Attachment parenting and the problem with the 3 Bs

January 27, 2014

I don’t like parenting labels, and I don’t like to attach myself (no pun intended) to any particular label. Labels imply a set of rules to follow. They create stereotypes, stigma, and unnecessary wars between different ‘camps’. Do you follow AP or RIE? I find it faintly ridiculous that I’m expected to choose one or the other.

But aside from this, the real problem I have with the term ‘Attachment Parenting’ is that too often the emphasis is on the 3 Bs (breastfeeding, bed-sharing, baby-wearing). At least this seems to be the case whenever Attachment Parenting hits the media. But then I suppose the media never are great at reporting anything perceived to be outside the mainstream. Certainly if this ill-informed piece of trash recently written about RIE is anything to go by, having a label does seem to lay one open to attack, ridicule and misrepresentation.growing up

But whatever the reason for it, I sometimes feel that this emphasis on the 3 Bs leaves us apt to forget that what happens beyond infancy is important too, and that the term, Attachment Parenting, gets in the way of that, or at least, fails to extend to this later period of childhood.

Perhaps the term was only ever intended to cover the parenting of babies? You’d certainly think so sometimes. Yet Attachment Parenting International’s website does have a page listing the principles of Attachment Parenting that go beyond just the 3 Bs.

Do parents get put off looking for an alternative way to parent because they feel the 3 Bs are not for them? Shame if so, as I think (and I’m sticking my neck out here) it’s quite possible to meet a child’s attachment needs without practising the 3 Bs. And meeting attachment needs is the goal here, not living up to certain expectations for how things should be done. It’s just many parents find the 3 Bs facilitate things quite nicely. But some don’t.

In any case, these implied rules seem to get a little foggy later on. What happens when the 3 Bs stop? Is that it? Job done? It’s true, a secure attachment will give an infant the best possible start, setting them up for a life of security, independence, self-worth and confidence, and the ability to form healthy relationships. But there’s still time to screw all this good work up, and that can happen if we don’t know how to respond to a child’s challenging behaviour, to their tears and upsets, to their struggles and feelings and needs as a growing child. There’s also the need to recognise how our own childhood experiences profoundly affect the way we respond as parents.

How many times have I read, “Dr Sears advises time-out so it must be AP”. Grrr. This is what I mean about labels. Forget whether or not ‘it’s AP’. Throw his book away at that point and read something by some authors that have since developed  a better understanding of children’s needs beyond infancy. And, here’s another hint – That won’t be Margot Sunderland, who, seemingly because she‘s a great advocate of co-sleeping and writes some good stuff about the evidence against leaving babies to cry apparently makes the Attachment Parenting list . Yet in her book, “The Science of Parenting”, which I’ve seen recommended on numerous websites and Facebook pages purporting to promote Attachment Parenting, and on display at parenting conferences, she refers to crying children as ‘little neros’, advises time-outs, reward charts, and ignoring tantrums. Really? Sounds frighteningly similar to a certain popular TV celebrity. But oh no, we attachment parents don’t listen to Jo Frost. Do we?

I’d really like to see a shift in the emphasis. Yes, the first three years are a vital period in terms of brain development and secure attachment, but there’s still plenty can go wrong after that. I don’t wish to sound negative, but seriously, time-out and ignoring tantrums? We can breastfeed and co-sleep as long as we like, there’s little point if we all just turn into Supernanny later on. Children need compassion, care and respect from birth and onwards, and right through to adulthood. Let’s get informed about what this means beyond the 3 Bs.

growing plantsAttachment Parenting is like sowing a seed. We do this with great tenderness and care, we provide the best soil, and enough attention to ensure it has the right amount of light and moisture, we watch with excitement as the first shoot appears. Having got this far, let’s not trample on those seedlings. Let’s watch them continue to flourish and grow to reach their full potential.


“Don’t read any parenting books. Just follow your instincts.” Why I think this is bad advice.

October 14, 2013

I am surprised at how often I meet people who turn their noses up at the mention of parenting books. I can never quite understand why, or what their objections are. It seems to be based on an assumption that parenting books will lay out a set of rules that are impossible to follow, or that are wrong, or will put more pressure on you as a parent.

Yet reading parenting books has been life-changing for me, not to mention my child.

?????????????Let’s just clear one thing up: Gina Ford, since hers is usually the name mentioned to me by people objecting to parenting books generally, is not the only parenting author in existence, and not all books follow her approach. And by approach I don’t just mean the parenting methods themselves, but the idea that a book can give you a blanket set of rules to follow, with which one must succeed or fail.

