On Feminists, Attachment Parents, Tiger Moms and Wise French Mothers. Oh, and Dads.

attachment fatheringAs May begins and Mother’s Day approaches, the American brain is primed to think of all things Mom and Motherhood. And so it is that the New York Times finds it opportune to ask, “Has women’s obsession with being the perfect mother destroyed feminism? In particular, has the trend of ‘attachment parenting’ been bad for working moms?”  Weighing in on the debate are experts and authors across the parenting spectrum, from attachment-parenting guru Mayim Bialik (Beyond the Sling) to Pamela Druckerman, whose discovery of wisdom in the parenting approach of the French inspired her to write Bringing up Bébé.

Rest assured, you will not often trip over ideological debates on Mom Psych.The focus here is on research rather than opinion; and debates tend to be opinion on steroids. But any excuse to bring up a good study will serve, and the NYT debate does open the door to a few interesting bits of research.

My favorite bit  has to do with how our brains work in debate mode. Psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman would tell you that your political preferences go a long way toward determining what arguments you’re willing to buy into. Not necessarily because you’ve weighed the issues, but because your brain is good at jumping to emotional conclusions about what it likes or doesn’t like— pretty much at first sight. Fortunately, if you can be persuaded to consider the evidence, it’s just possible you might override the initial emotional response. But, says Kahneman, the brain’s analytical mode (what he calls System 2) is “more of an apologist for the emotions of System 1 than a critic of those emotions—an endorser rather than an enforcer. Its search for information and arguments is mostly constrained to information that is consistent with existing beliefs.” The brain, Kahneman explains, does not really like to examine where its beliefs come from or whether that source is reliable. It only wants to preserve them at all costs.

One of our unconscious but brilliant strategies for preserving them is to argue with “straw men” instead of the real opinions of other people. We unwittingly remold our opponent’s perspective into the most extreme version possible so it will be easier to knock down without requiring too much thought. After all, it takes effort to get inside another person’s head and accurately make sense of the contents, so we do what comes naturally: We make something up. You may have a straw-man habit  if people regularly interrupt you with, “That’s not what I’m saying.” We may even make up the entire premise on which our straw argument stands. These tendencies can clearly be seen in the NYT attachment parenting debate, and if we are honest with ourselves as we read through it, we may notice them in our own reactions too.

The first thing that may bother you is the debate question itself. It seems extreme to suggest that feminism has been destroyed, and the idea that attachment parenting might be responsible reflects a misunderstanding of the parenting style. As PhD in Parenting blogger Annie Urban points out, “It’s About Parenting, Not ‘Mothering.” Urban takes on French author Elisabeth Badinter’s assertion that this form of parenting enslaves women, and notes that there are enough responsibilities associated with childcare to keep men and women equally busy if dads will man up. Badinter says that in her country, at least, they don’t. Well, wise up, French dads, there’s a whole slew of research that says if they are lucky enough to have two parents, kids need both of them. That means dads too. You can say “I’ll do the cooking and you do the laundry,” but you can’t say “I’ll do the gardening and you do the kids.” Children are full-fledged family members who need to be emotionally connected to both parents equally. And connection is only possible when there is involvement.

As the debate continues, a veritable army of straw soldiers floods the battlefield. Attachment parenting is portrayed as a rigid system requiring mothers and children to spend all their time together” leaving none of the wise, French-parenting “distance” that would enable children to build “autonomy and resilience.” Of course, there certainly may be some in the attachment parenting fringe who can be described in these terms, but practiced with balance it is not about mothers and children spending all their time together. Nor is it about rigid co-sleeping rules, ignoring tantrums, extreme dietary restrictions, or any of the other straw man erected by those who don’t understand its basis. In fact, there is so much room for individual style within the attachment parenting “movement” (if it is to be so-called) that its families are like snowflakes: no two are exactly alike. What ties them together is one fundamental aim: to create a strong emotional bond that will encourage the development of children’s autonomy and capacity for resilience.

This is where the next bit of research comes in to clarify how children develop these important characteristics. We’ll go to the original source and you may be surprised  that it won’t be pediatrician William Sears, who perhaps deserves the credit for establishing “attachment parenting” as a movement.  It’s true he did lay down a long list of recommendations for achieving attachment, but Sears was merely interpreting the research, albeit through his own useful observations as a pediatrician. Attachment research actually began with psychologists John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth and has since been taken over by neuroscientists, who have expanded on the initial theory. What the research shows is that the areas of the brain that support autonomy and resilience are sculpted and strengthened by emotional attunement with caretakers. It isn’t distance that performs this miracle. It’s connection. Sure, children need age-appropriate practice in exercising autonomy and resilience. But they need a secure base of connection to work from.

