Attachment Parenting is a style of child-rearing that is growing in popularity. This parenting method was founded and promoted by Dr. Bill Sears whose research supposedly supports the notion that a mainly child-centered parenting will basically solve all of society’s ills by producing “adults with a highly developed capacity for empathy and connection” (API Website). This has not only become popular in secular circles but also in churches. Many Christian parents, especially those who espouse the Family Integrated Church Movement (FICM), are really pushing many of these API tenets.
Some of the hallmarks of Attachment Parenting International include on-demand breastfeeding, co-sleeping (in the room), bed-sharing (in the bed), daily schedules determined by the child’s natural rhythm, baby-wearing, never letting the child cry, comforting the child when he throws a tantrum, natural birth, etc. Basically any practice that keeps the child in close proximity to the mother and prevents any kind of stress, distress, anxiety, or discomfort is touted as essential. Anything that increases or enhances the parent-child bond is good. And vice versa, anything that hampers or breaks the parent-child bond is bad. The parent is supposed to consider the child’s feelings and wishes just as valid as the parents’ since he is only hampered by his ability to communicate his true feelings. Therefore it’s the parents’ job to discover what the child is really feeling and communicating through his crying or tantrum. Anytime parents impose their authority or will on the child, it is seen as detrimental to natural development and unfair to the child’s delicate psyche. Attachment Parenting stresses the importance of treating the child as we adults would like to be treated, and it stresses the parent-child bond.
Many have pointed out the flaws in this kind of logic and flaws in its research. Experience alone has taught us that there are some obvious problems with this kind of permissive parenting. I debated with myself as to just how much of that to outline, but basically I believe the reasons underpinning the philosophy are just blatantly unbiblical. I’m not saying that kids who are raised this way will inescapably be worse off than otherwise. A person can make his own free-will choices regardless of which kind of home they were raised. What I am saying is that API lends itself to forming unbiblical infrastructure in a child’s heart and mind. Here is what I mean…
Attachment Parenting has a wrong view of human nature.
API has stated that its view of the children is that in their very core, they are good (source). It also is based on Attachment Theory which is rooted in an evolutionary understanding of human nature. In this view if anything goes wrong with a child, it is the fault of his environment. The belief is that we are all just products of our environments and external influences. And it is obvious when reading the “Positive Discipline” principle that it is strongly believed that a child in his early years is never truly guilty of any wrongdoing. They say that the only reason we teach any manners is simply so children can function in society…which is unnecessary in the early years because they are not in society. So, simple manners like saying sorry or please & thank you should never be “forced.”
It is a major tenet of Biblical Christianity, however, that mankind is born with a sin nature. Even the youngest and cutest of us are sinful in our core which we inherited from our parents, Adam and Eve. In our house we like to say that we have the cutest little sinners in the world!
“Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned.” (Romans 5:12)
“Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.” (Psalm 51:5)
“For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23)
Now, this understanding of our children’s nature explains why we don’t have to teach them to do wrong, but rather we do have to teach them to do right. In the API view, if we model good behavior to our kids, it will somehow soak into them without really making (in AP terminology, “forcing”) the child to have correct behavior and speech. I wonder then, why does anything need to be learned or modeled if they are such little angels? Shouldn’t we then do what the child is doing instead? Of course not, because children don’t naturally behave correctly. Attachment Parenting does not take into account that the child has a sinful nature that must be dealt with, as well as a brain that can be taught and a conscience that can be shaped.
Dr. Markham states in her article, “Parenting Your Strong-Willed Child”, that kids behave because they want to please us, but we know by experience that is not always true. Kids have a sin nature that must be overcome, and that’s difficult to do before they themselves are saved by God’s grace and then have the Holy Spirit to help them. In my experience with my four preschool kids, they behave when they know it’s right. So I show them what is right, not necessarily how it benefits them. They don’t necessarily want to do anything other than indulge their own desires. This is where obedience must be learned. I teach them simple truths like, “We need to do the right thing no matter what.” Even if they don’t feel like it!
