Tuesday 12 March 2013

What Attachment Parenting is Not

Today in our Attachment Parenting Series, we will be discussing four of the most prevalent misconceptions of Attachment Parenting. If you have written a post on Attachment Parenting misconceptions, please do share it with us in the comments below!


Many objections to Attachment Parenting come from one of four common misunderstandings of the philosophy. Before exploring each of these misconceptions, we will begin with a brief review of what Attachment Parenting is.

At its core, Attachment Parenting (AP) is the promotion of a responsive, relationship-based approach to raising children. It encourages the parent to respond sensitively to their child's needs, seeking ways to build and strengthen a mutually-trusting parent/child relationship. The specifics and application of AP principles will vary according to the unique needs of the individual family.

With that basic understanding in mind, we will move on to what Attachment Parenting is not.

Attachment Parenting is not permissive parenting

Permissive parenting is characterized by low behavioural expectations coupled with a failure to follow through with enforcing healthy boundaries for the child. This lack of healthy boundaries is most commonly due to an unwillingness or perceived inability to deal with the child's feelings and their negative expressions of those feelings. However, children thrive best within a framework of healthy boundaries. Without these limits, the child will act out in search of them, seeking their safety and predictability.

Another form of permissive parenting disguises itself as punitive parenting. Rather than calmly and consistently enforcing age-appropriate boundaries, this style of permissive parent allows the child to repeatedly overstep boundaries until the parent explodes with frustration and overreacts, coming down strong to get the child's behaviour back in line. This inconsistency is confusing for the child.

Attachment Parenting, conversely, seeks to gently and consistently enforce developmentally-appropriate expectations for the child. While the primary focus of AP is a strong parent/child bond, this bond is not achieved through indulgence or a lack of healthy boundaries and expectations. AP decries punitive methods of discipline, embracing instead a form of positive discipline that relies on teaching and problem solving rather than punishing. It does not, however, reject discipline altogether.

Likewise, AP does not seek to prevent the child from ever feeling strong negative emotions or from expressing those emotions. It does, however, provide the child with both a nurturing response to those feelings along with the tools required to cope with and express those feelings in a healthy and socially acceptable manner.

Attachment Parenting is not helicopter parenting

Also known as "smothering" or "overparenting", helicopter parenting demonstrates an unwillingness or inability to step back and allow the child to develop independence and self-reliance and, along with that, to experience challenges and failure. Although the motivation of helicopter parenting is often love, concern, and good intentions, it typically arises from a place of fear within the parent.

Attachment Parenting, conversely, affirms healthy, age-appropriate independence. It is precisely the trust and security of the strong parent/child relationship that provides the child with the confidence to grow into an emotionally healthy individual. Early attachment fosters healthy independence.

Because AP develops a strong cue/response cycle from infancy, parents are deeply attuned to their child, including the child's strengths and weaknesses. With that knowledge, the parent can encourage the former and work to build the latter. The child, meanwhile, has been assured since birth that his needs and requests will be appropriately responded to, thereby giving him the security and confidence he needs to explore the world in an increasingly greater depth and breadth. By providing the child with a safe home base from which they can explore the world, AP is more compatible with a (common-sense, child-appropriate) free-range style of parenting than it is with helicopter parenting.

Attachment Parenting is not child-centered

Child-centered parenting is a combination of permissive and helicopter parenting. As with permissive parenting, the child's desires are catered to in order to prevent any negative feelings or expressions of those feelings. As with helicopter parenting, the child is routinely rescued from all potential challenges, failures, or consequences. The child is the center and focus of the home.

Child-centered parenting can be a common downfall for the AP parent who, having acknowledged that a baby's needs and wants are very much the same thing and being accustomed to meeting their baby's needs in a sensitive and responsive manner, carries the same attitude over into the toddler and older years. Even though the child's wants and needs are no longer one and the same, the parent continues to act as though they are.

Attachment Parenting, however, is not child-centered, but rather family-centered. AP affirms the child as worthy of respect as a person in their own right, but likewise the parents' needs are acknowledged and respected as well. The parent is neither martyr nor tyrant in this scenario. A family-centered approach develops in the child an awareness of the needs of others, as well as respect for others' property and boundaries. AP also affirms a functioning support network of family and friends, with children benefiting from developing healthy relationships with other individuals of all ages.

One of the primary principles of AP is balance, without which the practice is unsustainable. This balance should be present with the child (attentiveness without indulgence), with the partner (meeting the needs of the relationship without neglecting the needs of the child), and within the parent (meeting the needs of the individual). Failing to validate and meet, as far as possible, the needs of all members of the family will quickly lead to resentment, exhaustion, and burnout.

