It’s Not All Mary Poppins

Attachment and Limits

Though I didn’t realize it at the time, I was an Attachment Parent. Those seven B’s? I did them. Birth bonding? Did that. Breastfeeding? Yup. Over a year with each of them. Baby wearing? Love me my baby sling. Go down through that list, and I could check, check, check them all.

Only, I didn’t consider myself an attachment parent. Without having read a single one of Dr Sear’s books, I dismissed him out of hand as “that nutbar”.


Well, because I knew attachment parents. Quite a few of them, in fact. And, without exception, they were sleep-deprived, disorganized, fly-by-the-seat-of-their-pants types whose produced rude, unruly, inconsiderate children. They were nice people. Sweet people. Kind, well-intentioned, gentle people. And they were producing brats. Children who got up and went to bed whenever they felt like it, who ate what and when they felt like it. Kids who utterly ignored their parents’ attempts to guide and direct. Kids who squabbled amongst themselves constantly. Kids who interrupted conversations, kids who disregarded their parents, kids who rarely said “please” or “thank you”, and certainly never said “sorry”.

These parents would make a half-hearted attempt to issue an instruction, and, when it went ignored, would shrug in a “what can you do” sort of way, resigned to being treated so disrespectfully.

If that was attachment parenting, I wanted nothing to do with it.

But of course, as I learned when I actually got around to reading up on the subject, that’s not attachment parenting. There is absolutely no reason why attachment parents can’t set limits. In my experience, it’s undeniable that many of them don’t — but that’s not the fault of the method.

While I tend to view Dr. Sears’s rosier pronouncements with a solid dose of skepticism, I do agree with those seven B’s. Even that baby training one. While, unlike Dr. Sears, I think there is a place for training your child — in fact, I see it as a parental obligation — I also believe it can be taken too far, and when he started writing, rigid scheduling and other non-baby-friendly parenting strategies were far more common and encouraged than they are now. Insofar as he counsels caution regarding excessive application of training, I am in agreement even on this one. However, there is a wide swath of good parenting between the equally bad extremes of rigid authoritarianism at one end and total lack of parental authority at the other.

Which brings us to the last B: BALANCE. Knowing when to say “no” to the baby, and “yes” to your needs. It
is not bad parenting to ensure your own needs are met. It is not bad parenting to put the baby’s needs second to your own. There’s a progression to this, of course: in those first few days and weeks, the baby’s needs do take priority. But as the weeks slip into months, your needs can bubble to the top of the list.

And as months grow into a year, then two years, you must put your needs first often enough that your child learns that other people have needs, and that these needs are just as real, and just as valid as his/her own. So that your child learns to take other people into account. Because remember, we are in the business of raising adults, not grown-up children. Do we really want a society populated with people who have never had to even acknowledge the needs of others? People who assume the only real needs are their own, and that other people exist to ensure those needs are met?

I think they call those people ‘sociopaths’.

If you combine the reluctance to train your baby with a reluctance to put your needs first, you will end up with the kinds of kids who had me thinking that attachment parenting was a bad idea.

So, if attachment parenting suits your style, if it seems to you to be the right way to raise your child(ren), then by all means, use it. Just don’t be afraid to be directive when required, and please do exercise a little healthy selfishness. And above all, set loving, consistent limits. It’s good for all of you.

February 24, 2011 - Posted by | parenting | , , , , ,


  1. Huh. Turns out I’m into attachment parenting. (I thought I birth-bonded/breastfed/babywear/slept close/listened because I was lazy. ;>)

    🙂 That was very much my reaction when I discovered I fit the label. But then, Dr. Sears does say it’s not a method with rules and regulations so much as an approach, a certain attitude to children and child-rearing. Though I’m not sure I share the attitude really, because, like you, I did a lot of it because it was the easiest way. I fell into co-sleeping because it was easier (we ALL got more sleep when baby was with me); breast-feeding was convenient (and FREE!!); baby-wearing much easier than rocking… etc., etc. Better parenting through laziness. What’s not to like?

    Comment by Hi, I'm Natalie. | February 24, 2011 | Reply

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Hi, I'm Natalie., Mary P. Mary P said: Attachment and Limits […]

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  3. Huh. What do you know about that. Me too. The only one I didn’t really follow was the sleeping one. But Dr. Sears does say that the method that works for the whole family is the one that’s best, and the best thing for us was to have the babes in a different room fairly soonish after being brought home. I am just such a light sleeper, it really was better.

    Yes, for me co-sleeping meant more sleep for all. (YAY!!!) If it had meant less (I mean, really: less than “next to none”? eep), I’m sure I’d have made a different decision. I’m equally sure you didn’t have any trouble managing to be loving and present with your kids and setting limits.

    Comment by Candace | February 24, 2011 | Reply

  4. Yup, I was lazy. A lazy attachment parent. I read the Sears’ books. But still the parents I ran into at LLL meetings with the kids that were dirty, running wild, and beating each other while they simply said, “Sailor, don’t do that, leave Wolfie alone”??? Bah. I wasn’t going to do that.

    I once met a woman in the park whose child threw sand in her face while she explained/whined, “Now, Suzie, mommy doesn’t like that!” (I think that was rather the point for Suzie, frankly, given that Suzie, who appeared to be about three years old, did it three or four more times while I watched.) Bizarre.