Of course, every good parent aims for this connection (which may make everyone an attachment parent to some degree). But another funny thing about the human brain is that it loves simple categorizations and it also loves the tangible chemical high it gets from being able to categorize itself as “capable” and everyone else as “incapable.” And so we classify as wackos all feminists, tiger moms, wise French parents, and attachment adherents and refuse to see ourselves in any of them. Whereas if we could see them—as well as ourselves—without polarized lenses, we just might be surprised to find that we have much more in common than we might think.

6 comments
  1. I’ve been far more perturbed than this suggests by the dismissive and even nutty aspects of Badinter’s bad parenting advice. But I agree with you on the science, and argued much the same on my blog last week (i.e., that attachment parenting theory is supported by neuroscience research). Thanks for that!

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  2. Gina said:

    That’s very kind of you, Laura–it’s great to hear from someone who cares about the science. I agree with your assessment of her parenting advice, and sadly, Badinter isn’t alone in seeming to shrug off research as though it were a scratchy sweater. You may see that topic addressed here in some future post. I did read your post–which very eloquently covered what probably would have taken me three or four. Welcome, and thank you!

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  3. First of all, I wanted to say this was an excellently written article.

    I know you may not want a debate, but I wanted to get your opinion on a great debate I had in class as a graduate student a few years ago!

    Are you familiar with the theory proposed by Judith Harris? In “The Nurture Assumption,” She asserts that the parents have “minimal” impact on the child’s development (post-attachment). I do not agree with this notion, but she does raise a good point.

    The child’s environment and peer group may have a stronger impact in some regards than that of the parent-child relationship. Clearly, successful attachment early on lays the foundation for all future relationships as describe in Farley and Shaver’s naturalistic airport separation study. However, as the child approaches 8 years old and on, they spend less time at home interacting with the family. Some suggest that this means family interactions take a back seat to the ones at school, and abroad.

    What’s your take on her theory?

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  4. Gina said:

    Yes, I’m familiar with her book and I’m so glad you raised this issue. Like you (if I’m reading you right), I would definitely say if parents are engaged they can exert much more than a “minimal” impact, even when kids begin to spend less time at home. Not only because kids carry their internalized values with them throughout the day but there is also research indicating that (contrary to popular belief) kids DO tend to talk over important issues with their parents (given that they have a reasonably positive relationship) and on certain issues parents’ opinions can actually carry more weight than peers. And how much weight does parental influence carry in choice of peer groups to begin with?

    That said, I have to agree with her suggestion that “nurture” may not be the right word to use for everything outside genetics, because researchers do know it’s not just genes and parent influence that shape us. Peers certainly have a huge influence. As do other factors, including siblings. Which of course is why we can’t say “my brother and I grew up in the same family, so we had the same environmental influence.” Obviously I didn’t grow up in exactly the same environment as any of my five siblings. I didn’t have me for a sibling–and none of them had themselves for a sibling. From there, it’s easy to think of dozens of ways our home environment was experienced very differently. Our parents treated each of us slightly differently because of who we were. As the oldest girl, I was taught to cook, my four brothers were taught to mow the lawn. Although also a girl, my younger sister wasn’t expected to cook, at least until I was old enough to leave home and she was the only girl left.

    If I remember correctly, Harris doesn’t have much time for the concept of birth order influence on personality, saying that research only finds it because researchers are invested in doing so. I haven’t read any research that says birth order is the most important influence on personality, but it does seem to be another one of the many, many environmental factors that help shape us, don’t you think? I find it troubling when it looks like someone is throwing out studies because they don’t fit a particular theory. Fitting research together should be like putting together a jigsaw puzzle with a gazillion pieces. If one doesn’t fit, you tuck it into a corner of your mind until more studies help make the picture clearer and you can see where it fits. All of that said, I don’t have a problem allowing for the cute phrase “nature plus nurture” as long as it’s recognized that peer and other influences fall under the umbrella term “nurture” as would other environmental factors like poverty, education, etc. To me it seems our disagreements are very often semantic, but perhaps they have to be because people do tend to oversimplify terms like nature and nurture, as you effectively pointed out in one of your recent, very interesting posts. I would like to recommend it here for any of my readers who may be interested:

    http://psychddouglas.wordpress.com/2012/07/26/emergent-epigenesis/ .

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