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attachment theory is not attachment parenting or gentle parenting | Insight from a Parent Coach | Parent Coach | MegAnne Ford

Attachment Theory is not attachment parenting or gentle parenting


I have seen a lot of misunderstanding throughout my years as a preschool teacher and as a parent coach around having a good bond with children, and maybe you too.

When you think about when you first became a parent. If you connect back to those early days, maybe you felt pressure around having a good bond. When I think about having a good bond or when the parent-child bond or the attachment bond comes up, I tend to see it shared through certain lenses.

These lenses can make you feel like you're in it or you're out of it, like you're either doing it or you're not doing it.

So what I've seen is to have a good bond, I must do certain things: I must breastfeed, I must co-sleep, I must not let the child cry, and I must not have plastic toys. I must read to them before bedtime. I must stay and hold space when they're upset. I must deny my own wants and needs and put my child first above mine. I must give up who I was to become this parent.

I see it, I see it on social media, I see it in my clients, I see it in mainstream media, I see it in TV shows and movies, I see it on the playground. All of these things are categorized into the binary: these are the good things to do if you're going to be a good parent and have a good bond, and these are the bad things you're going to do that are going to harm the bond and harm your child.

I think, what if people don't fit into these categories? This leads us to this prescriptive model, which leads us into actually fueling anxieties and a lot of misbeliefs and misunderstandings about fostering a good parent-child bond because we start to focus on the shoulds and the should nots. This is what a good parent should do. This is what a good parent should not do.

I am wondering where this list came from. Whose list is this? Is this list applicable to all families and cultures worldwide? So, I did a quick Google search on parenting styles worldwide.


Parenting Styles Worldwide

This comes from Verywell Family, a source I trust, as they fact-check and provide their sources. This will be important later when I discuss the differences between attachment parenting and attachment theory.

To highlight the article, babies in Denmark stay outside in their strollers while parents shop or dine. It's common practice there. Another example is kids in Finland getting frequent breaks from school. Imagine valuing rest and play. The article also mentions that kids in Sweden are not being spanked. Sweden banned spanking in 1979, and now the first generation raised without corporal punishment are parents themselves. Since then, 52 other countries have banned spanking, while 16 US states still allow it in schools. Lastly, mothers in Bulgaria receive 410 days off for maternity leave.

Reflecting on these points, I see how system support impacts outcomes.

It also reminded me of a video series on Netflix called "Old Enough." This series showcased toddlers in Japan running errands by themselves, supported by a system that fosters autonomy.

This is made possible by discipline, system support, and community involvement. It's not about abandoning children in the middle of nowhere or in the city without guidance. It's about embracing and showcasing how culture, community, and systems can support different outcomes. Ultimately, there's no one right way or wrong way.

It's about enjoying the outcomes and the process of the system.


What is Attachment Parenting? 

A few years ago, during a conversation with one of my one-on-one clients, she declared, "I'm an attachment parent, so I know all about attachment." She emphasized how hard they worked to foster a strong bond.

However, as we delved into the issues she was facing, such as sibling dynamics and communication challenges, it became clear that despite following all the recommended practices like co-sleeping, extended breastfeeding, and limiting screen time, the desired outcomes were not achieved.

This made me question the source of these rules and led me to explore attachment parenting further.

Through this exploration, I discovered that attachment parenting, while clever marketing, is not the same as attachment theory. Attachment parenting capitalized on the importance of the attachment bond to new parents, offering a methodology based on the experiences of Dr. William Sears and his wife, Martha Sears.


Attachment Parenting: good intentions, NOT positive impact

However, intention doesn't always have an equal impact, and attachment parenting may not align with the foundational science of attachment theory.

It's like comparing CrossFit to exercise science – similar in concept but not the same in practice. Attachment parenting uses the keyword "attachment" to attract attention, but it's not equivalent to the theoretical study of attachment.

It feels to me like it's predatory. It gave new moms a prescription, and that prescription had a really big impact on parents who heard about attachment bonding and how important it was. Parents who Googled and found attachment parenting started consuming and passing on information that is not applicable to everyone.

Just like CrossFit, it's not applicable to everyone, though they may claim they are. Right, it's marketing, it's branding. Attachment parenting is a methodology; it is a set of rules; it is a set of processes. It becomes very clear if you are doing it or if you are not doing it, just like my client who was doing it; however, she felt that she was doing it wrong because she wasn't getting the desired outcome. "Hey, I did this; I bed-shared; I extended breastfed; I didn't allow screens. Why are my kids still upset? Why are my kids still fighting?"

We start to really unpeel that back to a possible reason why and how, through working together with me, she actually started to pivot because she had a different fundamental understanding, she had different foundational skills, she saw things differently, she could come to the same table, she could come to get on the same page as her partner so they could play above the table.