Alfie Kohn puts this well in his book (which I would highly recommend), “Unconditional Parenting“;

“What follows will not be a step-by-step recipe for How to Raise Good Kids……. Very specific suggestions (“When your child says x, you should stand at location y and use z tone of voice to utter the following sentence…”) are disrespectful to parent and kids alike. Raising children is not like assembling a home theater system or preparing a casserole, such that you need only follow an expert’s instructions to the letter. No one-size-fits-all formula can possibly work for every family, nor can it anticipate an infinite number of situations. Indeed, books that claim to offer such formulas, while eagerly sought by moms and dads desperate for a miracle cure, usually do more harm than good.”

I think the assumption that all parenting books are indeed like the ones Kohn describes here has caused many parents to boycott them altogether. But in doing so we miss out on the one thing that can really make us better parents – knowledge. And books provide knowledge. Without knowledge, how can we make informed decisions? Parenting is the most important job we’ll ever do. Shouldn’t we read up a bit so we have some idea of what the heck we’re doing?

There are a lot of books out there, and some conflicting advice, I know. But I think it’s easy enough, once you get started, to become a discerning reader and separate the wheat from the chaff. I start by looking at who the author is, where they’re from, what they do, what they have studied. It gets pretty easy to read between the lines. Does the book give any insight into child development and psychology, or is the emphasis on quick fix solutions for parents? Is the book’s information backed up by any reference to research, evidence or studies, or the work of a particular psychologist? (here’s another hint about Gina Ford – she doesn’t measure up too well in any of these departments).

But why all this information, complicating things? Why not just follow our instincts?

What do we really mean by ‘instincts’? Some of our natural instincts can get us a long way as parents – responding to our baby’s cries, for example. But the thing is, we basically learn to parent from our own parents, so many of our ‘instincts’ are in fact merely behaviours and responses that we have learnt from them, that were hard-wired into us when we were children ourselves.

Now, we might think our parents did a great job. This may be so, but it’s a great assumption to think there’s nothing more to learn, nothing to improve on. That nothing more is known now that wasn’t known back then.

When my child cries and screams and makes a fuss about something I think is trivial, my instinct is to tell him to shut up and stop making such a silly noise or else. Yet reading has informed me that this is not a good response for many reasons.

When my child ‘misbehaves’ my instinct is to punish him. Yet reading has informed me that punishment is a bad idea.

These instinctive responses are so deeply ingrained in me from my childhood, I feel I’ve spent much of my parenting life fighting against them, holding my tongue when the words my mother used to say to me pop into my head. It’s very hard to change these in-built responses and without the knowledge I have gained from reading I would never even have known I needed to make changes, let alone how to make them. Parenting responses can actually be rather counter-intuitive, and a little knowledge about children and what might be going on in their heads is kind of necessary. Relying solely on our instincts is a bad idea.

Why be content to just carry on doing what our parents and grandparents did before us? To keep passing old methods down from one generation to the next? As with anything in life, how can we ever acquire new knowledge and improve things without paying attention to research, new information, new insights?

Perhaps our society wouldn’t be so stuck in the old conventional methods if more of us would read some of the many excellent parenting books available. There’s a wealth of information and knowledge out there. To ignore it is to bury our heads in the sand, to short-change our children, and to miss out on the one opportunity we have to be the best parents we can be.


My child, not yours.

April 11, 2013

Mother Holding ChildI have just been reading about the recent story of how a shop worker smacked a three year old girl, who she deemed to be misbehaving, without the permission of the parent. Needless to say, I am outraged (although it seems not everyone is). 

I could of course write a good deal on why I think smacking is wrong, and have a good rant about this. But the story also made my blood pressure rise for other reasons. It evoked that all too familiar feeling of extreme annoyance and affront that I feel whenever someone takes it upon themselves, uninvited, to speak to my child in a way I feel is not appropriate. 

At what point is it OK to intervene with someone else’s child? This question could lead to an endless debate about what is and is not acceptable behaviour from children, but I think that misses the point. 

Sarah Ditum’s article in The Guardian, whilst expressing her disapproval of the incident, concludes by saying, “… there are so many ways of dealing with another person’s child in the act of naughtiness that don’t involve physically attacking them‚ like, say, talking to them gently but firmly.” 

True. But I would go further, like, say, talking to their parents. Anyone ever think of that? It’s not like the mother wasn’t there. 