Attachment Parenting is not (necessarily) Natural Parenting

Natural Parenting (NP) is a philosophy which seeks a natural and holistic approach to health, diet, education, ecological footprint, and general lifestyle as it relates to family life. Most definitions of NP also include AP, while other definitions focus solely on the health and ecological aspects with no effect on the parent's level of responsiveness or attachment to the child. In such cases when NP is defined as including AP, the values of AP would line up with NP, but not all aspects of NP would be related to AP. In that sense, NP would be a wider umbrella definition, with AP falling under it.

Although the two philosophies often overlap, the core focuses and goals of NP and AP are different. NP may promote breastfeeding, for example, because it is the biologically normative way of feeding an infant and has the lowest ecological impact. AP, on the other hand, would encourage breastfeeding as one of many tools that strengthen the mother/child bond and develop the healthy cue/response cycle that leads to greater communication and connection between the pair.

Despite this overlap, NP is not a requirement of AP. While NP may encourage a parent to use cloth diapers for ecological, financial, and health reasons, AP would have nothing to say on the topic, as the type of diaper used on a child has no bearing on the attachment relationship. Likewise with other such NP-related topics as organic food, natural materials, vaccinations, and philosophy of healthcare.

While there is value in NP ideologies, the distinction remains important for those parents who may be drawn to AP, but eschew it instead because they have no desire to live what is colloquially referred to as a "crunchy" lifestyle. Such parents should be assured that it is entirely possible to embrace an AP philosophy without also taking on a natural/"crunchy" way of living.


The heart of AP is rooted in a strong parent/child relationship. From the mutual trust and respect that arise from this relationship, the parent comes along side the child to teach and guide them to maturity. AP encourages both parental guidance on the one hand and child-appropriate freedom on the other.

There are parents who affirm an AP method of child-rearing and yet also parent in a permissive, smothering, or child-centered manner. However, AP itself affirms none of these practices. Permissive parenting lacks the enforcement of age-appropriate boundaries, smothering lacks the natural development of healthy independence, and child-centered parenting neglects to balance the needs of others with the needs of the child.

AP is incompatible with the above parenting practices. It is, not, however, incompatible with Natural Parenting. The misconception arises when AP is mistakenly understood to require a natural lifestyle. While most natural parents embrace AP, and many attachment parents embrace NP, neither one requires nor depends on the other. It is entirely possible to parent in an AP manner without embracing the "crunchy" NP lifestyle as well.

Recommended Reading:

The Attachment Parenting Book by William and Martha Sears
Where's My Center?: A closer look at child-centered parenting and the continuum concept by Scott Noelle


  1. Love this! There are so many misconceptions about AP parenting. I wrote this one about how AP is more then just babywearing, bedsharing, and breastfeeding.


    1. Thanks, Meegs! Loved the way you laid things out in the article you shared.

  2. Love this. I hear these all the time.
    Here's a link to a post I wrote for Connected Mom.
    Attachment Parenting: MoreThan Breasts, Beds, and Baby Slings

    1. Great post, Valerie. Loved that you, too, pointed out that all those crunchy extras have nothing to do with AP itself.

  3. After reading this, I see where I made some mistakes with my now 5 year old. He is extremely demanding and has struggled with sharing us when his little brother came along because we made him the center of our home. I often felt there wasn't a good path to help me transition from the baby wearing days into toddlerhood and preschool, but in retrospect I don't think I stayed true to a lot of the core principles you mention here. Thanks for the insight.

  4. Good article! I just want to add a bit to what you said about Natural Parenting. Some AP parents fall into NP because it can be a great tool when practicing AP. Sometimes a child's diet will severely affect their behavior. For example, my son has a gluten intolerance that essentially makes him insane. When he ingests gluten you cannot reason with him and he cannot year you. He does crazy things that he would never consider otherwise. I've found that in order to help him grow and mature to achieve his best, I need to help him with a good diet and limit his exposure to toxins whether it be on his skin (cloth diapering when he was still in diapers) or ingested (his food) and in researching diet and other ways to help him reach his greatest potential I discovered that diet can affect my ability to be patient and understanding with not only him but everyone around me. The same goes for the rest of my family.

    I also wanted to bring up elimination communication which can be an excellent way to practice AP. You don't have to use cloth diapers to practice EC but they help a lot.

    These are just some thoughts that ran through my head as I was reading. Again, great article. I enjoyed reading it. :)