Archive for AP Basics

Developmental Attachment v. Spiritual Detachment: raising children who are capable of letting go of the wrong things and embracing the right things

pope francis prayingAn acquaintance and I were recently chatting when the subject of parenting came up. I explained that I am an “attachment-minded parent”. He chuckled and said, “But we’re Christians. Aren’t we supposed to be detached from created things?” He was only joking (I think . . .), but he does raise an interesting question about the difference between the term “attachment” in developmental psychology and the term “detachment” in spiritual development.  I talked about this topic with Greg and Lisa Popcak recently on their Catholic radio program More2Life.

So, if Christians value spiritual detachment, can our children become too attached to us? Can their attachment to us prevent them from maturing spiritually? I think the contrary is true: a secure attachment in childhood makes it easier for our children to experience spiritual detachment in adulthood.

1. Attachment in Developmental Psychology = GOOD

The term “attachment” in developmental psychology refers to a process by children form (or fail to form) strong bonds and a sense of security with their parents. A child’s attachment style develops in response to repeated interactions with his parents. It’s like a dance between a child’s needs and the parent’s response that creates an internal working model for all of the child’s relationships; it shapes his expectations about other people and how they will treat him when he is vulnerable emotionally or physically.

Secure attachment unfolds when parents respond consistently and warmly to a child’s need for comfort and guidance. This attachment gives children a secure base from which to explore the larger world, and helps them learn to regulate their emotions in response to stress and disappointment.

Insecure attachment might occur because the parents are cold and distant or too harsh (this leads to avoidant attachment). Or the parents may meet the child’s need warmly one day, then disappear the next (this leads to anxious attachment). Children adjust their behaviors to deal with the pain or unpredictability of their relationship with the parent. The outcome is unfortunate. These kids don’t trust others, they struggle in friendships with other kids, they have poor self-esteem, they may be aggressive, or lack empathy.

As they move into adulthood, insecurely attached individuals are frequently crippled in their ability to sustain healthy relationships. Their unresolved emotional pain prevents them from experiencing or forming authentic, loving relationships in which both people are comfortable giving and receiving love. Some adults cope by shutting out people and convincing themselves they don’t need anybody (this behavior is termed “dismissive”). Others become preoccupied by their relationships because they are anxious about the other person’s love for them – they are clingy and needy (this behavior is termed “pre-occupied”). These attachment stances affect their relationships with their co-workers, spouses, children, and even God.

2. Detachment in Spiritual Development = GOOD

Christians strive for spiritual detachment from any inclinations, choices, or relationships that hinder their spiritual growth. We detach ourselves from any obstacle to human flourishing, so that we can in turn re-attach to healthy human relationships and the love of God.

Think of addictions, obsessions, or a tendency to particular sins – these are unhealthy attachments. Sometimes our attitudes toward material goods or status become the problem. More is never enough and before we know it we are imprisoned by our stuff or our “success.” We find it increasingly difficult to connect with the people we most love; our prayer becomes distant and dry. Sometimes detaching may mean getting a new job or purging our house of the objects that are weighing us down, but frequently we just need an adjustment in our attitude and priorities.

Dr. Greg made an interesting point about the difference between Buddhist and Christian views of detachment. For the Buddhist, detachment is about escaping the ego, letting go of the prison of our personalities, so that we can fall into the void of the universe.  This escape is the goal; it is an end in itself.  For the Christian, detachment is about weaning ourselves from unhealthy approaches to relationship so that God can teach us his plan for relationships.  The end goal for us is loving communion with God and each other.  Detachment for the Christian is a means to that end.

Maturing Christians even detach themselves from preferring one thing to another. Should my son go to this school or that one? Should I attend a baseball game or my brother’s piano recital? Should I take this new job or stay at my current one? Detachment leads us to a place where we don’t prefer one choice to another; we just want to do what God wants because we love him so much. Most of us struggle with this kind of detachment, but it’s a possible for us all!

3. Moral of the Story

Cooperating with God to form in our child a secure attachment and capacity for self-giving love will actually make it easier for her to experience spiritual detachment later. Because spiritual detachment requires a kind of inner balance in our hearts toward things and relationships. People with adult attachment disorders often claw at things or people out of a desperate unmet need. This desperation keeps them imprisoned in pain. If our children are emotionally whole, they will be more free to get about the business God has for them to do.

