my thoughts on the difference between attachment parenting and "over-parenting"

This is an essay I wrote about three years ago on this topic. See what you think:


-Katie Allison Granju

We dropped our nearly-12-year-old son, Henry off for a month at summer camp this weekend. He stayed two weeks last year but wanted to try a month this time. I know I'll miss him but it was fun to see him happily waving goodbye, surrounded by a gaggle of other boys as we drove away.

In the past few weeks, as I've mentioned to friends and acquaintances that Henry would be gone at camp for four weeks, I've encountered quite a bit of wonderment that we would allow him to stay away that long, or that he would want to. Interestingly, some of the folks who seemed most startled at the idea that a sixth grader would spend a month away from his parents at summer camp are the same people who have amazed me in the past with their willingness to leave their infants and very young children for days or even longer at a time.

In thinking about that riddle, I was reminded yet again of how upside-down I find much of millennial, Western child rearing to be. I think we have it backwards in our culture: we don't allow babies much of a babyhood, but we treat our older children and teenagers like babies for far too long.

As with other higher-order mammals, human infants are hardwired to require certain responses from their adult caregivers in order to thrive. Human babies need to be held a great deal—almost constantly, actually—and experience a great deal of touch-time with other humans. They need to eat very frequently and in small amounts, including during the night. They have a strong need to suck for comfort, not only for food. They need to discover that they are able to elicit responses from the people around them when they cry. And optimally, human infants need to wean and reach other important developmental milestones, such as readiness for separation from parents—at their own unique pace.

Notice that I said that they need these things to thrive, rather than survive. I'm well aware of the anecdotal "my mother fed me on a strict schedule and I'm just fine" argument (I myself rode around without a car seat in a haze of second hand smoke as a tyke), but a growing body of respected anthropological and medical research now supports the view that high-touch, fed-on-cue, attachment-style child care yields optimal neurological and emotional development in babies and young children.

Sure, babies can turn out OK under a variety of conditions, just as plants can take root in rocky soil, but we know with increasing assuredness what the gold standard is.

Yet we modern American parents lead the world in our gadgetry and lifestyles designed to maximize babies' separation from their parents. Although there has been some movement toward more attachment-style parenting in recent years, American babies still spend more time in playpens, swings, cribs, and battery powered bouncy seats than they do in the arms of their parents, siblings, and other relatives. We stay at arm's length, and it's almost as if we are afraid to hold our babies too much for fear they will never let us put them down.

But by age six or seven, we begin to obsess over every detail of our kids' lives and micro-manage every moment of their days. Because we worry about stranger danger and exposure to the wrong movies, advertising, or foods, we no longer allow kids to wander freely through our neighborhoods or even our own front yards, where they should be learning important lessons in autonomy and problem solving. I meet many 10- and 11-year-old children who, while never having spent a night sleeping in the same bed as their parents as infants, still have never spent a night at a friend's house as third and fourth graders.

Our parenting style is like asking trapeze artists to learn to work without a net first, and only after they have mastered this, insisting that they perform in full safety gear of nets, wires, and pulleys. I believe that the result of this backwards approach to raising kids is that we are turning out children who may feel an unexpressed longing for something very primal that they can't even identify, yet without basic life skills or self confidence.

Babies need babying. Big kids need the chance to try out their wings.

And when they experience the inevitable bumps and bruises along the way, that's when we get to hold them close and give them a little "booster shot" of smother love. I fully anticipate that we will receive at least one "I'm so homesick I could die" letter from Henry. When I do, I'll pack and send off an extra special care package for him and continue to count the days until we get to retrieve him. And I'll be both surprised and a little disappointed if in a year or two, he doesn't feel ready for a five week stay.



Katie S. said...

I find reading your blog helps stimulate my beliefs in how I am and want to rear my children. Its not necessarily whether I agree or diagree with you. Its just plain, good food for thought. Thanks.

ErinOrtlund said...

Excellent essay. So good to think of what babies and then older children evolved to expect.

Amy said...

Fascinating. Makes a lot of sense.

Have you found that with the AP philosophy, babies *do* get "spoiled" a bit--in other words, they have to be held constantly? I understand that generally AP kids grow up to be more independent, secure, etc--but how long before that happens? In other words, how long (if at all) are they extra clingy; how much do you create stress on yourself when they're still babies by them having to be held ALL THE TIME?

