be loving, sympathetic, empathetic, generous, kind, gentle, compassionate, motivated, cooperative, easy-going, accommodating, soft-tempered, thoughtful and friendly. Since they'll be watching me and their father more closely than anyone else in their lives for cues and examples of what kind of person to be, I must deal with them and with others in my life using those virtues if I want them to do the same.

Being a gentle parent means welcoming a child as they are without pushing them to the next stage. Children are dependent because they're children, not because they need to be forced into independence.  Dependence begets independence.  It's a natural and instinctive drive in all species to become independent, it's just that humans take longer than any other species to do it.  When a child is allowed to be dependent and not pushed or prodded toward independence, this inherent drive will manifest and unfold slowly over time.  When children's dependency needs are met, they feel safe and secure to venture forth more and more independently.

What's more, no one is truly independent.  We all lean on one another for various things because the nature of our species is to be communal.  As adults, we turn to others for support in times of need and we should teach our children that seeking out support (physical, emotional, spiritual, at work, at home, with friends, etc.) is healthy, normal, effective and positive.  If people were more willing/able to say what they need, express their feelings and needs in a healthy way and ask for help, the world would be better, not worse, for it.  Emotionally connected children who know their feelings and needs are important to their parents (even when the answer is no) are better able to accept and work through disappointment and be resilient, they are better at expressing themselves in healthy ways, they are happier, they have fewer behaviour problems and they grow into empathetic, emotionally stable, well-adjusted adults.

Now, I can't speak for everyone but I can certainly speak for myself and the other 150 or so families whom I've had the pleasure of knowing that are a part of my local group. AP children stand out and it's not for the reasons the naysayers would have you believe. It's not because they're sniveling, whining, needy, bratty, poorly behaved little hellions. It's because they're cooperative, easy going, confident, loving, gentle, empathetic, expressive little individuals who are secure in themselves, their place in their families and their parents' presence and love. They deal with problems better, they have fewer huge emotional outbursts, they listen well, they aren't fearful or angry, they are open and friendly.  The parents I know don't coddle their children, nor do they let them run amok, nor do they stifle them.  They have rules and expectations, they state them clearly and follow through with their instructions.  They support their children in their (long) journey to independence, constantly encouraging them at each new step and opportunity along the way, showing them that they believe in them and will always be there, telling them that it's okay to take things at their own pace while encouraging them to keep trying, even when they don't succeed with ease.

If you're not an attachment parent already, I hope you'll consider some of these ideas and even if you don't change your parenting, maybe you won't look so harshly on mine.

I'll leave you now with some of my favourite quotes about parenting and a list of more resources (though not an exhaustive one, by any means) thereafter.

"I believe in radical acceptance, respect and equality for children. Anything else is assuming they are not yet human beings." -Sharon W. Allison  

"The first thing you have to do if you want to raise nice kids, is you have to talk to them like they are people instead of talking to them like they're property." -Frank Zappa 

"Listen earnestly to anything your children want to tell you, no matter what. If you don't listen eagerly to the little stuff when they are little, they won't tell you the big stuff when they are big, because to them all of it has always been big stuff." ~Catherine M. Wallace 

‎"It is the nature of the child to be dependent, and it is the nature of dependence to be outgrown. Begrudging dependency because it is not independence is like begrudging winter because it is not yet spring. Dependency blossoms into independence in its own time." Peggy O'Mara, Editor, Mothering Magazine

“Hatred does not cease by hatred, but only by love; this is the eternal rule.” -Buddha 

“Rewards and punishments are the lowest form of education.” -Chuang-Tzu, philosopher (4th century BCE)

"All his time the Sun never says to the Earth, "You owe Me." Look What happens with a love like that. It lights the Whole Sky." ~Hafiz

"Breastfeeding is an unsentimental metaphor for how love works, in a way. You don't decide how much and how deeply to love - you respond to the beloved, and give with joy exactly as much as they want." ~Marni Jackson

"The more the child feels attached to the mother, the more secure he is in his acceptance of himself and the rest of the world. The more love he gets, the more he is capable of giving. Attachment breeds self-control, self-esteem, empathy, and affection, all of which lead to an increasing ability to develop literacy. We don't know why, but it seems to be true. Attachment is as central to the developing child as eating and breathing." -- Robert Shaw, M.D.   

“I am struck by the fact that the more slowly trees grow at first, the sounder they are at the core, and I think that the same is true of human beings. We do not wish to see children precocious, making great strides in their early years like sprouts, producing a soft and perishable timber, but better if they expand slowly at first, as if contending with difficulties, and so are solidified and perfected. Such trees continue to expand with nearly equal rapidity to extreme old age." - Henry David Thoreau 

"In our family, we let our children nurse until they’re done, and the earth’s position relative to the sun does not change our philosophy." -Mayim Bialik

"Love and violence, properly speaking, are polar opposites. Love lets the other be, but with affection and concern. Violence attempts to constrain the other's freedom, to force him to act in the way we desire, but with ultimate lack of concern, with indifference to the other's own existence or destiny. We are effectively destroying ourselves by violence masquerading as love." -RD Laing


  1. What a beautiful article. I popped over here from the Free Press comment section (which sometimes make me wonder about the future of humanity). After so much bashing of attachment parenting it was lovely to read this post. My three children are now 17, 19, and 23, and they were raised using the principles of attachment parenting. They have grown up to be lovely human beings. I set limits, I said "no", I tried to teach them compassion, empathy and respect for others, and they are good people.

    I also think that your child is lucky to have you and your partner as parents.

    Thank you so much for writing this, it made my day.

    1. Thank YOU so much for stopping in and reading! I always love hearing about older children who were raised in AP homes - it really helps quiet those feelings of doubt (that all parents have from time to time) when I hear about and see the positive results of attachment parenting!

  2. Lots of love to you for writing this. I am so impressed that you have found the words to speak on this very important and personal topic with calmness and grace. And even though I often fall short of practicing the beautiful ideal that you have described here, I am so there with you that this IS the ideal. Keep on keeping on, sister.

    1. Excellent point, Lisa! It IS an ideal and it's not always achievable but it's a worthy and noble thing to strive for and I plan to keep on keepin' on!! Thanks for having my back at every turn, too - I couldn't be the parent I am without the wonderful support, acceptance, guidance, new ideas and mentoring I get from you and everyone else in WAMF.


Keep it clean, guys.