The Truth (and Folly) of Attachment Parenting

Attachment parenting is a big deal these days. Most childraising books and magazine articles you find are from the attachment parenting worldview. The original Dr. Spock was not an attachment parent advocate. Dr. Sears and lots of the breastfeeding authors these days, are.

Attachment parenting is based on the belief that a child is born basically insecure, and that the more you meet its needs, the more secure they will become. The hope is that a lifestyle where the child’s need are continually met–especially in the youngest years, when the child is the tenderest–will grow a youth and adult who is happy, secure, and outreaching.

Sounds nice. And there is a lot of good in the attachment parenting idea, even if just good intent. In contrast with the old generation’s way of parenting where hardly anybody’s dad told their son that they loved him, or the rigid clock-feeding method where moms set the alarm for 2am feedings only, the attachment parenting camp humanizes a baby. A baby is, indeed, a person. He is not “a baby”–a thing–other than a person. Truly, a baby’s needs are different from an adult’s. And because they are still developing, they are not born with mature emotions, thoughts, or wants. But those things mature much faster than we think. And soon, they will blossom with all the recognizable features of adults, even in just mini- form. I applaud the much-needed humanizing of infant raising that the attachment philosophers have added.

However, their reasoning is a little flawed. And for that reason, their philosophy gets off and can breed bad results. It may not necessarily, but it can. (Plenty of people will say their child did just fine with attachment parenting techniques, but plenty of other people find the lifestyle to not work.)

There are two main flaws in attachment parenting philosophy:

1) The child knows what it needs.

2) The child’s attachment comes first.

Let’s talk about #1. Attachment proponents argue that the more you meet a baby’s needs, the more secure they become. This sounds logical enough. But there are two small problems: One, you don’t always know what your baby needs. Two, the baby doesn’t always know what he needs! In fact, often times, both of you are totally messed up! The outlook seems grim =) On any given day, you are going to read your baby wrong, your baby is not going to give distinct cues, and you are going to be working against some of your baby’s wants–which he construes as “needs”–to train him (i.e. No, you can’t have another cookie, how ’bout some more banana?). On this philosophy, you would basically be doomed to raise a grumpy, insecure child. There is simply no way you can be perfect, the baby can be expected to communicate clearly, or you can forego correction to give into what your baby wants. Think of how this becomes even clearer as your baby graduates from baby to toddler, to preschooler, to child, to teenager. As they get older, it is extremely clear that children don’t always know what they want (versus need), you can’t always tell, and even when you can tell, you shouldn’t always meet that desire. It is no different for a baby.

Now I totally believe that we should meet our baby’s needs. And I totally believe that meeting needs helps make them secure. But, I do not believe, essentially, that missing (or correcting) the baby’s needs makes them insecure. I believe a bad heart towards them does. There is a difference.

The difference is in point #2. Attachment proponents believe the child’s sense of attachment comes first. I believe the parent’s does. Bonding is extremely important. It is real. Bonding is a belief and unswerving conviction of positive regard for another person. It encompasses their safety, happiness, and moral good. It is an unquestioning connection to another person that draws you to them, even when it is uncomfortable, inconvenient, or confusing. It does not allow negative emotions (which are natural when someone displeases you) to separate you from them. It does not allow resentment or bitterness that they are there, needing you for something. And it does not get entangled in their negative emotions–either overidentifying with them and trying to prevent them, or underidentifying (unempathizing) with them and trying to pretend they aren’t there or significant.

It is bonding that draws mothers to their children, and it is the parent’s number one priority when that new, precious baby gets put in your arms. For some, it is natural upon first sight. And for some, work is involved. (i.e. there are books on this, especially for adoptive parents).

The parent’s first job is to establish bonding with their infant so that they are not inclined to harm it or neglect it in any way. After that bonding has been established, the proper foundation is in place to gently start training the baby’s needs, wants, and morals. Trouble occurs if the process is reversed… which is why some of the distinctive marks of antisocial parenting techniques in the old days are so dangerous. The idea of clock-feeding in itself doesn’t abuse the child, but the heart motive behind some of clock-feeding does. We can’t have detachment from our kids–detachment that comes from not telling the child you love them, not holding them and hugging them, not feeling them skin to skin when they’re babies, not cuddling them and rocking them and comforting them, not buying them toys, etc–we can’t have detachment AND then begin training them. They will feel distanced, unloved, and insecure. But to confuse meeting their desires with their subsequent attachment to you is wrong. The child’s attachment comes when he knows you are attached to him. This does not necessitate you meeting all his wants, but rather paying attention to and addressing his wants. Children don’t know you are attached just because you are. You have to deliver–he will see it through your actions, which, most of the time, just means attention… not acquiesance.