Just trying to think through these things before baby comes. I was never all that familiar with AP until recently but a lot of it makes a lot of sense to (completely unexperienced) me. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Anonymous said...

to amy,
this is just my experience. i co-slept for about a year with my child, picked my child up when he cried, held him when he wanted it etc. at 2 yrs old now he asks to be put in his crib, he asks to be conforted when he needs it or tell me when he doesn not want lot of kisses and hugs. i was told today by his Montessori teacher he is a very well adjusted and on target with his social and physical skills.

katie allison granju said...

My own children never wanted to be held all the time, but I did hold them (or very often, wear them in a sling) when they did want it. None of them were clingy, although some children are just higher-need than others. Even now, my daughter is the most "cuddly" of the three.

Jenny said...

I don't consider myself an AP parent at all, primarily because I don't (and don't believe in) co-sleeping, nor did I sling my son (though I didn't have anything against it except that it wasn't comfortable).

But I picked him up when he cried, fed him when he was hungry, and let him nap on me in the day until about 6 weeks, if he fell asleep in my arms. He stayed with me all the time, with the exception of crib-sleeping after 6 weeks.

I'm sure it has to do with the particular child, plus overall experience, including plenty of other details, but since the question was asked: My son has never been clingy. When I left the room, he didn't worry whether I would be back. (I'm always back, I guess.) If you had a book, he'd climb up in your lap. Yeah, you, whoever you are.

He is now an incredibly independent 2-year-old who has comfortable interactions with everyone, kids and adults, friends and strangers. (We're going to have to have the stranger talk at some point.)

My difference of opinion on the co-sleeping is based in part on what I perceive to be safety issues (NOT trying to get that thread going) and in part on the fact that I believe children learn (and learn quickly and painlessly) to comfort themselves when they need to sleep. And I believe that skill is very important for children to have -- the ability yo ease themselves into (and back to) sleep.

In the back of my mind, I sense that Katie's Elliot lacks that skill, which accounts for his trouble sleeping and his narcolepsy(!) -- but again, I'm not trying to start anything. I'm sure there are other factors at play there.

Leslie said...

Another excellent essay with which I totally agree! I have said some of the very same things myself (ranted them, actually) to my husband. Our oldest spent two weeks in Europe at 13; our middle son spent 12 days at camp 500 miles away at 10. Our kids walk to the grocery store and they do their own homework. Or not. ;-p

Amy, it's sometimes hard to realize when a baby wants to be held a lot, but it's all over so soon! I see all these babies in car seats everywhere I go and wonder why people don't want to hold them? Is there anything more wonderful than holding a baby?

My two-year-old, who still sleeps in my bed and nurses to sleep, refused to come with me to pick her brother up from school today. She preferred to stay home with her father and big brother and watch her show. And she does this frequently. Personally, I find that the more attention they got as babies, the more independent they are later.

helen said...

Amy, I agree with Leslie. I always use the sling when I go out (at home a lot as well). Last night I went out to dinner with two (childless) friends who both took turns holding her (their request!). When the food came I put her in the sling and we all had a great time. My baby is only 10 weeks old and she is very mellow. Right now she is lying next to me on the couch---kicking and cooing quite content. You don't have to worry about "spoiling" them when they are this little. My advice--enjoy your baby, hold her often, let others have the pleasure of holding her often.

katie allison granju said...

Elliot doesn't really have trouble sleeping. Not sure where I gave that impression. He did have some sleep disruption when we moved to the new house (meaning, he woke up 2 times a night for 3 months), but he's sleeping fine again now. And he doesn't do the narcoleptic thing except about twice a year when he's plumb tuckered out.

All adults sleep differently. We get in different positions. Some of us wake up several times a night. Some don't. Some are side sleepers or back lie-ers. Kids are no different.

The "worst" (meaning he woke up the most, got up the earliest and had the most trouble falling asleep without me with him 'til he was older) sleeper of my 3 children was Henry, who never slept with us and always slept in his own bedor crib.

Your mileage may vary.

kayla said...

I'm starting to think that how a child sleeps has as much to do with their 'makeup' as it does where/how they slept or were put to sleep as infants. My oldest slept in a crib from the get-go. We stayed in his room with him until he was asleep, but he NEVER slept with us.

My younger one was in bed with us from the day he was born there until his third birthday. And he night nursed for most of that time.

My oldest is by far the better sleeper...he falls asleep with less protest, sleeps more soundly, almost never wakes in the night, and gets up readily at about the same time every morning.

My youngest fights sleep more, still wakes almost every night to get in bed with us, and is very difficult to get up in the morning. His waking time varies from very early to very late.

We established the same bedtime routines for both when they were infants - the only difference was that one was in a crib and the other in bed with us.