That's what I was trying to say. So, attachment parenting is a methodology. Attachment theory is a scientific notion. It is an entire study and discipline within developmental psychology.


Gentle parenting comes from attachment parenting

The term "gentle parenting" is why I am not aligned with gentle parenting; it's why I do not call myself a gentle parenting coach. I am a parent coach who teaches and coaches positive parenting that uses attachment theory, science-based methods, and strategies.

I do want to say that I dabbled in it in my early days of TikTok because I saw TikTok using it. Now it feels like it's turned into this big thing that I'm like, "Oh, I don't know what's going on here," because the term "gentle parenting" was born inside of the attachment parenting communities.

That phrase, "gentle parenting," was very closely aligned with attachment parenting. TikTok spread the term "gentle parenting."


Gentle Parenting is permissive parenting

Gentle parenting is not authoritative parenting. It's actually more permissive parenting, and then we start to see a lot of pushback. By design, gentle parenting and attachment parenting lean more towards permissive parenting.

Parenting style has a lot of methodologies, and then those methodologies are born out of beliefs. Sarah Ockwell-Smith, a self-proclaimed attachment parenting writer, coined the term gentle parenting. She wrote a book from her perspective called "The Gentle Parenting Book," much like the attachment parenting book. It is a branded group of philosophies and methodologies.


Attachment parenting is..

So, when discussing attachment parenting, we're talking about Dr. Sears's methodologies. He talks about them as the seven baby Bs, and the seven baby Bs are: birth bonding, so skin-to-skin, having your baby close to you, making sure that you're not separating, making sure that you create a bubble so that the families can bond together, the parent and child can bond. The other is to read and respond to your baby's cues. The third is breastfeeding. The fourth is babywearing. The fifth is bedding close to the baby. The sixth is balance and boundaries. The seventh is to beware of baby trainers. Those are Dr. Sears's seven baby Bs.

Are you seeing with me now the prescriptive nature of these suggestions? Are you seeing the space that can leave a lot of room for life to happen, where now I feel like if I didn't do this, then I'm a bad parent? Perhaps if a child is in extended NICU, what if we didn't have that important birth bonding time? Am I now going to start to have seeds of doubt to say, "Oh, maybe I've done this wrong? Maybe I'm not going to have a good bond with my child"? I'm here to tell you that that's false.

When your baby is away from you, it is not black or white. It doesn't mean, "Well, you've messed up your bond." However, in this world, it can lead to anxieties and doubts. Think about breastfeeding. What happens if you choose not to breastfeed? What happens if you're not able to breastfeed? What then? Are you putting your bond with your child at risk?

I'm here again on the other side to say no. Does it look different? Yes. When we subscribe to attachment parenting and to the seven baby Bs, it leaves a lot of doubt, fear, and anxiety. Saying things like, welt"Oh, if I didn't do this right, then everything's wrong," or, "Oh, if my baby's crying, it's because of this, it's because I didn't have an extended birthing bond period." It leads to a big sense of inadequacy. It leads to a big sense of failure. It feels heavy and adds a lot of pressure to someone who is in a very stressed state.


Attachment in marketing

While I was Googling the connection between attachment parenting and gentle parenting, I came across a website with an article that was criticism against gentle parenting, and the whole blog post was talking about if people are criticizing you, here's what you can tell them, here's how you can become empowered in this space. This first paragraph really jumped out at me:

"What is Attachment or Gentle Parenting?"

Gentle parenting and attachment parenting are terms often used synonymously. In short, both are all about following instincts and responding sensitively and intentionally to meet your child's needs. Attachment or gentle parents allow their innate instincts to drive decision-making. Furthermore, they recognize that harsh punishments and power struggles do not elicit behavioral change and often seek out positive parenting methods over traditional discipline.

Attachment and gentle parents recognize encouragement, nurturing communication, and natural, logical consequences as effective parenting tools.

Attachment and gentle parents often, but not always, breastfeed into toddlerhood, co-slept or bed-shared, and steer clear of sleep training. They talk about and validate big feelings with their children and avoid corporal punishment and timeouts. In other words, gentle parenting is the antithesis of old-school parenting.

This has great intentions, again going back to intentions over impact. They use words and keywords that come out that are probably like, "Oh yeah, this is much like your platform."

Yes, it is. We can see eye to eye on a lot of the different techniques and a lot of the surface.

However, the beliefs are totally different, and when we get down to the nuance of the beliefs that stem from how we're showing up and how we're parenting, we can start to see that it's totally different.

While I was on this page, this little popup feature happened, and it said, "Free Positive Parenting Workbook and Email Course." And I was like, "Oh my gosh, all right, now they're starting to step into my world, of Positive Parenting."

Positive Parenting is having a positive impact on the development of your child and the development of your relationship with your child.

