What's Connection Parenting? Q and A

What's Connection Parenting? Prioritizing your relationship with your child, because you know that's the foundation for emotional well-being.

As our infants grow into toddlers and do less nuzzling and more NO-ing, how do we maintain a strong connection while setting the necessary limits? Can we keep the relationship close as our child starts daycare or preschool and we teach her to problem-solve and navigate her own path? As our kids move into the school years and out into the world, how do we stay connected so we can enforce high expectations? And as our kids evolve into teenagers -- when we get fired as the boss -- how can we make sure we have the necessary trust and intimacy with them so that we get rehired as consultants?

Pam Leo, the originator of the term, says it best:

"The model of parenting most of us grew up with was authoritarian parenting, which is based on fear. Some of us may have grown up with permissive parenting, which is also based on fear. Authoritarian parenting is based on the child's fear of losing the parent's love. Permissive parenting is based on the parent's fear of losing the child's love. Connection parenting is based on love instead of fear."
-Pam Leo, Connection Parenting

Children grow up fast. It may not seem that way when your 11 month old cries all night, or your 3 year old is screaming on the floor next to the candy display. But age 9, with its delightful reasonableness poised on the brink of preteen sophistication, arrives in what seems like the blink of an eye. As your child blows out those 9 candles, you’re halfway to 18. The age of majority, when he’s legally considered enough of an adult to marry, vote, and die for his country. 18 – and usually earlier – is when you’re officially fired as a parent, and, if you’ve done a good enough job, re-hired as a consultant.

I dread dropping my children off at college. I know too many women who sobbed the whole way home, wondering how they missed so much of the last eighteen years. Their kids dash off happily, ready for their new lives. It’s the mom who suddenly realizes that she isn’t. I know I’ll be sobbing. But I also know I won’t have missed much. I know they’ll really be ready, inside, to flourish on their own. And I trust that I’ll have built the kind of connection with my kids that will keep us close throughout their lives.

“All parents hope that’s what we’re doing, of course. How can we be sure?”

At this point, there’s not much doubt. Research teams have shown again and again what it is that builds a strong connection between parents and children. It starts early, with parents who respond to the infant’s needs, so that she develops a secure attachment to them. This body of research is called Attachment Theory, and has given rise to a child-raising approach called Attachment Parenting.

“Isn’t Attachment Parenting about moms never being apart from the baby? I love him, but I need a break sometimes.”

Attachment Parenting has indeed become known for its recommendation that babies need a lot of holding by their parents, but of course no mother holds her baby every minute. That’s a caricature. And please notice I said “parents,” as in fathers as well as mothers. All parents need a break sometimes; that’s why nature set us up with two.

But the critical ingredient in Attachment Parenting is actually the attentiveness with which the baby’s adults respond to her, which gives her a secure attachment. That’s the foundation of healthy emotional development.

Attachment Parenting is only the beginning of the bond you build and nurture with your child. The parenting philosophy that helps parents create a close lifetime connection with their kids is known as Connection Parenting, a coin termed by Parent Educator Pam Leo.

“But why does that need to be a parenting philosophy? Aren’t all parents connected to their kids?”

What’s different about Connection Parenting is that it’s about the relationship with your child, rather than a set of “skills’ to make you a better parent. You’re a fine parent the way you are, if you’re in touch with your natural parenting instincts.

“If that’s true, why do so many of us find parenting such a challenge?”

Because no amount of "parenting skills" can make up for the lack of a close parent-child relationship. Kids accept our guidance because of who we are to them. Without that relationship, it’s very hard to parent. A close bond not only makes our kids want to please us, it gives us access to our natural parenting know-how.

It’s especially challenging to create a close relationship with our kids these days. Human beings weren’t designed to handle the amount of stress our modern life loads on us, which makes it difficult to hear our instincts. Most of us try to parent in our spare time, around the demands of work, commuting and household responsibilities. Finally, our culture devalues and erodes our relationship with our kids, and woos them away from us at too early an age.

