Latest update: June 7th, 2012
Time magazine’s cover story about attachment parenting has garnered a great deal of attention. Clearly, the shock value of showing an attractive young mother breast-feeding a child nearly four years of age was enough to excite worldwide conversation. No doubt this was their intention, and in that sense, it worked. The story inside focused on a controversial theory put forward by Dr. William Sears about attachment parenting. In a nutshell, attachment parenting argues that modern Western parents have forgotten how to parent naturally. His theory includes the hypothesis that nature dictates that we can never be too close to our children: we ought to carry them in a sling attached to our body as much as possible; they ought to sleep in our bed almost constantly; we should never allow them to cry for fear of damaging them psychologically with abandonment issues; we ought to breast-feed them until they are at least toddlers and generally remove any kind of division or separation between us and our babies. Dr. Sears’s theories were put forward in a mega best-selling book called The Baby Book.
But, respectfully, I have significant questions about the theory. First, there is the issue of the marriage itself. I have counseled countless married couples, and I have frequently seen how, when a child is born, the marriage can potentially be disrupted. A child is supposed to enrich and further develop a family. We parents dare not raise children in a manner that undermines our own marriages. That is not good for husbands and wives and it’s also not good for children. A husband should not feel that he has lost his wife to their baby. A husband should not find reason to become jealous of his own child. But just imagine the feeling of any husband who has become a new father, seeing his wife now breast-feeding the baby for most of the day, his marital bed – previously the domain of only him and his wife – now shared with the child, and his wife responding to each and every cry of their new baby with comforting cuddles and loving embraces. That husband might just feel that the child has usurped his place.
To be sure, many will say that a husband who has this feeling is being selfish and immature. He should get over it, as the interests of the child come first. And yes, we can criticize this husband as being infantile. How could any father be jealous of their children?
But I counsel couples, and it happens. And while a man must be mature enough to resist this feeling, it’s also true that even after having children our marriages should flourish and not falter.
I would appreciate if the advocates of attachment parenting please address my concern which I raise for the benefit of marriage.
And then there is the issue of intimacy. How is it possible for married couples to have a passionate love life with children in the marital bed? Don’t parents need to have their own private space where they are husband-and-wife and not just mom and dad? A Harvard University study shows that the sex life of a couple often diminishes by 74% in the first year after a baby is born. I can imagine that for those parents practicing attachment parenting and allowing their children to sleep in the marital bed on a nightly basis, that percentage would probably be even higher. While I may be wrong, I can imagine that their intimate life might disappear almost entirely. In the Jewish religion it is regarded as inappropriate for a couple to be intimate when a child is with his or her parents in the marital bed. How could it possibly be positive for a marriage or for a child to have parents growing less intimate as a result of the birth of baby?
There are, of course, responses to each of these challenges offered by the proponents of attachment parenting, which has been brought to my attention by my friend Donna Tabas. Regarding nutrition, they remind us that infants under the age of six months who are exclusively breastfed need unlimited access to the breast to optimize the mother/infant breastfeeding diad to provide optimal milk supplies, especially during growth spurts. They point out that prolonged nursing and child-led weaning which extends nursing into and even through toddlerhood is, they argue, biologically normal, as evidenced by the average weaning ages worldwide, and that it is only Western modern society that has redefined weaning in the first year as socially normal.
Regarding the readiness to respond to the cries of the baby under eighteen months old, proponents of attachment parenting refer to Erik Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development, specifically the trust versus mistrust theory, which claims that this period is the most critical period in a person’s life, during which time the child learns whether or not they can trust the people around them to attend to his needs and comfort him when he is frightened. If a child successfully develops trust, they can learn to feel safe and secure in the world. Caregivers who are inconsistent, emotionally unavailable or rejecting during this critical period contribute to feelings of mistrust. Failure to develop trust will result in fear and a belief that the world is inconsistent and unpredictable. This theory disputes that it is possible to spoil an infant less than one year of age by timely responses, though, I have to admit, I have my strong doubts.
Regarding the issue of fathers feeling robbed of a wife, they propose that attachment parenting should not be exclusionary for the father, but rather that he plays an important role in the new triad that the birth of the child has created. Instead of feeling replaced by the baby and being perceived as an outsider, his support and presence is critical as he participates in the baby-wearing and timely responses that the infant requires as well, giving his wife a reprieve from the continual needs of the child. As he supports her as only he can, he strengthens and bolsters her so that she can have energy to give him as well, in the context of their marital relationship. In addition, what is created by his participation as well is a sharing of the new bond with the child as a threesome, enhancing the new identity, expansion, and strengthening of the growing family as a unit, which is a collection of individuals who cohere to comprise something larger and more special than themselves.
