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.

24 thoughts on “Attachment parenting anti-intellectual? It’s a social justice movement.

  1. Yes a great response to the article mentioned. Thank you. I tried to make my film answer some of the questions she asked too. It’s called babyhood. Please check it out.

  2. Very nicely put. Smart choice to tacke only few points. Very elegantly written. I think the other writer had too many agendas with her article. Likelly to draw numbers was the first.

    • Thank you Erlinda – its a very complex subject and I think that comes across in Hadley’s article. It can be very difficult to separate out the social phenomenon from how people experience parenthood individually.

  3. An abused child that makes it through to the other side does this instinctively. They have nowhere to look back and copy, so it’s all from the heart❤️

  4. Well written and interesting response. I was quite shocked by the obvious bias and provocative statements in the original article. I think you explain the true nature of AP very well, and the fact that it’s an inclusive and non prescriptive approach (as with many others I follow AP in some respects but less so in others).

  5. What a lot of waffle. Why is it all made so complex these days everything needs a label. Parenting is natural. Forget advice, don’t justify yourself to friends and family and don’t ask them to either and don’t start studying books. Simply do what you believe is right! Ask yourself if I was this child ‘How would I like to be treated?’, ‘What would I need?’, ‘Is it safe?’ then guide/advise/teach your child. You will make mistakes that’s being human (try to make them small and infrequent) – accept that, apologise and move on – Simple!

    • Misogyny reduces the discourse on parenting to ‘waffle’ – it’s one of the most important areas for progress in terms of social justice and it is right to intellectualise it. I agree though, asking “would I like to be treated this way” is essential.

    • Agree, with this comment. Having raised six children over a period of 40yrs, successfully into adulthood, I i have seen many parenting fads,in how onne should raise one’s babies and children come and go. The baby bit, was easy, i just followed my own “maternal instinct”
      Its the parenting of adolescent and adult children, thats the challenging bit. As there seems ti be a trend, to extend parenting to far into this demographic? And is currently being taken a step to far, in modern society. Babies grow up and that’s the point. We should ket them out into the wide world to make mistakes and not keep them “atached”. Afterall we learn rron oyr mistakes, after all? In my view.

  6. Thanks for this clear well presented piece. I sent this response to Hadley’s article to the Guardian letters page….I hope they publish something of AP practitioners’ responses to her piece:

    I used attachment parenting to inform my parenting with my daughters, now aged 25 and 21, I supported others through a group called ‘Natural Nurturing Network’ so had the privilege of watching many families of many sizes and descriptions using elements of this method (as suited their individual lifestyles). My heart sank when I saw the title of Hadley Freeman’s piece – why use the word ‘trap’? Who’s trapped? And why the subtitle “Do attachment parents do it best?” – are they claiming to or are they just making choices based on what they believe is best for THEMSELVES & their children – as almost all parents do?

    Sadly I almost needed to read no further than the cover page of the article to discover the thrust of her premise: “Never let me go” – attachment parenting aims to give children their natural stage of dependence in order to raise independent young people and I must say I was surprised that Hadley did not bother to speak to parents who were further on in their journey and had older offspring whom had been raised with AP to refer to. She might have found out more depth & rigour about the results of such an endeavour.

    My experience of AP was not “prioritising the baby’s needs over everything”, nor “asking how much of yourself you are prepared to give up for your child”, “subjugate yourself to your baby or else”. I and many others I worked with found it to be an empowering way to meet the needs of the baby/child within the family’s busy life. It is not about putting baby forefront but rather being alongside the parents as they go about their lives. I actually was LESS exhausted and sleep deprived than those who chose a cot or bottle feeding because my babies barely woke me to feed in the night once we’d got the hang of it. AP certainly does not mean not setting boundaries or never saying no, nor is it about children having to be happy & calm all the time – I feel these were Hadley’s suppositions laid onto the theme of AP for journalistic purposes.

    I disagreed with Hadley’s view that it was somehow anti-intellectual to practise AP – yes it’s about engaging instinct (the most well developed way humans have of making complex decisions incidentally – check out the neuroscience Hadley) yet we also have to engage our higher order cognition to figure out what works best in our modern world and why. I wish Hadley had gone into the science behind AP rather than using cheap journalistic cracks to make her own point of view loud and clear. Those of us who use AP do so in the knowledge that our babies are born hard wired, designed by millenia of evolution, for the same things they needed when we lived as hunter gatherer tribes.

    By the way my daughters are currently working in social care with adults with fragile mental health and studying Politics at Newcastle University respectively – strong, delightful, compassionate, complex, independent young women.

    Yours truly
    Lula Garner, Educational Consultant

  7. Thanks for sharing Sophie, great read! My craneo therapist sent me the article as we had a similar conversation the other week.
    I have a 3 week old son and meeting his needs seems the most natural response there is. Why would anyone think that babies would be manipulative e.g cry for no reason or even better, one could spoil babies? Spoil with love? I mean that is a contradiction in itself! Trust your instinct and keep on doing what you’re doing caring parents out there.. Yours, Anna

    • I couldn’t agree more Anna – and I think it says something very important about our societal beliefs that the trope ‘spoil with love’ still exists. I think it is a damaging idea that permeates many different areas, and overcoming it by loving abundantly, including self love, is radical activism in itself. Much love to you and your baby. xxxx

  8. On point! The paragraph that begins with “We live in a society that refuses to accept that hitting a child is wrong” is absolutely key to understanding where and how the idea of parenting is changing. If you call it like you see it, without the blurred lens of our entrenched beliefs about the “second class citizenship of children”, so many common parenting practices are nothing but obviously wrong and harmful. Sometimes, I find myself doubting my instincts – am I giving them too many choices? Are they becoming too independent? The focus on understanding and appreciating the unique personhood of every child is another great point emphasized in this article. Thank you for writing this @sophiechristophy! -zainab@domamahood

    • Thank you so much for your comment Zainab – writing this flowed really easily, the time has come I think for us to really shift the narrative on these issues. Agree with all that you have said.

      • You’re welcome. This article is a great step towards shifting the narrative. The comparison of children’s rights to women’s rights and how they have evolved makes so much sense. It offers a solid, historical framework with which to think about “childhood=personhood” and how much more work needs to be done! -zainab@domamahood

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