If you’d like to listen to my interview with the Popcaks, it starts about 20 minutes into the show.  Better yet, enjoy the whole show!  The Popcaks addressed problems with connection in our relationships:

Which Is More Important: Quantity or Quality Time with Kids? BOTH are equally important

boy and motherLast week the media happily seized on a study released in the Journal of Marriage and Family in which three sociologists presented their findings of a long-term study that examined the affect of mother’s time spent with children on the emotional and educational outcomes of the children.  They found no relation between how much time mothers (study mostly focused on mothers) spend with their kids (aged 3 to 11) and the child’s well-being, until high school.  In high school, teenagers benefit from increased time spent with both mother and father.

Here are some problems with this study:

1. The study only looked at time spent with children on two days, then looked at how well the kids were doing years later.

I would be very concerned if somebody tried to draw conclusions (years from now) about my family based on how much time we spent together over the next few days, but that is exactly what this study does:  it infers something meaningful from something meaningless.  There are so many variables not considered by this methodology that a finding of no connection between time spent and child outcomes is, well, not terribly interesting.  Dr. Justin Wolfe, professor of economics and social policy, put it like this:  “The study measured only the amount of time that parents spent with their children on two specific days, and a brief snapshot like this is an unreliable measure of how much time a parent might typically spend with children. This measure contains a little signal and a lot of noise, which probably explains why the study failed to find a reliable correlation with children’s outcomes.”  You can read his criticism of the study here.

2. The study did not examine the quality of the emotional relationship between the children and the parents, either before or during the study.

The authors admit that they did not evaluate the “tone” of the relationship between the mother and her children when they were spending time together. “[N]either did we assess the quality of tone of mothers’ interactions with children, such as warmth, sensitivity, or focus.” But this tone is critical to child outcomes.

In particular, the authors failed to assess the quality of a child’s attachment to the mother at age 3 (the age the authors begin their measurements) and younger (which is odd because of some of the children in their original sample were younger than 3, so this marker could have been observed).  Attachment scientists have identified in copious studies the critical importance of a child’s secure attachment to her parents. A child’s strong attachment to Mommy initially and other significant caregivers later is among the most important predictors of that child’s positive psychological outcome later in life.

Compared to insecurely attached children, children with a secure attachment tend to mature with the following patterns:

  • They are more resilient in the face of adversity.
  • They possess a more positive attitude about the future.
  • They possess greater self-esteem.
  • They take greater initiative in mastering difficult tasks.
  • In middle childhood, they are warm and open, and they are capable of forming close friendships.
  • As they mature, they tend to form friendships with people who also possess qualities of secure attachment.

Securely-attached children do better in childhood and adulthood than insecurely attached children, and secure attachment requires BOTH quality time and quantity time.  Here’s why: Secure attachment occurs when a child’s parents and caregivers respond to her needs and fears with warmth and respect, when the child receives generous amounts of affection – and when all of this happens consistently and reliably. This requires high-quality quantity time.   How much actual time a child needs to thrive varies depending on 1) her age, 2) her temperament, and 3) the day or hour!  Kids needs change and transform over time, but responsive, empathic parenting is worth it in the long run.

I am not suggesting that our children need us 24 hours a day or that other trusted caregivers are not an important part of the unfolding of childhood.  I am saying that mothers and fathers bring unique gifts to parenting, and when either mom or dad are not around enough, it matters.  I am saying that nobody loves our children like we do, and that without enough time together we can’t develop that quiet sense of security and connection that comes from building memories together.

3. The study did not evaluate quality time at all.

The authors state clearly in the study state they did not look at (measure or evaluate) quality time at all,   “[W]e did not focus on quality time — the amount of time in particular quality activities with children, such as reading or eating meals together versus watching TV or cleaning with them.”  Yet the media attempts to assuage parental guilt by asserting that quality time is more important than quantity.  My fear is that parents will somehow think it’s okay to stay at work for 12 hours, then tell themselves because of this study that how much time they spend with their children doesn’t matter as long as they get in a little quality time just before bedtime or on the weekends.  Kids can’t be scheduled like an oil change.

