Monday 30 April 2012

Attachment Parenting: Dealing with criticism

Today in our Attachment Parenting Series, we will be discussing how to deal with criticism as an Attachment Parent. If you have written a post on this topic, please do share it with us in the comments below!


Once a parent has made the choice to raise their children in an Attachment Parenting manner, they often find themselves the target of a great deal of criticism and anti-attachment advice. Family, friends, and acquaintances are often vocal in sharing their concerns with an attachment-oriented approach to parenting. This criticism can shake a parent's confidence and leave them wondering if such warnings and advice are valid.

It can be challenging to choose a different path than that of the predominant parenting culture. Fortunately, there are steps the AP parent can take to both reduce the amount of criticism received and reinforce their own convictions on the matter.

Responding to criticism

Project confidence

People are far less likely to jump in and offer advice or criticism if you look like you know exactly what you are doing. There is no need to seek approval, permission, or validation when it comes to your parenting choices. Simply carry on with what needs to be done. Hungry baby? Feed him in whatever manner you choose. Tantruming toddler? Pick her up and find a quiet private place where you can help her regain her composure. No big deal. Just do what needs to be done, and do it with unapologetic confidence. Keep in mind that proceeding calmly is reassuring for the child as well.

Recognize their motives

Most people who offer warnings, advice, and criticism truly have the target parent's best interests at heart. They sincerely believe what they are saying and authentically want to help. Being aware of these positive motives can take some of the sting out of their words and make it easier for the parent to calmly proceed.

Acknowledge and disengage

With those positive motives in mind, acknowledge the shared advice without feeling the need to engage. In other words, don't try to change the world; change the subject instead. You are not obligated to enter into a discussion simply because someone shares their advice, criticism, or warnings.

"Thanks for the advice, I'll keep that in mind!" followed by a change in topic often works to end an unhelpful conversation. Humor can be useful here as well: "Oh, you know how those recommendations are always changing!" You may choose to discuss the reasons behind your parenting choices with other parents who sincerely want to hear what you have to say (even if they ultimately disagree); you may also choose not to engage in a fruitless discussion with someone whose sole motivation is to convince you to change your mind. Smile, nod, and change the subject.

Similarly, "he's sleeping well!" is a perfectly acceptable answer when a more detailed answer ("he wakes up every three hours to nurse, as expected for his age") will only invite criticism. Be aware of who you are entering into such a conversation with. It is wise to share your parenting challenges only with those who you know are supportive of an attachment parenting/gentle discipline lifestyle. Just as you wouldn't discuss homeschooling challenges with someone who was vocally against homeschooling, don't discuss parenting challenges with those who are vocally critical of an attachment approach to parenting. Don't invite criticism.

This doesn't mean you have to pretend everything is perfect. A simple "we've had our challenges, but we're handling them" can be more than sufficient. This form of discretion is simply a wise boundary, not a fake projection of perfection. Use your best judgement to determine when entering into a dialogue with someone will resolve itself peacefully or only create more conflict.

Enforce boundaries

Unfortunately, there are those who will persist in the conversation despite attempts to politely disengage. For those who can't leave the topic alone, enforce strong boundaries. "I will not discuss this further." Repeat until they accept that the topic is not open to further discussion. Leave if possible/necessary.

Turn the conversation around

Shift the focus off of you and back to them. This allows them to offer their experiences in a non-confrontational manner. "Interesting! What was it like for you when your baby weaned?"

Lead by example

Actions speak louder than words. Rather than engaging in a discussion, step back and let time demonstrate the fruit of this style of parenting. In the meantime, the same gentle parenting techniques can be used on those who persist in offering criticism: listen to their words, reflect their feelings, acknowledge their underlying motives, and firmly yet gently enforce your boundaries.

