A child psychologist friend was concerned about a possible confusion in my recent article on sleep training and attachment parenting (“Go to sleep, little baby,” Dec. 1). She pointed out that I had not distinguished clearly between attachment theory, a highly useful way of understanding parent/child relationships and their effect on child development, and attachment parenting, which inappropriately extends the constant contact and supervision necessary for healthy bonding with an infant, into toddlerhood, childhood, even adolescence.
In other words, attachment parenting is a misapplication of attachment theory.
Attachment theory asserts that the strength and quality of an infant’s bond with his or her primary caregiver, usually the mother, determines the strength and quality of all subsequent bonds. If an infant’s physical and emotional needs are satisfactorily met by the caregiver — if, in non-social-scientist words, he or she is well taken care of and given loving attention — he or she will be securely bonded.
A securely bonded infant will go on to bond securely with the other parent, with siblings and peers and just about everybody, and will be an emotionally healthy, happy child. A secure primary bond is also the steady base from which the child can set out to explore and eventually find his or her place in the world.
In what are called the Strange Situation experiments, a mother and 14-month-old toddler enter a room neither has been in before. In this situation, a securely attached toddler will leave her mother’s lap and freely explore the room, returning occasionally to connect with mother. When a stranger enters the room with mother present, the secure toddler will be friendly and interested in the newcomer, less so if mother leaves, and happy and friendly when mother returns.
In the same strange situation, an insecurely attached toddler will tend to be fearful and fretful, distressed and unfriendly, afraid to explore the room, afraid of the stranger, indifferent to her primary caregiver’s departure, an unhappy kid. That, briefly, is attachment theory.
So, on to attachment parenting, which pushes the quest for a secure bond between caregiver and child well past the point of diminishing returns. Attachment parenting inappropriately extends, into childhood and beyond, the attentive care, attachment and attention that was vitally needed when their child was an infant.
Instead of beginning the toddler parent’s balance act of knowing when to hold close and when to encourage independence, attachment parenting continues treating the child like an infant by being the ever-vigilant parent, monitoring and supervising every waking moment.
In the Strange Situation, the attachment parent would accompany the toddler in her explorations of the strange room, to protect her from any possible harm and to interpret the experience for her, making sure that nothing unpleasant happened, that all her questions were immediately answered and all her problems immediately solved. The caregiver would be in as much physical contact with the child as possible.
Outside the strange situation, the attachment parent would be a constant presence in the child’s life, supervising play dates, doing her homework with her, organizing her social life, seeing to it that she was never bored, never unhappy longer than it took mom (or dad, for that matter) to make everything better.
This program amounts to a reductio ad absurdum of attachment theory, likely to produce dependent and/or angry children, as well as exhausted parents. (How do they stand it?)
So, to sum up, attachment parenting pushes the useful and, in my experience as a foster parent, totally accurate theory of attachment well past the point of usefulness. My psychologist friend and I agreed that helicopter/attachment parenting is necessary in early infancy, when constant tending of these little vegetative creatures that have appeared in our lives is totally necessary. However, as children grow older, they want to do more and more things for themselves. They establish some boundaries of their own, and we parents need to respect them.
Case in point: Following the advice of an attachment parent-acquaintance, I started watching television with my grade-school-aged daughters, encouraging them to “engage critically” with the program they’re watching.
So, I’m sitting with the Redheads, watching cartoons.
Me: “What do you think of what the Road Runner just did to Wile E. Coyote?”
Redhead the elder, annoyed: “Shhhh! We’re trying to watch.”
Me: “But how would you feel if somebody did that to you?”
Redhead the younger, somewhat condescendingly: “Papa, it’s only a cartoon.”
So, chill out, attachment parents. It’s only a cartoon, and the kids can handle it.
Michael Nesset lives in North St. Paul.