I have many more criticisms that I won’t hammer out here.  In brief, I am not a statistician or a scientist, but I know something about history and about cultural anthropology.  The authors of this study lack any nuanced understanding of the history of childrearing and they mistake scientific studies for culture.  The predominant belief in American culture about childrearing is NOT that children require ample time for full flourishing — science proves that, but our culture is a very weak bonding culture.  We can observe a serious division within the American landscape between what science tells us that children need to thrive and what our culture tells us that we as parents need to do to attain “success” — the two are often at odds.

When in doubt, follow Mother Teresa’s advice: “What can you do to promote world peace?  Go home and love your families.”

Nursing a Two-Year-Old: It’s Normal for Us

I could see the idea forming in her mind by the way she looked at me. She fidgeted. She fussed. She wriggled her entire 31 pounds of two-year-old chub around in my lap until she had assumed the familiar position, head in the crook of my arm and eyes looking up at me longingly. Not ready to give in quite yet, I attempted to distract her. Cheese crackers–refused with disdain. Water bottle–given “the hand”. Fuzzy bunny book–an audible “Uh-uh!” and a decisive head shake. I had to act fast, before the situation (and her vocalizing) escalated. I had choices, and it was time to choose. So right there in the pew, somewhere between the Responsorial Psalm and the Gospel, I lifted my shirt.

I’ve implemented the concept of child-led weaning with every one of my five children. This means that I follow their lead in the weaning process. I allow them to help me determine when we are both ready to stop nursing. I’ve only had one particularly independent child self-wean before the age of two (he’s still a big-time Daddy’s boy), and my longest nurser required some gentle convincing from his weary mommy at the age of four.

madonna nursingI’ve nursed through four healthy pregnancies. My children’s identities have been nurtured by the intimacy and security of an extended nursing relationship. And I’ve become quite adept at nursing discreetly in public. So I never minded when people caught me feeding my baby in a grocery store or restaurant. Nursing an infant in public never seems too surprising to the average observer. I’ve often received looks of affirmation and smiles of awe as I sat feeding my adorably dependent infant.

But those looks change when I suddenly find myself nursing a two-year-old. Fortunately, I haven’t been faced with very much blatant animosity toward my parenting choices, but I do see looks of surprise, doubt, and questioning. Nursing no longer feels like the “normal” thing to be doing.

But it’s normal for me and my child. This is where she finds comfort, stress relief, and nourishment. This is what makes her body strong and her mind sharp. This is a huge yes that I can still give her in a world filled with so many no’s.

The frequency of nursing does lessen as a child grows in size and independence. Most of the time, I am able to nurse my older baby in the privacy of our own home. But there are still times when that same child poses the question and insists on an answer, regardless of where we are.

And there’s really only one answer I can give when she takes my hand and pulls me toward a chair saying “Mama, Mama.” There’s only one answer I can give when a scraped knee or complete exhaustion leaves her in a puddle of inconsolable tears. And there’s only one answer I can give when my child needs me under the shadow of the crucifix during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. That answer is myself, freely and completely, until we are both ready to move forward into a new phase of independence.

Blissful Breastfeeding? When Nursing Isn’t as Easy as It Seems

“Still, the truth remains that for some of us, nursing doesn’t come so naturally. It can be work – for our children and for us. But, it’s work that yields great rewards if we can stick it out, if we’re willing to discard the not-so-realistic standards we’ve been holding ourselves to and if we adopt, instead, the techniques that work best for us as individuals, that will allow the type of feeding relationship we want with our child rather than the type of relationship other moms have.”

The first time I had a baby, I was fooled.

After days of induced labor, half a week riding the roller coaster of contractions, and three hours of pushing my boy into the world, I believed the struggle was over. The bliss of motherhood could begin.

I cuddled my baby close to my breast and waited for the magic of nursing to start, for my son to latch on and for the two of us to begin to bond in the way I’d always heard breastfeeding would bring.

But this little person who for nine months had been nourished by my body seemed to want nothing to do with being nourished by me now. After all, in the womb, it was easy. This nursing business, though, was hard work – for both of us.

Madonna and Child, DaVinci

Madonna and Child, DaVinci

Two weeks after giving birth to my son, I sat in our living room recliner, crying. While it could have been the little sleep I was working on, my tears also stemmed from the fact that there I sat, pumping milk, while on the sofa, there my husband sat, feeding our baby a bottle of my milk.

