Saturday, July 25, 2009

Attachment Parenting doesn't have to mean Child-Centered Parenting

One of the typical arguments against attachment parenting is that it will make the baby "spoiled." Picking up a baby every time he cries and carrying him around will make him into a brat, and especially comforting him if he wakes crying at night, according to many mainstream parenting magazines. And some would say that the children they know who were attachment-parented are demanding, controlling little people at ages three, four, and beyond. I don't think that attachment parenting, in its true definition, is to blame for this. There are plenty of children who, as babies, were left to learn to comfort themselves, day and night, in order that they would become independent, who became demanding, controlling little people as toddlers and preschoolers as well.

I think this is partly due to what some call "child-centered parenting." This is when the child becomes the focus of everything the parents do, and when the child is given choice after choice after choice, from what to eat for breakfast to whether or not to go to a playground and when, to where the family should go out to dinner, to when the TV is on and what programs are to be viewed. This happens when the parents expect the baby to be the leading dance partner, for the baby to show the parents what to do and when.

But, you ask, isn't attachment parenting about being focused on the child, about giving the child choices, about listening to what the child wants and making them happy all the time?

Not quite.

Attachment parenting does advocate following the baby's cues... a baby's needs and wants are the same! It is impossible to spoil a baby by responding to his cries. I think the hard part for some attachment parents (and for many parents regardless of parenting style - more on this later) is the gradual shift from baby to toddler to preschooler. I also think our culture, with its playgroups and children's birthday parties and indoor inflatable play places, has a role here.

The first year can be an adjustment for a first-time parent, and attachment parents sometimes find themselves burned out from so much give and so little take. It is hard especially when we live in a society in which we don't have the constant support and companionship of living within a community of other families right outside our doors, and so it can become quite isolating. So we try to create communities for ourselves as parents, and these often revolve around the children.

Just to be clear, I am not knocking taking your kids to the playground or inflatable place at times... I do this myself. I am mostly kicking ideas around here. I do think that too much child-centered activity outside the home can breed a feeling of restlessness and discontent in young children (as well as overstimulation), where the child is easily bored at home and is constantly asking, "What are we going to do today? Where are we going that is 'fun'?" Kids who are overscheduled and taken to event after class after playgroup could very well lose the ability to be creative in their play. A little boredom is healthy for children - how else would they be motivated to come up with some of the elaborate play schemes at home that they invent?

Jean Liedloff, author of The Continuum Concept, writes about attachment paretning in a culture in which parents just parent by instinct, not by parenting books. Parents do what comes naturally as they focus on living their lives. She writes about it as not being child-centered. Babies are carried around by their parents and older siblings almost constantly, they sleep next to their mothers all night, they are never left alone even in sleep. They are breastfed on demand well beyond age 12 months.

But, you may be thinking, isn't this very child-centered?

Here's why it is not: the babies and young toddlers who are in-arms constantly are a part of the life of the family and village. They are along for the ride, so to say, as their mothers move about their daily tasks which are not child-centered. They observe their mothers (or whoever is carrying them) cooking, working in the fields, going about business all while the baby is "attached" to the mother (either in a sling or just held in-arms... obviously a sling makes this easier, especially if the baby falls asleep or needs to nurse). The baby is therefore a passive participant in the life of the family, as he watches and learns, "Ahh, this is what my people do." His needs are met: he can sleep when tired, feed when hungry, nurse for comfort if he needs it... all while the mother goes about her business.