Share your reasons and resources

Of course, you may always choose to enter into the discussion rather than politely disengage. When doing so, there are three techniques that can help to make the experience a positive one for both parties:

  • Empathize: "It sounds to me that your concern is _____. It means a lot to me that you care so much about your niece."
  • Educate: "Current recommendations state..." or "If you are interested, I would be happy to share with you some resources that we found helpful when making our decision."
  • Express enthusiasm: "I'm really excited that our nursing relationship has continued this long. It's been a wonderful bonding opportunity for both of us, and it has been an excellent tool in helping us through these turbulent toddler years!"

Strengthening resolve

In addition to knowing how to respond to criticism, it is helpful for the AP parent to have an AP-oriented support network in place as well as an understanding of why they have chosen this path. Both knowledge and support will help to prevent discouragement from taking root.

Build support networks

It can be discouraging to spend time with other parents who are vocally critical of an overall AP approach to child rearing. It can also be difficult to maintain a positive outlook and attachment-oriented focus after spending time with those who parent in a punitive and authoritarian manner. As such, it is helpful for the AP parent to also find supportive families that affirm an AP lifestyle.

While no two families are likely to agree on the details of every parenting matter, connecting with those overall supportive families can leave an AP parent feeling refreshed and re-energized. A supportive network can also provide the parent with additional tools and relevant brainstorming when challenges arise.

For some, that community may be found in person. Attachment Parenting playgroups or La Leche League meetings are good starting places to find these connections. For others, however, depending on the community they live in, that group may exist mainly online during some seasons of their life. While face-to-face support is generally preferable, a solid online AP support network can be an excellent source of resources and encouragement either in addition to or temporarily in place of that in-person community.

Reinforce beliefs through research

Knowledge is another source of affirmation and encouragement. When you are confident that healthy attachment will lead to healthy independence, it matters less when others warn that independence must be forced from the beginning. Scientific resources routinely reaffirm an attachment-oriented approach to child rearing. Spend time reading this research in order to bolster the underlying reasons for your parenting choices.

The more knowledge and tools a parent has, the better equipped they will be to handle challenges and criticism, the more confident they will feel in their choices, and the easier they will be able to say "this is what we do" instead of "that is what we don't do". In addition, solid science-based information is useful to have on hand when choosing to enter into a parenting discussion.

Recognize the roots of criticism

Anti-attachment warnings are often both rooted in fear and create fear. Such admonitions may include warnings against responding to a baby's criesbed-sharing, full-term nursinggentle discipline, and more:

  • "Just leave him to cry. He needs to learn he's not the center of the world."
  • "If you let her into your bed now, you'll never get her out."
  • "He needs to learn to be independent, or he'll be living in your basement when he's thirty."
  • "That 'gentle discipline' stuff will create a monster who always expects to get her way."
  • "If he's old enough to ask for it, he's too old to have it. You'll turn him into a pervert if you keep nursing him."

Recognizing these as fear-based statements can reaffirm the AP parent's stance. Fear-based parenting is restrictive, reactive, and ultimately not rooted in reality. Because fear focuses on control and prevention, it actually restricts a healthy, age-appropriate independence as the child grows. Conversely, Attachment Parenting focuses on healthy attachment, mutually-trusting relationships, and responding to the needs of the individual child. The security and reassurance provided allows the child to grow into an emotionally security, empathetic, confident, and independent individual.

Give it time

You will see the fruit of your choices in time. As your children grow, it becomes easier to let the comments roll off, and the comments become fewer as others see the results as well. Your own experiences will begin to demonstrate the lack of truth in the earlier anti-attachment warnings and criticism. You can also look to those who have teenagers and adult children raised in an Attachment Parenting manner and see the positive outcomes there as well.

When warnings are valid

We have been focusing on criticism and anti-attachment advice that stems solely from an overarching disagreement with Attachment Parenting or gentle discipline in general. It is always wise, however, to consider when a specific warning may be valid.

While AP affirms balance and being aware of the individual child's needs, there can be times when a parent becomes so focused on the specifics that they miss the bigger picture. An overemphasis on breastfeeding, for example, can be to the detriment of the infant who authentically needs supplementation in order to prevent failure to thrive. Other parents, as their child grows, may confuse AP/GD with permissiveness. In such cases, concerned family and friends may see, for example, an infant displaying signs of failure to thrive or a preschooler seeking the safety of boundaries and offer valid warnings to the parent.

