NOTE: Wow, this post has become so popular by people who hate it, I thought I’d post a quick comment here =)
WARNING: let’s not confuse “understanding” attachment parenting with “disagreeing” with it. I do understand, and I do disagree. For fairness’ sake, I am posting the (corrected) link that my critic below, “AK”, suggested so that people can read what attachment parenting is, straight from an advocate’s source. I still totally disagree. See my other posts on the subject for more on why I disagree philosophically, psychologically, and experientially. My respect goes to those who have gotten it to work for them. My understanding goes to those who haven’t.
Also, I am trying to address the things which make attachment parenting distinct. “Loving your child,” “being there for them,” “acknowledging or helping them to put words to their feelings” etc., are things ANY good mother would do! It’s not fair to say that it is province of AP.
* * * this is a follow-up post * * *
A lot of people exploring attachment parenting want to know if there are disadvantages to this parenting style. I think so. In another post, I discussed what I liked about attachment parenting. And I warned against authoritarian parenting. Here I will discuss what I am concerned about, in attachment parenting.
I believe real AP ultimately causes problems for a child. At least, in America. Maybe the child doesn’t experience problems until they are older—maybe not until they are spouses trying to bond with each other, or parents trying to set boundaries with their own children. But I believe that most AP children will eventually face at least some difficulties because AP overemphasizes dependency and physical contact for security. It also underemphasizes the importance of independence, boundaries, and disappointment. For a non-industrial society with little choice in matters, this upbringing might be fine. But for modern Western society, it is inappropriate or unnecessary at best.
Of course it is our modern sensibilities that many AP advocates think are problematic. They might say otherwise, but a casual observer of a real AP finds practices in eating, sleeping, and being held to be over the top. Who is going to have skin to skin contact with their newborn 90% of the time? And 25% of the time, for a one year old? Who makes it through six years of co-sleeping? Or three years of breastfeeding? Or all the in’s and out’s of AP (of which there are many depending on how radical you are)? Not very many.
The truth is that AP crosses many boundaries. Forgetting about how you definitely can’t be a working mom and practice AP—are you going to wear your baby to the office? Even if you are a stay-at-home Mom, the limits are stretching. It is hard to take a shower, clean your kitchen, or do anything that requires you to put the baby down if you have a fussy baby who cries a lot and you think crying is bad. It is hard to help your other toddler toilet train, play some stimulating games with your preschooler, or have some one on one time with your kindergartner if you don’t create some regular nap times for the baby (in a crib!). It is hard to have some peace time with your husband at night if you can’t space a feeding or lay Junior down. Thankfully there are all kinds of cool props to help you wear your baby around the house, co-bed, etc. And any mom with more than one little child at home has several of these props that she uses and loves! But the AP mentality of trying to prevent an infant from crying, to precipitate all their needs before they need it, and to generally prevent all distress and insecurity is enough to make any mom neurotic!
Moreover, AP advocates insist their infants will grow up more empathic and well-adjusted. I am not sure this is the case… if it is, it is probably because of the extra care and attention Mom gives her baby, not AP specifically. (Teaching and love will always yield good results.) A key difficulty I believe AP little children may face is independence problems. Independence is very important in our society, and preschoolers are expected to be able to navigate a classroom with some amount of confidence and initiative. I actually found with my second son, who was held the most, cried the least, and seemed the most “bonded” to me as a baby, that he was the most fearful of my four children. Even though he was totally attached and secure with me, he wasn’t with other people. Even today, at kindergarten age, he has a very tough time in a classroom. The security just did not transfer over, as AP purports it will.
There are so many factors that go into making a child secure that even IF security was the number one issue for infants, it is too simplistic to rely on AP to give it to you. In fact, my oldest born, who had the most structure and discipline of my babies, is the most confident of my children. Probably because he had the most teaching! He is also extremely bonded with his dad, not just me. He isn’t cowed to try new things and meet new people. His temperment was not related to how much he was held (which was not very much considering I was pregnant again when he was only six months old). I can’t imagine the burden I would be feeling if I thought my having another child would cripple him for life because I couldn’t wear him, co-bed, etc. We totally didn’t AP—we didn’t even breastfeed. Maybe he is not the norm either, but there’s no reason to feel like your kid can’t grow up secure because you didn’t AP. Which is how the experts make it seem. Or that your AP babies will necessarily be more secure.