This may seem strange and almost negligent in our culture... that the baby is basically "ignored" in that he is not constantly talked to, focused on exclusively, or that the parents don't ever "do what the baby wants," which typically means playing with the baby, reading him books, etc. But biologically, these parents are doing what the baby wants - not just what he wants, but what he needs, what he expects, them to do! He wants us to show him what we do, how we live, so he can learn about life from us, the experienced adults. He is not the one with the experience. This does not mean that he doesn't know what he needs... that his crying is just "manipulative." A baby cries to get his needs met, but these needs can be met in large part while parents go about their daily tasks (although it might take some practice at first, especially in a culture where we have not been brought up in this type of environment, surrounded by babies and this type of parenting)... in fact, this may be exactly what the baby needs! He doesn't want to be engaged in child-centered activities: being set down in a seat with a bunch of dangling toys, being put in front of a Baby Einstein video or in an Exersaucer or what have you. I certainly did my share of sitting down with my first baby with a bunch of toys and trying to play with them with her... and talking to her about every single feature, mostly in a questioning format: "Is that a ball? What colors do you see? Is it blue? Can you roll it? It's a soft ball, isn't it?" Child-centered. I think it is thought to be valuable in our culture because of the high emphasis we place on learning. But honestly, did my first baby learn what a ball was any sooner than my second child (who I did not do as much of this with) because of this? No. And if she did - well, would it really matter?

I think the problem with too much of this (I am not saying parents should never speak to their babies or ever play pat-a-cake with them) is that it essentially puts the baby in a position in which he was not designed to be. He is a six month old - he does not know "what he wants to play." The eager and well-meaning parent sits down with the baby, waiting for him to make his desires known, when what he really wants is for the parent to show him what to do! He wants the parent to be " in charge," not in a dominating, controlling way, but by leading by example and incorporating the baby into the life of the family... not by hovering around him expecting him to show us what he wants to do, and not by isolating him and keeping him from the day-to-day family living, either.

Since we are not generally immersed in an attachment parenting environment in our culture, many of us do it - or at least begin doing it - for the same reasons we begin to breastfeed: out of obligation to our children. We often do it because it is "best," as shown scientifically. Attachment parenting, when done sheerly out of obligation and not an actual desire, can surely lead to burnout, resentment, and other negative feelings. Embracing attachment parenting as a part of family life, as something that is just "what we do," helps us to realize it is not all about the baby and more about the family. And attachment parenting is good for the baby and the family: the baby learns about family life, older children get to see constant baby care and learn patience since a baby's needs often come first (although mom can certainly nurse baby in a sling while getting a snack for older children, reading them books, bandaging a cut, etc.), and the needs of the family are considered as a whole. For example, families often sleep with the baby and/or younger children in the parents' bed because this maximizes the amount of sleep for everyone. Babies' needs are met throughout the night this way with minimal disruption to the parents' sleep (even if they can't sleep a solid straight block of 8 hours). Teaching babies to sleep alone before they are ready often results in less sleep for all: the baby, obviously, since being trained to sleep alone and through the night typically involves leaving the baby to cry, and this in turn could disrupt the sleep of everyone else in the house. Sure, sometimes this is a relatively quick process lasting a week or so, but at what cost? And then sometimes the training must be done over again after illness, teething, travel, and any other number of disruptions. All that to say, attachment parenting feels best when done as part of the fabric of family life and not when parents are trying to hurry (or at least fantasizing about hurrying) the process. I know because I started out with my first child by attachment parenting out of obligation, and I had to grow into it as a way of life. Once it becomes an accepted and even embraced season of life, how freeing! So much less concern and worry about baby's routines, and therefore less child-centeredness.

Often attachment parenting is associated with "permissive parenting," in which the children "run the show" and the parents give up all authority and try to be equals with their children. This is not what attachment parenting has to be. Again, the transition from baby to toddler is tough because of the child's increasing wants (which may not be the same as his needs). And it is not just attachment parents who end up becoming permissive parents... there is much mainstream advice about giving very young children choices, about asking their opinions, and involving them in most of the family's decision-making. There are some times when a two or three year old can make a choice between two things, but the problems arise when it becomes non-stop:

"Are you ready to get up now? Let's get breakfast, okay? Do you want cereal? Do you want oatmeal? Which kind of juice would you like? And in which cup? Do you want to sit in your booster seat or on the big chair? At which place at the table?" And on and on and on! Yes, these are all minor decisions, but this leaves no room for the child to witness the parent making decisions - which will help him be able to make his own decisions in the future as he has had the chance to observe competent adult decision-making. It also opens the door, if you have a more verbal child, for the potential for more arguments, and can lead to the potential for the child feeling as if he knows more than the adults.