“So not all parents are sufficiently connected to their kids?”

Of course, every parent has a relationship with his or her child. The question is what kind of relationship. We can think of relationships as the slow accretion of daily interactions. You don’t have to do anything special to build a relationship, per se. The good -- and bad -- news is that every interaction creates the relationship. Grocery shopping, carpooling and bath time matter as much as that big talk you have when there’s a problem. He doesn’t want to share his toy, or go to bed, or do his homework? How you handle it is one brick in the foundation of your permanent relationship, as well as his ideas about all relationships.

It’s true that North Americans think of themselves as more “child-centered” than ever. We take endless digital pictures of our babies that we post online, we plan elaborate birthday parties our two year olds find overwhelming, we let our four year olds run rampant in restaurants, we allow our daughters to dress like pop stars by age 10, we spend a fortune on wardrobes, Ipods, computers, TVs. But these things aren’t what our kids need, and they often disconnect us from our kids, as evidenced by the 2/3 of kids who have TVs in their bedrooms.

“I do spend time with my kids, driving them everywhere. But I have a demanding job and our life is so busy. Do I have to do something special?”

Close relationships are built, moment by moment, from shared experience that lets us touch each other deeply. Nothing extraordinary may seem to be happening on the outside, but on the inside we’re connecting with the fullness of our deepest selves. It’s a form of falling in love: most of it happens in our hearts. Experiences like kissing scraped knees, laughing hysterically over nothing, discussing human nature at the dinner table, or wrestling with a challenging decision during a quiet stroll at twilight – that’s what builds intimacy. But to have these kinds of deep moments with someone, we have to make our connection with that human being our priority.

“I love my kids. Of course I prioritize them. But I have other responsibilities that sometimes have to come first.”

Prioritizing the connection with our kids means we put them first. Not that we don’t work outside the home – and, when we can, throw ourselves into those jobs whole-heartedly. Not that we don’t have passionate, devoted, intimate marriages. But prioritizing our kids means that we take very seriously the responsibility we’ve signed onto: That for this eighteen years of our life, this small person who we chose to have placed in our arms gets our full attention. That we make decisions about the rest of our lives so our children get what they need.

“What do you mean by full attention? That sounds so vague.”

Some people think of it as love. But it isn’t enough that we tell our children we love them. We need to put our love into action every day for them to feel it. Like a marriage or a friendship, your relationship with your child needs positive attention to thrive. Like your garden, your wardrobe, or your work, what you attend to flourishes. Maybe attention is best thought of as being completely present in the moment with another person. Or bringing your full acceptance and appreciation to someone. And, of course, that kind of attentiveness takes time. You can’t multi-task at it.

“So lets be precise here about how much time. It sounds like you’re saying it’s fine to work outside the home if I make good decisions for my kids and give them my full attention when I’m home.”

We can’t come up with the answer for any given family by discussing this in the abstract. But let’s start with what we know is true. We know that for healthy development, babies need to form permanent attachments with intimate others who respond to their needs. By definition, any paid caregiver who is not a relative cannot offer a permanent relationship; you can count on it being disrupted sooner or later.

For an infant, more than a few hours a week of care by a non-intimate can be emotionally jarring. They’re biologically programmed so that their stress hormones go through the roof when their "special people" vanish. An older baby -- starting around six months -- can handle somewhat more time away from her "attachment figures", but still needs to spend the majority of her awake time relating to a permanent intimate other.

“Does this need to be the mother?”

Only a sexist would say yes to that. And why should it be the mom rather than the dad, who loves his baby just as deeply? In fact, it could be a grandmother or aunt. But does this need to be someone who is a loving, permanent presence, who is able to form a deep intimate relationship with the baby? Absolutely. Otherwise, the baby is building a relationship with someone who is going to disappear on her. Or, worse yet, spending her days with someone who can't adequately bond with her.