Let me be very clear that positive parenting with me, MegAnne Ford, here and in all of my spaces and online parenting classes is not gentle parenting or attachment parenting. Though some of the things might sound similar, when we get down to the belief, and we pull it down to the belief at the bottom of that behavior iceberg, it's totally different.


The nuance between Attachment Parenting and Theory

Attachment parenting is prescriptive. 

When we think about attachment parenting, the attachment parent asks, "Does the child have a sense of safety to land?" Then the child says, "Is the parent a safe space to land?" When we're talking about the beliefs, the beliefs are, "Is the child safe to come to us? And can we fill all the child's needs? Can we make sure that we're filling everything that's wrong? Can we make sure that they're not crying, that they're not upset?"

This is where we start to see how this is not always in alignment with what I teach. In my spaces, "no" has a seat at the table, disappointment has a seat at the table, frustration has a seat at the table, and resentment has a seat at the table. Let's learn from these. Let's not deny them. Let's not seek to stamp them out or to avoid them.

But in the attachment parenting lens, the role of the parent is to remove all frustrations, to keep your child happy, to fill their needs, and if you feel their needs, then anger, frustration, fighting, hitting, roughhousing, and yelling will not happen. That's where we start to get into this very prescriptive space. A+B=C, If A is me, the parent, and I subscribe to gentle or gentle parenting or attachment parenting and B, I follow these seven baby bees, then it will equal a C, happy child. That's the belief. It's a product-based belief. If I do this, then I'll get that. It's very linear. It's very prescriptive. It's one size fits all. This of a child landing on a pillow, there is comfort in that. 

In my spaces of support, I debunk three myths, and one of them is "parenting is all about your instincts." 

No, it's not, especially if you have a trauma background or if you've come or had a traumatic experience. Your instincts are going to be to protect and defend. Why is this so hard? Again, what I debunk there is that hard doesn't mean wrong. Hard means unpracticed. Maybe there are things in parenting that are always going to be hard because you're always learning and practicing them.

The invitation is not to think that hard, that you're doing it wrong, or that you're inadequate. It's that hard is saying, "Hey, come, come, come, practice more. You're worth this practice." It's a call-in, not a call-out.

The third myth that I debunk is that "it's not working." That's what that client came to me saying, "Hey, I've done all the things. Don't worry. I'm an attachment parent. I've done all the things. It's still not working. My kids still fight me. My kids still have outbursts."

It's thought in binary, black or white. They're either good kids or bad kids. I'm either a good parent or a bad parent.


My bold claim is attachment parenting is fear-based parenting.

When I put this up against pillars of white supremacy, even attachment parenting is grounded in perfectionism. It's grounded in individualism. Figure this out on your own. You need to focus on, what's best for your child. You know what to do. Don't listen to others. Don't get into spaces of community. You know, this is what you should be doing. It's focused on quantity over quality, right?

How much time? Another client talked about a different program prescribing that you need ten minutes of quality time with each child a day, and it's like, "Whoa, okay, uh, I have all day with them." Focused on fear of conflict, right? If your child is upset, it's your job to make them happy. It's your job to relieve them. It's focused on the right to comfort. You know what's best. Don't let anyone tell you any different. Don't ask for help because, you know, just trust your motherly instincts. We're all just doing our best. You're doing a great job. You're doing just fine, right?

That parent is consistently asking, "Oh, you're uncomfortable? Let's get you back into comfort." 

There's a power imbalance there, so now it's the parent's role to fill the child's needs. It's the parent's duty to make sure that they are doing everything right for the child because if not, then the parent is going to mess the child up. It's a lot of pressure, and I see it in these attachment parenting spaces. It's a lot of pressure, and if you're not doing it right, then I think you need to change it.


Attachment theory is about empowering. 

When you work with me as a parent coach, my strategies are grounded in attachment theory, not attachment parenting.

It's grounded in attachment theory and trauma-informed caregiving. What do I mean by that? Attachment theory shifts the perspective out of the parent's perspective.

What is the parent doing for the child? How is the parent responsible for the child? What is the parent doing to support the child? It's the same questions, just asked with a different inflection. We're seeing it from the child's point of view. We see it from the parents and children experiencing it together.

We're focused now on the impact over intentions. 

When we look at the people who've supported attachment theory, they are psychologists and researchers like John Bowlby, Mary Ainsworth, and Dan Siegel. These are individuals who have studied, even hosted studies and delved into the science behind the bond between parent and child. It is not just a simple set of seven prescriptions (do this, and you'll get that). It's not about how much time, how close you are, or how quickly you stop their cries. Instead, it's examined over the course of a long history of studying these interactions.

