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Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Attachment Parenting: Pro and Con

By Dr. Laura Markham

Should you Attachment Parent your child? Research shows babies thrive when their attachment needs are met, so the answer is clearly yes, if we define Attachment Parenting as responding to the baby’s need for connection. But as a psychologist, I see some destructive child-rearing practices justified in the name of Attachment Parenting. So let’s define our terms.

In infancy, responding to a baby’s needs almost always means keeping her in close proximity, thus the name “Attachment parenting.” Because our culture is always suspicious of “dependence” and doesn’t facilitate parents spending time with children, some critics deride this parenting style as too difficult for parents. In fact, all the research shows that babies whose needs are fully met become more cooperative, agreeable, easier to parent children, which makes for happier parents. It is also true, though, that parenting a baby responsively means he will often be in your arms and the center of your attention, and discipline will be limited to distraction.

As babies grow, however, needs change. Convinced their caretakers are reliably nurturing and protective, they build on this internal security to tackle the next developmental task. Toddlers, preschoolers, and older kids still have a fierce need for connection with their parents. But they also need to explore without being over-protected. They need to take initiative without being over-controlled. They need to learn that their right to extend their fist stops at the other person’s nose.

Most parents find the transition to toddler-hood challenging. Many make the mistake of overlooking their child’s needs to stay connected, appropriately assert his will, explore his environment, make a contribution. Attachment parents often run into trouble by not realizing that parenting responsively in this stage means responding to long-term as well as short-term needs, which calls for a new approach that includes limits. And any parent more concerned with controlling her child than relating to him will find parenting a huge challenge.

“Over-parenting”– over-vigilant parenting that undermines our kids’ trust in themselves -- originates in our desire to protect our kids and meet their needs. With babies, what they want IS what they need. But as kids grow, their immediate desires often conflict with their developmental needs. Good parenting means knowing when to keep our hands off and let him stumble, when to set a firm limit and let her rage.

And that’s where a few parents give “Attachment” a bad name. Because Attachment Parenting is a theory rather than a set of rules, the practices used by Attachment Parents vary. Most breastfeed and “wear” their babies, some co-sleep, most wouldn’t see “crying it out” as responsive parenting.

But what about four year olds who are allowed to hit their parents or siblings, five year olds still breastfeeding, six year olds sleeping with mom while Dad sleeps in the guest room? What about the idea that setting limits squelches kids’ spirits, that expectations compromise kids’ integrity, that children don’t need rules and should be treated as small adults?

As an attachment theorist, I can tell you that none of these examples are Attachment Parenting, because none are responding to the developmental needs of the child.

Children’s needs go way beyond connection. They need the reassurance that a parent will keep them safe, the structure that allows a good night's sleep, the high expectations and limits that get internalized as good habits and self-discipline.

Giving in to kids’ demands because we can't bear their unhappiness isn’t attachment parenting, it's irresponsible parenting. It gives kids the message that their sad and angry feelings are so unbearable they must be fended off at all costs, and often that other people's needs aren’t important.

All kids benefit from learning that sometimes, as much as they want something, they just can’t have it. Good parents set limits when it’s in their kid’s best interest. They tolerate the resulting rage and unhappiness. Most important, they resist being punitive, instead offering empathy and understanding in the face of their child’s upset. Our kids learn that they can’t always have what they want, but they can have something even better: someone who loves and accepts the full range of who they are.

So yes, my opinion as a child psychologist is that all babies should be attachment-parented. After that? Stay connected, give their growth free rein, and learn to set limits with empathy.

Laura Markham, Ph.D., is the Dear Abby of Parenting for the 21st century. A clinical psychologist trained at Columbia University in NewYork, she is the founding editor of the popular parenting website YourParentingSolutions.com.

In addition to Hip Slope Mama, she serves as Parenting Expert for ParentingBookmark.com, Storknet.com, Wellness.com and Pregnancy.org, on which she hosts a regular online chat for moms. Her work appears regularly on a dozen parenting websites and in print.
She lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn with her husband, 12 year old daughter, and 16 year old son. If you have any parenting questions for the Good Dr. Laura please send them to HipSlopeMama@gmail.com.