Attachment parenting anti-intellectual? It’s a social justice movement.

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I’ve just read an article by Hadley Freeman about attachment parenting, and it makes for interesting reading. I will be the first to admit – attachment parenting is a messy subject, actually, all parenting discussion is messy. Same thing goes for education discourse, things get complicated, fast.I thought I would pick up on a few points, though, with a view to moving things forward.

First things first, I believe the Sears definition of ‘attachment parenting’ is dated, and I do not personally identify with it. As Hadley points out, Sear’s was coming from a patriarchal place. Let’s leave his definition in the 20th Century, where it belongs, and instead refocus on where attachment parenting currently fits, amongst intersectional and third wave feminism.

Early on in the article comes the line: “this is the approach of the moment, just as Gina Ford’s more scheduled method (strict bedtimes, an unbreakable routine) was a decade ago; to a certain degree, it is the reaction of a new generation of parents against Ford and her ilk”. So, is attachment parenting a reaction against Gina Ford et al?

Yes and no. In my experience, attachment parenting isn’t a reaction, as such. The majority of parents that I know who relate to attachment parenting, actually found the name after they were parenting in that way, not before. They didn’t research ‘parenting methods’ and then pick one, they were already parenting in an ‘attachment parent’ type way before they new it even had a name. They were doing what felt right to them in terms of listening to and meeting the needs of their baby.

However, once these parents realised that their behaviour towards their baby was not the social norm, they then sort out to find out why, and if they were alone. In doing so, they came across parenting theory, which included discovering attachment parenting and Gina Ford.

The problem with Gina Ford is that she represents a very authoritarian, oppressive parent child model. Attachment parenting gives people a voice, agency and personhood from birth. Gina Ford promotes a view that babies are the property of the parents, and encourages parental domination in the parent/child relationship. In terms of intersectional feminism, that is a very big issue.

Which leads us on to the anti-intellectionalism/anti-science claim made about attachment parents in Hadley’s piece.

In my experience, the absolute opposite is true. Attachment parents discover attachment parenting via critical thinking. They are questioning social norms to do with parenting – that are historically rooted in oppression – and looking to find out whether there is any evidence based justification for them. For me it has triggered intellectual consideration of whether it is ‘natural’ for young people to be subjugated to adults, and why and how that subjugation is socially constructed. Is there any good reason why I, as an adult, shouldn’t respect and listen to a child?

We live in a society that still refuses to accept that hitting a child is wrong, as we once refused to accept that hitting a woman was wrong, and demand scientific evidence to prove so. We refuse to provide full protection under the law for children to be free from being hit in their homes by their parents. The second class citizenship of children is so deeply entrenched in our mindsets and belief systems, that we have to provide scientific research to defend the view that isolating a person in room, distressed to the point of vomiting, is wrong, because on the basis of their age, people feel that it is acceptable and justified and some call it sleep training.

Is there an attitude of enlightenment amongst attachment parents as claimed in Hadley’s piece? I would say that feeling comes with time – the more time you experience a parent child relationship that is based on respect, trust and empathy, the more enlightened you feel about the importance of children’s rights, and aware of the normalised marginalisation and social injustices experienced by young people on a daily basis. It is the same sense of enlightenment that you experience when you realise how patriarchy has impacted society, how racism has impacted society, how sexism, and all other embedded discriminations impact us.

Does attachment parenting offer a set of rules for parents to follow so that they can nail parenting ? No. There are no rules – there is just the persistent intention to care for and respect your child as a person, in a socially just way. It so happens that that care often manifests in behaviours associated with attachment parenting – sleeping with your babies/children, breastfeeding longer than average, slowing down to a child’s pace and gaze, carrying your baby both for comfort and reasons of practicality. But none of these behaviours are essential. In fact, no two families for whom attachment parenting resonates looks the same, because every child is unique, every family member is unique, and attachment parenting is shaped entirely by that.

Contrary to the view posed in the article that a downside of attachment parenting is that it promises parents total control and responsibility over how a child turns out, I would argue the opposite. Attachment parenting is about creating the space for a person to feel respected for who they are, in all their individuality, from birth. The idea is that by experiencing respect, empathy and their voice being heard from day one, a person will not only feel free to be themselves, but also see the importance that all people experience that same freedom.

I do agree with Hadley that parents have never been subjected to so much advice from so many different places as they are now. This to me highlights the state of flux the parent/child relationship is currently in. We are evolving beyond patriarchal models of the family – and by patriarchal I mean family models in which adults hold dominant roles and children submit. But the transition is a messy one, complicated by many factors such as other social constructs that act as barriers to family members feeling respected, and that their needs are being met.

Hadley states that “there are times when attachment parenting seems to have made some women feel worse” and in this we are in agreement, although perhaps for different reasons. Parenting in a respectful and empathetic way can be triggering to parents. It can result in deep reflection of their own experiences in childhood and relationships, which may cause discomfort and identify trauma that had previously been hidden. It also highlights the very problematic nature of our society’s relationship with children, for example the issues with developmentally inappropriate institutional, industrial models of childcare and education that negate children’s rights. The experience of attachment parenting highlights how ill suited our society is for families to care for each other, and how poor work life balance can be.