Experiments like Harlow's Wire Mother, also known as Harlow's Monkeys, conducted by Harry Harlow, though a bit ethically questionable at the time, showed that we crave closeness, warmth, and nurturing over even sustenance. Another experiment, the Strange Situation, conducted by Mary Ainsworth, looked at how children respond when the caregiver leaves and returns, as well as when they are left alone, either by themselves or with a stranger. These interactions can start to form a mental model, allowing us to see the connections of the bond between parent and child from the child's point of view.

Another significant experiment is the Still Face Experiment, which explores mirror neurons and observes how the parent and child read each other's emotions. In this experiment, a child interacts with a warm, responsive mother who suddenly adopts a still face. This change elicits distress in the child, demonstrating the importance of emotional connection.


Attachment Theory asks a different question:

When we're discussing attachment theory, it asks: Does the child have a sense of safety to land and launch again? Like a trampoline rather than a pillow. Is the child safe to bring stress to the adult and have a space to hold, care for, and nurture so they can go back out and try again? From the child's perspective, they're asking: Is the parent a safe base to land and launch from?

This illustrates the difference between attachment parenting, which is solely focused on landing and parent-centered, and attachment theory, which focuses on the child's ability to land and launch, preparing them to bring stress to the caregiver and venture out again, knowing that mistakes are opportunities to learn and that ruptures and repairs are part of the process.

When we're considering attachment theory, trust comes into play. Trust is the outcome of being present, attuning, and resonating. It's the result of doing your part. When we think about the quality of trust, we can view it as a spectrum: trust and not trust. Are we in a state of trust, or are we in a state of not trust? And whom do we trust? Are we trusting ourselves, or are we not trusting ourselves? Are we trusting others, or are we not trusting others?


Quality of the attachment

So, when we're contemplating attachment theory and the methods of child-rearing that foster bonds, we can acknowledge that if we have a sense of trusting ourselves—confidence, a solid sense of self, knowledge of our values, and trust in our judgment—and if we trust others—meaning we can ask for help—it leads to secure attachment.

Recently, I asked on my social media accounts whether people tend to seek parenting advice from trusted sources or from Google. The majority admitted to turning to Google first, which surprised me. It made me ponder why there isn't a stronger trust in others and why people opt for Google over seeking guidance from trusted sources.

In the context of attachment theory, having a strong self-trust but not trusting others might trend toward a not secure attachment, possibly leaning toward avoidance. Conversely, if there's a lack of self-trust but trust in others, it might lean toward a not secure attachment, potentially trending toward anxiousness. Lastly, if there's inconsistency in both self-trust and trust in others, it may result in a non-secure, disorganized attachment style where trust fluctuates unpredictably.

When considering the quality of attachment in a parent-child relationship, we examine four key aspects. Firstly, we assess whether there's a sense of safety. Secondly, we evaluate whether the child feels seen and understood, gauging our communication methods to ensure the child feels acknowledged. Thirdly, we inquire if both parties feel soothed during times of stress. Lastly, we reflect on the consistency and security within the relationship. The 4 S's: Safe, Seen, Soothed, Secure.

Through these qualities, we can view our interactions through two lenses: trust and distrust. Are our actions deepening trust between us and our child, or are they fostering distrust? Distrust can generate stress for both parties. It's crucial to understand that it's not specific parental actions that cultivate this bond. It's not about doing things perfectly but rather about being attuned to our relationship and making repairs when needed.

In attachment theory, the adult caregiver (A) interacts with the child (B), leading to the bond (C). Thus, it's about understanding if this equation is resulting in the desired impact and fulfillment for both parent and child. Attachment isn't a static product; it's an ongoing process. Are we attuned to this process? Are we actively seeking ways to feel secure within it? Are we engaging with supportive communities that aid us in this journey?


Positive Impact

How are we beginning to cultivate awareness of our decisions, processes, and methods, and how are they impacting our children? I find it important to address this because when the topic of attachment arises, it's easy to associate it with practices like babywearing, bed sharing, and breastfeeding. If individuals are tethered to these practices, chances are they align more closely with attachment parenting. However, if the focus is on safety, security, and relationship dynamics, then they may be more aligned with attachment theory.

In conclusion, I urge you to reflect: Are you conscious of the parenting philosophies you've embraced? Parenting encompasses the methods and techniques of child-rearing while being a parent is part of your identity. Are you mindful of the tools in your parenting toolbox and any gaps that may exist? Are you seeking out supportive environments that foster your learning and growth as a parent?

Furthermore, consider the following: In which spaces do you feel safe exploring your parenting journey? where we create environments that evoke feelings of safety or threat.As a client aptly noted, the ability to discern these shifts in safety levels is crucial. Tuning into yourself is key—it's not just about what you do, but how you do it. Remember, it's not merely about the term "attachment"; it's about the underlying philosophies and beliefs that support it. I'd love to hear your thoughts and insights as you continue on this journey of learning and growth.

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