Attachment: Battleground in the Parenting Wars?

The term attachment parenting—usually associated with co-sleeping, baby-“wearing” and prolonged breast-feeding—is heard increasingly often these days. Yet it isn’t always well understood, even by those who support it. What is “attachment,” what does it have to do with parenting, and how does it relate to healthy family relationships?

In May 2012, Time magazine ignited a virtual parenting-book war with a cover depicting a mother nursing her three-year-old son. Both mother and son were standing, a small chair making up for the difference in their stature, and the headline challenged, “Are You Mom Enough?” This provocative question was followed by the subtitle, “Why attachment parenting drives some moms to extremes—and how Dr. Bill Sears became their guru.” The media firestorm that followed invited a number of recent parenting books into the fray, even though in some cases it required portraying them in oversimplified terms and forcing them into straw uniforms to equip them for battle. This is, of course, how publishing often works: controversy sells.

Although the ensuing debate over the current state of motherhood may have played out mostly in the media (real mothers are too busy to obsess very much about what other mothers may be doing), it nevertheless reflected a huge gap between what researchers know about child development—particularly in terms of what’s called “attachment theory”—and the current assumptions of the popular press and parenting gurus. And while opponents of attachment parenting rarely characterize attachment research accurately, it is also clear from much of the debate that even supporters of the movement may sometimes suffer from misconceptions. The media is no less in the dark. In articles and even parenting books, it is not uncommon to come across the scientifically meaningless term “attached parents.”

This reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of attachment bonds. By definition an attachment bond is one that seeks security and comfort. If these are received, the attachment is “secure.” Children are “insecurely attached” when these needs are not met; they may have dysfunctional attachment style, but they are nonetheless attached. Even abused children become attached to their mothers. We are wired to continually seek security and comfort from others, whether we receive it or not. On the other hand, a parent should not be looking to a child for security and comfort; parents’ bonds with their children may express themselves in deep and persistent affection, but you would not refer to such individuals as “attached parents.”

Part of what is so confusing is all the conflicting advice we parents get, from all angles: our parents, our friends, our doctors, our baby books, various ‘experts,’ even perfect strangers on the street. Everyone’s got an opinion, and no one is shy about sharing it with us.”

Mayim Bialik, Beyond the Sling

Perhaps surprisingly, the very term attachment parenting is also scientifically meaningless. It carries the subtle implication that there is a well-defined and specific set of parenting practices underlying secure attachment. Quite the contrary is true: the term has a complex origin and a rather loose application. It has been used to describe not only the approach outlined in The Baby Book, a popular parenting manual written by pediatrician Sears and his wife Martha in 1992, but also the parallel but distinct approach popularized by celebrity neuroscientist, actress and mom Mayim Bialik, whose 2012 book Beyond the Sling does not refer to Sears at all, pointing rather to John Bowlby’s famous 1950s and ’60s research as its foundation. Bowlby, for his part, didn’t coin any such phrase. He studied the phenomenon of infant attachment from a psychological, observational perspective and did not attempt to define limits for how long babies can be allowed to cry or whether they need to be strapped on to a parent’s body for a specific period of time every day. Rather, Bowlby’s “attachment theory” illuminates the basic requirements for healthy human interaction, and it has influenced almost every field related to the development of the mind for more than half a century.

The Back Story

Bowlby’s ideas were considered somewhat heretical in the early days. Most psychiatrists at the time assumed nearly all neuroses could be traced to infantile sexuality—through either Sigmund Freud’s emphasis on the Oedipus complex or Melanie Klein’s focus on infantile fantasies. Bowlby’s hypothesis that children need secure emotional bonds with parents seems elementary now, especially in the face of so much confirmation by neuroscience. But 50 years ago it won him and Mary Ainsworth, who joined him in his research, a host of critics, despite the fact that their conclusions were based on extensive observation of children separated from their mothers.

It would be difficult to summarize in one article all of the attachment research that has accumulated since Bowlby kicked off his Attachment and Loss trilogy in 1969; the “summary” of research in the 2008 edition of the Handbook of Attachment is more than 1,000 pages long, and the author index contains nearly 4,000 names. This speaks to the continuing interest in attachment research as Bowlby’s ideas are tested and validated across a variety of research perspectives.

Bowlby’s own interest in the topic may have stemmed from growing up in an upper-middle-class English family where child-minding was the province of nursemaids and governesses. His family’s arrangement was not uncommon for his day and social status, but perhaps it is what led him to make this assessment in 1940: “If it became a tradition that small children were never subjected to complete or prolonged separation from their parents in the same way that regular sleep and orange juice have become nursery traditions, I believe that many cases of neurotic character development would be avoided.”

For Bowlby, Ainsworth and the researchers who have succeeded them, healthy human psychological development—and even survival itself—depends on the quality of our relationships with others. And this lifelong interdependence begins at birth.

While Bowlby began by studying the behavior of primates, Ainsworth followed with brilliantly devised observational experiments with human mothers and children. More recently, research in psychobiological development and social neuroscience using brain imaging technology has revealed that social experiences affect how genes are expressed. This allows us to appreciate the important interplay between genetic temperament and the early experiences that work to fine-tune it. We can also see that parents are the foundation of a lifetime of attachment relationships; later caregivers will also fulfill important roles as attachment figures, as will siblings, friends and romantic partners in adulthood.

