Debunking the Parenting Wars
January 1, 2013—In May 2012, Time magazine ignited a virtual parenting-book war with a cover depicting a mother nursing her three-year-old son. Both mother and son were standing, a small chair making up for the difference in their stature, and the headline challenged, “Are You Mom Enough?” This provocative question was followed by the subtitle, “Why attachment parenting drives some moms to extremes—and how Dr. Bill Sears became their guru.” The media firestorm that followed invited a number of recent parenting books into the fray, even though in some cases it required portraying them in oversimplified terms and forcing them into straw uniforms to equip them for battle. This is, of course, how publishing often works: controversy sells.
Although the ensuing debate over the current state of motherhood may have played out mostly in the media (real mothers are too busy to obsess very much about what other mothers may be doing), it nevertheless reflected a huge gap between what researchers know about child development—particularly in terms of what’s called “attachment theory”—and the current assumptions of the popular press and parenting gurus. And while opponents of attachment parenting rarely characterize attachment research accurately, it is also clear from much of the debate that even supporters of the movement may sometimes suffer from misconceptions. The media is no less in the dark. In articles and even parenting books, it is not uncommon to come across the scientifically meaningless term “attached parents.”
This reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of attachment bonds. By definition an attachment bond is one that seeks security and comfort. If these are received, the attachment is “secure.” Children are “insecurely attached” when these needs are not met; they may have dysfunctional attachment style, but they are nonetheless attached. Even abused children become attached to their mothers. We are wired to continually seek security and comfort from others, whether we receive it or not. On the other hand, a parent should not be looking to a child for security and comfort; parents’ bonds with their children may express themselves in deep and persistent affection, but you would not refer to such individuals as “attached parents.”
Perhaps surprisingly, the very term attachment parenting is also scientifically meaningless. It carries the subtle implication that there is a well-defined and specific set of parenting practices underlying secure attachment. Quite the contrary is true: the term has a complex origin and a rather loose application. It has been used to describe not only the approach outlined in The Baby Book, a popular parenting manual written by pediatrician Sears and his wife Martha in 1992, but also the parallel but distinct approach popularized by celebrity neuroscientist, actress and mom Mayim Bialik, whose 2012 book Beyond the Sling does not refer to Sears at all, pointing rather to John Bowlby’s famous 1950s and ’60s research as its foundation. Bowlby, for his part, didn’t coin any such phrase. He studied the phenomenon of infant attachment from a psychological, observational perspective and did not attempt to define limits for how long babies can be allowed to cry or whether they need to be strapped on to a parent’s body for a specific period of time every day. Rather, Bowlby’s “attachment theory” illuminates the basic requirements for healthy human interaction, and it has influenced almost every field related to the development of the mind for more than half a century.
In hindsight, with the confirmation of decades of research and support from neuroscience, it’s almost a no-brainer that infants need secure emotional bonds with parents to support lifelong mental health and well-being. But 50 years ago when Bowlby first proposed this theory, he and his colleague Mary Ainsworth were met with a great deal of skepticism—despite the fact that the idea was based on carefully constructed experiments involving children separated from their mothers. (See “Just What Do You Mean, Attachment?”)
Bowlby came to realize that the quality of these bonds—which he came to refer to as “attachment” plays a role in emotional and mental health that is similar to the role the immune system plays in medical conditions. Secure attachment is the foundation of psychological resilience, just as a well-regulated immune system is the foundation of physical resilience.
Over a lifetime, we have a variety of attachment figures—those people who help us regulate emotions related to stress or threat responses. But parents are the very first to provide security—we depend on them to help regulate our distress during the most critical period of brain development. This is when we form our expectations of future social relationships and calibrate our emotional approach to life.
SECURING THE BOND
Fortunately, most parents naturally want to forge the kind of secure attachment bonds that will support their children’s mental health. But it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by conflicting advice about how to accomplish it. For many years it was believed that too much attention would “spoil” a child. Now we know children are more likely to be spoiled by too little than by too much. As Louis Cozolino, clinical psychologist and author of The Neuroscience of Human Relationships points out, “Those who are nurtured best, survive best.”
But if your child is left to cry for a few minutes now and then, or if you can’t co-sleep, breast-feed or “wear” your baby, can you still have a securely attached child?