And that’s what really gets me. I would always favour talking to the parent first, rather than to their child. 

It’s the parent’s job to choose their methods of parenting, of disciplining and limit setting. And it’s the parent’s job to decide what they think are reasonable limits to set. If we disagree with these limits and feel there is a problem then it is surely more appropriate to discuss these with the parent than to take matters into our own hands with their child. The parent is also the one with intimate knowledge of their child, of the sort of language and methods they will and will not respond to, how they’re likely to respond, how they’re likely to be feeling, where their behaviour is coming from in the first place, what has gone before. 

And yet so often I find people talk to my child inappropriately. Don’t misunderstand. I do not let my child just run amuck. I don’t think it’s OK for my child to charge round a shop knocking things over and breaking them. Nor, I’m sure, did Angela Cropley. I’m right there, ready to deal with the situation as I see fit, and yet so often it’s taken out of my hands before I have the chance. 

And it’s not just issues around behaviour that bug me. It bugs me when people comment to my child on how dirty he is when I don’t mind him getting dirty if he’s having fun, and I don’t want him to be worried about it. It bugs me when people use language like ‘naughty’ and ‘not very nice’ around my child. It bugs me when people try to distract or cheer up my child when he’s crying, or worse, mock or belittle him, when I would rather validate his feelings and let him have a good cry if he needs to. 

I recognise that much of the problem for me is that others’ perception or definition of what is bad or normal behaviour are often not on a par with mine. Couple that with the fact that my methods of dealing with behaviour are not on a par with theirs, and the result is, well, lots of difference of opinion, and perhaps I’m over-sensitive about it. But the thing is, I spend a great deal of time biting my tongue or turning a blind eye to parenting methods that I strongly disagree with, and that I often find quite upsetting to witness. Children being smacked, children being left to cry, threatened, bullied, talked down to, disrespected and humiliated. But I say nothing because I don’t feel it’s my place to interfere. So it would be really nice to feel other parents could extend me the same courtesy. 

So as well as raising the issue of respect for children, this recent incident of the child being smacked by a shop keeper raises the issue of respect for parents. 

Please stop assuming that everyone uses and approves of the same old dated parenting methods. If you want to use them with your child, that’s your business, but my child, my methods are my business. Butt out.


Attacking the minority

May 21, 2012

There have been a lot of annoying articles written about attachment parenting recently as part of the buzz created by TIME’s recent stunt.
But probably the most annoying article I’ve read is one published by the Guardian last Friday, written by Katha Pollitt. Her sub-heading claims that,

“The latest fashion in child-rearing is about regulating the behaviour of women, not benefiting children.”

That’s possibly the most twisted take on attachment parenting I’ve heard so far. Attachment parenting not about benefiting children? How did she arrive at that conclusion?

And clearly it is inconceivable that women could genuinely act out of love for their child, love of being a mother, and through natural instinct and informed choice. There must be some ulterior motive. Or they’re just fashion victims.

She accuses attachment parents of projecting their guilt ‘outward onto more relaxed mothers’. Strange. I’m not sure how I project something that I don’t feel, but if I make other mothers around me feel guilty then I’m very sorry, but I would gently suggest that the problem originates with their own perceptions and insecurities, none of which are within my control.

The article goes on to suggest that instead of practising attachment parenting our efforts would be better put into tackling child poverty, as this ‘affects children’s well-being more directly’ – a clear failure to grasp the whole concept of attachment parenting as a long term goal.

Sure, we need to tackle child poverty, but make no mistake, no matter how much we reduce poverty, social problems will not go away if we continue to fail to understand and take seriously the emotional needs of our children. And I’m not saying everyone must practise attachment parenting, but a little open-mindedness might help, a little more willingness to consider new ideas and information.

Ms Pollitt’s ignorant remarks are insulting, to say the least, and on more than one level. They are insulting to women who make this parenting choice, not just by dismissing the parenting style itself, but by suggesting that they are merely following a fad, are victims of some sort of social conspiracy to ‘regulate’ their behaviour, and furthermore, do not actually have the best interests of their children at heart.

As usual, the minority are an easy target for ridicule and attack. A typical social problem, and perhaps another example of our failure to raise human beings who are able to be respectful and empathetic towards each other.


Attachment parenting; not just for babies

May 18, 2012

Enough has been written about TIME magazine’s cover, and the service, or disservice it did to promoting attachment parenting. I feel anything I add would be mere minnows in an already raging sea of debate. 

