The Dangers of Attachment Parenting

Dawn Davenport


4702881225_b7d1c86d48_nI know it’s not a popular sentiment nowadays, but I’ve always thought that children thrive with a certain amount of benign neglect. Now don’t get your knickers in a knot, I don’t mean actual neglect, but rather an attitude that is counter to the hyper-vigilant parenting that has become the gold standard of today’s parents. I’m not exactly sure how we got here, but “good parenting” is often seen as a parent who is ever involved and ever present. While attachment parenting is great for infants, it seems to me that our goal as a parent is to slowly but surely wean our kids away from us, so that by their late teens and twenties they are able to stand alone, with us firmly in the background.

An article I recently read in Psychology Today was brutally critical of today’s parents.

Behold the wholly sanitized childhood, without skinned knees or the occasional C in history…. “Kids need to feel badly sometimes,” says child psychologist David Elkind, professor at Tufts University. “We learn through experience and we learn through bad experiences. Through failure we learn how to cope.”…

With few challenges all their own, kids are unable to forge their creative adaptations to the normal vicissitudes of life. That not only makes them risk-averse, it makes them psychologically fragile, riddled with anxiety. In the process they’re robbed of identity, meaning and a sense of accomplishment, to say nothing of a shot at real happiness. Forget, too, about perseverance, not simply a moral virtue but a necessary life skill. These turn out to be the spreading psychic fault lines of 21st-century youth. Whether we want to or not, we’re on our way to creating a nation of wimps….

I wish my parents had some hobby other than me,” one young patient told David Anderegg, a child psychologist in Lenox, Massachusetts, and professor of psychology at Bennington College. Anderegg finds that anxious parents are hyperattentive to their kids, reactive to every blip of their child’s day, eager to solve every problem for their child—and believe that’s good parenting. “If you have an infant and the baby has gas, burping the baby is being a good parent. But when you have a 10-year-old who has metaphoric gas, you don’t have to burp him. You have to let him sit with it, try to figure out what to do about it. He then learns to tolerate moderate amounts of difficulty, and it’s not the end of the world.”

And most of all, self-consciousness removes the safety to be experimental and playful. “If every drawing is going to end up on your parents’ refrigerator, you’re not free to fool around, to goof up or make mistakes,” says Anderegg.

Judging Ourselves as Parents

Ouch! I don’t see myself totally reflected in their description, but I see enough shadows to make me take stock. I think in part we helicopter parent because we don’t want to be found lacking. It is so so easy to fall into the trap of seeing our kid’s success or failure as a reflection of our success or failure as a parent. Who doesn’t feel proud when their kid is the fastest in class at the multiplication tables? Or is the youngest brown belt at karate? Or is semi-fluent in Chinese by age 12? Or is the leading scorer on her soccer team? I know because I’ve felt that. I’ve also felt the embarrassment and worry when my kid was one of the slowest at the multiplication tables or was the one picking dandelions as the rest of the soccer team raced by.

Is Attachment Parenting to Blame?

Those of us who’ve touted attachment parenting are also partly to blame. Perhaps we haven’t been clear enough that the ultimate goal of parenting is to raise independent self-reliant adults. It’s so easy to forget that our kids are not really ours, and that our role in being the primary support in their life is supposed to be short lived.

To be perfectly honest, I hate the idea of becoming obsolescent. My identity is tied up in being a mom. But part and parcel of good parenting is working ourselves out of a job and shifting our identity. Damnit. This process begins in toddlerhood, and continues slowly throughout childhood. Failure and a certain degree of messiness is part of this process. Let’s start viewing failure and messiness as a mark of good parenting.

Do you see examples of the over-involved hovering parent amongst your peers? 


Image credit: ubarchives

14/05/2013 | by Dawn Davenport | Categories: Adoption, Adoption Blog, Blog | 29 Comments

29 Responses to The Dangers of Attachment Parenting

  1. Avatar Christy McGarry says:

    I think making the distinction b/w helicopter parenting (doing for our kids) and attachment parenting (creating the safe place for them to learn, launch from, and fall back to).

  2. Avatar Tracy O'Mara Whitney says:

    Seems to me that maybe that kind of “difficulty” in launching is less about the kids, isn’t it, @Kristina Grish, than it is about the parents? About filling something in the parent if they are sneaking in for themselves? HEH….. NOT that I’ve never pulled a parenting move that satisfied or filled something in me but if that is what it is – filling something in me, then I prefer to call it what it is. Again, that’s not entirely a bad thing because at the root, parenting is about relationship and both parties have relational needs that must be met. When it’s beyond moderation, beyond sacrificial love and putting the child ahead of the parent, that’s concerning. So I can see what you mean about your curiousity about attachment parenting styles (from a comment at the start of the thread).