So you see why attachment parenting is half good and half bad. They recognize a key ingredient in healthy parenting, but they reverse the role and the method of getting there. It isn’t making your child happy that is the key, but in being happy about them. God says, for example, that HE loved us FIRST, so that we could love Him and one another. Only when we love our child first can we ensure he will love us and others. When we love our child first, we will maintain our role as parent, paying attention to their cues, interpreting them, assessing their validity or goodness, and providing the proper response. Whether that is listening to a baby cry and deciding that he needs a nap rather than more food, or whether that is listening to a teenager beg and deciding that she better skip that rock concert, it is the same underlying process.

It is simply too mean to say a baby comes out knowing what it needs and expecting you to tell. A baby comes out and cries because it needs something: it is probably cold, hungry, and exhausted/confused from the birth process. It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out you should swaddle, feed, and hold that infant. But it isn’t the cries themselves that tell you that. It is the understanding you have, as the parent, that the child has gone through this traumatic experience, experienced deficits in some key areas, and now needs those met. The same reasoning takes place when you get home. IS the child hungry? Tired? Bored? Frustrated? Worked up? Who knows? But you soon will know, based on how you train their expectations.

If it’s confusing, just think of it this way. Your toddler cries because he thinks he’s bored, but he’s actually hungry. You preschooler cries because he didn’t get his way, but he’s actually tired. Your teenager pouts when he gets a “C” because he thinks his teacher is unfair, but he’s actually feeling inadequate. The upset emotions are definitely a cue, but sometimes the person having the emotions needs an interpreter. And yet God wouldn’t give you a child that was going to be damaged if you guessed wrong. Would He create babies who were going to grow up antisocial just because you gave him a nap when he was actually frustrated? Is it the nap-giving which is dangerous? No, a disengaged heart is dangerous. One that doesn’t respond at all, or one that cruelly deprives what is needed. Is your toddler mad that he can’t have a cookie, or is he mad because he isn’t in control of his life? Is your preschooler sad that you have to leave the playground, or is he sad that he didn’t get to finish his sandcastle? Is your teenager grumpy because you won’t buy the designer jeans, or because she feels you don’t understand or care about her need to fit in with her friend? The roots of all negative emotions have to be dealt with, not all negative consequences avoided, if a child is to feel loved. And it is up to you, the parent, to do the loving. To engage, to confront, to supply… whatever is needed, with the attention that a bonded heart will give you.

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12 thoughts on “The Truth (and Folly) of Attachment Parenting

  1. Here’s another problem with attachment parenting, as articulated by the executive director of ACT:

    The Attachment Parenting (AP) does not have clean hands when it comes to its relationship to Attachment Therapy/Parenting.

    While the AP website carried the APSAC Report on Attachment Therapy for some months, it also promotes the bogus, catch-all diagnosis used by Attachment Therapist — “Attachment Disorder.” Use of this unrecognized diagnosis is condemned by the APSAC report.

    The AP website further cites the Peachtree Attachment Center in Georgia for their source for information on Attachment Disorder, a place notorious for offering Attachment (Holding) Therapy.

    So while AP is inclined towards benign parenting methods, they, alas, are not well disciplined about theory, research, and diagnosis.

    Attachment therapy, as you probably know, is an institutionalized form of severe abuse that has caused the deaths of numerous children: http://childtorture.wordpress.com/2008/02/26/in-memoriam/

  2. This article gives the light in which we can observe the reality. This is very nice and give in depth information. Thanks for this nice article and good posting. I will recommend my friends to visit this for certain

  3. Basedon persona experience, I disagree that it’s hard to read a baby. There is only about 5 things that they can possibly need. What is hard about trying those 5 things until youget it right? You make raisig a baby sound like rocket science. Well it is rocket science, in terms of empathy, but that’s about it. And then there’s the importance of staying calm, which most America moms don’t even believe can make a difference.

    And babies actually do know what they need. Babies are different than older children–their responses are more pure, unmuddied by life in the world. When a baby cries, there is a specific reason, and the crying immediately stops when you figure out the reason. Again, only about 5 reasons to choose from. I don’t understand your reasoning. And ‘know’ doesn’t really mean KNOW, as in the adult sense. They can feel what’s wrong, and cry to ‘tell’ you.

    You also seem to say that setting the clock to a 2am feeding only is okay if the ‘parent’s heart’ behind the action means good, not selfishness. A baby does not know the difference when she is hungry, that your heart is in the right place. A baby just knows that no one is coming, no matter how much she cries. This leads to learned helplessness, regardless of the parent’s heart. If you don’t attend to a baby right away, when it needs you, the baby will ALWAYS feel abandoned. They just can’t understand WHY things happen yet, so no matter where your heart is, if you don’t come when they cry for you, they will feel abandoned.