Our society is not built to afford respect and personhood to young people – in the same way that it once wasn’t/still isn’t built to afford respect and personhood to women. There was resistance to women’s emancipation,  and there is resistance to the emancipation of children. The idea of sharing privilege can be perceived as inconvenient and threatening. It requires people to confront uncomfortable truths. We are in a position where we need to reconstruct our social norms and institutions to be inclusive of the youngest members of our society, and that is essential but painful and tiring work. Attachment parenting makes parents aware of the issues that we face. But if we want to create positive social change, I think that’s a good thing.

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Consent is absent in the education system – why aren’t we talking about it?

The concept of consent has rightly received increased attention in recent years. Last year the Education Select Committee published “Life Lessons: PSHE and SRE in schools” a report raising frequently the issues around consent, and people’s understanding of what it actually means. It included this quote from research produced for the Office of the Children’s Commissioner:

“young people generally understand what is meant by giving consent to sex, but have a very limited sense of what getting consent might involve. Young people are able to describe what consent means in theory, but real life contexts make a significant difference to their perceptions of what non-consensual sex looks like.”

The thing with consent is that it isn’t really about sex, and persistently linking the two things effectively misses the point. Consent is about an person’s right to ownership and control of their own body and mind. It’s about a person knowing that they have agency, that they are entitled to determine and defend their own personal boundaries. That they get to decide what happens to them, and how. Consent is the act of a person agreeing that they are willing to participate in something.

And perhaps that is the reason why consent education in schools (if it happens at all) is often so tightly linked to sexual contexts – because addressing the meaning of consent fully, in a school environment, is problematic, as it raises the question of how consent is – or isn’t – experienced in school.

Where can consent be found in school? Students (until the age of 14 when they have some very limited and structured options regarding subject choices) have no, or very, very marginal influence over what they do. They can not opt out of class, they can not determine for themselves what they would like to learn about, or how they would like to learn it. They often have very little freedom over how they experience a lesson, where and how they sit during it, or how they might participate. They have no chance to say no. That is an environment without consent.

They can not decide to not attend a lesson with a particular teacher, even if that teacher has mistreated or abused them in some way. From personal experience I can say, having been on the receiving end of abuse from a teacher, despite complaining both in person to the head teacher and a complaint being made in writing to the school, no action was taken to protect me from that teacher, and I was forced to continue with their class despite the fact that doing so was highly stressful.

Not only are students deprived of opportunities to actively consent to their experience in school, there is a system is in place for them to be punished for noncompliance. Opting out is not an option without the threat of shaming/punishment. You can not even choose to disengage within a lesson to which you have not actively consented in the first place, your attention is required and not providing it results in punitive consequences.

Just think for a moment about this: if a child in school says, no thank you, I don’t want to do that, is the response to that request usually a person modelling the definition of consent?

Is it surprising then, considering that children are socialised in a non-consensual and punitive environment for 12, highly influential, formative years of their lives, that while intellectually they may understand the notion of consent, they have little practical awareness of how to apply it to their daily lives? Is it surprising that people of all ages struggle with the concept of consent and personal autonomy, when they have been deprived of it in the very environment in which they believe to have been educated?

If consent matters, why doesn’t it matter in school, and why aren’t we talking about it?

Curious parents discover unschooling.

In this video, André Stern describes how he came to never go to school:

“I never went to school, because of a decision, or more precisely, an attitude of my parents. The attitude of my parents is pretty simple to summarise. They have always been very curious, and their curiosity led them to ask themselves a question: “What will be the next natural step within the spontaneous development, within the spontaneous disposition of the child?”

Curious parents ask questions a lot. A person might not even realise their level of curiosity before becoming a parent. Being in a position where every day requires you to make an infinite number of decisions that directly effect the lived experience of another human is a sure fire way to reveal a person’s level of curiosity. Responsibility can enhance curiosity.

Curious parents like to know what, who, when, where, why and how. They like to explore situations, not only through their own lens, but empathetically through the lens of their child’s experience.

We live in social construction, and curious parents will be questioning that construction  and identifying areas that may require improvement. For some curious parents, the very experience of living with and witnessing the development of a person from birth will ignite their curiosity so much that they will want to be present in that experience every step of the way.

What curious parents will quickly discover is that many of the social constructs that effect people from birth do not work in the best interests of those people. Depending on their time and inclination, they may be drawn to research into how things got constructed that way, the historical roots and the reasons for us living in a society with a tradition for marginalising, trivialising and silencing the voice, needs and individuality of humans from birth.

As time goes on and the start of ‘formal education’ approaches, curious parents will notice that a standardised, authoritarian, institutional setting is not in keeping with children’s natural behaviour of curiosity and learning.

