Friday, February 12, 2010

Why Attached Parenting is not Child-Centered, Helicopter Parenting

One of the biggest misconceptions about parenting practices that promote a high level of attachment is that they are overly-attentive, helicopter parenting practices. This isn't true... at least it shouldn't be.

This whole debate was really driven home to me recently when my family participated in a Discovery Health Channel show called Radical Parenting. My biggest fear was that we would come across as too "child-centered". I got increasingly nervous when I saw us described as the "overly-attentive" parents (Which was kinda funny considering just a couple of hours before I read that, my kids got on to my Facebook account and changed my status to things like "fart ooops" and "moo". So much for me being "overly-attentive"!).

The idea of not being "child-centered", as described in The Continuum Concept, is a bit difficult to show, or even explain, on a show like Radical Parenting. It is much easier for us to come across as "child-centered" and "overly-attentive".

In reality, there is some truth in all of this. Like many parents practicing Attachment Parenting, and even Continuum Concept parenting, we've found it all too easy to slip into being too child-centered in some respects. The chances of this happening seem to increase as children get older. I was just telling my husband the other day that parenting is so much easier when they're babies, when needs and wants are the same, and taking care of them is more straight-forward.

For me, some of the ways my family has slipped into being too child-centered are not having a babysitter in 11 years, sometimes slipping into conditional parenting, intervening too often in my children's interactions or while they are struggling to do something, and being either too authoritarian or too permissive rather than a confident authoritative middle ground.

If you haven't read The Continuum Concept yet this article by Jean Liedloff is a good starting point for grasping the concept of "child-centered": Who's in Control?

There seem to be many factors involved in becoming child-centered. One is that, for some parents, practicing the individual practices themselves is seen as Continuum Concept parenting. In other words, some may think it is enough to breastfeed, co-sleep, babywear, etc without considering how they practice each of these. The idea isn't to do specific things that this hunter-gatherer tribe or another have practiced. The idea is to find the essence of the overall parenting, the parts that are human nature, and figure out how to make that work for your family.

Take breastfeeding for example, of course, any amount of breastfeeding is great and any amount of breastmilk is great, but there are some mothers who breastfeed in a more "clinical" way, or in ways that interrupt the continuum. These practices tend to derail breastfeeding and shorten the length of time a baby is breastfed, not to mention often cause the mother to feel resentment towards her baby.

As Dr. Jack Newman says in his handout Colic in the Breastfed Baby, "Mothers all over the world have breastfed babies successfully without being able to tell time. Breastfeeding problems are greatest in societies where everyone has a watch and least where no one has a watch.". Timed feedings are not in line with the Continuum Concept and are responsible for a whole host of difficulties for both mother and baby. Often, when these problems occur, breastfeeding itself is blamed rather than the style of breastfeeding.

Another breastfeeding example is leaving public or social situations to breastfeed. Now I am not suggesting that every mother needs to breastfeed in public even if she is uncomfortable with it. I am a huge supporter of breastfeeding in public however.

When mothers repeatedly leave social situations to nurse their babies they give the impression they are doing something wrong. It isn't pleasant for the baby, and it is even more unpleasant for the mother. People are social creatures.

This type of isolation while breastfeeding is similar to the idea that each nursing session needs to be elevated to a lofty,"quality time", bonding moment. Initially mothers may find it more comfortable to nurse only in bed, a rocking chair, or heaped high with pillows, but eventually breastfeeding should happen whenever and wherever.

Every breastfeeding moment doesn't need to be a special moment either. Some of my best mothering memories are related to breastfeeding, but after a combined 13 years of breastfeeding and counting, not every breastfeeding moment is a memory. Candlelit dinners are nice too, but if every meal was candlelit then none of them would stand out as being special.

Sadly, I've also heard mothers talk about breastfeeding as if they were doing jail time. They talk about breastfeeding for only the "prescribed" amount of time, counting down the days until they can wean the baby cold turkey. This is not only an example of anti Continuum Concept breastfeeding, but it is unhealthy for mother and baby.

By contrast, treating breastfeeding as part of everyday family life is in line with Continuum Concept Principles. It is more of a family focused approach, rather than being child-centered. Babies want to be welcomed into family and societal life, not be separated from it and relegated to special "baby times".

Nursing can happen on cue, infused throughout the day. I am often asked in media interviews and pediatrician appointments how often I nurse. This becomes a creative improvisational exercise as I struggle to guess. Honestly, I have absolutely no idea. Why should I?

I also don't have any idea how long my child will nurse before weaning. I know that there is a biological weaning age range of between 2 and 7 years, and I know that the worldwide average age of weaning is over 4 years old, so I figure it will fall somewhere in there.

I plan a lot of parenting events and meetings and one thing that always strikes me as odd is when parents say they can't come to something because it is during "nap time". I don't find it odd because I think they are odd or bad parents. I find it odd because I don't think that way, at least not anymore. I don't have a designated time when I cease all other activities and put the baby to sleep, requiring silence throughout the house. Sure, if I'm home I'll put the baby to sleep when he shows signs of being tired at roughly the same time everyday, but often he just falls asleep in the sling.

I would never not do something just because it is around nap time. When my daughter Bekah was a baby she came to work with me at my busy paint-your-own pottery store. The busier the store was, the better she slept. She loved to be amongst the sounds of activity in the store.

I also practice Elimination Communication (EC), which is often misunderstood as being overly-attentive. EC involves responding to signs (squirming, fussing, gas, etc) that your baby needs to pee or poop by holding him or her over a toilet or potty. Many people think that this will involve hyper attentiveness and that caregivers will need to quit their jobs to stand ever vigilant day and night by their little bundle of joy. In reality, EC is no more difficult than noticing when your child is hungry or sleepy.

The nonprofit EC support organization, DiaperFreeBaby, lists being "family focused" amongst the many benefits of EC. Being family focused means that it follows the interests and needs of the entire family and is integrated into family life rather than making it a separate child-centered event.

When EC turns into "early potty training" instead, it can become child-centered. This happens when it is viewed as behavioral, something your child does to please you or to get a reward. It happens when there are set expectations on when a child will be potty trained, and the goal is early potty training. It also happens when it is done at only prescribed times, or "practice" sessions (which is different from part-time practice only at certain times, for example, only on weekends) instead of looking for cues.

EC more in line with AP and Continuum Concept parenting would be practiced without the goal of toilet independence at an early age in mind, with pottying on cue, and with the entire practice treated matter-of-factly. This article that I wrote for Infant Pottying Today sums up how I feel about practicing EC.

One of the most vocal critics of EC over the years has been Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, though he actually supports EC when done in the gentle, respectful way that groups like DiaperFreeBaby advocate. His toilet training method, which came about to counteract the punitive methods of earlier in the 20th century, is touted as being "child-centered".

So, basically, EC and other AP or Continuum Concept practices are criticized for both being too child-centered and not child-centered enough. How can that be? I think it just all boils down to a lack of understanding, both by observers making assumptions about AP practices and sometimes by parents as they struggle to apply AP concepts in a culture that's not always supportive.

This blog will focus a lot on the concept of being child-centered versus family focused. I find that is one of the most difficult aspects of Continuum Concept parenting in a modern culture to understand, and even harder to apply.

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