I know several families and relatives who have tried to adopt AP, with varying amounts of success. All of them are stay-at-home moms who have two children or more now. Here are some detractors I have observed:
1. The “Limit” Problem.
While AP advocates usually say they have no problems with setting limits, they must have some secret that isn’t in the books. With only one exception, the AP families I know really struggle with limits and discipline. At least, with their one, two, and three year olds. Starting with the eating, sleeping, and carrying protocol for infants, AP has encouraged families to override their own boundaries in these areas. It logically leads to parents to override them in others. AP (or AP-wannabes) become welfare states for their children, trying to make the world at peace with their children. They don’t want their children to experience disappointment, stress, or incompetence because that would make them cry and crying is the root of insecurity. Same goes for being/playing alone. And who wants to start making a secure infant only to wreck it with discipline at some magical age as a toddler? They started out with no limits or times for eating, places or times for sleeping, limits or times for carrying, and then they didn’t know if/when to change that. It didn’t seem natural to begin structure and discipline in other areas, so they became permissive and afraid of exerting their authority. I love my friends but I really believe because their overall outlook was child-oriented, their toddlers are a lot like the kids on “Supernanny”!!
2. The Physical Proximity Problem.
Most of the moms I know who practice AP generally have their kids all over them. Not just during the first six months when it is pretty normal, but into the toddler and preschooler years. If they aren’t still breastfeeding, they are still very dependent on physical closeness. Preschool-age children still want to be with Mom in the shower, climb on her, and have her around at all times. They don’t always learn to venture away from Mommy or play independently. They don’t always learn to get down off Mom’s lap. One AP friend of mine kind of jokes that she never wants her husband to have sex with her because she has been touched all day. Another AP family I know has two boys who seem very secure but totally break down if Mom goes out. Another AP family I know has two boys who actually do better when Mom goes out; when Dad is around (who does not AP), they seem pretty well-adjusted and normal but when Mom comes back, they are whiny and clingy. This friend of mine marvels at this and generally feels resentful that Dad has an easier time with the kids when she puts in all the extra AP effort.
3. The Dad Problem.
Associated with this is the triangle between Mom, Dad, and child. Some dads are totally on board with AP (along the lines of Dr. Sears) and this can make a really good family system. Some dads are really laid-back and generally are happy with whatever Mom is doing. This usually makes an ok family system too. But many Dads get frustrated with AP way before Mom does. They generally want the bed back, Mom back, (Mom’s breasts back!), the evening time back, etc. If Mom is overly involved with the infant care to the extent that Dad is third-party forever, this makes a bad marriage scenario. And this doesn’t mean Dad is petty and whiny about it. It is just that a newborn consumes Mom’s time appropriately and Dad is entitled to “get Mom back” over time. If the one-year old is still pretty much getting the same attention as the newborn was, and the entire house and system has been oriented around the child, Dad has a right to feel left out or annoyed. Especially if they have another baby after that. He is an adult agent in the house who has his own ideas about how his children should be raised. He has also chosen his spouse for adult needs that should be factored in as the baby ages.
Also, if Dad isn’t totally on board, he can overcompensate for what Mom isn’t doing… he can become more authoritarian or discipline-oriented because he feels Mom isn’t giving enough. This is bad for the child and for the marriage. Mom usually allies with the child in these situations because, after all, she’s the Main Parent. She may be ok with the behavior, or not willing to compromise the attachment principles, to get more obedient children. She may pressure Dad to change a lot. But Dad needs to be a Main Parent too. And he needs to be on Mom’s team, not against her.
4. The Aggressive or “Overly Secure” child.
Radical AP can be very child-centered to the extent that the infant grows up secure but no-one else does. Meaning, if the high physical touch needs and limited crying system continues from infancy through toddlerhood, you can get a toddler who expects eating, sleeping, and everything else to be oriented around him. And he might be upset when he finds out it’s not! He can easily become aggressive because he expects things on demand and/or Mom’s discipline is wishy-washy. Or because she doesn’t discipline him at all (i.e. for hitting her) because she believes it is just a phase he’ll grow out of. Peers, siblings, schools, and other caretakers aren’t going to find this ethic acceptable. The artificial environment that Mom has so carefully constructed is going to be exposed when the toddler ventures into the unprotected playground a more regimented nursery. It’s so important for toddlers to be exposed to structure, limits, and boundaries early—even through eating, sleeping, and body space, since those are the first things they learn about. If Mom chooses not to make those things an issue, then eventually they will learn it some other way. So why not make it an issue when it’s age appropriate? It’s been my experience that teaching my 9-month old that it’s naptime is not much different than teaching my 3-year old that it’s time to leave the store.