As with all else, use your best judgement to determine whether the warning has basis in reality or is simply a fear-based reaction against AP/GD in general. The following questions may be helpful in making this judgement:

  • "Is my child healthy and thriving?"
  • "Is my child generally happy?"
  • "Is there a concern I have been ignoring because I don't want to or don't know how to handle it?"
  • "Has my child entered a new stage where an adjustment is needed to a particular aspect of my parenting?"

You know your child best. If none of these questions are a concern, the warning is mostly likely a general warning against AP/GD rather than a valid warning about your child's health, development, or safety.


The parent who chooses an Attachment Parenting method of child-rearing is often the target of much criticism, warnings, and anti-attachment advice. While such criticism may initially shake a parent's confidence, there are steps the parent can take both to respond in a positive manner and to strengthen their own resolve on the subject.

To reduce the likelihood of receiving unwanted advice, project confidence while unapologetically doing what needs to be done. Lead by example; in the meantime, be discerning when it comes to discussing parenting challenges. When criticism or advice is offered, there is no obligation to enter into the discussion. To avoid engaging, acknowledge the advice and change the subject or shift the focus back to the other party by asking them about their experiences. Gently but firmly enforce boundaries when polite attempts to disengage are ignored. When choosing to enter into a parenting discussion, empathize, educate, and express contentment with the choices you have made.

To strengthen resolve, build a supportive network of like-minded families. While it is preferential to have this support in-person, online support networks can be an excellent supplement or temporary replacement. Support networks are sources of information, encouragement, and relevant brainstorming when challenges arise. Knowledge is another source of affirmation and encouragement for the AP parent, allowing them to better handle criticism, tackle parenting challenges, and share science-based information. Finally, recognizing the fear-based roots of criticism and how that differs from Attachment Parenting can further strengthen the parent's resolve.

While most of the warnings and criticism received will stem from a misunderstanding of and disagreement with Attachment Parenting, it is wise for the parent to be aware of times when the warnings offered may be valid. This requires both a willingness to acknowledge areas of weakness and a thorough understanding of the child in question.

Ultimately, time and experience will demonstrate the lack of truth in anti-attachment warnings. In the meantime, maintain positive responses, strengthen foundational knowledge, and continue to build strong networks of supportive families.

Recommended Reading:

Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life by Marshall B. Rosenberg, Ph.D.
Responding to Criticism
Handling Criticism about Breastfeeding
Handling Attachment Parenting Criticism

Recommended Support Resources:

La Leche League Groups (Facebook page)
Natural Parents Network (Facebook page)
Gentle Christian Mothers Community (Facebook page)
Positive Parenting: Toddlers and Beyond (Facebook page and Reader Advice)


  1. Absolutely. I have shared similar thoughts in the introduction to my Attachment Parenting series:

    "In some ways, I believe the term "attachment parenting" can be a bit of a misnomer. The natural parent/child bond is strong and takes a significant amount of trauma to break. It was a term, however, which rose in response to an increasingly common form of parenting which encouraged independence in very young infants. As the ideas of "independence" and "scheduled training" became of such importance to even babies, parent/child attachment was affected, the extent to which I believe we have yet to see. AP places a strong emphasis on developing and maintaining that parent/child bond in a very natural and intuitive manner."

    Unfortunately, our current prevailing parenting culture has accepted many parenting techniques which do not allow parents to develop a secure attachment relationship with their children; in many cases, exactly the opposite is the unfortunate result.

    Thank you for pointing out that important distinction.

  2. I really appreciated the suggestions you've made - I've used a lot of these techniques myself over the years, even without knowing that's what I was doing! I've also used humour to deflect a situation, by replying to criticism that we weren't giving our young toddler candy by saying "Nope! No candy 'til she's twenty!"