They will have watched and partnered with their child in their earliest communications and in their development of rolling, crawling, walking. They will have observed them in their development of speech, witnessed their vocabulary extend and expand. They will have seen their capabilities unfold, uniquely over time.

And they will have realised that what a person needs to continue in that growth is a supportive space, not schooling.

From there, their questioning will develop to consider how as a parent they can hold that space, how can they build community around the concept of that space.

Their curiosity will lead them to discover unschooling, and from there, the possibilities are endless.

 

What can the EU Referendum result tell us about the future of parenting?

Brexit and Authoritarianism 

Eric Kaufman, a professor of politics at Birkbeck College at the University of London, picked up in this article about the British Election Study’s internet panel survey of 2015-2016, that showed that the common theme among Leave voters was authoritarianism.

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The data shows a strong correlation that can be used to identify the majority belief system of the group vote Leave. A belief in the appropriateness of the death penalty, as you can see from the graph above, is a very strong indicator of a person’s likelihood to vote Leave. This is just one of the measures used in the survey that demonstrates the high correlation of authoritarianism and the Leave vote, which shows consistently regardless of income.

But what does that have to do with parenting?

In the 1990s political scientist Stanley Feldman devised a list of four questions to measure authoritarianism. These questions related directly to the respondent’s attitude towards children:

  1. Please tell me which one of the following you think is more import for a child to have: independence or respect for elders?
  2. Please tell me which one of the following is more important for a child to have: obedience or self reliance?
  3. Please tell me which one of the following is more important for a child to have: to be considerate or to be well-behaved?
  4. Please tell me which one of the following you think is more important for a child to have: Curiosity or good manners?

A respondent with authoritarian tendencies would answer that the most important things for a child to be/have was respect for elders, obedience, to be well behaved, and to have good manners. Holding these beliefs about children is therefore a strong indicator for a Leave vote – as Eric Kaufmann commented on Twitter, the desire for child obedience correlates strongly with a Brexit vote.

On the flip side, those showing anti-authoritarian views are more likely to have voted Remain. Their views on children? They are more likely to hold beliefs that its more important for children to be independent, to be self reliant, to be considerate of others and to be curious. This is a view that positions children much more as people in their own right, rather than the property of adults. It is a more progressive view of children, more in keeping with children’s rights, with more space for their voice, individuality and agency.

Firstly, it is important to highlight that this isn’t an exact science. Not all Brexiters will hold authoritarian views, and not all Remainers will be anti-authoritarian. So in each group there is of course variation.

However, the data shows a strong correlation from which it is possible to draw some interesting conclusions.

The EU referendum saw a greater turn out than the 2015 general election, and viewed through this lens of authoritarian attitudes to children versus anti-authoritarian views it might just help us to get a snapshot of parenting philosophy in the UK.

On the basis of the results, taking into consideration the reality that there will be some variation on each side, it seems probable that there is almost a 50:50 split between authoritarian and anti-authoritarian beliefs about children in the UK – -51.9% of people voted Leave, 48.1% voted Remain.

What does this mean for parenting of the past, present and future?

What is most interesting in this regard is what happens when we compare the British Election Study results with the Lord Ashcroft Poll which looked at voting intention based on age.

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The group most likely to hold authoritarian beliefs about children are the over 65s, with 60% voting Leave. For people aged 45 and over, the majority still hold authoritarian beliefs. This makes sense from a psycho-social perspective – the older a person is, the further back in history their experience of parenting and childhood, and the further you go back, the more patriarchal society has been. The older you are, the more likely you experienced authoritarian parenting yourself, and internalised a very oppressed experience of childhood.

However, as soon as we drop under age 45, the balance starts to tip the other way, and those who may hold authoritarian beliefs about children start to become the minority group.

The majority of 25-34 year olds – 62% – showed voting intention to Remain. This indicates that the majority of that group do not hold authoritarian views about children. Interestingly, the 25 year olds in this group were born at just about the same time as the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child was created. They’re lived experience has been in a society where women have experienced greater equality, gay rights and other social justice issues have had more mainstream presence and it has been more of an everyday experience for people to be themselves and believe in their human rights.

People in this age bracket may be having a unique experience whereby their experience of childhood was characterised by authoritarian views of children – as all of the people in generations older than them were by majority more authoritarian, but their own views about children and childhood have undergone transformation. Their views are probably in discord with their parents and grandparents, with the generations preceding them.

When we drop down to the youngest age bracket, the 18-24 year olds, we can see something very encouraging. 73% showed voting intention to stay, suggesting that the significant majority of this group do not hold authoritarian beliefs about children. In fact, this group is proportionally more anti-authoritarian, than the 65+ group is pro-authoritarian. This suggests that the parents and future parents in this group are most likely to believe in children as people not property, to respect children’s individuality and voice, and to encourage curiosity over obedience and conformity.

Parenting more aligned with children’s rights is likely to have become mainstream and the normal way of life for the majority of parents and families once the current 18-24 year olds are parenting.

The future looks bright.