What Is Attachment Parenting?

Let me begin with a disclaimer:  Attachment parenting is based on an ideal, but no parent can meet this ideal at all times, every day, at every point in life.  Life is hard sometimes.  Parents are human.  We come to parenting with a set of strengths and weaknesses, and no matter our ideals, we fall short.  We carry on with humility, learning about ourselves and our children, seeking the wisdom of others, seeking God’s grace and mercy.  What you’ll find in the articles on this website are descriptions of the ideal, but never walk away with the idea that the CAPC writers live up to the ideal all the time.  Because of our failures, we have compassion for all parents on this wonderful, wild parenting journey.

So there’s the disclaimer.  Now, what is attachment parenting?  Attachment parenting isn’t a set of rules; it’s a relationship that depends upon a loving responsiveness to what infants, children, and teenagers need.   The goal is to nurture the child/parent bond so that the child grows up with a sense of trust toward her parents and eventually others.  The goal is NOT the parenting practices commonly associated with “attachment parenting” in the popular media.  While there are certain recommended practices in achieving a strong bond with your child, particularly at the infant stage, parents may adopt some but not others of these practices.  There isn’t a list of things you need to do to belong to our “club.”  If your goal is to raise a child with a deep sense of well-being, to raise a child in an atmosphere of joy and acceptance, then you’ll find something on these pages.

Scientifically, attachment parenting is based upon attachment theory in the field of psychology, which emphasizes the importance of a child’s secure attachment to her parents from infancy and throughout all of childhood.  According to attachment theory, babies and children deprived of a secure attachment to their parents, especially mom, will learn to cope and may appear “okay” on the outside, but may develop problems such as depression, aggression, addictions, and unmanaged anger.  Adults who failed to achieve a strong attachment to their parents in childhood will have difficulty forming healthy, thriving relationships later on.

These conclusions are scientifically non-controversial.  It is clear from the scientific data that a strong attachment to the mother initially and other significant caregivers later is among the most important predictors of positive psychological outcome later in life.

Most people associate attachment parenting with the infant years.  Dr. Williams Sears has written many popular baby books based on attachment theory.  He recommends several practices that foster and nurture the bond between the infant and her parents, including strong birth bonding, breastfeeding (on demand in early infancy), sleeping close to the infant, and babywearing (wearing a baby in a sling or other carrier to foster closeness and rhythm).  This tends to be where the debates start.  Even folks who intuitively know attachment is important have a hard time accepting some of these parenting practices because they are counter-cultural.

Many people think attachment parenting ends at babyhood, because the debate has tended to revolve around infant parenting practices.  However, the importance of fostering the child-parent bond continues into toddlerhood and beyond!  The foundation laid in infancy must be nurtured and strengthened in the preschool years and protected in later childhood.  This is accomplished by employing parenting practices that respect rather than diminish a child’s dignity and build rather than destroy trust between the child and parents, including:

  • Using only respectful forms of discipline,
  • Allowing independence to unfold naturally,
  • Nurturing the parent-child rapport by working and playing together, and
  • Protecting the primacy of the family as the center of influence in the lives of older children and teens.

Attachment parenting is NOT:

Permissive parenting:  I’ve read criticisms of attachment parenting from folks who claim to know an AP family and the critic describes the children as rude and out of control.  Attachment parenting is not a permissive parenting style.  If a child is rude, destructive, or lacking in self control, this isn’t the result of attachment parenting.  Perhaps the child is having a bad day or perhaps the AP family believes in the principles of attachment parenting, but struggle to implement the practices in their home environment.  Perhaps the parents are actually disengaged and passive in their interactions with their child — this is not attachment parenting.  Let’s be clear that attachment parents set limits, create routines, and discipline their children, but these responsibilities can be carried out with respect, tenderness, and love.   Being consistent and clear about expectations is a cornerstone of attachment-based parenting.

Homeschooling:  I homeschool my children and I’m a legal advocate for homeschool families in California, so clearly I believe in the benefits of homeschooling.  However, choosing to parent your children with an attachment approach does not lead inevitably to homeschooling.  Many very attached children go to “away school” and enjoy deep and loving bonds with Mom and Dad!

Unschooling:  If you do homeschool, attachment parenting does not lead logically to the choice to unschool.  I’ve read some homeschooling blog posts that assume any attachment parent will want to unschool because a gentle parent wouldn’t want to “force” a curriculum on her children.  While I respect my unschooling friends, I think this conclusion is wrong.  A gentle parent can still set limits and expectations around learning.  We can create an atmosphere of joyful learning and nurture family bonds while learning together.

CAPC welcomes all Catholic parents interested in intentional, gentle, empathic, and/or attachment parenting!  I invite readers to check out this companion article on Catholic perspectives on intentional parenting.

FURTHER READING:

Books:

Parenting With Grace by Dr. Gregory Popcak (I like this book because it includes stages beyond infancy and is written from a Catholic perspective)

The Science of Parenting by Margot Sunderland.  How today’s brain research can help us raise happier, more empathic, and confident children.

Becoming Attached: First Relationships and How They Affect Our Capacity to Love by Robert Karen.  A tremendous achievement, this book traces the emergence of attachment theory in the work of John Bowlby to it’s critical shaping by Mary Ainsworth and other researchers in the United States.  If you are interested in the history of attachment theory as it played out against psycho-analytic and behaviorist approaches to interpreting child behavior, you’ll enjoy this read.  I found it fascinating.

On-line:

Website for Attachment Parenting International

Articles by Dr. Sears on Attachment Parenting

The Science of Attachment Parenting by Gwen Dewar

 

Photo credits (photos.com): Elena Shchipkova (baby in sling); Birgitte Magnus (mother daughter bond)