“I’m supposed to be the one bonding with him while he eats,” I lamented as my husband gave a weak, sympathetic smile. He offered that I could give the bottle, but I wanted to keep my body on our son’s feeding schedule, to keep up with his demand. So, my husband fed while I pumped.

To say nursing didn’t come easily for me would be an understatement. And I’ve found since then that we don’t often hear the stories of struggle that come with breastfeeding. We see blissful moms wearing sweet smiles and taking selfies as they nurse their newborns, a trend especially popular in the celebrity world lately. Since giving birth to my second child seven months ago, I’ve taken more notice of these peaceful pics because, though encouraging, they also run the risk of being terribly discouraging.

It comes so easy for them, we might think. Nursing just isn’t for me. And really, it’s okay if it’s not. But, what if it is? What if we really, really want to breastfeed our child but it’s surprisingly difficult, and our disappointment at our shattered dream breaks our hearts?

That’s where I was at five years ago. In the end, it took the first full month of my son’s life to get him to nurse at all, and the second full month to get him to nurse well. For the majority of that first month, my son subsisted on bottles of pumped milk, and I kept trying, day in and day out, to wean him from them and onto me.

After four weeks of persisting, it worked. Not because my son suddenly and miraculously figured out how to work for his food, but because I finally abandoned the myriad words of advice I was given, particularly the advice to avoid giving into the use of a nursing shield (“He’ll never get off it,” I was warned). For me, the shield restored my dreams of a happy breastfeeding relationship with my child. I let go of the chidings of others and embraced what would allow me the bonding I’d been hoping for.

Medela breast shield

Medela breast shield

After a week or two of nursing with the shield (which my son took to immediately), I began to pull it away halfway through feedings. In time, he latched back onto me without it as though it were the most natural thing in the world to do. And, eventually, it was. We enjoyed a full year after that of the type of peaceful, easy breastfeeding I’d envied other moms.

Still, the truth remains that for some of us, nursing doesn’t come so naturally. It can be work – for our children and for us. But, it’s work that yields great rewards if we can stick it out, if we’re willing to discard the not-so-realistic standards we’ve been holding ourselves to and if we adopt, instead, the techniques that work best for us as individuals, that will allow the type of feeding relationship we want with our child rather than the type of relationship other moms have.

Because parenting isn’t about comparing. It’s about every mother doing what’s best for her unique child and accepting that what comes easily to one parent/child relationship doesn’t always come easily to another.

If we trust in that, then no blissful picture of perfection will ever discourage us again.

Carry On!

Michaelyn updates us on what’s available in the world of baby carriers.

The first time I “wore” my infant son, I was desperate. He wouldn’t sleep anywhere – except on me. I loved the cuddling, but resented feeling so stuck. I couldn’t get dishes done, couldn’t change or fold laundry, and really couldn’t do much of anything very easily. I should have relished my forced relaxation. What an excuse! “I’m sorry, I couldn’t iron that shirt; the baby was sleeping in my arms.”

But, as much as I enjoyed my reason for sitting on the couch and reading a book instead of vacuuming, I just couldn’t stand that carpet anymore. Or those dirty dishes. Or the backed up laundry. At some point, things just have to get done. But, how would I do them with a child in my arms?

About that time, my sister introduced me to the world of baby-wearing by handing me a carrier she’d received, saying, “Here, maybe this will help.” Did it ever! Suddenly, I could do things a bit more easily with my son cradled against me, my arms freer to do whatever needed to be done.

It’s been five years since then, and as I neared my daughter’s due date this past June, I looked forward to wearing her, too. This time, though, I would give the carrier more thought. As I looked at the old one, I began to recall its drawbacks. It was a one shoulder pouch sling – great for ease of use, not so great for security. I recall that every time I bent over even slightly when my son was in it, my arms couldn’t be totally free. Any slight bend risked him tumbling to the floor.

So, I spent the months before my daughter’s birth testing out other options in baby-wearing. Here, I share how things changed, even as they stayed the same.

