Frankly, I’m not entirely sold on attachment theory. While there seems to be plenty of evidence that being responsive to your baby’s cues is, overall, a good thing and makes babies more likely to be securely attached, I do think being “securely attached” (which, after all, merely represents a specific response pattern) is not absolutely necessary to produce psychologically functional adults. It’s somewhat like assuming that making prom queen in high school is inherently better. While this may be an indicator of of high social functioning, it doesn’t necessarily indicate future happiness or success.
Also IMO, while responsive parenting may attenuate a baby’s behavior, the baby’s basic temperament will also be a major factor in determining her personality (possibly, also, through how adults respond to her behavior). Babies are not presented to us tabula rasa. Attachment theory, to my mind, also doesn’t credit human resilience enough – though we all have heard or know about people who turn out to be wonderfully functional people, despite coming from the most awful, abusive family situations.
But assuming one takes the precepts of attachment theory to heart, how can a parent nurture their baby in a way that will promote secure attachment?
Despite Dr. William Sears’ protests that the basis of his Attachment Parenting is “listening to your baby’s cues”, it becomes very clear, both according to both his book and his followers, that much of the emphasis in practice is on the “Baby Bs”, which claim to be “tools” by which a baby will develop the secure attachment pattern to his mother. (I’ve discussed why this is incorrect in one of my earliest posts, here).
Nonsense, says Zeynep Biringen, Ph.D, child clinical psychologist, associate professor at Colorado State University and author of Raising a Secure Child:
Parenting experts have advocated what is called “attachment parenting”. The term attachment parenting might sound familiar because it has been popularized in many parenting books. However, only the label has been borrowed, not the scientific research on which this topic is based. There is no scientific evidence to indicate that the practices such as “cosleeping” or “birth bonding” — the delaying of any separation or routine procedures during the newborn period until after the family has had time to bod — have much of an effect on long-term parent-child relationships. In fact, such statements have created much unnecessary guilt and worry among parents of premies and parents of adoptive children who for health and logistical reasons are unable to take part in this form of connecting with a child. There is also no good scientific evidence that “babywearing” or “breastfeeding on cue” have an effect on a child’s long-term social/emotional development. Some (but not necessarily all) of these recommendations are sound advice, but they are not based on mainstream attachment theory or scientific research.
Dr. Biringen knows whereof she speaks, as she has been doing attachment research for the past two decades. She has championed the concept of Emotional Availability – and on her website, you can also find a checklist to see if you are an emotionally available parent (the book has one for children aged 2 and up as well).
The nice thing about Brinigen’s ideas is that she gives parents actual guidance (as opposed to Sears’ laundry list of one-size-fits-all of practices) in reading your child’s emotional cues. Also, she stresses throughout the book that it’s never to late to reconnect emotionally with one’s child (even if you were doing it ‘completely wrong’ until your child’s adolescence!), and that the secure attachment is not limited to the parents – a child can, and perhaps should, develop attachments to other figures, such as teachers, babysitters, and other family members. While she believes that home-based care is best for the first year, she emphasizes that a mother’s employemnt outside the home is not an impediment to achieving an emotionally available relationship with her children. She also, very importantly, states that parents have a right to a life of their own and no parent, or anybody else, can be emotionally available to a child 24/7/365; what matters is the overall quality of the relationship. Additionally, she points out that parents may be emotionally disengaged with a certain baby because of their own psychological issues at the time – for example, loss of a previous baby to SIDS or due to depression. In which case, the child will pick up on the parent’s mood even if his/her actions are all ‘by the book’ (and this means parent should probably be working through said issues, perhaps with the help of a licensed therapist).
Biringen also introduces the idea of parental intrusiveness – which can be forcing a child to develop before they’re ready, but also, conversely, doing things for children when they’re developmentally ready to do them on their own. Thus, while it’s emotionally available behavior to change a 6-month-old’s diapers, refusing to potty-train a (neurologically normal) 4-year-old because he’s perfectly happy going in his diaper is considered intrusive. Intrusive behavior can foster insecure-anxious/dependent attachment, rather the the desirable secure attachment.
Biringen is also honest enough to admit that most insecure attachment types are not indicative of future mental pathology – though a child with insecure attachment may grow up to have personality quirks which may cause her stress. She states inborn traits can be overcome with emotional availability (I am not entirely convinced of this, nor am I convinced this is entirely desirable). She also suggests building a relationship with one’s child – along with ‘being there’ emotionally with your children – by acting somewhat like the child’s therapist, something which I admit feels uncomfortable to me (though I’m certainly willing to think about it, and some parents may find this approach helpful). But overall, the book is quite valuable in elucidating the actual claims of attachment theory, and what needs to be done by parents in practice in order to be a responsive parent.
Filed under: Attachment |