According to James A. Coan, one of the forerunners in the study of social neuroscience, attachment figures are defined by the fact that they help us regulate emotion—particularly those emotions related to stress or threat responses. What sets parents apart in life’s parade of attachment figures is the fact that they provide security and help us regulate distress during a crucial period of brain development, specifically the first two years of life. The process of parent-infant bonding, he says, teaches us to make certain assumptions about our social world, including how we might expect to encounter it in the future: “This may set the stage for different broad strategies for engaging (or avoiding) social stimuli, perhaps especially during emotional situations.”

In other words, the kind of treatment we learn to expect from our parents during those important early years profoundly affects our ability to function well within our social world later in life. Anxiety, depression and other mental health issues are often related to how our brain’s emotion-regulation systems have been calibrated.

Some researchers suspect that they are seeing the effects of increased attachment problems as they observe a rise in anxiety and depression among adults. Clinical psychologist Louis Cozolino, author of The Neuroscience of Human Relationships, is among them. “When you have inadequate attachment,” he said in a 2007 interview, “—and society isn’t really set up to allow people the time and the space to raise their children and be present with their children in order to establish that attachment—then I think kids are more vulnerable. I don’t get a sense that there’s a lot of attachment security, certainly not in the people that I work with. Of course, it’s not a random sample because it’s a clinical sample, but it certainly seems that adults are not coming out of childhood feeling safe in the world. As a result, people seem to be having difficulty creating connections.”

Securing the Bond

So how do parents work toward the kind of secure attachment bonds that will set children on the path toward optimum mental health? Is it critical to co-sleep for a prescribed number of months or years—or at all? Is there a perfect length of time to breast-feed or “wear” babies? This is where interpretation of the research comes in. Certainly anything that increases the opportunity for bonding can be helpful—including co-sleeping, wearing babies and nursing (which, of course, is beneficial for physical health as much as mental health). But parents’ perception of their infant and of their relationship may be the most important factor in assuring these important bonding opportunities, say researchers.

Happy, attuned interactions are as much a basic need for an infant as is feeding or burping,” writes Daniel Goleman in Social Intelligence. “Lacking such synchronous parenting, children are more at risk of growing up with disturbed attachment patterns. In short, well-empathized children tend to become secure; anxious parenting produces anxious children; and aloof parents produce avoidant children, who withdraw from emotion and from people.”

Distant parents, he says, do produce children who are good at the stiff-upper-lip pretense, but these same children are shown to be subject to high anxiety, a situation that has little chance to improve over their lifetime as they tend to remain aloof and distant toward others.

It must be said that today’s attachment parenting style as presented by Bialik rests rather soundly on the basis of the research evidence, but as a whole it is nevertheless a style of applying the research. Even Bialik cautions that many of her recommendations go beyond “good-enough” parenting and may not be for everyone. “I am not implying that if you do not follow attachment parenting your child will display disorganized, ambivalent, or avoidant attachment,” she reassures. “Rather, with this knowledge of the dynamics of attachment, I hope you will be able to see why attachment theory makes sense for what I propose.”

All the same, critics of the attachment parenting style have suggested that it overemphasizes parental devotion and sacrifice at the expense of raising self-sufficient kids, a charge that is unfair both to its proponents and to the findings of attachment research. Bialik, for instance, points out that she doesn’t rush to intervene at every misstep. “It’s okay to observe a little bit before acting,” she says, having noted that “so often, adults make a bigger deal of a fall than a child does.” But she does advocate naming the event, helping the child identify the resulting feelings “without us overtalking it,” and even holding a young child until he or she is ready to move on. Rather than inhibiting independence, this kind of attunement and responsiveness forms the necessary bedrock for the development of self-sufficient kids”).

Unfortunately these most important aspects of attachment parenting—attunement and responsiveness, which are the basis of self-regulation—often get lost in the media hype. The assumption of critics is that attachment parenting can be reduced to three basic tenets: extended breast-feeding, co-sleeping and baby-wearing (particularly using slings). This is a bit of an exaggerated stereotype. Bialik herself does endorse breast-feeding but wisely doesn’t set a time requirement, calling this “a very personal and very complicated decision.” She offers baby-wearing as one of several ways to bond through touch, and co-sleeping as an “option” under the heading of “nighttime parenting.”

Incidentally, Elisabeth Badinter refers specifically to these practices in The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women as particular obstacles to women’s advancement. To her credit, she does not blame Bowlby (or even Bialik) for their popularity, nor does she use the term attachment parenting. Rather, her point is that Western society tends to favor mothers at the expense of women in terms of policy. It’s highly doubtful that Badinter intended to endorse any particular parenting style over another. This, however, has not prevented her book from being waved about by critics of attachment parenting as though it had been written in direct response to it.