    And something else I try to keep in mind when receiving a warning or concern is if that person is generally supportive of AP. If so, then I'm more likely to take a step back and re-evaluate because I know they are "on my side" so to speak :)

    1. Excellent point, Lockdoor. Thanks for sharing!

  3. What if it's your spouse? I know this isn't something you really addressed, but it would be nice if SOMEone did. My husband's pretty on board with what I do, in general, but sometimes when he's frustrated he'll say, "It's because of all the crunchy AP stuff you do that our kids are so difficult!" And in a way, he's right, I just don't see that raising easy kids is exactly our goal ... it's kind of hard to answer that.

    Just, what do you do when "just walk away" isn't an option?

    1. Parenting disagreements between spouses is definitely an entire topic on its own. It is a difficult one to tackle, as well, because the unique details of each relationship and the individuals themselves play a huge role. While the topic could warrant a lengthy post of its own (and may be featured in the series at a later point), I can offer a few brief thoughts on the matter:

      * This is definitely an area where leading by example comes into play. More than discussions or persuasion or arguments, having a spouse see a new way of handling challenges can be the most effective way of introducing AP. Early on in our parenting experience, I was surprised to hear my words coming out of my husband's mouth (which is great when I'm parenting the way I should be, and not so great when I've had a few bad days!). I find that he picks up on my cues and attitudes towards our children and often responds in kind. For my part, this includes such things as remaining calm, having common "scripts" to deal with particular situations, focusing on finding solutions, being proactive, keeping things lighthearted, and teaching children skills to both acknowledge emotions and express them in acceptable ways.

      * A great deal depends on the personality of the partner - are they persuaded by written research or studies? verbal explanations? a relevant book? discussions? It will also depend on where they are at right now and what they are basing their current methods on.

      * Rather than trying to persuade a partner to accept an entirely new perspective, I found it more effective to take a case-by-case logical approach. For example, when our firstborn started hitting as a toddler (because he thought it was silly), my husband asked if we should slap his hand to get him to stop. I suggested that maybe it didn't make sense to hit him in order to teach him not to hit. My husband considered this, saw the logic, and agreed. We came up with a positive alternative (teaching him what TO do - touching gently) and the hitting quickly went away. That has worked for us because I find attachment parenting and gentle discipline to be a very logical way of raising children, which makes these sorts of discussions short and sweet around here.

      * The same gentle discipline tools can be useful in these situations as well. Empathize with him ("Yes, I'm feeling frustrated too right now."), and then work together towards finding and implementing a mutually-agreeable solution ("Would now be a good time to sit down and brainstorm a better way of handling this particular challenge?"). This way you can shift the focus to solutions (teaching lasting skills) rather than the immediate behaviour (punishment).

      I hope you find something in there that is useful in your situation. While it is ideal for both parents to be on the same page, children will still benefit greatly if only one parent uses this more holistic and gentle approach to discipline; hopefully the other parent will see the fruit of that and come around in time.

    2. I have been using the more gentle approach for a while. In fact I started off with it, but my dad and his wife were using words toward me that eventually affected my parenting. I believed after a while they may be right, but now I am back to being more logical in my parenting. They have never met my three and a half year old. My husband still uses a more stern approach. It is one I have seen him use with negative results then complain about jealousy of me being closer with the kids and how his problems are probably my fault. I just try not to get into it with him, and tell him what I do to encourage relationship with our children during those talks. I talk about parenting on my blog too. I hope this is a lil' helpful. Its been hard with me. My husband gets migraines, so his patience is short some days with the children. Knowing this helps mr to encourage him instead of put him down.

  4. I'm on the same boat as Sheila! My husband is about 80% on board with AP and gentle parenting practices. But my main problem is my sons grandparents, (my parents and my inlaws). They are pro-spanking, harsh with their words when they reprimand my son, and sometimes I feel they degrade him when does something wrong. For example, my 2 year old got into my mothers lipstick and started to color with it, and she spanked & yelled at him that he is a boy and never touch makeup or he will grow up "feminine". I was disgusted with her reaction to my son coloring with what he thought was a crayon. How do we get the grandparents on board with our parenting techniques and beliefs without causing strife between us and the grandparents?

