As I said, the news reports reminded me that when I wrote this post two years ago during a heated Catholic blogosphere discussion of AP (and yes, Larry D, the post was titled "Detachment Parenting"), I had made a few assumptions about AP based on what others were saying about it--but had never followed up by further research into what AP is all about, and whether or not my critical view of it was really fair.
After doing some more reading, I've come to three conclusions:
1. I don't have that much of a problem with the "eight principles" of AP--the principles themselves, that is. How the principles are lived is another question.
2. I do still disagree with some aspects of the underlying philosophy of AP.
3. My biggest issue with AP has more to do with the way some people not only practice it, but insist that all others must practice it, and with the twofold negative aspect of a) judging those who don't use AP as "bad parents" and b) insisting that "science" has proved that AP results in happier, healthier, more well-adjusted children who have fewer mental health problems than other children when, in fact, science has been a lot less definitive about those things.
Let's take these one at a time:
The Eight Principles
According to Wikipedia, which I use here merely for convenience, the eight principles are as follows:
- Preparation for Pregnancy, Birth and Parenting
- Feed with Love and Respect
- Respond with Sensitivity
- Use Nurturing Touch
- Ensure Safe Sleep, Physically and Emotionally
- Provide Consistent Loving Care
- Practice Positive Discipline
- Strive for Balance in Personal and Family Life
The list of principles is general enough that any conscientious parent might be said to be fulfilling them. For instance, "provide consistent loving care" is probably a goal of the vast majority of parents, as I suspect few if any parents think ahead of time that what the child really needs is inconsistent and non-loving care. But the specifics in the "seven B's" are where things begin to break down--though to be fair to the Dr. Sears website, there is emphasis placed on finding balance, on using these things as tools (an important concept), and on the importance of individual parenting styles.
Nonetheless, out in the world the AP parent who does not co-sleep, or who cannot wear her baby, or who "fails" at nursing is aware that other AP parents are quite likely to judge her for this--but more about that later.
Perhaps the most interesting thing the Dr. Sears website has to say is this:
AP is a starter style. There may be medical or family circumstances why you are unable to practice all of these baby B's. Attachment parenting implies first opening your mind and heart to the individual needs of your baby, and eventually you will develop the wisdom on how to make on-the-spot decisions on what works best for both you and your baby. Do the best you can with the resources you have – that's all your child will ever expect of you. These baby B's help parents and baby get off to the right start. Use these as starter tips to work out your own parenting style – one that fits the individual needs of your child and your family. Attachment parenting helps you develop your own personal parenting style.On a Catholic forum I read a discussion about AP where the parents were commiserating about the fact that attachment parenting gets so much harder as the child gets older. If AP is a "starter style," though, how can that be true?
The Underlying Philosophy
As I wrote two years ago, there are a couple of problems I have with the philosophical aspects of AP as they are often expressed. One of these problems concerns the notion that the child must create a strong bond with a caregiver; this person is almost always the mother, who then must train herself to respond to her children's needs and meet them immediately, thus creating the attached bond that will supposedly produce all the good benefits down the road.
My problems with this are twofold: one, it's already terribly easy for a nursing mom to fail to make enough room for Dad in the baby-bonding experience (and I speak from my own life, here); it seems to me that AP would make that even easier, setting up a family dynamic of "mom + baby + toddler etc." on one side, and "dad" on the other. The other problem concerns the baby's expression of his needs and mom's duty of instant or near-instant response; while the youngest babies do, indeed, only cry when they are truly in need of some particular thing which can be done for them (e.g., food, changing, sleep, comforting etc.), this is not true of the older baby, toddler, or young child. Take the teething baby, for instance: his fussiness is due to the need he wants met--he wants his sore gums to stop hurting! But mom can only do so much in this regard. Soon, you have a baby who has had some mild pain reliever and some cold chewable toys and comfort nursing and rocking and distractions, as many as mom can think of--yet his need remains unmet, making him increasingly agitated. Mom, who has been trained to meet baby's needs, may also be agitated--there is literally nothing more she can do! But the parenting method seems to be telling her that of course she can stop baby from crying and fussing--he just needs her to meet his need, and if she were any kind of a mother she'd figure out what that meant.
The second idea may be, I admit, a particular hang-up of mine: the insistence by some that AP is all about learning to respect your child. I put it this way two years ago:
The second presumption is that what our children most need from us is the sense that we respect them; this respect is supposed to foster that key sense of trustful attachment or bonding that according to the theory is so extremely vital to the child's life and future development. I love my children dearly, of course, and I do respect my God-given role in their lives, and theirs in mine; but somehow I get the feeling that this isn't what is being discussed in these sorts of parenting methods. I think that what our children need most from us is unconditional love, actually; that respect is a cold and distant substitute for the love which seeks to model the love of God for us, which parents should strive for with their children. Moreover, teaching parents to respect their children seems to put things exactly backwards; parents must love their children, but children are following God's commandment when they honor and respect their parents.Now, of course I think we should respect our children as unique individuals with priceless immortal souls, their own personalities, and so forth; but, again, I get the feeling that in AP terms the respect being spoken of has more to do with those "seven B's" mentioned above than the more philosophical idea.
The Biggest Issue
What is it about parenting methods that make devotees develop a near-zealot style adherence to the method (and to do so even when the method's author or authors preach moderation and flexibility)? I think it's pretty simple: because every parent desperately wants to believe that there's one right best superior holy holistic exceptional dynamic way to raise children so that they will turn out bright and smart and well-balanced and happy and successful (and, eventually, saints in Heaven)--and, at the same time, because every parent desperately fears that one wrong move anywhere along the way will send the potentially happy and successful child into a devastating tailspin such that he or she will end up homeless, in prison, or suffering from one of any number of other social ills (with his or her immortal soul in grave peril as well).
I've listened to any number of "retired parents" talk (and no, parents never do retire), though, and the truth is that life, as always, is far more complex than that. Sure, some parenting decisions really do affect children negatively--one of the ones we don't like to talk about much is divorce, for instance--but others, ironically some of the ones we agonize the most about, don't really have the impact we fear they will. Plenty of children have grown up to be happy, successful, religiously devout adults who weren't ever worn as a baby, who always slept in a crib, and whose parents even used disposable diapers. And plenty of people who swore by a parenting method did not thereby manage to avoid all future problems with their children.
So to insist that "science" has "proved" that AP is the best way to raise a child is to misunderstand both science and attachment parenting, in my opinion. And to judge as lazy, selfish, or incompetent one's fellow mothers for not adhering strictly to every practice ever associated, even casually, with attachment parenting is, quite frankly, reprehensible.
Parenting is already an incredibly difficult job. Those who find value in the tools of attachment parenting are understandably going to be enthusiastic about them, but I think the greatest tool in a parent's toolkit is one word: humility. To be humbly grateful before God for the gift of one's children, to beg His help, and to be open to doing whatever works best for your family seems to me to be the sanest and most sensible approach.