A trap I often fell into was asking the question, "Okay?" after everything. We hear it all the time around us, so it can be natural to fall into it. "Time for breakfast, okay?" "Let's clean up the den now, okay?" "Mommy needs to go to the bathroom, okay?" "Do what your father tells you, okay?" In a way, we may be awaiting confirmation that the child has heard what we have said... expecting that verbal agreement from a young child is assured confirmation that he heard you and is agreeing to what you have said. Actions speak louder than words, especially with young children. Just by the act of preparing breakfast and putting the toddler in his seat, you are accomplishing the task without the "okay" part, without the possibility of getting into a power struggle with the child who may inevitably answer, "No!" Even though we have the best intentions when asking "okay," the message it can send is one of asking our children's permission, indecisiveness on the part of the parents, and a sense that everything is negotiable down to the minute details of the essentials of the daily routine (like eating a meal). Young children need to see that their parents can make decisions in the best interest of the whole family in a loving yet firm way, empathizing if the child does not want to do what he is asked while still helping him to do what is expected (distraction, singing, moving the child into the booster seat yourself in a gentle way, for instance). Then they can feel comfortable and confident that their parents are indeed competent adult models for them.

Lately, permissive parenting occurs in many families regardless of parenting style during infancy. Babies who were raised in a very "parent-in-control" environment, maybe ironically, can turn into demanding toddlers, and parents then see that the child has a will of his own and then try to placate that will in order to help the child become less demanding. On the other hand, attachment-style parents may continue to see all their toddlers' wants as being his needs and therefore have a hard time setting boundaries. Or they try to reason verbally or try to get the child to make compromises and agreements because they wish to treat their children as equals. I think that gentleness and compassion are at the heart of attachment parenting, but this does not have to mean that everything is negotiable for young children. Providing them with loving boundaries can teach them empathy for others, and this does not have to be done with harsh punishments. We can state a boundary once and then help the child comply, empathizing if necessary, without getting into a verbal battle of the wills and without belittling the child as well. Finding the balance is the tricky part!

Something else, and this may seem disjointed being put here, is the importance of the family working together. This follows the baby in-arms phase, as they have observed the work of the older family members and are honing their motor skills and becoming more independently mobile. Young children learn best by imitating, and they want to try to do what their parents and older siblings do. If their parents push all the housework to evenings after the children are in bed, or if they mostly do housework while the kids are out of the house with one parent or off at grandma's, then the children miss the opportunity to see their parents doing purposeful work and the chance to imitate them. We send the message that adults do the work and children just play out of the way, or, when we are constantly playing with our children while neglecting household tasks, they see that "fun" for the children is the main priority, even over dinner preparation and living in a sanitary environment! Of course, family togetherness should be equally important in that the children aren't sent off on their own while mom cleans meticulously. Having time set aside for family activities that promote bonding and creating strong memories is important - going to the beach or pool, taking vacations, taking a family hike or camping trip, family game nights or movie nights with older children... all these things create ties and make happy memories, yet they are not child-led. Rather, they are family-centered.
And family work around the house can be this way as well... baking together, painting together, and other chores and projects, when done together, can make good memories. The important thing is for the parents to display a good attitude about it: that chores are not mundane, tedious tasks to be hurriedly gotten out of the way, but that we can enjoy spending time together to make our home comfortable and a pleasant haven for the whole family. I have had to work on my own attitude and motivation in this regard, but I have found that when I try to enjoy my housework, then I do enjoy it.

And, as if I have not already babbled on long enough... could it also be possible that the culture of death is a partial culprit here as well? We don't have as many babies as we used to in our culture in recent years. Children are viewed more as burdens (at the very least, financially). People don't have the experience of being raised around lots of siblings and numerous other children within the family. So, we are almost obsessed when there is a new baby born that we become very child-centered. In families where there are more than one or two children, there is not as much chance to be child-centered because the parents are busy being family-centered, and the siblings play together as well as work together. How odd that, as a culture, we have purposely avoided having more children while at the same time, we have become so very child-centered.

