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Attachment Parenting Pros and Cons

Should you Attachment Parent your child?  Research shows that 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'm concerned by how controversial the idea of Attachment Parenting has become.  Of course you want a Securely Attached child, but are there specific rules that will help your child develop into one?  And does that mean you can't set limits? Let’s define our terms.

The essence of “Attachment Parenting” is nurturing a strong parent-child connection.  Four decades of longitudinal and brain research have proven that humans’ optimal physical, mental and emotional development depends on meeting the infant’s innate relationship needs.

For instance, brain research indicates that the ability to self-soothe and manage anxiety later in life originates in having been reliably soothed as an infant. Securely attached toddlers are healthier, tantrum less, and develop a “conscience” earlier. As they get older, they’re more cooperative with parents, get along better with peers, learn faster at school, have higher self-esteem, and are more flexible and resilient under stress. So the evidence clearly supports facilitating a secure attachment, and we also have ample research about how best to do that.

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. What's more, parenting in close proximity increases your instinctive empathy for your child, so you'll be more likely to know what he needs and how to respond -- and that makes parenting easier.  It is also true, though, that parenting a baby responsively means he will often be in your arms.

As babies grow, however, needs change.  Convinced their caretakers are reliably nurturing and protective, babies 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, and make a contribution.  Unfortunately, trying to control a child--rather than setting limits with empathy and focusing on a close relationship--results in a rebellious, uncooperative toddler.   Attachment parents, conversely, 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 empathic limits. 

 “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, virtually all wouldn’t see “crying it out” as responsive parenting.  But Attachment Parenting is an art, not a science, and the individual decisions need to be based on the individual child's needs. Occasionally (not often) I see parents who make their decisions based on some idea about what Attachment Parents "should" do rather than what their kids need.

Examples?  A nine month old who really wants to be down on the floor exploring more often, rather than always in a sling, where his mom thinks he should be. A four year old who is allowed to hit her parents or siblings. A six year old who sleeps with mom (which is fine in itself, of course) while Dad feels there's no room for him in the bed.  The idea that setting limits squelches kids’ spirits, or 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.

Am I a strict parent?  No.  The research is pretty clear that authoritarian parenting sabotages kids' emotional development.  (For more on what's wrong with strict parenting, click here.) Some people might see me as a pretty indulgent parent, because I work to see things from my kids' point of view, and I try always to empathize as I set limits. But the proof is in the pudding.  Kids whose parents treat them with respect and empathy flourish.

But I feel strongly that we do need to set limits as parents, simply because there are times when our kids need them. Children’s needs go way beyond connection. They need the reassurance that a parent will keep them safe, the structure that allows for 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.  (For more on what's wrong with permissive parenting, click here.)  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. They allow their child to have his disappointment, rather than trying to talk him out of it.  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, no matter what. (For more on how to set limits with empathy, click here.)

So yes, my opinion as a psychologist is that all babies should be attachment-parented.  After that?  Every baby and child is different, so every family will make different decisions.  But it's safe to say that all kids need us to stay connected, give their growth free rein, and learn to set limits with empathy. And enjoy your child!