The Sling

Interestingly, in the five years since my son was born, basic pouch slings have become quite hard to find in stores, at least in my area. When I questioned a sales clerk about their disappearance, I discovered that many of the slings they carried were recalled due to suffocation and fall hazards.  Hmm . . . exactly what I worried about when I wore my son in the sling I used to use.

pouch sling

Michaelyn with her newborn son in a pouch sling

Still, some updated slings were available, mainly the ring sling. Unlike my rigid yet basic sling from half a decade ago, the ring sling is typically made of soft, stretchy fabric that allows the wearer to adjust to fit the baby as needed. And, friends who swear by their ring slings rave about how easy it is to breastfeed in them. Though they were around five years ago, ring slings have certainly gained popularity – and style – over the years. I found myself drawn to them because between the various ring colors, vast choices in patterns, and flowing fabric “tail”, they were just so pretty.

Zolowear Ring Sling

Zolowear Ring Sling

Some popular ring slings: Zolowear, Sleeping Baby, Sakura Bloom, Kalea Baby

Buckle Carriers

Gone are the days of Baby Bjorn reigning as the “in” carrier, as it did when I was pregnant with my son. It’s the one I registered for and received as a gift . . . and the one I never used. Why? Personally, I found all the clips and buckles too cumbersome. Still, buckle carriers have a devoted following, and for good reason. They’re super secure and dads seem to like them best. On the surface, the Ergobaby Carrier (the one that was quite prevalent in each store I recently checked) resembled my Baby Bjorn, but with many improvements. Its seated positioning is better for babies, the waist belt keeps Mom or Dad from an aching back, and it comes with pockets and a “hat” to protect your baby from the sun. Still, since I had a summer baby, I wasn’t fond of the heavy weight of the material. I imagined my baby and I both getting sweaty pretty quickly! As we head into cooler weather, however, I may just need to give this one another chance!

ErgoBaby buckle carrier

Ergobaby buckle carrier

Some popular buckle carriers: ErgoBaby, Tula, Beco, Boba

The Wrap

Not the popular carrier the year my son was born, the wrap has since gained attention for good reason. The soft material is comfortable and giving – and free of buckles. It allows full control of how loose or tight the wearer needs the carrier to be. Also, the baby is fully secured, easing nerves about the baby’s safety or his dislike of anything getting between him and Mommy or Daddy! Some are turned off by the fiasco it can be to get the wrap on in the first place. To combat that problem, some brands, like Infantino, have made “wraps” you can pull on like a t-shirt, or you could actually buy a pocket wrap shirt that you can tuck your little one safely inside of. Still, once the traditional wrap is on, I haven’t found a better carrier for allowing both my hands complete freedom while my baby nestles securely against me. Bonus: some wraps are now made with built-in UV protection, so you can enjoy the rays while your baby’s skin stays safe.

Moby Wrap

Moby Wrap

Some popular wraps: Baby K’Tan, Moby, Wrapsody, NuRoo

While none of these types or brands is exactly new, where all these carriers have made great strides is in their fabric and style options. From tie-dyed to paisley, organic cotton to linen to silk, there is sure to be one carrier to fit every parent’s taste, not to mention outfit! And despite the differences in carrier types, I have found one common theme in baby-wearing: a parent’s preference in carrier is as unique as the many carriers themselves these days.

So, get out there and try some on! Then, enjoy both the closeness and freedom – and new, chic look – your purchase affords you. Don’t worry – there will still be time to snuggle on the couch with your baby and a good book…while the washing machine is cleaning your pretty, well-worn carrier.

Raising Children Who Care

How quickly do you pick up on the emotional cues of those around you?  Are you capable of understanding the perspective of another person — their feelings, thoughts, and experiences — even if they are different from you in their appearance, beliefs, and social status?  If you answered yes to these questions, then you possess empathy, the God-given gift we humans use to empathyreally know another person.

For psychologists, empathy has become one of the most important measuring sticks of human mental health, because empathy is a precondition to all successful interpersonal relationships, without which human beings (and indeed society) will never fully thrive.

We are born with a capacity for empathy, but it’s only a capacity.  How deeply it takes root and how much it matures depends on many factors, including our childhood experiences.  Scientists are fascinated by empathy because of the stark difference in children who either experience or are deprived of specific formative experiences in childhood which they believe are necessary if empathy is to unfold.  As I discussed recently on Greg & Lisa Popcak’s radio program More2Life, these experiences can be boiled down to three categories:

 1.  Responsive Parenting

Responsive parenting is the most powerful factor in determining whether a child will become empathic or narcissistic.  We are responsive parents when we nurture and nourish the parent-child bond from birth through the teen years.  When parents respond lovingly to their infants and young children when they are distressed, when they spend lots of time cuddling, hugging, and laughing with their children, when they treat them with dignity, and respect their feelings and fears, their children learn over time that the world is a safe place, that people can be trusted, and that even when things don’t go as they wanted or expected, they will be okay.