Yes, of course you can. These are not the only pathways to providing an attentive and emotionally responsive relationship—which is the single most important factor in assuring secure attachment. In fact, it is possible to conceive of a parent who wears their baby, co-sleeps and breast-feeds but who does not smile at them, comfort them or connect emotionally with them in other important ways. “Happy, attuned interactions are as much a basic need for an infant as is feeding or burping,” writes Daniel Goleman in Social Intelligence. “Lacking such synchronous parenting, children are more at risk of growing up with disturbed attachment patterns. In short, well-empathized children tend to become secure; anxious parenting produces anxious children; and aloof parents produce avoidant children, who withdraw from emotion and from people.”
It must be said that today’s attachment parenting style as presented by Bialik rests rather soundly on the basis of the research evidence, but as a whole it is nevertheless a style of applying the research. Even Bialik cautions that many of her recommendations go beyond “good-enough” parenting and may not be for everyone. “I am not implying that if you do not follow attachment parenting your child will display disorganized, ambivalent, or avoidant attachment,” she reassures. “Rather, with this knowledge of the dynamics of attachment, I hope you will be able to see why attachment theory makes sense for what I propose.”
All the same, critics of the attachment parenting style have suggested that it overemphasizes parental devotion and sacrifice at the expense of raising self-sufficient kids, a charge that is unfair both to its proponents and to the findings of attachment research. Bialik, for instance, points out that she doesn’t rush to intervene at every misstep. “It’s okay to observe a little bit before acting,” she says, having noted that “so often, adults make a bigger deal of a fall than a child does.” But she does advocate naming the event, helping the child identify the resulting feelings “without us overtalking it,” and even holding a young child until he or she is ready to move on. Rather than inhibiting independence, this kind of attunement and responsiveness forms the necessary bedrock for the development of self-sufficient kids (see “Core Competencies for Kids: The Crucial Role of Self-Control”).
Unfortunately these most important aspects of attachment parenting—attunement and responsiveness, which are the basis of self-regulation—often get lost in the media hype. The assumption of critics is that attachment parenting can be reduced to three basic tenets: extended breast-feeding, co-sleeping and baby-wearing (particularly using slings). This is a bit of an exaggerated stereotype. Bialik herself does endorse breast-feeding but wisely doesn’t set a time requirement, calling this “a very personal and very complicated decision.” She offers baby-wearing as one of several ways to bond through touch, and co-sleeping as an “option” under the heading of “nighttime parenting.”
Incidentally, Elisabeth Badinter refers specifically to these practices in The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women as particular obstacles to women’s advancement. To her credit, she does not blame Bowlby (or even Bialik) for their popularity, nor does she use the term attachment parenting. Rather, her point is that Western society tends to favor mothers at the expense of women in terms of policy. It’s highly doubtful that Badinter intended to endorse any particular parenting style over another. This, however, has not prevented her book from being waved about by critics of attachment parenting as though it had been written in direct response to it.
OPPOSING STYLES—OR NOT
Most popular parenting books are first and foremost a description of the writer’s personal philosophy on the subject, and while some of these philosophies do have solid research to back them up, others have been made up out of whole cloth. Even if a book succeeds in getting the facts right, its tenets may become exaggerated by readers and hyperbolized by reviewers, and both groups may be so confused about where research ends and philosophy begins that they wind up rejecting what could have been important, life-changing insights.
It appears that the media’s parenting wars are causing many people to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Are the myriad parenting styles offered by the media as opposites to attachment parenting—French parents and Tiger Moms for instance—really that far apart in the fundamentals? And if they are poles apart, where is the evidence to support their philosophies?
In Bringing Up Bébé (released in the United Kingdom as French Children Don’t Throw Food), American-born Pamela Druckerman offers an interesting narrative of the personal challenges she faced while living in France and blending the parenting styles of two cultures. Though her book isn’t intended as a distillation of research, a close look reveals that what Druckerman admires about French parenting is very similar to the most important tenets of attachment parenting—the ones that are left out when the press spotlights breast-feeding, co-sleeping and baby-wearing.
