When I became a new mother nearly fifteen years ago, I set out to discover what my baby needed to thrive in every way. When I looked into his blinking blue eyes and stroked his downy hair, I didn’t want sweet Aidan to be just “okay” – I wanted more for him. I wanted him to become all God intended and hoped for him.
Well, to know how our children thrive, we have to understand how God created them. God gives us clues about what our children need, clues that are written into creation itself — including our children’s own bodies. As attachment scientists tell us, children are most likely to thrive physically, cognitively, and psychologically when they enjoy a strong and loving attachment to their parents. But why? What’s the big deal about attachment? This is the question I explored with Greg and Lisa Popcak on their radio show More2Life last Thursday, December 6th.
What is attachment?
Simply put, attachment is the emotional bond between a parent and child. It’s established in infancy, but it must be nurtured throughout childhood in order for its benefits to endure. A securely attached child can lose that security when circumstances change or the parent disappears for some reason – whether physically or emotionally. When nurtured, this bond continues to deepen into older childhood and the teen years, developing into a strong rapport: the parents are so in tune with the child that the child feels deeply known and understood.
The more secure the bond and the stronger the rapport, the better for the child. Children with a secure attachment to their parents tend to do well on several measures: they choose healthier relationships, they have higher self-esteem, are more creative and curious, and are even more kind and generous. Children who lack a secure attachment have greater difficulty controlling their emotions and impulses, engage in risky behavior as adolescents and adults, and are drawn into chaotic relationships.
How attachment and rapport occur
The kind of security we’re talking about occurs when a child’s parents and caregivers respond to her needs and fears with empathy, warmth, and respect, when the child receives generous amounts of affection and playful attention – and when all of this happens consistently and reliably. That’s a tall order! Fortunately, children do not need perfect parents to thrive.
I’m trying to underscore the kind of basic emotional atmosphere that permeates our child’s life. If that emotional atmosphere is generally loving, responsive, and respectful, our child can handle occasional disconnects and our mistakes — even the biggies. I’ve lived in situations where the general feeling is just bad. You probably have, too. In conscious Catholic parenting, we’re talking about creating an emotional atmosphere that is generally positive, supportive, and respectful: you don’t have to create a perfect existence for your child to be a good parent.
The big topic on the Popcaks’ show was generosity, particularly when it’s hard to be generous. The kind of generosity required by conscious Catholic parenting (which is grounded in attachment theory) is definitely a challenge at times. But it’s not an all-out give-a-thon. As children get older, generosity is most often about the time it takes to discern what children actually need in that moment. Lisa made a beautiful point during the show that generosity isn’t about giving for the sake of giving; it’s about working for the good of the other person.
Discerning what is for the good of our child takes wisdom and patience. If we have a newborn who’s hungry in the middle of the night, we feed her because she really needs the nourishment. On the other hand, if our five year old child is asking for her fifth class of water after bedtime, she may need some hugs, not water. She may even need some limit setting. Generosity in this case would be saying no to more water and tucking our child into bed with a kiss.
Why attachment has such a positive effect on a child.
Attachment has four primary functions that explain why it’s so critical to our child’s optimal development. First, it gives a child a sense of emotional safety. When parents treat their children with respect and take their needs and fears seriously, children know they are safe and can get on with living rather than merely surviving in a frozen state of hyper-awareness.
Second, when children are securely attached to their parents, the parent becomes a secure base from which children move out to explore their environments. They have an easier time pressing on toward new stages of development. A parent’s love is like a bridge helping the child cross to new stages of growth, including spiritual growth.
Third, securely attached children gain internal control as they get older. When a parent responds to her child calmly and warmly when the child is in distress, the child eventually internalizes this comfort and is able to self-soothe even when the parent isn’t around.
Fourth, securely attached children are more effective communicators because they’ve been permitted to express their emotions, both positive and negative emotions. Real people have feelings. All sorts. Children who are not punished or shamed for their emotions learn eventually how to express them appropriately.
God is present and active in our parenting.
What parent doesn’t want what I hoped for Aidan when he was an infant? There’s something present in all parents when our children are born, something imprinted upon our souls, urging us to look beyond today, to think beyond meeting our child’s basic physical needs. We turn inward, recognizing on some level the promises of God within our hearts, promises that direct our eyes toward the everlasting hills. This isn’t all I hope for you, he’s saying, I promise you freedom from darkness; I will heal your broken heart; I will draw you closer to me. Come.
We want that for our babies: the promise of freedom, joy, safety, and union. Even if we’re too tired, broken, or confused to recognize why we’re searching for something more for our children, something more than we had, something more than we’ve been giving them, God’s invitation is there, urging us to a beautiful life with our children.
Understanding attachment is key to Godly parenting because it provides a piece of the road map as we guide our children toward those everlasting hills. Let’s move.
Image Credit: Allison Saathoff