Thursday, January 8, 2015

Attachment Parenting as Children Grow Up

Attachment Parenting is one of the concepts in the world of parenthood that elicits the biggest emotional response. Just the mere mention of the phrase tends to be a conversation starter, and it seems inevitable that someone will eventually get upset about something, take something personally, get offended and get angry.

Ironic, considering that the whole point of attachment parenting is to be gentle.

I was asked to write about what attachment parenting looks like as children get older, which I will in a bit here, but I first wanted to say a few things more generally.

First, I don't usually refer to myself as an attachment parent even though I absolutely am one. I don't use the phrase for a few reasons. I detest labels in general and I try to avoid using them in regards to parenting even more than ordinary because of the divisiveness.

Second, I don't necessarily think that anyone needs to adhere to all the ideas of AP to be an attachment parent, if that makes sense. I don't believe for one second that AP is a contest where the parents who can check off the most boxes of compliance wins. I look at it more as a whole approach to parenting, which may or may not mean that certain aspects of it fit in to one family lifestyle. The exclusion of some aspects doesn't negate the rest, doesn't mean they don't use the AP approach.

There are some people who believe that the only way to AP is completely, that if you aren't breastfeeding, cloth diapering, co-sleeping and babywearing you aren't AP. I disagree. While there are certainly parents who do all those things, myself included, they aren't required.

There's not a test.

This is not a contest.

You have to do what works for you and your child and your family unit in your circumstances. Period.

With all that said, I wanted to talk about what AP really is, versus this belief that it's just about breastfeeding and co-sleeping. AP is about fostering a strong parent/child connection more than anything else. It's about laying a firm foundation of trust and support. It's about making sure that the child feels safe and that their needs are addressed. It's about taking cues from them, waiting for them to be ready for new experiences and nurturing them along the way.

There are many who criticize AP, claiming that it creates children who are overly dependent on their parents or that it is too permissive of an approach. Some claim that it makes kids clingy, that it gives them too much control over the family unit. Some say it places too many demands on the parents.

I tend to take sweeping criticisms of anything with a grain of salt. There are degrees to every aspect of AP, just as there are to any parenting approach. While some families may utilize every aspect of AP to an extreme, most don't. Most take what works and use it how it best suits their family, discarding the rest. It's going to look a little different in every house. In fact, there are probably a good portion of parents out there that use AP strategies, but don't even realize that there is a label for it.

Some of this stuff is just instinct driven. In fact, I would argue that most of it is.

Instinct has never been tied to a clock or a calendar.

When you look at the actual intentions of AP, it's fairly easy to see how they'd apply to older kids as well as infants, just as it is fairly easy to see how there is no requirement of strict adherence to any one portion. For example, it's absolutely possible to bottle feed a child and still use this approach - one that relies on feeding cues from the child, nurtures healthy choices, promotes bonding. It's absolutely possible to AP in separate sleeping spaces. And so on.

Without getting into every nuance and aspect of AP, I wanted to just write a little bit about what we have done and do, and why we've chosen to parent our children this way.

When I say "we", I mean my husband and myself, united as a team in this approach. There have been times that we've been met with opposition from friends or family members about some of our choices, and it's been important to us that we are on the same page.

Tell me that this isn't sexy.
I dare you.
Before our oldest child was born, we read all the books, trying to be as prepared as possible. I planned to try and breastfeed, but didn't really have strong opinions about it either way. I was not breastfed, no one in my family nursed and the expectation was that we would bottle feed. That changed, in all honesty, mostly because our son was born premature. In the NICU it is hard not to feel powerless as a parent when your child is connected to machines to keep them alive. I couldn't do anything to help him, I couldn't even hold him. But I could start pumping. I could make milk for him. My motivation to nurse grew with each day he was in there. It was not an easy process, but by the time he was discharged, I was committed to make it work.

The oldest weaned at just over a year old, mostly because he was just busy and uninterested, but also because I succumbed to pressure from family to transition him away from it. They kept telling me he was too old, and eventually I gave up. By the time his sister arrived, I had become more resolute in my determination. She nursed until she was just over 2, weaning while I was pregnant with her sister. The next two nursed for over 3 years each. This baby will, in all likelihood, nurse for at least that long as well.

If anyone out there reading has criticism for me about extended breastfeeding, just know that I stopped caring what anyone else thinks about that a long time ago. The WHO recommends two years. The norm around the world is to nurse well into toddlerhood. For whatever reason in this country, people have a distorted view of breastfeeding as some kind of sexualized practice, which it is not. It's providing nourishment and comfort to a child, nothing more, nothing less.

As for our sleep arrangements, it's a loaded issue. Pediatricians have wagged their fingers at parents for well over a generation now, telling us that if we sleep with our children, they can die of SIDS...which isn't exactly true. In fact, the opposite has been found to be true. Co-sleeping and nursing is actually protective. What is dangerous is when parents co-sleep in unsafe ways. Instead of telling parents not to do it, the medical community should be educating parents about how to do it safely. 

Not everyone can or should co-sleep. It doesn't work for all families. Some kids need their own space, some parents do. Whatever works for your family, works. As long as everyone is comfortable and sleeping, that's really all that should matter.

When we were new parents, we tried desperately to follow the rules. We always tried to put the baby back in the crib, which only resulted in frustrating sleepless nights. We even attempted sleep training once, mostly because we felt like we were supposed to do it. Neither of us could go through with it.