  3. Avatar Kristina Grish says:

    well that’s a good point. most of my friends are trying to launch their children out of their beds at the moment, and for two, even after the children have moved to their own space, they’re like, “well would it hurt if i just snuck in for a few nights? for me?” 😉

  4. Avatar Tracy O'Mara Whitney says:

    Without a doubt, ap for adoption situations is crucial and beneficial for all parties involved. I wouldnt do it any other way. Hugely important for rewiring their hearts and minds for “family” vs institutes, foster care, etc. And FWIW, I think it SHOULD be hard to let go… it is your life’s work and I would worry if it wasn’t challenging in at least some regards. Much like some folks struggle with identity or purpose when they retire from a career they love passionately.

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      Tracy, well then, I must be pretty normal, because I’m sure not going quietly into the night. 🙂 And you’re right, it has been my life’s work and that helps me to understand my emotions when I think of it that way.

  5. Avatar Kristina Grish says:

    and for what it’s worth, which may not be a lot, i have found to the “launch” point that parents i know who’ve practiced this have trouble letting go, almost as much as the kids.

  6. Avatar Kristina Grish says:

    for infants and toddlers …

  7. Avatar Kristina Grish says:

    but i actually wondered if certain attachment parenting techniques were actually helpful to adopted children b/c they encourage bonding…

  8. Avatar Kristina Grish says:

    wow, i was just discussing this today. again, with the serendipitous timing dawn!

  9. Avatar Tracy O'Mara Whitney says:

    To a degree, I do see it. Mostly among those who are maybe only reading about attachment parenting specific to adoption. I started the ap journey with Dr. Sears’ books, with my bio kids, again not exclusively. I find his stuff to be very long-term equipping for our style. However, in my evangelical circles there are “other” parenting philosophies touted that I tend to be far more concerned about. Sigh…

  10. Avatar Tracy O'Mara Whitney says:

    As I have understood it, attachment parenting is about creating a foundation of great trust and confidence from which our kids can naturally venture forth to explore and discover and experiment. And about giving them the safe place to which they can return as needed to recover, refresh, and regroup. I agree, the current trend of helicopter parenting is crippling in the long view, but it looks very little like the attachment parenting I researched and practiced in my early years of parenting. Of course, I also never fully embraced just one “methodology” of parenting, as I had some great real life mentors in my life to imitate and follow.

  11. Avatar dmdezigns says:

    I babywear, when it suits me and my child, but not all the time. I don’t cosleep. Since my kids were adopted, I didn’t breastfeed. I’m not sure what the other “hot topics” make up Attachment parenting so I’m guessing I’m not practicing it. I agree that too many parents I see for whatever reason are afraid to let the kids fail, to fall, to experience disappointment. But to me that’s how they learn. When my daughter was 4 or 5 months old, she’d sit in the bumbo seat and try to hold a toy. She’d get frustrated because she couldn’t grab the part she wanted too. I’d let her keep trying. When the frustration got too much, I’d take the toy and give her something else to succeed with. Then we’d go back to toy 1. We did this over weeks until she mastered that toy on her own. She got frustrated, she yelled at times at it, but she figured it out on her own. I didn’t do it for her, just tried to help manage the level of frustration. When she started crawling and walking, I’d smile when she fell (as long as I knew she wasn’t really hurt, you can tell by the thud). I let her figure out her toys, and only intervened when she was truly stuck. Then I did it once, and took it back apart for her to do. Now at 17 months, she walks, falls down, gets up, has no fear, climbs anything, is doing so great at problem solving and only gets frustrated when she’s tired. She’s very independent. Her I want to do it stage started before she was 1. I think these skills will serve her well in life. Yes, we have a long way to go, but she’s going to have some skinned knees along the way. Some girl is going to hurt her feelings, some boy break her heart, and some teacher give her a grade she thinks is wrong. But she needs to have these experiences. I can be there for her for support, but I can’t fix them. I don’t want to. I don’t want her to be hurt, but I want her to be a healthy well adjusted adult someday. And it’s fighting(or not fighting) those small battles in our path that help us become whatever adult we become. I’m raising an independent girl that hopefully will also have her own mind and opinions. That means it starts now. The hard part is guiding her to healthy expressions without squashing that spirit.

