Friday, September 19, 2014

Attachment Parenting Won’t Make Your Kid Secure

I spout off about lots of things related to child development because I have a PhD in Developmental Psychology (see, for example, The Dos and Don’ts of Screen Time for Kids). Sometimes I even use my Mom Card as my authority to spout off (see People Are Rude: Pregnancy Edition, Parts 1, 2, 3, and 4). I know a lot about child development, but I’m an expert in attachment theory and research (the study of the close, long-lasting, emotional bonds that kids develop with caregivers, and adults develop with each other, like in romantic relationships). I wrote two theses and a dissertation on attachment and my grand-advisor is Mary Ainsworth who, with John Bowlby, created attachment theory. I’ve even discovered and written about some pretty cool things on attachment. I’m also certified to teach classes on how to foster security in your child. I’ve given you my pedigree and blabbed on and on about how educated I am for two reasons: One, I’m pretentious and want you to think I’m important. Two, I want to assure you I know what the heck I’m talking about before I get into the meat of my exposition on how “attachment parenting” won’t make your kid secure.

We all want our kids to grow up healthy and well-adjusted. Many of you know that a great foundation for raising a happy, healthy child is to parent in a way that your kid is securely attached to you, which means that your child will use you as a secure base to explore the world and a haven of safety from which to return. Having this secure frame-of-mind supports their developing into all-around well-functioning individuals in many ways. Due to the amazing powers of having a secure attachment, some of you have likely heard of this thing called “attachment parenting” that purports to ensure that your child is securely attached. Not surprisingly, many have adopted the associated parenting techniques leading parents to bed-share indefinitely, eschew sleep training, breastfeed forever, and baby wear all the time. I don’t have any problem with any of these things in particular. In fact, I generally see these parenting techniques in a positive light. If bed-sharing makes your life easier, do so (with the proper precautions, of course). It’s certainly made it easier for me to get some goddamn sleep. If you don’t want to sleep train, don’t. I did it, but it can be really difficult in the beginning. If you want to breastfeed your children until they self-wean, go for it! It’s certainly the best food you can provide your child. Baby wearing is a nice way to be able to calm your bubala and get some shit done. Again, I say, do it if it suits you.

Here’s the kicker, however. If you are doing these things only because you want your child to be securely attached, you can stop now. The only thing you need to do to help your child develop a secure attachment to you is to generally be available and sensitively responsive to your child when he or she needs you. As such, “attachment parenting” can result in raising an insecurely attached child if you are doing all those “attachment parenting” things in a way that you are unavailable (mentally checked out, for example), insensitive (harsh or intrusive), and/or unresponsive to your child’s needs for exploration and/or connection with you.

I know you might be thinking that being sensitively responsive and available sounds pretty esoteric, so let me pass along some words of wisdom on the issue that come from my training and research with the Circle of Security (a parenting intervention that has been shown to increase attachment security). Here it goes… “Always be bigger, stronger, wiser, and kind. Whenever possible, follow my child’s need. Whenever necessary, take charge.” This statement means that if your child is exploring, be there watching over him or her. Let your child take the lead in directing his or her own play whenever possible. If you need to, kindly take charge (for example, your child is about to hurt him or herself or break yet another object in your home). If your child is upset, be with him or her until the emotional turmoil is resolved. Don’t yell or punish your child for his or her emotional expressions. Recognize, validate, empathize, and be with your children (physically and mentally) during their emotional ups and downs. Don’t be mean. You can and should discipline your child, but you should do so with kindness and empathy. In fact, as your children’s future college professor, PLEASE set clear, firm boundaries for appropriate and inappropriate behavior. Discipline, however, does not have to be the angry, punitive discipline that you might have received as a child. Discipline can be kind, gentle, firm, and effective.

Related to this issue of “being with” your children during their emotional meltdowns and discipline, let’s talk about time-outs. I know you may think what I’m about to say is outrageous, but avoid using use time-outs as a form of discipline because they aren’t kind. Time-outs send your children the message that when they misbehave or have intense emotions, you will withdraw your love (that’s mean), which will work against your goal of helping them develop a sense that you will be there for them when they need you. This idea isn’t new—others have the same view.

I hear you cursing at me for telling you that time-outs are a no-no, but maybe it’s because you wouldn’t know how else to get your kids to stop acting like wild animals if it weren’t for time-outs? Let me offer a replacement: Reward behavior you want to increase as much as possible and when absolutely necessary execute negative consequences for behavior your want to decrease. The thing I find the hardest is rewarding good behavior because your kids are generally not acting up. The key is to try to see more of those moments and let your kid have some praise for that behavior (e.g., verbal praise, TV time, playing a video game). When your kids are acting like maniacs, quickly and firmly correct the behavior and provide them with an idea of how they should act. Tell them if they misbehave in that way again what the non-time-out consequence will be (e.g., loss of TV time, not getting to play with their favorite bath toy). If the misbehavior happens again, quickly, firmly, and as kindly as possible, enforce the consequence. I’ve said it before, but I love it so I’ll say it again—consider creating a token economy in which good behavior earns tokens that can be exchanged for rewards and misbehavior results in tokens being taken away.

In sum, the techniques that “attachment parenting” require are nice parenting techniques, none of which I have any problems with. If you enjoy them, by all means, continue, but if you hate “attachment parenting” then stop, especially if you are doing so only to make your kid secure. These techniques cannot replace being available and sensitively responsive to your child’s needs for exploration and comfort, which research has shown over and over is the path to making a child securely attached. At best, these techniques can be thought of as nice supplements to helping your child develop a close, secure emotional bond to you.


  1. I think a caveat has to be that if they are making you extremely mad, time out is better than losing your shit on them. Secret reason many moms do it

    1. I completely agree. I just wanted to point out that it's not that great of an idea to do it every time you discipline and why. There was a big push for it when we were growing up and many of us spent hours of our lives in a time out chair, so given that we tend to parent as we were parented, I wanted to shed a bit of light on the issue from an attachment perspective.

  2. The training and discipline you give should always involve in loving and not hurting. No matter what, they deserve to be loved and respected like adults. This is what parents are called for.
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