    (And I laughed out loud at the names. Conveys a whole little picture of a certain family style right there. 😀

    Comment by Bridgett | February 24, 2011 | Reply

  5. I think it’s interesting that Dr. Sears is the fact of attachment parenting, when he isn’t a psychologist and attachment theory was developed by psychologists, when they discovered that children hospitalized in the 50s, when parents were considered a disruption in the ward, would cry for their parents and then eventually stop. It was assumed that they were no longer upset about the separation. However, when the parents finally came to get them, they showed no joy in reunion and parents often reported “he was never the same”. These same children had a high tendency to develop depression and anxiety problems in adulthood, as well as poor romantic relationships.

    I’ve heard of those policies. How inhumane! Were these short separations, of a day or two, or weeks- and months- long separations? I’m thinking they had to be longer, because a child probably wouldn’t stop crying for a parent after only a day or two. Gah. Breaks your heart, doesn’t it, to think of those poor kids?

    Then the Romanian orphans were discovered – babies who had been cared for physically perfectly well but who were small, stunted, and behind on their milestones… all because they didn’t have the love and attention of a parent.

    “Failure to thrive.” We need more than our physical selves tended to.

    It is from stuff like this that attachment theory arises- science that shows the importance of a loving, attentive parent to a healthy, happy child.

    I don’t know where people got the idea that they couldn’t discipline their kids.

    I think it arises from the squeamishness about ‘training’, and the idea that putting your own needs first is bad parenting. Additionally — as a smart woman I know pointed out in an email today — from not understanding that these things change over time. What is appropriate parenting for an infant (reacting promptly to tears) is not always the best for a toddler (who has words to express their needs). In fact, I would add that tears when thwarted are inevitable in a toddler, but to respond to them exactly as you would to an infant’s tears is poor parenting.

    A great book is “The Attachment Connection”. It discusses attachment theory from a psychological viewpoint, and is much more scientific than people generally think of “attachment parenting” as being.

    Another book for my reading list! Thank you!

    Comment by IfByYes | February 24, 2011 | Reply

    • That first sentence is a mess. Apparently I’m tired.

      If you tell me what you intended to say (though I think I got the gist of it), I can edit your comment.

      Comment by IfByYes | February 24, 2011 | Reply

  6. Maybe that’s it–I was an attachment parent to my infants. In the common usage of that word. Baby wearing co-sleeping, child-led weaning, all that. But as babies grew into toddlers, I looked more mainstream while my hippie attachment acquaintances continued to not brush their kids’ hair because it hurt them (and didn’t vaccinate, and let Junior walk around the house during dinner, and all that stuff that makes me crazy).

    “Attachment parenting” is an attitude as much as a method, perhaps more so. Thus, I would say that once an attachment parent, always an attachment parent. It’s just that (and this is the part that the crazy-making parents miss) parenting needs to change as the child matures. What’s necessary and appropriate for a three-month-old is not necessarily appropriate to a three-year-old. The love, focus, and attachment doesn’t change, but its expression can — and should.

    Comment by Bridgett | February 25, 2011 | Reply

    • I’m with you Bridgett. When my first was a baby and toddler I was in an AP group, but once he was weaned and toilet trained and I went back to work I outgrew my need for the group and found hanging out with undisciplined unvaccinated preschoolers irritating. I’m still a cosleeping, child led weaning AP parent with my second, but I don’t need the group support anymore because I’m comfortable with how I’m doing it.

      I really think Carol (IfByYes) is on to something when she says that those things, which in the popular culture define attachment parenting, are appropriate to infants and into toddlerhood, but that as the child matures, the externals will change. Extending on that notion, I would suggest that you can put your 3-year-old to sleep in their own bed, or decide for yourself to wean your child when they turn two (if they haven’t weaned themselves by then), and still be an attachment parent. Attachment parenting is a philosophical approach, not a set of items on a checklist.

      Comment by rayne of Terror | March 2, 2011 | Reply

  7. Very interesting. Interesting to read the comments, as well. Guess I never thought of it… I do all those things, to one degree or another, as well. It just comes naturally to me. But I’ve always scoffed at the “attachment parent” label because I believe in training and setting limits.

    And that’s why I’ve always loved reading this blog– natural, common-sense, approachable child-rearing, but not attachment-parenting. 😛 Or so I thought…

    Comment by rosie_kate | February 25, 2011 | Reply

  8. […] am somewhat ashamed to admit that until @NotMaryP over at Daycare Daze made this post, I had no idea that attachment parenting was so despised by the very people who practised […]

    Pingback by Attachment Theory 101, Part The First. « If By Yes | February 26, 2011 | Reply

  9. Amen! I look after one of those kids in my dayhome and wow… he’s spoiled, unimaginative, whiny, and hates being told what to do ever, for any reason. His mom is one of those parents who says “sweetie, please do x or y” instead of laying down clear direction & expectation.

    If this post was shorter, I’d put it on a t-shirt.

    Comment by Hannah | February 26, 2011 | Reply

  10. “Because remember, we are in the business of raising adults, not grown-up children. Do we really want a society populated with people who have never had to even acknowledge the needs of others? People who assume the only real needs are their own, and that other people exist to ensure those needs are met?

    I think they call those people ‘sociopaths’.”

    You are so right! This is so well said. We are raising adults and I think not enough people realize that.
    Hannah – I agree, a t-shirt of this would be awesome!

    Why, thank you. I too frequently see lovely, well-intentioned people who mean only the best for the children who are well on their way to producing horrifically self-absorbed adults, sorely lacking in compassion or consideration. Thankfully, the parents aren’t the only influence on a child, and along the way teachers, friends, and other relations will have their input. Still, this parental short-sightedness is a concern.

    Comment by Patti | March 2, 2011 | Reply

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