It was just easier to have them sleep with us.

As they have aged, the kids sleep away from us almost all the time unless someone is sick or has a nightmare. They all are known to snuggle up with us in the morning, though. You'd be surprised how many warm bodies can fit in a queen sized bed. These days, some of our best conversations take place on lazy weekend mornings, cuddled in there together.

We were told by everyone it seemed that we were spoiling the kids, that they'd never be able to sleep alone, that we'd never get them out of our room, that we'd never have time for intimacy. Lots of "nevers". None of those things came to fruition.

Attachment parenting looks a little different with older kids, for sure, but the basic ideas still exist. Here is some of what we do.

We engage with the kids in their activities with intention. What I mean by that is that we take a personal role in the things they are interested in, whether it is leading scouts, coaching a sports team or taking up a new hobby to share it with them. We strive to understand whatever it is they are interested in, even and especially when it isn't something we already enjoy doing.

We have always focused on the importance of family dinners. We often cook together too. This gets harder and harder to do as they get older and are involved in more sports and other activities, but we make a point to eat dinner together at the table as frequently as possible. No television, no phones, no electronic devices allowed at the table.

We have family game nights. We do this pretty often and rotate who gets to choose which games we play. They all have different favorites, they all have different strengths and weaknesses when it comes to the games. Many of the games we play are cooperative ones, requiring teamwork among the players. (If you are interested, some of the ones we play most frequently are Forbidden Island, Pathfinder Adventure Card Game, Flash Point and Betrayal at House on the Hill) We've found that these type of games are excellent for developing team strategies, cooperation and building relationships among the kids as they learn about each others abilities.

We choose the books and movies and stories that our children are exposed to with intention. We don't generally censor much around here, within reason, and we use the media as a jumping off point for conversations. We don't shy away from difficult subjects, we talk about them instead. Every so often, something the kids will say will blow me out of the water a bit as a result. We watched Braveheart with them for the first time a few weeks ago, and they all made observations about torture and execution, about the unfairness of what transpired. They questioned whether things like that still happen today.

We talk to them about difficult subjects. When there was recently a series of suicides locally, we discussed depression with them, we talked about being a supportive friend, we talked about making sure that they know where to go for help. As a parent, often our guts tell us to shield them from the ugly truths about life, but we know we aren't doing them any favors if we try to do that. We want them instead to know that they can come to us with anything, that we will always be here.

We embrace who they are. We don't try to push them to the activities or classes or interests we wish for them. We hold back, let them explore what they are interested in and support them. When they fall out of love with something, we have them honor any commitments made, then allow them to bow out and try something new. We don't tease them for their interests, we don't mock the things they like. We may not always understand it, but we try.

We make sure that each of us as parents has special time with each of them apart and away from the other members of the family. It can get complicated and difficult to do this with as many kids as we have, but in some ways it makes it even more important that we do it. Even something as simple and mundane as a trip to the hardware store can become a special treat (especially when you're a six year old boy).

We pay attention to their comfort zones. They are all different in this respect. Some of them are social butterflies always ready for new experiences, some of them are more restrained and cautious. We don't push anyone to do anything they aren't ready for, and when they are ready, if they need us to wait in the wings, we do it. Especially with the older kids, sometimes all they need is to know you're there, even if they don't "need" you. There is a quote somewhere about how 90% of life is just showing up. The same could easily be said for parenting teenagers. Sometimes they just need to know that if they glance around the room, you'll be looking back at them.

We have special phrases and messages that we say to one another. We have nicknames for the kids that generally are only used at home, and done so with affection. We kiss everyone goodnight, we hug, we cuddle on the couch. With this many people around, you're bound to always be touching someone in this house.

We set high expectations for them, but those expectations are based on their individual abilities. We don't expect or demand the same things from all the kids because they are all different people. What works for one won't work for another. What is a reasonable goal for one might be unattainable for another. We stay flexible, and we let them screw up. We just help fix it afterwards.

I am sure that there are other points I'm intending to make here but am missing, but it seems I've already written a very long post about this. If any of you have specific questions or would like to add something, please feel free to do so in the comments.


  1. We parent like this as well. I agree about the labeling, et . I fund there's really no need for it, I think our society largely labels to have an 'excuse' for poor behavior, disinterest and (as you said) divisiveness.

    I personally believe this style of parenting is most natural for us and so I don't actively label, if I'm asked I will say we practice attachment style.

    Keep up the good work! :)

  2. I love being an AP parent- and I wouldn't give up any of the snuggles and co-sleeping and nursing memories I have for the world.

    My favorite memories are when I used to lie in bed breastfeeding my youngest, his older brother curled against me, cuddling up to us. He was 2- and he would pretend to nurse his favorite stuffed cow while we all cuddled and I would tell them stories.

    Of course, now that he's 13- he doesn't want hear about how he used to nurse a cow- but he still smiles at the photos and cuddles me and his brother.

  3. I am a single mom of a son with Autism. I honestly believe that nursing and co-sleeping helped him to be at a higher functioning level than he might have been otherwise. I remember a therapist telling me my son HAD to get out of my bed immediately. I ignored him because I instinctively knew my son needed that level of closeness. He's now almost 24 and hasn't slept in my bed since he was 8-9 years old. He is a wonderful young man and actually doing very well in spite of his challenges. Raising my son has taught me not to worry about the "experts" and to follow my instincts, which is at the heart of AP.


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