“So when is it developmentally appropriate for kids to be in daycare?”

Let’s fast forward to what we know about two year olds. If they spend most of their days with someone who is fully present and quietly attentive to their needs, someone with whom they have a strong permanent bond, they tantrum less. They have fewer nightmares. They have a lower amount of stress hormones circulating in their bloodstreams. They are altogether more cooperative, because their needs for autonomy are being met in the context of appropriate loving limits in an intimate relationship.

“But can’t toddlers get these needs met in daycare, or by a caregiver?”

Maybe in fantastic daycare, where the toddler has one special person who is “his,” so he gets the intimate relationship he needs. And maybe with a terrific caregiver. But again, by definition, those caregiver bonds will be disrupted sooner or later, and the younger the child, the greater the damage. We’re so cavalier in our culture about relationships; we don’t acknowledge the loss for our children – and then we wonder why we all feel so disconnected in this society. Of course, if your child doesn’t mourn the loss of a caregiver, then there wasn’t much of a relationship there, and your child shouldn’t have been left with that person to begin with.

The bottom line in non-parental care is the quality of the relationship that’s offered to the child. It’s hard enough for a loving parent who resonates with the toddler to set appropriate loving limits that nurture autonomy. I think it’s a superhuman challenge for any paid caregiver.

Also, if we expect to be our kids' "attachment figures," they need us around for most of their waking hours. So while being a Connected Parent doesn’t mean you won’t work outside the home, you will almost certainly make different decisions about work than you would if you didn’t have kids.

"What about parents who need to work?"

I strongly recommend Stanley Greenspan's book The Four-Thirds Solution: Solving the Childcare Crisis in America Today. He suggests that each parent work 2/3 time and spend 1/3 time with the kids. That means the child gets 1/3 time with mom, 1/3 time with dad, and only 1/3 time with some other caregiver or in daycare. I personally think that's ideal.

"Surely three year olds can be in daycare?"

By the time a child is three, they are absolutely ready for part time group care away from their family, and it is terrific for them in terms of peers, intellectual stimulation, learning social norms, and relating to other adults. Three can be a difficult age and it is often helpful to the parents, as well as the child, for the child to begin to have a life outside the home. If there are younger siblings, it is particularly helpful for the three year old to have his own special "world.". But the parents will have to pay special attention when they are with their child to staying positively connected. That's why fulltime care is still not desirable.

“You’re talking a lot about little ones. What about Connection Parenting for older kids?”

I talk a lot about babies, because if you start with a close relationship, you’re less likely to lose it in the pressures of modern life as she grows up. What happens is that your strong bond with your baby awakens your natural parenting instincts, which insist that you stay connected to your child, even as she gets older.

“Connection Parenting sounds very child-centered.”

Parenting takes enormous effort. But most of the time, the emotional rewards make it feel well worth it. If it didn't work that way, humans would never have survived to this generation. And connection-oriented parents get something huge out of it, something other parents can’t count on. Parenting with a good relationship is like guiding that boulder downhill – you still have to pay attention and offer direction, and challenges certainly arise, but the momentum is with you.

A good parent-child relationship gets you through the hard times, and creates more frequent good times. It helps you to listen to, learn from, and meet the unique needs of your growing child. It makes it easier for you to influence your kid, so he’s more cooperative and discipline isn’t a challenge.

Of course, your child gets something even deeper. A strong relationship with you helps him to love himself, which is the foundation of mental health and happiness; and to love others, which is the foundation of future fulfilling relationships. Kids whose emotional needs are met express the traits and values we all want in our kids: consideration and respect for others, self-confidence, integrity, self -discipline. And study after study shows that a close relationship with parents protects children from the excesses of the culture and the peer group.

Connection Parenting keeps your family connected even as the pressures of daily life impinge on your time together and your children grow into their own lives, with their own friends and interests. And it insures that they’ll want to email you from college, or wherever their paths may lead.

Recommended Resources:

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