Virtues are choices, and when a sinful human being is a child, a sponge just waiting to soak up all he can learn, it’s the parents’ responsibility to make the choice for him sometimes. C.S. Lewis said, “Don’t waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor. As soon as we do this, we find one of life’s great secrets. When you are behaving as if you love someone, you will presently come to love him.” It is a good thing to teach kids to do the right thing, even if they don’t feel like it. It’s not dishonesty…it’s training that sinful, selfish heart to rise above itself. This is biblical.
Attachment Parenting has the wrong view of faith and eternity.
There is a great advantage to deferred gratification and selflessness. Sometimes the advantage is not even in this life, and the true value of life is not in things we can see. A child only knows what he sees right in front of him until someone teaches and shows him differently. That’s the parents’ job primarily. Read Hebrews 11…
“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen…. Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear….[stories about the patriarchs and their faith]…they looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God…. These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth…And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise: God having provided some better thing for us.”
Please don’t leave your child down in the mire of sinful self-indulgence. Attachment Parenting International, however, teaches that a child should get what he wants “on-demand” and teaches that by doing this you are increasing a feeling of security and love. In this humanistic view, they believe that a virtue should only be practiced if it benefits you in some way. Therefore, we should not teach kids not to hit…we should just prevent the damage while the child somehow learns on his own that it’s not to his advantage to hit someone. OK. So the only reason we don’t hit is so that people will be nice to us and it will benefit us in the end? What a selfish worldview! What API forgets is that in reality, we all need to do right for no other reason than it’s right. We must find security and love in God.
But God is invisible. (This is a concept we are teaching our little ones right now.) How do you teach a child a truth about something invisible? You should show him the value of his actions and how the reward or consequences may not come immediately…but it will come. A parent might have to make it come a little sooner than it happens in this life so a child can draw the connection; but children must learn that punishments and true justice do not necessarily come immediately. There are always consequences to our actions and words.
Eventually you will wean children off their need for a reward or punishment, and soon (especially if they accept Christ as their personal Savior at an early age) they will learn to do right even if there is…[gasp!]…no reward. Right action ought not be due to fear of punishment, but due to their own conscience saying they should do right. When children do that, then you know you have helped them see a value in things not seen. I often tell my kids when they complain about something I want them to do, “Well, sometimes we have to do things we don’t like to do.” I just heard an older gentleman tell how his father taught him to tell the truth. His father would tell him, “When you tell me the truth and then it costs you something or you suffer for it, then I know I can trust you.” Isn’t that true of any virtue? In reality, the good guys don’t always win in this life. Sometimes there is no win-win situation. I don’t think API philosophy would like us telling our kids that!
Attachment Parenting has a wrong view of authority structures.
API tells its followers that the child has just as much right to his way of doing things as the parent. There is a great reluctance to allow the child to be placed under ANY other authority other than the parent. Often in practice, the child becomes the ultimate authority even over the parent. This especially becomes a problem, in my experience, when it’s time for a child to go to school or a nursery or any other environment where the child must abide by rules and structures of another authority. API is a breeding ground for “helicopter parents” who hover around their children constantly checking on them, constantly at their beck and call when needed, even rescuing them from punishment. Having worked with teenagers with my husband, I can tell you that those parents who can’t let the kids go for an hour-long activity (much less a missions trip or camp!) without texting, calling, or otherwise checking up on them are hampering their child’s ability to determine who is in charge at any given time. In fact, when this kind of checking up occurs, in my experience the child rarely gives an accurate view of any situation because even mature teens rarely have a bigger picture vantage point. Will a youth worker or teacher always conduct their class or activity in a way each parent would? Will they always be treated fairly? Will the teacher always take into account the child’s particular nuances of understanding or stage of development? Of course not. But that’s ok as long as you are confident that your values and beliefs will generally be reinforced. In fact, it might even be good for a child to be treated unfairly or to be misunderstood sometimes. It might be a good teaching opportunity for the parent after all, because we all can learn even from negative experiences.