I don't regret how either one slept as infants (and I don't begrudge my youngest still spending half the night with us) but I'm not sure that what we did with either made much of a difference.

Anecdotally, I hear the same thing. Some kids are CIO'd and sleep great; others still can't get to sleep on their own. Some kids co-slept and sleep great; others still can't get to sleep on their own.

(It's interesting to me how being out of the intensity of parenting a young child has given me what I feel is a more balanced perspective.)

Anonymous said...

How does this dovetail with your other posts about just being sick when you are separated from your children for the weekend, when they are with their father and his wife?

It sounds good, though. I too, believe in letting them be independent and learn to be on their own.

Anonymous said...

Okay, the hostility of some of the posts here has me wondering about the potential effect of this blog on your children. Do they mind that their lives (and development) has become so public? Do they feel judged? Despite Jenny's claim in her post that she isn't 'trying to start something' it's obvious that she was being snarky, at minimum. Downright hostile seems more accurate. Doesn't that bother Elliot? It sure bothered me.

katie allison granju said...

I'll ask E. if he minds me discussing his sleep patterns here.

My kids read my blog. Sometimes J. posts here. I'd never post something I wouldn't feel comfortable having them read, and as they get older, I write in far less detail about their lives.

And I do miss them A LOT when they are with their father. Part of that certainly has to do with a deep sadness I have that we no longer parent them together.

honey said...

We had our baby's bed next to ours for the first week or so. Then he still slept in our room until he was five months old. After that he slept in his own nursery.

Because of our work schedules, his father was with him in the morning and early afternoon, and I was with him in the late afternoon and evening. So he always had a parent with him. On weekends we were all together.

He wanted to be with us all the time and interact with us all the time. So we had him in our arms or in the baby sling, as we moved about the house, or in a little seat in the kitchen where he could watch us as we cooked. He loved watching "Barney" on TV as young as 3 months, and didn't mind if I left the room, so I could get a quick shower or fix a quick meal. Also, I could sit on the couch and read the paper if I occasionally peeked at him, smiling at me from the other end. He would fling books away--wanted one-on-one conversation. Even in the days before he said words, I always felt that he understood me and I understood him.

We took him out a lot, too; almost everywhere we went, he went. We did have a regular sitter for an evening we both taught classes, and for occasional no-baby evenings out, and he was fine with her. Starting with age 2, we both worked days in the summer, so he was in summer preschool. He loved it, and started showing the other kids around, and didn't seem to miss us a bit.

Around that time he started doing play dates, day trips, and sleep overs with cousins, and then with friends. Somewhere in the next few years he was playing alone, helping with chores, learning to cook, making some of his own meals, planning his own birthday parties, and reading to himself. He's always loved school. By age 11 he was going away to camp for 2-4 weeks.

Now he's 13 and doesn't need us for much. So we enjoy interacting with him when he does, appreciate his maturity and leadership, and take advantage of the free time and solitude we didn't have in the early years.

Anonymous said...

well this is all well and good. BUT I used the babywise book on my first, bottlefed child (after being horribly judged and treated like shit by LLL) and she turned out fine. However I never "ignored" her needs. I also must say that I never got the hovering over your kid thing that a lot of the attachment parenters I knew at the time did. My daughter went to camp pretty young and loved it. I would send her brother but unfortunatly the awesome program my daughter was involved in has dissolved. I hear about parents doing their kids homework for them and I don't get it. To me it seems a boundary issue. The thing that tweaks me about attachment parenting is there is a lot of double talk about it not being about specific practices but when you get down to it, it is. No crying it out, no shaping their schedule etc etc, carrying the baby in situations that scream out for the baby to stay, asleep, carried in a car seat. I am all for giving babies attention, lots of attention, being held etc. BUT when this got confused with being a slave to a newborns schedule being out of whack, thats when it got crazy. The danger of people like Katie here is she DOES say some fairly intelligent things but then it gets mixed up with the stupidity. A lot of people look to someone else to tell them what to do with their kids. And anyone who thinks that "attachment parenters" are not doing that too is dead wrong. I mean if it was so "instinctual" why would there be a whole cottage industry of books about it? Hmmm....? Personally I now restrict my parenting reading to humor essays. I take with a big grain of salt anything anyone says about what worked for them. For everyone who says one thing there is an equally compelling argument the other way with the well adjusted children to "prove the point".
Katie might be OK if she wasn't coming off as so fricking self congragulatory. Frankly I look at my kids and think that its God's grace that despite my major (and i do mean major) screw ups they are reasonably well adjusted.