But I will add this: What bugs me, aside from all the other issues with TIME magazine’s choice of cover, is that attachment parenting is, as seems all too common, made out to be all about breastfeeding. 

One thing I personally would like to shout out to parents who wish to know more about an attachment based parenting approach is that it is not just about breastfeeding, co-sleeping and baby wearing. 

OK, attachment theory informs us of how vitally important those first few years are.  How a child’s early life experiences can wire their brain, and form the basis of their social and emotional development, really cannot be over-estimated. So it’s essential that parents get this. But get this too; there’s still plenty of opportunity to screw things up after those first few years. 

It doesn’t matter how long we breastfeed or co-sleep for, or how secure our child’s attachment to us is, if we then go on to make poorly informed parenting choices as our children get older, this too has the capacity to do lasting harm. If a child is consistently subjected, day in, day out, for years, to parenting methods that harm self-esteem and parent/child relationships, and fail to meet their emotional needs, this too has far reaching effects. And even for the many children who emerge from it all OK, how much better could we have done? Better than just OK. 

Attachment parenting is for life, not just for babies. So let’s promote attachment parenting beyond infancy. I wonder what TIME magazine would come up with as a cover photo for this. Any ideas?


Too permissive?

February 29, 2012

I often feel that one of the potential pitfalls of my parenting approach, and something that I constantly need to guard against, is that of too much permissiveness.

Sceptics and critics of punishment-free parenting, positive parenting or whatever we want to call it will often accuse us of too much permissveness, whilst advocates of this parenting style will assert that it does not mean permissive parenting, and I agree with this – it doesn’t.

But I do feel there’s a danger that it can.

Whilst I do believe passionately that a parenting style that seeks to empathise with children, understand their feelings, allow for their capabilities, respect their wishes as much as possible, and move away from behaviour focussed, controlling and punitive methods is absolutely correct, I also think this can leave us treading a very delicate line between authoritative and permissive. Maybe it’s because we immerse ourselves with advice on how not to be too controlling, how to move away from an old parenting style of power and submission, that we’re left in danger of becoming too hung up on avoiding this aspect, and don’t spend enough time thinking about how to avoid being too permissive. Or maybe it’s just me.

Following studies in the 60s, psychologist Diana Baumrind came up with 3 basic parenting styles; Authoritarian, Authoritative,  and Permissive.  You can read more about these here, but the conclusions Baumrind’s studies came to were basically that authoritative parenting leads to happy children growing into happy adults.  Authoritarian is too strict, and permissive too soft.

Now, having read these descriptions of parenting styles, I placed myself as somewhere between authoritative and permissive, (although aspiring to be authoritative) and being slightly alarmed by this overlap into the ‘too soft’ category, I also read plenty of material on the negative effects of too much permissiveness, which alarmed me even more. This excellent article by Dr Laura Markham is a good example.

Now, if I’m not careful, all this could lead to a constant paranoia in my every parenting decision that I am being too permissive.

So what is too permissive? It can all get very confusing.

For example, Naomi Aldort writes in her book ‘Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves‘;

“A child cannot experience the parent’s love while being controlled by him/her….Even what some parents call ‘natural’ consequences is mostly parent-imposed and therefore causes the same harm and mistrust as punishment. If is is natural, it occurs on its own. For example, a father told me that the ‘natural’ consequence of his son not finishing his chores is that he will not go to his friend’s house, as he now must stay home and do his chores. However, if a child was expected to wash dishes and didn’t, the only natural consequence is that the dishes are dirty. Cancelling his play date is a punishment imposed by the parent against the child’s will…..the child who neglected the dishes may choose, after you express your feelings, to wash the dishes before going over to his friend’s; however, such choices must come from respectful communication of the people involved and based on their authentic preferences. You can kindly offer to wash the dishes or find some other considerate solution. You can also find out why the chore wasn’t done, and you may discover some need for change in the work loads or expectations….When you offer to help, the child learns to offer help unconditionally.”

OK, I can see what she’s saying here, but what does this all mean to us as parents in practical terms? Does this mean that any means we employ to get our child to do what we want, and what we think they should do, means we are not being ‘authentic’ and that our child’s compliance is not ‘authentic’? Or, on the other hand, by offering to help with the dishes and not enforcing any consequence are we failing to enforce our limits and to be sufficiently demanding and assertive as a parent,  failing to set boundaries and limits with consistency, denying our child the ability to learn self discipline, self regulation, etc etc? Aargh!