These children are securely attached, and it turns out emotionally secure children are more empathic than less secure children. Why? One explanation is that children who are parented in this way have better-functioning corpus callosums — the band of nerve tissue running down the middle of the brain which helps the two sides of the brain “communicate” back and forth. Because the left and right hemispheres of the brain are linked up better in emotionally secure children, they can pick up on emotional cues in others (right-brain strength) and find the words for understanding those feelings (left-brain strength) far more easily than insecurely-attached children. Their “caring brain” just gets more exercise; these kids literally build more gray matter in the caring parts of the brain.

2.  Mirroring

When you mirror your child’s emotions, you name and recognize your child’s emotions without judging them.  When your child is angry, distressed, frightened, or joyful you can give a name to what your child is experiencing on an emotional level:  “I can see you feel sad about your doll breaking” or “You are angry that your sister gets to stay up later than you”.  Sad, angry, happy, worried, excited.  All names for the emotions our children experience, but which they seldom understand rationally.

At first it might seem corny or wooden to mirror you child’s feelings in this way, but by doing so you take the first step in helping her understand and manage them better.  You also help her feel recognized and understood, which is absolutely critical in developing a capacity to care for and understand others.  When you respect her feelings, even if she seems a little crazy and irrational to you, you are affirming her dignity, and in the long run she internalizes your respect for her and she actually lives in her own skin instead of always wondering what others are thinking about her.  Because she possesses greater self-awareness and emotional health, she will be able to tune into the emotional world of somebody else quite effortlessly.

3.  Mentoring

Children can learn to understand the perspective of others through guidance & practice!  No big planning necessary:  these lessons can come in the course of every day family life.

Stories or movies: When you read a book together (yes, you can read to big kids – they love it!) or watch a movie, use the experiences of the characters to teach your child perspective taking. What did the character want? How did she feel when X happened or didn’t happen? What was she probably thinking?

Games: Some games are especially effective in building perspective-taking in kids (“Charades,”for example), but really any game can provide an opportunity to talk about what others are thinking and feeling. While playing board games or sports, teach her to be a good sport – to understand how it feels to lose and win, and how they can respect the feelings of other players.

Conflicts with other children: When our kids have a conflict with another child, this is a great opportunity to point out the perspectives and experiences of the child, even if in the long-run she doesn’t agree with the child’s choices or even her viewpoint.  Empathy doesn’t require that we agree with everyone, only that we get out of own heads and get behind the eyes of another person to get a better idea of where they’re coming from.

So, by raising empathic children, we are building more emotionally secure children, families, and indeed communities.  And let’s not forget:  empathy is the gift we use not only to know each other, but also to know God on a deep, personal level.   When they possess empathy, hopefully their faith eventually becomes embodied; it becomes more about an encounter with the Person of Christ than a set of rules.

If you’d like to listen to the entire More2Life program, here’s the audio!  My bit comes in after 20 minutes or so.

 

Who Needs a Teddy Bear When You’ve Got a Teddy Baby?

 “I would wrap the newborn tightly in a warm blanket and let each child cuddle up to a living and breathing teddy baby.”

A newborn can see clearly for about eight inches, just far enough to focus intently on his mother’s face.  It is almost as if the initiative to bond comes from the baby first, especially when I consider the fierce hand grip they are born with.  To ensure an infant is fed, he is also download-3born with an incredibly powerful rooting reflex. These traits help to draw out strong protective love from both parents. For me it was almost a magical transformation from an exhausted woman in labor to a glowing mother adoring her newborn.

Even when all the kids were still little, I decided to share this magic with them. It was one of the best decisions I ever made to enable mutual respect and love to flourish in our family.  However, at the time I was forced to literally watch the clock to make sure everyone would get a chance to hold their new sibling . It seems to me that the children bonded to each other because even our toddlers were given the privilege of holding the baby. With excitement twinkling in their eyes, barely containing their joy long enough to sit still while I propped up one of their little arms with a pillow, they looked extremely proud and pleased as they too held the baby.