Opposing Styles—Or Not

Most popular parenting books are first and foremost a description of the writer’s personal philosophy on the subject, and while some of these philosophies do have solid research to back them up, others have been made up out of whole cloth. Even if a book succeeds in getting the facts right, its tenets may become exaggerated by readers and hyperbolized by reviewers, and both groups may be so confused about where research ends and philosophy begins that they wind up rejecting what could have been important, life-changing insights.

It appears that the media’s parenting wars are causing many people to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Are the myriad parenting styles offered by the media as opposites to attachment parenting—French parents and Tiger Moms for instance—really that far apart in the fundamentals? And if they are poles apart, where is the evidence to support their philosophies?

I’m hardly the first to point out that middle-class America has a parenting problem. In hundreds of books and articles this problem has been painstakingly diagnosed, critiqued, and named: overparenting, hyperparenting, helicopter-parenting, and my personal favorite, the kindergarchy.”

Pamela Druckerman, Bringing Up Bebe 

In Bringing Up Bébé (released in the United Kingdom as French Children Don’t Throw Food), American-born Pamela Druckerman offers an interesting narrative of the personal challenges she faced while living in France and blending the parenting styles of two cultures. Though her book isn’t intended as a distillation of research, a close look reveals that what Druckerman admires about French parenting is very similar to the most important tenets of attachment parenting—the ones that are left out when the press spotlights breast-feeding, co-sleeping and baby-wearing.

Druckerman presents French psychoanalyst and pediatrician Françoise Dolto as a household name in France, “a bit like Dr. Benjamin Spock used to be in the United States.” She notes that Dolto’s approach was to tune in to children’s emotions and then guide them to an understanding of appropriate limits. Dolto’s advice for dealing with an upset child is an echo of Bialik’s: “We should try to understand him, and say, ‘There’s a reason. I don’t understand, but let’s think about it.’ Above all, don’t suddenly make a drama out of it.” Dolto wasn’t eliminating limits, Druckerman says, “she just added a huge measure of empathy and respect for the child—something that may have been lacking in France pre-1968.” The preservation of limits while calling for a generous dose of empathy and understanding is also the most fundamental tenet of attachment parenting. It is mainly among the less important details of execution that the two philosophies differ.

What about the Tiger Mother approach? When Amy Chua’s book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother was published in 2011, it was eagerly pounced upon by the easily frenzied media: outraged writers thrashed Chua in blogs and magazines and Chua was called on to defend her parenting style on television talk shows. The irony is that her book was not intended as parenting advice. “This is a story about a mother, two daughters, and two dogs,” says the cover; “This was supposed to be a story of how Chinese parents are better at raising kids than Western ones. But instead, it’s about a bitter clash of cultures, a fleeting taste of glory, and how I was humbled by a thirteen-year-old.” In fact, she has described the book as a “self-parody” that is “partly about my mistakes, my own transformation as a mother.” It isn’t meant to be read as a research-based thesis. Rather, it’s a story about a mother who is so intent on single-handedly turning her daughters into piano and violin virtuosos that she throws tantrums, belittles them, controls their choices every step of the way, and outlaws anything that might get in the way of achieving perfection (including playdates and sleepovers), until one day her younger daughter rebels so adamantly that the “tiger mother” backs down. After that the girl is allowed to choose to be good at tennis instead of the violin, and her mother learns to be less overtly controlling.

It turns out that to be a different kind of parent, you don’t just need a different parenting philosophy. You need a very different view of what a child actually is.”

Pamela Druckerman, Bringing Up Bebe

They do say the devil is in the details, and this seems to be true when it comes to battles over parenting styles. Can your children be well adjusted and successful even if they don’t make flawless grades because you’ve allowed playdates, sleepovers and participation in school plays? Of course they can, says Diana Holquist. In her memoir titled Battle Hymn of the Tiger Daughter, she presents an entertaining response to Chua’s approach, insisting that her own high-achieving children managed to succeed without having been yelled at, belittled, pushed and micromanaged. And what is success anyway, Holquist asks? She hints that there is more to it than “‘elite’ awards and honors,” pointing out that both of her children made straight A’s in school while excelling at extracurricular activities and entrepreneurial ventures, despite the fact that she “loved to coddle.” In Western society, she notes, “controlling, exploitive, intolerant, and violent behavior toward the powerless is frowned upon. This is why what tiger mothers call discipline, Western mothers recognize as potentially harmful neurosis.”

There seems to be an underlying theme: even Chua’s relationship with her daughter improved when she began to attune, empathize and allow at least some room for autonomy. Clearly any parenting philosophy that advocates empathy and attunement along with clear boundaries—allowing room for children to grow in decision-making, self-regulation, social development and other important core skills—is going to be in the right ballpark whether the details include slings, French food or striped jungle animals.

What kind of mom or dad do you see yourself as? (After all, fathers parent too.) Insist on virtuoso progeny if you must, but whatever you do, don’t neglect the important work of attuning, responding and connecting to your children. Smile, frown and laugh with them, hug them when they cry. Empathize with them, love them and guide them. Emotional distance is not the pathway to independence and self-sufficiency. Rather, children need a secure emotional base from which to explore and master their world. Creating this base is the fundamental point of any effective parenting style.