I agree with API that a child’s will doesn’t need to be fought against and suppressed, but rather shaped and molded to hone the strengths and weaknesses into the proper character qualities. But I would disagree with the strategy of always finding a win-win situation for the parent and the child in discipline situations. We must include the Christian perspective that obedience is not just about mom & dad knowing what’s best, but rather it’s about learning to submit to proper authority and ultimately to God’s authority. Kids who don’t learn to obey, will have trouble with authority figures. Think about the implications of that. Learning to obey is a foundational skill that kids must learn. I probably wouldn’t allow the child to take SO MUCH control of himself as API recommends. Sometimes, it’s good for a child to just obey. They don’t need to be given the reason or to be shown how to make this decision. (It’s not until the junior high years when they need to begin learning decision making skills before they venture out into adulthood.) God doesn’t always tell us the reasons why, does He? We may not know what happened for many years after a situation, and in fact, we may never know why. We ought to prepare our kids for how God truly works with His people. “Because I said so” is a perfectly biblical reason that a child should obey.
Let’s help kids understand that relationship of a Dependent to a loving Benefactor. Many times, one of my kids will say, “I want to [fill in the blank]” and I will simply say, “That would be fun, wouldn’t it? I would love to [fill in the blank] today, too. But mommy needs to do this now. I have this job that I have to get done. We will do that another time.” They may be disappointed, but at least they know that I heard them, that I understand their opinion on the matter, and that I even empathize. That’s how I understand things when I pray to God and have a request. I know that God sees what must be done and what needs to happen, and I don’t always see the bigger picture. So I defer to His sovereignty over whatever situation it is. That understanding doesn’t happen overnight. God makes leaders out of those who obey His commands, not those who are the most skillful at leading and negotiating. Examples abound in Scripture.
”Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams.” (1 Samuel 15:22)
“Children obey your parents in the Lord for this is right.” (Eph. 6:1)
We teach this not because mommy and daddy think this will navigate our children through life more successfully, but because that is God’s law.
Attachment Parenting has a wrong view of family love.
This idea of a super-bond between the parent and child may seem like a nice idea. And I do agree with API that children need to feel unconditional love and support from their parents. However, we know as Christians, that each individual has soul liberty before God. We may be the perfect parents, but our child may decide, of his own free will, to rebel and turn against God. Love and support are not enough. We must pray for our children that God will change their little sinful hearts into hearts oriented toward God. And conversely, it is possible for God to take a person who had the worst background with the harshest, meanest parents, and turn that person into a vessel for Him. While I appreciate the need to love our children (Ephesians 6:1-5) and not to exasperate them, I also see a danger in not letting the kids develop independence apart from mom and dad, even at a young age.
A family ought to be a safe and loving place where children are raised and nurtured so they will become mature adults with their own families someday. When kids are very young they will necessarily need the most support and direction, but I say, give them every opportunity to function apart from me! Practice makes perfect. I don’t want my kids to need me at all as an adult, whether it be physically, emotionally, spiritually, financially, etc. Rather I want them to simply enjoy our love and fellowship as adults. Our kids are arrows that are to be shaped and crafted so that we can launch them. (Psalm 127:4) What if God calls one of your children into the ministry? Will it seem natural to them to leave mom and dad and just go? Or will it be a struggle to cut those apron strings? What about when your child finds a wonderful mate whom they marry? Will you be able to step back and let them make their own family? Or will you become the mother-in-law that no one wants? It should be natural for them to want to GO and do God’s will. It should not be a struggle. So the whole concept of attachment parenting does not bring into account that we are to help our children relate to God, not to us.
I have always loved C.S. Lewis’ book, The Four Loves. I highly recommend every parent to read the chapters on storge or family love. Every earthly love has a fatal flaw in that it can turn on itself if not tempered by the true agape love of God. Even parents who love their children can create an idol out of this affection.
“We may give our human loves the unconditional allegiance which we owe only to God. They become gods: then they become demons. Then they will destroy us, and also destroy themselves. For natural loves that are allowed to become gods do not remain loves. They are still called so, but can become in fact complicated forms of hatred.”
And let me remind you that Jesus Himself said that our spiritual life will trump any earthly affections.
“The father shall be divided against the son, and the son against the father; the mother against the daughter, and the daughter against the mother; the mother in law against her daughter in law, and the daughter in law against her mother in law” (Luke 12:53).