5. The Passive Child
Radical AP can also produce the other extreme, a passive toddler, if care is not taken to graduate the physical proximity and emotional gratification as the infant grows. This happened to one of my friends who AP’d their adopted daughter from Guatemala. They did this with the best of intentions because they knew that where she was originally from, the very poor mothers slinged their infants almost all day. Unfortunately, this caused a hip problem for their daughter because her legs didn’t develop right… she had to have several operations and even a body cast when she was first brought to America. Anyway, once she came here (at six months old), her parents tried to fix the wrongs of the excessive carrying but still instituted AP to help her bond and adjust through that traumatic start in life. However, they essentially got a “coddled” toddler who was fearful, withdrawn, and a little phobic. She never learned that she was an active agent because Mommy was always there, slinging her, giving her food whenever, moving her whenever she thought her baby needed it. She just had to wait and Mommy would eventually get around to it. Her cries were indistinct, her wanderings were sort of aimless and whiny, and her personality was generally “checked out” unless she was put in a new situation where people didn’t know her very well. At those times she would be clingy and fearful. Now it’s likely that this child’s atypical beginning caused some portion of her problems, but the AP did not help. In fact, this child is now 13 and her mother swears that what really turned her around was a lot of structure and discipline. And a Montessori education. She did AP as a baby because she thought it was most consistent with her daughter’s indigenous culture, and because she was afraid that the child’s needs would otherwise be unmet as an infant, and that that would be insecuring. But it turned out that the child couldn’t own her own needs, or interpret what her body and emotions wanted, until she was responsible for them herself.
6. The Religious Effect.
Whereas authoritarian parenting can produce unpleasant results, one of the results of AP is that advocates tend to get more radical over time. The laundry list of things you are supposed to do to be “a good parent” grows and grows. First it’s natural childbirth. Then it’s breastfeeding. Then it’s extended breastfeeding. Then it’s organic food, cloth diapers, and making your own baby wipes. Then it’s no pacifiers and a sling. Then it’s co-bedding. Then it’s infant massage. Then it’s environmentally friendly clothing and positive correction. It’s always something! They are the new preachers of our age. I suppose it has to be that way because anyone who has raised a baby normally knows that just doing ONE thing, like nursing for a year or slinging little Joey, doesn’t by itself guarantee a secure preschooler. Or a baby who doesn’t cry. Normal parents also know that all the trims and trappings of the first year usually give way to doing things the way everyone else does things around the second or third year. Then all your crazy behavior goes out the window because your daughter is watching Dora and eating a Fruit-Roll-Up at Grandma’s house just like all her other friends. Did the year of slinging and organic peas really pay off? Maybe, although the main difference between your daughter and the non-AP neighbor is that your daughter still doesn’t like sleeping in her own bed. So in order to see “real” differences doing AP, you can’t just pick and choose a couple things, or do it for a year. You have to really make it into a religion. (Then proselytize everyone else.)
* The bottom line is that AP as a comprehensive system for childraising creates neurotic parents and children who can have a hard time with independence or boundaries. AP advocates will insist that attachment parenting does not lead necessarily to permissive parenting. But the worldview is one where parental authority is reduced to facilitation, the child’s needs are assumed to be good, and behavior naturally matures over time. This does not jive with my experience of trying to raise four little ethical preschoolers every day! What happens if the dependency doesn’t graduate to independency? Or the demands don’t mature into self-monitoring? Or security doesn’t stave off resentment of limits?
My opinion is that while there’s nothing wrong with babying a baby, there is something wrong with parents who believe their main job is to keep their infant happy, need-free, stress-free, and secure all the time. It simply can’t be done! Babies are so hard to control in this way since God makes them in all different ways, with all different digestive systems, temperments, and responses. There is also something wrong with closing one’s eyes to the demands of modernity, and importing techniques from indigenous cultures. Americans, for better or for worse, aren’t geared to excessive physical closeness and long-term breastfeeding on demand. And American children, for better or for worse, are not being raised as citizens of an pre-modern, collective farming culture like the Kung San tribal children. Our goals for our children are completely different, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that our baby-care techniques reflect that.