    My view is set in the context that the first 9 months in the womb give the baby everything she needs/wants automatically. NO question. SO when the baby is born, it’s whole schema of reality is that whenver she wants/needs something, it just comes. To jarr a baby into a opposite reality to this, which many American parents do, is just spiritual treason.

    I have practiced attachment parenting from the start, and it has worked just as promised with my 6 month old. You don’t seem to understand the method as a whole, and just take a couple of premises which may or may not be true. Have you read the book?

    This method does work, but only if you parent from the heart, as you said. Period.

  4. I found this article interesting. I’m researching attachment parenting because my neighbor claims to be doing it. She has two who are 2 and 4 months. I don’t understand how she can’t see the connection between attachment parenting and being driven insane by a daughter who cannot and will not play independently.

  5. I found myself frowning in confusion while reading this post. I do not think the author has a true understanding of the attachment parenting pillars she is questioning. She contradicts herself by noting the difference between “need” and “want”. But then goes on to confuse the two in context. I’ll admit it is easier to decipher between the two in an infant and baby, but as the child grows into a toddler, it gets trickier. But fortunately, if parent and toddler are appropriately “attached”, the parent will be able to read the child’s cues and know what their “need” truly is at that moment (even if said toddler “wants” a cookie and is fussing when refused; in my child’s case, the problem is usually tiredness or hunger).

    The entire idea of “training” a baby or child’s expectations goes completely against any attachment parenting ideals. The entire focus of the attached parent philosphy is the establishment of trust between the baby and the parent. One does not “train” a baby or child, a parent “teaches” a baby or child by consistently and compassionately meeting their needs and by modeling positive behavior.

    As for the comment made by Grace (comment #4) – your neighbor is more than likely experiencing mommy-overload and sleep-deprivation – dealing with a 4 month-old and a two year-old simultaneously. Chances are both mom and toddler are still adjusting to the arrival of baby #2 and they are dealing with some separation issues – something that is COMPLETELY normal at that age anyways, not just when attachment parenting. There is also more than likely more going on behind closed doors than you may be aware of. Shame on you Grace for judging this obviously dedicated (and probably exhausted) mother who is truly giving everything of herself to be the kind of mother she seems to think is best. We are all mothers, we know it is the hardest job on the planet. Everyone has a different parenting approach/philosophy. We shouldn’t be judging, we should be supporting and accepting one another for our own methods and contributions!

  6. Regarding the comment above, I think it is hypocritical to say “shame on” somebody and then, in the same breath, say we should be encouraging and accepting rather than judging.

  7. What about what the parent needs, in all of this? The problem with attachment parenting is that the mom’s give up who they are for this. Which I don’t think is a good thing to ‘role model’ for them. They give up their own needs by catering to the childs needs. Sometimes what kids need are limits and rules, just like everyone else in society.

    Then my question is: if you are always giving a kid what they want then aren’t you raising a spoiled brat? You can’t always get what you want so how are these kids going to accept that someday when their teacher tells them no, or the first job interview is a no.

    All of my questions make me sound like I’m a mean mom, but I’m not. My kids are very well attached to me, but not because I did what they want all the time, because I taught them to respect me, my time and my efforts.

  8. And one more thing….

    The baby comes into YOUR life, you don’t come into theirs. Kids need to adapt to your lifestyle (within reason, obviously having a child changes lots of things, but it doesn’t have to change you you are.)

    I guess the reason this upsets me so much is that I’ve lost two great friends because they did attachment parenting.

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  10. Thanks for the great article. It’s nice to see a little balance sometimes instead of extreme parenting and polarization.

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  12. This post makes a lot of sense. Amen to the whole thing with knowing what the child needs/wants. My main problem with the pratice isn’t the philosophy itself. I love the idea to be responsive and connected to your child (not necessarily physically but as in in tune). The problem is the assuming that all children have the same needs and express them the same way. The whole co sleeping baby wearing extended breastfeeding isn’t what all babies need or want. We are all different. My oldest daughter had the hardest time sleeping with me. She did and still does like her space as a light sleeper everytime I moves she’d wake up and never really get plenty of rest. My youngest hates to be carried in the sling. She’s always whimpering and pushing against me. She likes to stretch. Being a responsive, present and attentive parent is somethig parents should think about analise in the context or their lifestyle, their family and their child’s individuality. Stop putting people in a freaking box, start giving them you undivided attention in order to learn who they are and what they need from you, take it, deal with it and learn to love them that way.

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