Regarding the issue of the impact of attachment parenting on intimacy in the marriage, proponents of attachment parenting claim that sexual liaisons need not only occur in the bed, and that in fact, being “evicted from the bed” for sexual contacts creates new and exciting opportunities to enjoy sex in new locations and at unconventional times, that actually fuel eroticism. Erotic barriers create lust, and the kitchen floor or countertop can begin to be reframed as a sexy spot in the house. If the marital bond is strong, and the father assists the mother with meeting the increased demands of the infant instead of it all falling on her shoulders, she will be more interested in devoting energy and time to their own intimate needs as a couple, further enhanced by the bonds of new shared experiences of parenting their baby.
Attachment parenting supporters encourage parents to make special time together during baby nap times or dates (using babysitters armed with expressed breast milk to care for the infant) so that their marital connection remains strong and that their relationship consists not only of parenting, but also of lovers, husbands and wives, and adults who need adult time to nurture that component of their relationships. A marriage that eventually loses that component will not serve the infant well, as an infant not only needs his needs taken care of, but also parents who are whole individuals, as well as a healthy and vibrant couple, which is the foundation of the whole family. If that foundation deteriorates, the whole family’s integrity is in jeopardy, in addition to that of the child.
Proponents of attachment parenting believe that the shift from being closely attached to the parents as an infant to successfully separating and individuating from them to form their unique identities is a gradual process that occurs naturally over time, and if the child knows the parents are there as “home plate” to safely retreat to at various times throughout this fluid, fluctuating process, the child will eventually successfully individuate into a more secure, confident and independent adult. As the child matures, they will naturally learn the all-important skills of self-soothing and self-initiation of sleep. The key to making this transition occur in a healthful manner is balance and age-appropriate limits that gradually shift as the infant matures from an infant, to a toddler, and then into a confident child and adult.
But again, I have my strong doubts, as I believe strongly that discipline is essential in child-rearing and children should learn to go to sleep in their own beds at their parent’s direction.
But there are other reasons for my departure from Dr. Sears’ points of view. I have long maintained and written that the greatest gift a man can give his children is to love their mother, and that the greatest gift a mother can give her children is to love their father. What children need to see above all else is that love works. The two people who brought him or her into the world are attached through the universe’s strongest force, namely, love. Therefore, the birth of a child should be bringing a couple closer together and not making them feel separated by a baby.
Second, there is the general issue of a child learning that, slowly and gradually, he has his space and mommy and daddy have theirs. This is a very important lesson for the child to learn, for a number of reasons. First, the child must learn that he or she is an individual and that slowly, through separation and proper boundaries, they have their own existence, as do mommy and daddy. How could the child possibly develop in a healthy manner if it feels itself to be a limb of the mother? After all, the baby, in being born, has become a separate being from its mother. Clearly separation at the appropriate time, therefore, is a healthy thing. The key is balance.
I am a great believer in the Golden middle path in all things, as advocated by the great Jewish thinker Maimonides. Balance means finding the proper measure of being attached to our children on the one hand, and giving them their own individual identity on the other. At the appropriate age a child should know that when they are put in their bed at a certain hour, and after being soothed, rocked, and comforted, they should go to sleep. The fact that they cry does not mean that we should indulge them immediately, lest they use crying as a means by which to manipulate their parents. We want to avoid raising children who cry to get what they want instantly. Such children, most would believe, are spoiled, indulged, and slowly but surely become the masters of their parents. Though I accept that there are differing points of view, I cannot understand how this can be considered healthy for a baby. On the contrary, it is not the child who knows what is best for himself. Rather, it is the parent that knows what is best for the child. It is not the child who is supposed to rule the roost. Rather, it is the child who is supposed to listen to his or her parents.
However, Dr. Sears’ theory would have us believe that if a child cries, they all should be given what they want by being picked up. It seems to me that this is a recipe for spoiling children and robbing parents of downtime or peace.
My wife and I are blessed, thank God, with nine children. I believe, of course, in them being nurtured and feeling loved that all times. But I also believe in discipline and having the children listen when they are instructed by us. When they are supposed to go to bed, I believe they should go to bed. This does not mean they always listen. Indeed we sometimes find it challenging to put our youngest to sleep. But I do believe that a child learning to follow rules is an essential part of their education.
It seems to me that elements of attachment parenting are extreme and lack balance. And in the same way we should avoid religious extremism and political extremism, perhaps we ought to avoid parenting extremes as well. Inappropriate ‘helicopter parenting’ potentially snuffs out a child’s initiative, individuality, and sense of self. Attachment parenting runs the same risk. But here it is not just the child whose individuality is potentially compromised, but the parents as well. Families are well-integrated machines and they require balance above all else.
A family is comprised of individuals. And when individuality is compromised so is the family.
No doubt proponents of attachment parenting disagree with me vehemently. But knowing that they love their children immensely and only wants what’s best for them, I invite their considered response.
About the Author: Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi” whom the Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in America,” is the international best-selling author of 29 books, including The Fed-up Man of Faith: Challenging God in the Face of Tragedy and Suffering. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.
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