Druckerman presents French psychoanalyst and pediatrician Françoise Dolto as a household name in France, “a bit like Dr. Benjamin Spock used to be in the United States.” She notes that Dolto’s approach was to tune in to children’s emotions and then guide them to an understanding of appropriate limits. Dolto’s advice for dealing with an upset child is an echo of Bialik’s: “We should try to understand him, and say, ‘There’s a reason. I don’t understand, but let’s think about it.’ Above all, don’t suddenly make a drama out of it.” Dolto wasn’t eliminating limits, Druckerman says, “she just added a huge measure of empathy and respect for the child—something that may have been lacking in France pre-1968.” The preservation of limits while calling for a generous dose of empathy and understanding is also the most fundamental tenet of attachment parenting. It is mainly among the less important details of execution that the two philosophies differ.
What about the Tiger Mother approach? When Amy Chua’s book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother was published in 2011, it was eagerly pounced upon by the easily frenzied media: outraged writers thrashed Chua in blogs and magazines and Chua was called on to defend her parenting style on television talk shows. The irony is that her book was not intended as parenting advice. “This is a story about a mother, two daughters, and two dogs,” says the cover; “This was supposed to be a story of how Chinese parents are better at raising kids than Western ones. But instead, it’s about a bitter clash of cultures, a fleeting taste of glory, and how I was humbled by a thirteen-year-old.” In fact, she has described the book as a “self-parody” that is “partly about my mistakes, my own transformation as a mother.” It isn’t meant to be read as a research-based thesis. Rather, it’s a story about a mother who is so intent on single-handedly turning her daughters into piano and violin virtuosos that she throws tantrums, belittles them, controls their choices every step of the way, and outlaws anything that might get in the way of achieving perfection (including playdates and sleepovers), until one day her younger daughter rebels so adamantly that the “tiger mother” backs down. After that the girl is allowed to choose to be good at tennis instead of the violin, and her mother learns to be less overtly controlling.
They do say the devil is in the details, and this seems to be true when it comes to battles over parenting styles. Can your children be well adjusted and successful even if they don’t make flawless grades because you’ve allowed playdates, sleepovers and participation in school plays? Of course they can, says Diana Holquist. In her memoir titled Battle Hymn of the Tiger Daughter, she presents an entertaining response to Chua’s approach, insisting that her own high-achieving children managed to succeed without having been yelled at, belittled, pushed and micromanaged. And what is success anyway, Holquist asks? She hints that there is more to it than “‘elite’ awards and honors,” pointing out that both of her children made straight A’s in school while excelling at extracurricular activities and entrepreneurial ventures, despite the fact that she “loved to coddle.” In Western society, she notes, “controlling, exploitive, intolerant, and violent behavior toward the powerless is frowned upon. This is why what tiger mothers call discipline, Western mothers recognize as potentially harmful neurosis.”
There seems to be an underlying theme: even Chua’s relationship with her daughter improved when she began to attune, empathize and allow at least some room for autonomy. Clearly any parenting philosophy that advocates empathy and attunement along with clear boundaries—allowing room for children to grow in decision-making, self-regulation, social development and other important core skills—is going to be in the right ballpark whether the details include slings, French food or striped jungle animals.
What kind of mom or dad do you see yourself as? (After all, fathers parent too.) Insist on virtuoso progeny if you must, but whatever you do, don’t neglect the important work of attuning, responding and connecting to your children. Smile, frown and laugh with them, hug them when they cry. Empathize with them, love them and guide them. Emotional distance is not the pathway to independence and self-sufficiency. Rather, children need a secure emotional base from which to explore and master their world. Creating this base is the fundamental point of any effective parenting style.
January 1, 2013
1 Mayim Bialik, Beyond the Sling: A Real-Life Guide to Raising Confident, Loving Children the Attachment Parenting Way (2012). 2 Amy Chua, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (2011). 3 James A. Coan, “Toward a Neuroscience of Attachment,” in The Handbook of Attachment: Theory, Research, and Clinical Implications, edited by Jude Cassidy and Philip R. Shaver (2008). 4 Louis J. Cozolino, The Neuroscience of Human Relationships: Attachment and the Developing Social Brain (2006). 5 Pamela Druckerman, Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting (2012). 6 Jeremy Holmes, John Bowlby and Attachment Theory (1993). 7 Diana and Hana Holquist, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Daughter: How One Family Fought the Myth That You Need to Destroy Childhood in Order to Raise Extraordinary Adults (2011).