Question: What exactly is “attachment parenting” as it applies to all ages, not just babies? My children are moving beyond the breastfeeding, babywearing and family bed stage, and I want to continue to be able to give them the kind of parenting they need.
Jan Hunt responds: Attachment parenting, to put it most simply, is believing what we know in our heart to be true. And if we do that, we find that we trust the child. We trust him in these ways:
• We trust that he is doing the very best he can at every given moment, given all of his experiences up to that time.
• We trust that though he may be small in size, he is as fully human as we are and as deserving as we are to have his needs taken seriously.
• We trust that he has been born innocent, loving and trusting. We do not need to "turn him around," to teach him that life is difficult or train him to be a loving human being -- he is that at birth, and all we need to do is celebrate that and support and sustain it.
• We don't have to give him lessons about life -- life brings its own lessons and its own frustrations.
• We recognize that in a very beautiful way, our child teaches us, if we listen, what love is.
• We understand that if a child "misbehaves," instead of reacting to the behavior, we should always examine what has been taking place in his life -- what stresses, frustrations or frightening, confusing or difficult situations he has just experienced. We also need to examine whether we have brought about any of these experiences, intentionally or not. It is our job to be responsive parents, meeting the needs of our child; it is not the child's job to meet our needs for a quiet and perfectly well-behaved child.
• We understand that it is unfair and unrealistic to expect a child to behave perfectly at all times; after all, no adult can do this either. Yet behind all punishment is the unstated expectation that a child can and should behave perfectly at all times; there is no leeway.
• We see that so-called "bad behavior" is in reality nothing more than a child's attempt to communicate an important need in the best way he can, given the present circumstances and all of his prior experience. "Misbehavior" is a signal to us that important needs are not being met by us or by others in the child's life. We should not ignore that behavior, any more than we should ignore the sound of a smoke detector. We should instead see "bad behavior" as an opportunity -- an opportunity to re-evaluate our own behavior, to learn about our child's needs and to meet those needs in the best way possible.
The hidden opportunities of parenting
As Albert Einstein wrote, "Behind every difficulty lies an opportunity." This is true in general, but it is profoundly true in parenting.
For example, if a child chases a ball into the road, that is an opportunity to teach him safety measures by practicing for similar situations in the future. The parent could ask the child to purposely throw the ball into the road, then come to the parent and report the situation. In this way, the real lesson can be learned: it is the parent who needs to spend more time teaching safety, not the child who should somehow have known this information and obviously does not yet know.
Punishment is the most damaging response; it is unfair, upsetting and confusing and distracts a child from the learning that needs to take place. Instead, we should give gentle, respectful instruction at the time the behavior occurs. This is exactly when the child can relate it to his life. In this way, the best learning can take place.
What does attachment parenting teach?
Through attachment parenting, children learn to trust themselves and understand themselves. They will eventually be able to use their time as adults in a meaningful and creative way, rather than spending it in an attempt to deal with past childhood hurts in a way that hurts themselves or others. When an adult has no need to deal with the past, he can live fully in the present.
As the Golden Rule suggests, attachment parenting is parenting a child the way we wish we had been treated in childhood, the way we wish we were treated by everyone now and the way we want our grandchildren to be treated. With attachment parenting, we are giving an example of love and trust.
Our children deserve to learn what compassion is, and they learn that most of all by our example. If our children do not learn compassion from us, when will they learn it? The bottom line is that all children behave as well as they are treated -- by their parents and by everyone else in their life.
Dr. Elliott Barker, a Canadian psychiatrist and Director of the Canadian Society for the Prevention of Cruelty for Children, describes attachment parenting as having these two facets:
• being willing and able to put yourself in your child's shoes in order to correctly identify his or her feelings
• being willing and able to behave toward your child in ways which take those feelings into account
In short, attachment parenting is loving and trusting our children. If we can do that, they will be able to trust us. In turn, they will trust others and become trustworthy persons themselves. The educator John Holt once said that everything he wrote could be summed up in two words: "trust children." This is the most precious gift we can give as parents.
© Jan Hunt
Jan Hunt, M.Sc., is a parenting counselor, director of the Natural Child Project and editorial assistant for the Canadian journal Empathic Parenting. She is an advisor to Attachment Parenting International, Child-Friendly Initiative and Northwest Attachment Parenting. A parenting columnist and writer for many years, she is the author of The Natural Child: Parenting from the Heart. Jan and her 22-year-old son (who homeschooled from the beginning with a learner-directed approach) live in central Oregon. You can see Jan’s work at The Natural Child Project.
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