Aldort’s suggestion of finding some other ‘considerate solution’ or finding out ‘why the chore wasn’t done’ brought to mind Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish’s book “How To Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk“, in which they give lots of practical advice on problem solving and finding solutions that work for both parent and child. However, they do allow that natural consequences and letting a child ‘experience the consequences of his misbehaviour’  is sometimes necessary, where all else has failed. Examples include refusing to continue to allow a child to borrow things  if they fail to take proper care of them,  and getting a child who is late home for supper to make his own.

Meanwhile, Alfie Kohn’s principles of Unconditional Parenting include, amongst other things, “Reconsider your requests”, “Put the relationship first”, “Be authentic” (that word again!), and “Don’t be rigid”.

In the end I think it all comes down to the usual answer; that there is no easy answer. Parenting is not an exact science. All this advice is open to how you interpret it. And every parenting decision we make has to be treated individually, within its own context. So I guess I’ll just have to carry on being paranoid,  sorry, mindful, about being too permissive.

In my attempts to be mindful I try to keep these two basic points in mind:

If I feel I’m allowing my child to do something against my better judgement then I’m probably being too permissive. I think this is a good rule of thumb, for example for things like too much TV, too much junk food, or allowing my child to stay longer at the playground when I know he’s tired and hungry and a meltdown is imminent!

I make sure I have a good reason to say no. This is useful not only in challenging my own motives, but in providing an explanation for my child.

What about you? Which of Baumrind’s categories would you place yourself in and how do you guard against too much permissiveness?


Long term, not short term goals

January 3, 2012

Having read a recent article in the Observer about different parenting styles in Britain and France, how people may judge the success of these, and a new parenting book on this topic, it strikes me that it appears to have escaped the notice of an alarming number of people that young children are not young children forever. They grow up.  Childhood is a relatively short episode in our lives, and yet, as so much evidence, research, and you would think our own experience tells us, such an important one in shaping who we are, how happy we are, how stable we are, our personalities and emotional well-being.

Now surely most, if not all parents will say that they want their children to be happy when they grow up.  They want them to be various other things too; kind, considerate, confident for example.  It follows that our goals as parents should be focussed on these outcomes.  Think of it as raising adults rather than raising children.  Our children will one day be adults.

So how do we go about achieving these outcomes?  Well, it seems to me the importance of this question in relation to our children’s future is frequently forgotten in the rush to focus on our children’s present; their behaviour in particular. 

Perhaps many parents think that if their child can be what society deems ‘well behaved’ this will lead to them being all the things they want them to be as an adult.  But how is this supposedly desirable behaviour in children achieved? If the aforementioned article is anything to go by, I’d say it is achieved through fear – of being smacked or of other punishment or removal of privileges, or of the withdrawal of their parent’s affection, not because the child has learnt ‘respect’. Do not mistake fear or self-interest for respect. A child cannot be ‘taught’ respect; they learn by example.  The parent is their role model. Smacking a child, expecting instant compliance, constantly disregarding their wishes and feelings, and using punitive methods to gain their obedience does not model respect.

Another thing that strikes me is that the behaviours that seem to be considered important in this article; whether or not our children can go to bed and stay in bed all night, sit still at the table, be quiet and unobtrusive on supermarket trips and on public transport etc, are in fact for the benefit and convenience of adults, and not necessarily for the benefit of the child.  Perhaps we need to re-assess what behaviours are desirable in children and why.  Somehow I don’t think harking back to the old ‘little children should be seen and not heard’ attitude is likely to be in the best interests of our children.

If we want our children to grow up being respectful to others, we need to be respectful to them.  This does not mean we should allow them to run riot, but we might need to just bear with them a little while they’re just children, and find gentle, empathetic and respectful ways to show them the way. If we want our children to grow up to be confident and happy individuals we need to consider how their experience as a child may influence the likelihood of this outcome. A child who never has a tantrum is not a child who is likely to grow up able to face up to and deal with strong feelings.  A child who fears disapproval at every turn and who is constantly made to feel their behaviour is ‘bad’ is not likely to grow up with a positive self-image.  The society of ‘good little sleepers’ and compliant, docile children, that this article seems to imply is desirable, comes at a cost.

The last thing we need is another ill-informed parenting book that drags us back to old methods of behaviour focussed parenting, selling itself to parents looking for quick fixes and convenient behaviour, and ignoring any evidence and research that warns of the potential costs of such methods.  The book has not yet been published so I may be speaking too soon, but if this article is giving a true flavour it is certainly not selling it to me.