    1. Anon, I hope my above reply to Sheila is helpful for you as well as far as your spouse goes.

      Dealing with grandparents, however, is a different manner. A few thoughts:

      * The most relevant technique here is boundaries. Grandparents are often the worst offenders in that regard, as they often feel a sense of ownership of and responsibility for their grandchildren. You, however, are the parent, and that must be established very clearly and very early on in order to prevent bigger challenges down the road. A few scripts:

      "You may NOT speak to my son that way."
      "I will handle this, thank you."
      "It looks like tomorrow may be a better day for a visit. Good-bye."
      "We have chosen to handle things in this manner."
      "Thank you for sharing that advice/experience. I'll keep it in mind!"
      "I know this is different than how you would handle it, but please trust that we're making the best decision for our family."

      * For grandparents who accept boundaries poorly, strife may be inevitable. They don't have to agree with your parenting techniques, but they do need to respect that you are the parents. I completely understand the desire to avoid confrontation and strife, but the priority is protecting the child from being shamed and establishing yourself and your husband as the sole decision makers when it comes to your child rearing techniques.

      * Keep close supervision until trust has been established. Grandparents who refuse to respect your parenting decisions also forfeit the privilege of unsupervised time with their grandchildren.

      * Again, lead by example. One set of grandparents in our family was very wary about many of our parenting decisions when we first started out. Now that the oldest is a very well-adjusted five year old, they have regularly expressed how well we've done in raising him so far. They're still pro-spanking and so forth, but they've seen that alternate parenting methods can be effective as well.

      I know what a challenging area this can be, but I hope these thoughts have provided some useful suggestions.

  5. Very helpful article and discussions. I especially like the fact that you point out that sometimes "critics" may have a point, such as if you are veering too much towards permissiveness when a child needs some more boundaries and guidance. Also I think the advice in the part on disagreement between spouses is really good - leading by example has worked hugely for me, and using different approaches depending on what "persuades" your spouse - mine is not impressed by books and internet research but definitely responds well to seeing practical solutions played out in front of him - if I told him I learnt that approach on the internet it would put him off! I haven't even told him there is such a thing as AP, instead we discuss individual situations and responses, or sometimes don't discuss at all and he often subconsciously "copies" my approaches (though he would not admit to it!). In some things of course he has his own style which is good eg he plays with d in a more boisterous way and I play with her quietly both of which she enjoys. Sometimes he comments that d is closer to me because I "give her what she wants" more - I just let that go without comment because I know myself it is because I spend more time with her more attentively, and engage more with her needs - I also encourage him to spend more time with her and I speak to her about him in very positive ways and encourage them to be closer without being critical which seems to be working, and they are getting closer now she is a toddler more than when she was a baby.

  6. loved this post and think the sage advice can be shared by attachment parenters and non attachment parenters alike. I featured this post on my blog last night (feel free to grab an "I was featured" button if you'd like one.)
    The post is here in case you are interested.

  7. You know, I never really researched any certain type of parenting before I had my first child. Obviously I should probably do some research on secure attachment relationships before I make any assumptions. I do think that people can be too extreme and quick to criticize. From your post, I think that I prefer a combination of both types. Thanks for sharing!

  8. I hope I can find this again when I need to share it with someone. Such great advice. I just realized when I was writing about the TIME article that a big advantage we had was that being older parents, there wasn't any way for us to be too bothered by the opinions of family or others.

  9. I like your empathize, educate, express! Great idea! I just found your blog. I was looking for other attachment parents out there. I am adding you to my blog list! Please stop by mine if you get the chance :)

  10. Good advice! I think it's MUCH harder for first time moms. My MIL and I got along well until I had my baby and wasn't doing ANYTHING right, according to her. Now, he is five and the best behaved grandchild of five cousins. I am expecting and imagine this time, she and the rest on my in-laws won't say a word!