  12. I hear ya! And I agree about not being wedded to anyone particular “guru”. Both kids and parents are too individual for that.

  13. Tracy, yes, that is exactly what attachment parenting is supposed to do-create a secure launch pad, so to speak. I worry that somehow the “launch” part is being lost. Do you see that in your interactions with other parents?

  14. Kristina, oh, absolutely. Actually, from observing my kids’ peer groups and their families (and looking closely at myself), I think the parents often have a harder time at the launch point. But really, there is no such thing as one Launch Point. There are thousands throughout your child’s life and parents need to look for them and embrace them, even though (especially so) that mean less dependence on them.

  15. Rosalie, great great point. Much of what we often think of as an “issue of this generation” pertains to only part–often the privileged part.

  16. Avatar Rosalie says:

    By the way I was responding to the article. YOUR observations are as always nuanced and spot-on!!!!
    (I just caught some typos in what I wrote. I fear I may suffer from iPhone-induced gestalt detail disorder haha!)

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      I just loved that in the article–gestalt thinking disorder–whatever the heck that is!! And to think that I fought so hard to keep labels out of one of my kid’s school file b/c I worried that it would predetermine how teachers viewed her.

  17. I wouldn’t want anything I wrote to be construed as saying that attachment parenting in not good for kids. I think it is, especially for newly adopted kids. I just think we need to redefine what we mean by attachment parenting.

  18. I don’t do attachment parenting especially since I have been away from my kids deployed overseas and my husband is so tired from running a business and taking care of their basic needs. My kids are amazingly independent. Which is exactly what I want them to be when they move out of home.

  19. Christy, that’s a good distinction. Helicopter parents make their kids afraid to fail, while attached parents make their kids feel safe enough to launch. I like that.

  20. Avatar Tammy says:

    The attachment parenting is important no matter what age you bring your child home. I just brought home a 6 year and I have used a lot of attachment parenting. However, as others have said, attachment parenting means doesn’t mean that you need to be a helicopter parent. It means teaching children to have warm, loving and reciprocal relationships, which, in turn, leads to confident and competent children. Helicopter parenting directly flies in the face of teaching confidence and competence.

  21. Avatar Rebecca C says:

    I don’t think you become obsolete as they get older, your relationship just changes. 🙂 My mama will ALWAYS be my mama.

  22. Avatar amy says:

    This is a well-meaning but unfortunately incredibly misleading post. The kind of helicopter, hovering parenting that this post references bears no resemblance whatsoever to attachment parenting, which is premised on using connection, rather than control, as parents. Please do research before you use this term:

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      Amy, I think you made my point for me–helicopter parenting is not the same as attachment parenting, although I see plenty of folks confusing the two. Thanks.

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      Amy, I think you made my point for me–helicopter parenting is not the same as attachment parenting, although I see plenty of folks confusing the two, especially after the first couple of years. Thanks.

  23. Avatar Rosalie says:

    This is so fascinating. Thanks as always for posting, Dawn!! I am struck by how the cultural and class specificity of these observations. I teach college and while I teach at some “privileged”
    Schools, I have mainly chosen to teach a totally different demographic from the one described: urban, working class or working poor backgrounds who are first generation university-goers – often second generation immigrants. My students face tremendous challenges from lack of directed parental advocacy and lack of entitlement. If they have very basic learning issues, they generally remain undiagnosed. They have not heard of let alone appropriated the middle and upper middle class notion of enjoying what you do for work.
    I only teach the lucky, resilient and persistent ones who somehow survive their crumbling, overpacked, sometimes dangerous high schools and find their way into local colleges without the benefit of SAT coaching or tutoring or informed parental guidance.
    Many of my students do live with their parents well into adulthood – this in order to spare cost. They often maintain major responsibilities at home: bringing in income, caring for younger siblings, aging relatives or children of their own. A number of them don’t make it through their studies because of the overwhelming burden of these responsibilities and financial burdens — or lack of preparedness for how to understand let alone play “the system”. On top of that, “the system” is attuned to weed them out; I once saw a working class immigrant 19 year old get barred from a basic requisite college writing course for the same error I had recently caught in an early but lauded draft of an Ivy League doctoral student I was coaching.
    This article is fascinating but it doesn’t speak to “all kids”. This is a big and diverse country. Many of my students are members of rapidly expanding cultural and ethnic groups. In 20 years we will see how well These kids play with the “hothouse flowers” graduating from the fancier colleges a few miles out of town. I am tremendously curious!

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