“But he answered and said unto him that told him, Who is my mother? and who are my brethren? And he stretched forth his hand toward his disciples, and said, Behold my mother and my brethren! For whosoever shall do the will of my Father which is in heaven, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother” (Matthew 12:48-50).
Attachment Parenting believes that it exalts childhood to an idyllic time of innocence and joy, but in reality, it ends up making children and their affections the #1 priority above every other concern. I do think it’s good to let the kids know that mommy and daddy really do love them even when they may not understand a situation. However, sometimes children need to know that it’s not all about them. In fact, God should be the #1 priority in the family, mommy & daddy are #2, and the kids’ position is #3. Sometimes it’s helpful to remind them of that, and remind them (especially older kids) that when they become a mommy or a daddy, then they get to have position #2. But they need to be secure in the knowledge that no one else will ever have position #3 in the family, no other child, no other person. If Mommy and Daddy love each other the best and make God the priority in their lives so that those “positions” are secure, then children will know that their “place” is secure too.
Attachment Parenting’s emphasis is too heavily on the children and their needs whether real or perceived. I couldn’t disagree more with that philosophy simply because it has an unbiblical view of human nature, eternity, faith, authority, and family love. I hope that my sisters in Christ who are in the throes of child-rearing will view the related books and blogs through the lens of Scripture. The Bible is our sole authority for faith and practice.
There are plenty of articles and blogs available that give great comments from a practical perspective. I’ll just link you, the readers, to a few which seem to outline most of the pertinent ideas. Also please see my disclaimer.
Time Magazine: “The Science Behind Dr. Sears: Does It Stand Up?”
Other Random Thoughts on Attachment Parenting…
The following are just my thoughts on this topic that aren’t necessarily tenets of biblical Christianity, so they didn’t make it into my main article. These are Mostly Sensible thoughts I had after my reading and research into Attachment Parenting.
- Giving in to the child’s every demand used to be called “spoiling” the child. That’s a bad thing, not a cute thing, much less a necessary thing! It will lend itself to creating a self-centered, conceited, and possibly narcissistic adult.
- Children thrive within boundaries. It’s been common knowledge that security for a child comes from knowing where the boundaries are. Those who don’t know their limits seem to live in fear. My mother-in-law told a story about watching children at recess at a school. The playground was near a busy street, and so a fence was erected for safety. The kids played way out in the grass near the fence and even bounced off the fence in play. At one point the school bought into the notion that children ought to be free to explore their world without boundaries, so they removed the fences. The children began playing nearer the school building and rarely went into the grass. When a teacher asked the kids why they didn’t play out there anymore a child said, “We are afraid a car might drive onto the grass and get us.” You see, with the definite boundary, the children had a wider and more “free” experience than without the boundary. Or read here about the case of Summerhill school to see how a school turned out after 50 years of a permissive environment.
- API mischaracterizes traditional parenting. They like to say things like, “Instilling fear in children serves no purpose and creates feelings of shame and humiliation (source: API website).” This kind of misunderstanding of what spanking is has been a problem ever since Dr. Spock! Can’t anyone understand that there is a difference between spanking (or swats if you prefer that terminology) and physical abuse?! Good grief! And perhaps we traditional parents are to blame for some of this faulty perception. We often joke about how our parents would “kill us!” if we ever did cross a boundary. Those who came from abusive backgrounds have a hard time understanding what we mean. And in seeking to encourage proper discipline we forget to talk about the love and consistency and devotion and joy we have within our families. I’m guilty of this because I tend to be too serious-minded. (Thank heaven for my goofy, wonderful husband!) In fact, in our home we give lots of hugs and kisses and cuddling, and there’s lots of laughter and fun. It is too bad that API advocates have totally caricatured our parenting styles as overly authoritarian.
