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In Support of Attachment Parenting

Posted by thethousandmarch on May 13, 2012 at 4:05 AM

I know I said I was going to write about Christianity for Losers, but a recent hubbub over a certain Time magazine cover has made me decide to write a post about attachment parenting first.

When I saw the Time’s cover of a woman breastfeeding her three year old son, I was not disturbed by the image, but rather the headline. “Are You Mom Enough? Why attachment parenting drives some mothers to extremes, and how Dr. Bill Sears became their guru”. I’m irritated by the implication that somehow attachment parenting is a competition, but it took something more to get me to write.

I saw a piece about attachment parenting, in response to the article, on the Today Show in which they call it “the new extreme in bringing up baby”, and an  “intensive approach to motherhood” which requires that mothers devote “extraordinary time and energy to her baby”. And to top it all off psychotherapist Robi Ludwig chimes in with the most common objection – it will spoil children. She says: “When you give a child the feeling that the whole world revolves around them, it’s not good training for the real world . . . .”

My wife and I practice attachment parenting; it’s not just for mothers. We didn’t need Dr. Sears to tell us how to do it, because he didn’t invent it. It is the normal – not extreme – way nearly all parents throughout all of history have raised their kids, and the way most people in this world still raise their kids. And, as Sears says himself, it is the way anyone would raise their child on a deserted island if there wasn’t an expert there to tell them they were doing something wrong.

Sears’ books have been helpful to us in many ways. I don't know how anyone could be driven to extremes by them. He helped my wife, who was leery of bed sharing, to understand its benefits by showing that scientific research has demonstrated that bed sharing is in fact safer when done properly. Furthermore, he bolstered the parenting decisions we were already making. His books provide ample scientific evidence demonstrating the holistic benefits of attachment parenting techniques, including the fact that children raised according to the principles of attachment parenting are not spoiled by them.

Sears counters “experts” who, without any evidence, teach parents to ignore what was for millennia normal with actual research and not just opinion. In doing so he follows in the footsteps of others – like psychologist Harry Harlow who in the 60’s demonstrated that it was not actually bad to give affection to your baby – who have sought to give back to parents the confidence to follow common sense.

First I want to discuss some of the supposed “extraordinary” techniques of attachment parenting:

1. Breastfeeding – even into toddlerhood. Breastfeeding is rarely easy, and our culture is certainly not conducive to it. However, those women who chose to and are able to breast feed for multiple years are not extreme. The World Health Organization recommends breast feeding for two years minimum, which I think generally qualifies as toddlerhood. Anthropological and scientific evidence suggests that it is natural to breastfeed for up to six years. I know this is not normal in America (if it doesn’t work for you that’s okay; remember it’s not a competition), yet women who breastfeed beyond a normal length of time in America are not actually abnormal as humans, and should not be made to feel shame.

I’ve known one person who can remember breastfeeding and he is probably the most psychologically and emotionally healthy person I know.

2. Bed sharing. Our kids sleep with us because we enjoy it and it’s easier for us. I don’t think bed sharing is necessary to be a good parent, but it really bothers me that so many people, especially when they claim to be experts, criticize it as if it’s not emotionally healthy. First off, it’s not actually abnormal. The bedroom has not been considered a private place, even in western culture, up until recently. (That’s why we find so many references to people like Abraham Lincoln sharing his bed with friends.) Individual private bedrooms are more the result of prosperity than anything else and like many other things which result from prosperity can contribute to an unhealthy sense of individualism.

Now let’s get to the real objection most people have to bed sharing. Without being to explicit, I think it is better for Jessi and my affection towards one another. I’ll put it this way. Sharing a bedroom with your kids makes you have to actually have to make an effort and be creative when it comes to romance. And, we along with many other people in this world still managed to make another baby.

3. Baby wearing – this is just a fancy term for baby carriers. This couldn’t be less extreme. We use strollers and we use baby carriers; whatever works best in the moment. And just like humans throughout history we have discovered that we can actually get a lot more accomplished by using a baby carrier. Throughout history in most cultures parents have strapped on their children so they have their hands free to go about the days work. And children, especially infants, love to be this close to their parents.

So those are three techniques associated with attachment parenting that we have used. They have made our life easier and more enjoyable. They are not extraordinary burdens that have made it more difficult to raise our children.

I want to talk about the principle behind the techniques. Though we certainly know more about how attachment and bonding work because of modern science, attachment parenting is nothing new. It’s not even unique to humans. I was raised on a small sheep farm and have seen what good instinctual parenting looks like; I also saw what neglectful parenting looks like and what it results in.

Affection and attention from parents are needs, not wants, especially in infants. Letting an infant “cry it out” can damage their brain (and yes, there is plenty of research to back this up). A basic knowledge of what happens to babies who are neglected should make anyone realize how important affection is – they die without it. Also look at orphans who grow up with little contact from an adult, thus never bonding with a caregiver (listen to Unconditional Love from This American Life). What parent does not want to bond with their child? Yet using attachment parenting techniques to bond with your child does not mean that as your child gets older and is actually capable of understanding that the world doesn’t revolve around them you don’t start to train and discipline them. And, making your child feel secure by always trying to be attentive to their needs, responding when they call, does not mean you always give them what they ask for.

Attachment parenting is simply about caring for your child’s needs. It is not a set of rules, it is not even fundamentally a set of techniques or tools. Attachment parenting is an attitude. It is about doing whatever you can to make your children feel love, protected, secure and cared for. I don’t think I’m some super dad; I’m certainly a long way from perfect, but I’m trying to do all I can to do what’s best for my child.

The goal of attachment parenting is to attach yourself to the child and the child to you. Any instinctive bond between parent and child is fragile and it takes an effort to strengthen the attachment. Attachment parenting techniques help to build a bond which is actually physically imprinted in the brain. All parenting is hard work and takes a lot of time and effort. All babies require constant attention. But, it is these difficult liminal experiences which create bonds that are stronger than genetics or instinct. Children who are made to feel loved, protected, secure, and cared for are better equipped to become mature healthy adults. When they are young they may appear “overly” dependent upon their parents, but that’s exactly what a parent wants. When your child is young and vulnerable you want them to seek protection and reassurance in you when they feel threatened, or insecure. As they grow they will go out into the world with a feeling of security, instead of a desperate need to find someone who makes them feel secure.

For those conservatives who might read this, Focus on the Family founder Dr. James Dobson is an advocate of attachment parenting.

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