I do think it is important to give children a little one-on-one time, too, don't get me wrong. Teens need some time with just their parents to talk about growing-up issues. Babies sleeping with their parents get a nightful of one-on-one time! And individual opportunities can be grabbed here and there throughout the day... one child may be playing alone while another is reading with a parent. I know one mom who assigns a kitchen helper each day... one child gets to help out with the dinner prep each day and spends some quality time with mom that way.

I think I should wrap this up before it gets even longer... As always, these are just some observations and thoughts that have been swirling about in my head for the past year or so, and some of this has more recently been brought to my attention. I don't claim to have all the answers... I'm not the poster child for attachment parenting or for family-centered life; I am trying to do what is best for my family just like all the other parents I know. I think it is interesting to ponder it all...

And here are some links that got me motivated to write this post:

Who's in Control? by Jean Liedloff

Restoring Harmony by Abigail Warren

ADHD, A Challenge of our Time by Eugene Schwartz (very long, but good especially toward the end)

Family Work by Kathleen Slaugh Bahr and Cheri A. Loveless (a Mormon article containing lots of good info for any large family)

When Queens Ride By by Agnes Slight Turnbull, 1888 (a great short story that only slightly ties in regarding homemaking... but a great read, really!)

A Bit of Benign Neglect by Donna Simmons
This one from a Waldorf perspective... here's a snippet below that provided me with an "a-ha!":

"Instead of being under the microscope, the children are simply "part of." Instead of being why or what is done, they are just part of the consideration. Instead of feeling the the parent's need for the child to fulfill whatever criteria - and however well intentioned - the children just live and grow and are part of the family.
There's a huge difference here! To be the center of an adult's world is so unhealthy, both for the adult and for the child and certainly for their relationship! What a heavy load for a child to carry to know on some level that every choice and decision in the household centers around him! What a challenge to live in a situation where it can seem that the sole reason the two adults involved came together was to raise him! How damaging to a child's emergent sense of Self to be unable to find his Self in relation to a healthy centered adult because that adult is busy finding her Self in relation to him!"

Just some food for thought...


Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed reading that. I am someone who has tried several different parenting styles with different kids and feel the most at home and relaxed with attachment parenting. Every time I struggle with what to do as a parent now instead of what everyone else I know did or what I am told to do I try to do what people have done for centuries.

Kate Wicker @ Momopoly said...

Excellent post! There are so many misunderstandings about AP. I've been accused as being an insecure mom who "needs" my kids "attached" to me after simply mentioning the phrase "attachment parenting." Likewise, so many people think all AP parents are lenient parents who don't discipline. Yet, I do discipline or guide or teach our kids. AP is really an ideal I strive toward.

At any rate, I don't really care what the "experts" call it, I just "do" AP because it's what comes naturally to my children and me.

God bless.

That Married Couple said...

Wow. What a great post! We don't have children yet, but I'm already thinking about "ecological breastfeeding," which I believe goes along with this attachment parenting. I (and my husband, and basically everyone else) was a little wary of this, but you have certainly given me a great perspective and assuaged some of my fears!

Erin said...

Ecological breastfeeding is what led me to attachment parenting and basically my entire parenting style (thanks, Sheila Kippley!!). Reading Breastfeeding and Natural Child Spacing while pregnant is where I first found info on this type of parenting, and from there I found La Leche League, and the rest is history! Glad to have assuaged some fears! AP can seem overwhelming at times, but I think that is in large part due to our expectations of babies based on our societal norms... it is hard when people think you're crazy, but there is ever-growing support for parenting in this way, thankfully! I did a post of parental expectations regarding infant sleep a few weeks ago too:

BluePixo said...

Every parent should convey to the child that he is an individual in his own right apart from us and responsible for his successes and failures.

BluePixo Entertainment - A place for mom and dad to share topics about parenthood

Erin said...

I would agree that that is the ultimate goal, BluePixo. They don't see themselves as separate from us in the early years, but eventually they do separate and begin to understand being responsible for themselves... I'd say it goes from the parent being mostly responsible, then gradually to the child becoming responsible for himself. It is our job as the parents to guide our children into independence and self-responsibility.