- API contradicts itself. While the basic Eight Principles of Attachment Parenting point strongly toward a permissive parenting style, their resources keep giving themselves the caveat that parents should take this all in balance. They say, while parents should create a “yes” atmosphere in the home, they should NOT be permissive. They also say that if anything “isn’t working” then they should follow their instincts to adjust for their own needs. And while everything seems to be about the child, they will then say that mothers should “take care of themselves.” Can you have it both ways? I had a hard time finding any of their principles which they would insist are essential, except for the prohibition against spanking. Many pro-API blogs say it is not child-centered or permissive or helicopter parenting, but in practice, it really is. What else would you call “on-demand” anything? They say that the children are good by nature, but then tell you how to teach the child, or how to help the child gain self-control or kindness. Many more contradictions abound.
- AP research is lacking. Some Attachment Parenting research seems pretty simplistic to me. One example is that a crying baby has higher stress levels…well, yes! What’s new about that? Time magazine did a critique of the research behind Attachment Parenting and it was enough for me to question the validity of the arguments. See the link above.
- Children are smarter than we realize. I can’t help but think that API has a too low view of a child’s capabilities. Many times we actually teach children correct behaviors even before they are technically able to perform a particular action or attitude correctly with all of the correct motivations. Even when they can’t do it, they are learning. I believe that newborns can learn valuable coping techniques when we don’t rescue them from their crying too quickly. In my experience with four newborns within four years, I learned quickly the difference between true distress and when my baby just “wanted” something. (And each child was different.) So even with my newborns, and especially when I had other small children to keep track of, it wasn’t such a bad thing to let them cry for 2 or 3 minutes. My babies learned very quickly that they were really ok for those few minutes. And learning to comfort themselves is an invaluable coping mechanism. They are smart! One of my children would intently watch and observe before trying any new thing, including speaking. Another of my children will try just about anything whether she actually is able to do it or not, and so she likes to learn by experience. There’s value in both, and so I push each kid to learn in ways in which they are not comfortable. My child’s comfort level was only a minor consideration when teaching important things. With my observant one, I encourage her to try things even if she doesn’t want to so that she learns bravery and so she doesn’t become frozen by fear of the unknown. And with my adventurous one, I encourage her to stop and think and be patient. But API seems to think that doing anything against a child’s “nature” is detrimental. What do you think? Am I hurting my children? Or am I giving them more skills which will help them navigate life and faith?
- API takes common sense and extrapolates it too far. We frequently use some API tenets with newborn babies, but API continues the practices well beyond the newborn stage into the toddler and early childhood years. I do not refer only to breastfeeding practices. Of course, we necessarily have to be attentive to a newborn in order to make that bond and nurture love and care. Of course, at 4 months old a child doesn’t understand that hitting mommy isn’t right, and so he doesn’t get a spanking. But that doesn’t mean that I let my 4 month old keep hitting me. And at 2 years old my child surely did get in trouble for hitting! I didn’t like anyone holding my babies for a long time after they are born, but this didn’t mean that I didn’t leave them in the nursery at church for one hour without me when they were 2 or 3 or 4. And although gentle correction is needed in the first few months of life, these strategies will not work as the child grows and begins to figure things out.
- Rules should actually be most abundant in the early years of life. It is my theory that there should be more rules and restrictions while children are young. And, if they learn the basic virtues of life early on, then the rules and oversight can relax more and more as they grow into their teen years. I have seen permissive parents excuse their child’s rude and disobedient behavior because “they’re just little.” But then when those same kids become teenagers, suddenly they’re wild and untrustworthy, and now the parent has to impose rules and exercise great supervision in order to keep the teenager from completely destroying his life. Inevitably, in that scenario, the teen will rebel. Or if they don’t rebel, they alienate themselves from their parents for much of their young adult life. My theory is that if a child learns early on that there are consequences to sin and rebellion and that in our home there will be rewards for virtuous behavior, then they will become trustworthy as teenagers. Then they get to have more freedom and will mature more quickly in those years.
Now there is a caveat. We are all sinful creatures and we each have a free will. So as I said in my article above, even if a child is raised in a perfect home with perfect parents, he may still choose to rebel and lead a sinful life. And conversely, a child who is raised in the worst home with terrible parents can choose to live a life pleasing to God and become a vessel for Him. God can work in anyone’s heart! That relieves a parent of a lot of pressure, doesn’t it!