Bedtime became something to look forward to for about three months after the birth of our newest addition. I would wrap the newborn tightly in a warm blanket and let each child cuddle up to a living and breathing teddy baby. This quiet time, to be alone with their sibling allowed warm, nurturing, love to flow between both children and it eliminated jealousy. The focus was no longer just on the baby but attention focused on an older child and the baby.

As I nursed, it was easy to give the older children my mental and emotional attention by listening, talking, reading books to them, helping with homework and even playing with play dough with one hand. I can honestly say that no one resented all the time each newborn demanded because we were all part of caring for the baby. Little ones were proud to run for diapers, clothes or blankets and older kids would choose rocking or pushing a colicky baby in the buggy over washing dishes any day.

One of our family jokes concerns the day I managed to relate to five people at once! I was laying down on our bed, back to back with my husband as he read and I nursed a newborn. A toddler lay curled around my head, playing with my hair, I was fixing a knitting mistake for a seven-year old and talking to a ten year-old.

I am pretty proud of that statistic.

Good News for Breastfed Babies

A new study out of Brown University using brain images from “quiet” MRI machines in addition to cognitive testing adds to the growing body of evidence that breastfeeding improves brain development in infants.  “Breastfeeding alone produced better brain development than a combination of breastfeeding and formula, which produced better development than formula alone.”

bf brain imaging

 

“MRI images, taken while children were asleep, showed that infants who were exclusively breastfed for at least three months had enhanced development in key parts of the brain compared to children who were fed formula or a combination of formula and breastmilk. Images show development of myelization by age, left to right.”  Image: Baby Imaging Lab, Brown University

Changing Gears: Re-Attaching to Your Children by Anne McDonald

My three year old insists on pouring the milk himself and is ready to fight me to the death to do it.

My five year old’s default mode seems to be “hit first and ask questions later.”

My seven year-old daughter can’t seem to answer a request without starting first with a good, satisfying  “UGH!” and world-class eye-roll.

My oldest son is obviously bugged about something and determined to be tight lipped, and my second oldest son is even more bugged and even more determined to be tighter lipped.  Until they start throwing words at each other.  Then punches.

And the baby?  Well, she’s just adorable.  But she won’t stay out of the kitchen trash can.

Of course, this all happened within the past three minutes.

In a house where “get to the corner NOW!” is heard more often than “I love you,” the stress of parenting can wear you down until you find yourself dissolved into tears on a regular basis, wondering why things are so horribly wrong.

Much of the last eleven years of my parenting career has looked like this, and let me tell you, it’s not a good place to be.  If this sounds like where you are now, I’m here to offer you hope.

I’ve recently realized that my insecurities have colored my reactions to my children’s behavior, and in the end, my children have suffered for it.   How many of us have felt the stinging, disapproving looks of other parents when our children aren’t behaving as well as theirs are at the playground?  Many times, we feel the pressure to follow our own parents’ orders when they watch a full-blown tantrum from a small child spiral out of control, and they insist that a strong hand is needed to get control of the situation.  Or maybe we’re just home with the kids, all day long, and no matter how many times we send the kids to time out or yell at them to just behave for five minutes, we can’t seem to get past the idea that we’re just not cut out for this.

I responded to all this pressure by doing whatever I could to try to get a handle on the situation.  Unfortunately, many of the “tricks and techniques” offered to us on how to get control of our children don’t work.  I think the primary reason is because we’re not here to control our children.  Our job is to lovingly guide them.

Yeah, that’s nice, you’re thinking, but all I hear is yelling, the kids don’t pay attention to me, and I just want to enjoy my family, not merely endure them!  Attachment parenting would have been great if I started with it, but isn’t it too late?  Thankfully, it isn’t.

I kept asking, begging God for answers on what to do, so that I could enjoy my children again.  The answer didn’t lie in another set of parenting techniques or getting it through my children’s heads once and for all that my husband and I were the ones in charge around here.  Our children needed to know that we loved them.  Really, really loved them, and that we are on their side.

That’s where attachment parenting comes in.  I have to admit that for years AP didn’t appeal to me.  It turns out that I didn’t understand what it was at all.  What I saw as a checklist of things to do to be an attached parent were really the effects of attaching yourself to your child.  For example, I had associated co-sleeping and extended nursing to be two such things that a “good” attached parent does.  In my mind, if I didn’t check those off the list, then I wasn’t an attached parent.  In the case of my oldest, he was a little furnace and gave up nursing on his own at fourteen months.  It made no sense to force him to conform to my checklist.  I had been missing the point of attachment parenting:  meeting my child’s needs, whatever they are, is at the heart of AP.

