Attachment Parenting: A response to Erica Jong

I consider myself to be following an attachment parenting strategy. However, I found myself recognizing very little of what noted author Erica Jong characterizes with that phrase. She speaks at length about martyring mothers, anti-feminist attitudes inherent in the philosophy, and so forth, giving examples like Angelina Jolie as celebrities attachment parents. In a WSJ follow-up by Rachel Silverman, Attachment Parenting is described as “the child-rearing method promoting virtually round-the-clock connection with a baby.”

If that characterization were accurate, I would agree, Attachment Parenting is an unfeasible ideal for most people. However, I don’t think that’s a fair description at all. The version of Attachment Parenting espoused by Dr. Sears and the API include these eight principles:

  1. Preparation for Pregnancy, Birth and Parenting
  2. Feed with Love and Respect
  3. Respond with Sensitivity
  4. Use Nurturing Touch
  5. Ensure Safe Sleep, Physically and Emotionally
  6. Provide Consistent Loving Care
  7. Practice Positive Discipline
  8. Strive for Balance in Personal and Family Life

The eighth point is important: “Virtually round-the-clock connection” would seriously endanger such a balance for the vast majority of parents. As API further notes, “every family has unique circumstances with distinct needs and resources.”

As API states (op. cit.), The essence of Attachment Parenting is about forming and nurturing strong connections between parents and their children. Attachment Parenting challenges us as parents to treat our children with kindness, respect and dignity, and to model in our interactions with them the way we’d like them to interact with others.

As I’ve seen it stated elsewhere, attachment parenting is about treating your children as people worthy of respect, dignity, and compassion. If there’s something you wouldn’t do to another adult, like slapping them when they do something inappropriate, why would you do it to a child?

Note that this is a serious question, not a rhetorical one: There are indeed cases where you might do something to a child that you wouldn’t do to an adult, like keeping household poisons away or putting up barricades against certain areas. Our son has to hold hands whenever he’s crossing the street or walking across a parking lot; that’s not a rule I’d make for another adult. However, these rules are based on keeping the child safe because he can’t understand certain dangers. That’s substantively different than doing things, such as yelling and slapping, that are motivated by a need to control rather than a drive to encourage safety.

For me, being an attached parent is more about being mindful of my own motivations and behavior as a parent than it is about following some expected list of behaviors, like breast-feeding, co-sleeping, and so on, that Attachment Parents are “supposed” to follow. I want my son to grow up to be compassionate and caring. I think that I’ll be more successful in imparting that perspective if I treat him with compassion and care. For me, it’s pretty much that simple.

Jong further claims that Attachment Parenting is about catering to children’s whims. Again, I disagree with that perspective. The seventh point of Attachment Parenting is guidance to practice positive discipline: Instead of simply spanking, yelling, grounding, or giving time outs, an attached parent looks for more positive ways to discourage inappropriate behavior. There is simply no way to square “Practice Positive Discipline” with “catering” to children.

Yes, Attachment Parenting does encourage more latitude to children’s behavior, and being more attuned to why children are doing what they’re doing, but that derives directly from seeing children as human beings worthy of respect but in need of compassionate guidance. However, there still have to be boundaries; just as with more conventional parenting techniques, it’s up to the adult to set limits.

I think my biggest criticism of Jong’s essay is her repeated contention that Attachment Parenting is all about motherhood. Certainly, only mothers can breast-feed (artificial devices for fathers notwithstanding), but in my opinion and from the information I’ve seen, fathers ought to be and are encouraged to be as active in a child’s care-taking. In API’s ideal situation, “Explore a variety of economic and work arrangement options to permit your child to be cared for by one or both parents at all times.” Not “the mother,” but “one or both.”

I do happen to disagree that the ideal situation is 24/7 care by “one or both parents.” Children do need time with other adults, and with other children, but I agree with the general belief that children strongly benefit from the predictable knowledge that there are one or two or three people in their lives that are reliable.

Incidentally, I acknowledge that these discussions are also generally heteronormative and assume two caretakers of differing genders. It so happens that I’m male and have a female spouse, and so such a description applies to us. However, I feel strongly that the most important thing for children is consistency of care-givers, whether those be a mother and a father, two mothers, a mother and a grandfather, three adults of various relations, or whatever it be.

As a final point, I see Attachment Parenting principles as an ideal, not something that most people will be able to do all the time. I admit that I sometimes yell at or swat my son when I’m tired and frustrated. I try not to, and I apologize later, but I have human moods and I was raised in a context where emotional and physical violence were the norm for expressing negative emotions. Again, for me, it’s about being mindful of my actions.

Overall, then, for me, Attachment Parenting is about striving to model compassionate and loving behavior for my son. I simply don’t recognize what Jong describes.

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