Getting back to the tight-lipped, eye rolling, fighting kids: what do I do with them?  I show them love. Whether it’s helping them learn how to communicate with each other instead of beating up on each other, feeding the hungry child instead of yelling at him to stop whining, or reading one last book to my daughter at night because she just needs some extra mommy time, I’m learning to take the time to go outside myself and my wants, and enter into their worlds more and address their needs.

My purpose in writing this isn’t to show that I’m an expert.  Heaven knows, that isn’t the case!  What I want to pass along to other parents, especially the ones who have been parenting with more traditional or mainstream means, and who find they aren’t meeting with success, is that there is a better way.  Even if you have a whole slew of kids whom you feel like you’ve been shortchanging for years, you can turn things around.  I know from my own experience that you can enjoy your family more, and they can enjoy you as well!

Here are some of my favorite books on attachment parenting:

Parent Effecctivness Training:  The Proven Program for Raising Responsible Children by Dr. Thomas Gordon. This book introduced me to the concept of “Active Listening,” where the parent empathizes with the child when he has a problem, and helps him to come to a mutually acceptable solution, instead of demanding the child obey the parent’s solution to the problem.

Positive Discipline by Jane Nelson, Ed.D.  This is a great, “full-picture” explaination of parenting that explains how to effectivley problem-solve with children, how to encourage children, and really drove home the point that “… and encouraged chidl does not need to misbehave.” (pg 78)

Parenting With Grace by Dr. Greg and Lisa Popcak.  This was the book that I’ve had from the start of my parenting career, but didn’t have the faith to follow for the first ten years. I wish I had! The Popcaks explain Attachment Parenting through the lens of Blessed John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body”, and give tangible ways to implement it through every stage of your child’s development.

Hold on to Your Kids:  Why Parents Need to Matter More than Thier Peers by Gordon Neufeld.  In his book, Neufel shows how children (and really, everyone!) need to be attached to someone, and how they will attach themselves to thier friends if they don’t find that secure relationship with their parents. This book is also helpful when you are reattaching.

Anne McDonald lives in Northern Virginia with her husband of 12 years, Jonathan, and their six children. After years of struggling with behavioral problems with their children while following more traditional parenting methods, Anne and her husband found that Attachment Parenting, or more specificaly, Catholic Attachment Parenting, was literally the answer to prayers. She and her husband have been working to reattach with thier children and break some bad habits that the family has aquired over the past 11 years, and are really seeing the fruits of thier labors starting to flourish.
 
After receiving her BA in English from Christendom College, Anne went on to work in public relations until her oldest was born, at which point became a stay-at-home mom. She currently homeschools (with some away-schooling this year) her children, and helps out in her parish homeschooling group, having led a pre-school co-op this past autumn.

Bonding and Godly Parenting

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

Helping Our Children Make Sound Moral Choices

I came across this superb article  on the brain chemistry of moral reasoning, authored by none other than Dr. Gregory Popcak.  In the article he explains how “extravagant affection” from parents actually trains the “moral brain” of a child. It’s one more way that science is confirming what Catholic theology has already announced: Human beings were made for love.  Children thrive best when their parents use their bodies self-donatively in generous acts of love.  Awesome!

Photo credit: Zhu Difeng (photos.com)

Tomorrow on More2Life

Kim will visit with Greg & Lisa Popcak tomorrow on their radio show More2Life.  She’ll talk about what we can do to tame those chaotic family moments when it seems madness is taking hold.  You know what I’m talking about: The kids wash the baby’s hair with toothpaste, stick the toilet plunger to the fridge, play tug-of-war with the toddler, and somehow get into the crawl space under the house — all within the last hour. Hope you’ll tune in!

More2Life is on 9-10 EST, produced by Ave Maria Radio.  You can listen live on your local Catholic radio station.  If you don’t get More2Life in your area, you can listen live online by going to AveMariaRadio.net or by downloading the FREE AveMariaRadio IPhone or Android App.   Or you can download the podcast for later listening at AveMariaRadio.net as well.  Check it out!