Attached Free-Range Kids. It sounds like a contradiction. But is it really?
Attachment parenting is suddenly front and center, with everyone who has an internet connection or who ever goes into a grocery store buzzing about the latest TIME magazine cover. There have been so many amazing and thought-provoking responses to that cover that I don’t really feel the need to get into it here. Instead, I want to talk about how I see attachment parenting, and how it fits perfectly with another parenting philosophy, free-range kids.
I haven’t read the actual TIME article (because I’m not a subscriber and I don’t really feel like buying the magazine), but from what I’ve read about it, the article portrays AP mothers as frazzled and overly-committed to their children, and AP children as coddled and dependent. This is a common misconception, emphasis on the mis-. (And don’t even get me started on how TIME completely leaves fathers out of the equation. Score one for regressive parenting.)
Let me talk about Free-Range Kids first. Lenore Skenazy shot to fame several years ago when she let her nine-year-old son ride the NYC subway alone. He had spent his entire life in New York and had ridden the subway with his mother or other adults literally hundreds (maybe thousands) of times. He was intelligent, he knew where to go, he knew how to read a map, and everything went just fine. But when Lenore wrote about the experience she sparked a media frenzy and was quickly labelled “America’s Worst Mom.” She wrote the book Free-Range Kids in response.
FRK fights back against a parenting culture that has become so overprotective that some parents won’t even let their teenage children stay home alone. Won’t let their eight-year-olds play in the backyard alone – not even if it’s a fenced-in backyard! And god forbid a child walk to school alone, even if it is only a few blocks away. Parents baby-proof every inch of their homes and keep their babies in swings or carseats whenever they can’t be watching them with full attention. They buy pacifier wipes and never, ever let their toddlers eat floor-food. They stay within a foot of their child as he plays on the playground, because what if he falls and gets a bruised knee?? And when these children grow up, the parents call their children’s employers to make sure everything is going well for their little darlings.
Contrast this to the way many of us probably grew up. I rode my bike alone to kindergarten, and kept riding my bike to school from then on, even when we moved and it meant I had to bike further and cross a major road to get there. I spent my summers running around the neighborhood by myself, playing in the woods and the creek, biking everywhere and back before lunch-time. In sixth grade, my best friend and I would bike to TCBY after school to get frozen yogurt – we went across several major roads and relatively far from home. No one thought twice when we went into the store alone. By thirteen I was spending the entire summer at home alone while my parents worked. Sure I went to summer camp some of the time, but beyond that, my time was not scheduled. I don’t think this was an unusual experience.
The present-day parenting described above is not attachment parenting – it’s helicopter parenting. The exact opposite of free-range parenting. So where does attachment parenting fit into all of this? Attachment parenting starts at birth and is especially important when your child is an infant. AP parents are responsive, they listen to babies’ cries and respond appropriately, teaching their children early on that communication is effective and that they will be listened to. AP parents breastfeed and baby-wear, yes, but that is not the most important part. The central tenet of attachment parenting is to treat your child as a fully autonomous and independent being from the very beginning.
Let me unpack that, because you might not believe me at first. AP babies are literally attached to their parents most of the time, how is this treating them as autonomous? Because it recognizes what babies truly need, and it gives it to them, rather than making babies fit into a lifestyle that people don’t want to give up just because they made the momentous decision to become parents. The authors of Babywise, the polar opposite of AP, suggest that you should treat your children as guests in your house. Which they take to mean that children should completely adapt to whatever schedule you already have set up and should in no way inconvenience you. Remind me never to be a guest in that guy’s house. When I have a guest, I try to make sure everything is set up to be most comfortable for them. I buy extra food so that they’ll have enough to eat and I adjust my schedule so that they can sleep and wake when they usually would. Babies should be treated the same way.
Babies should be breastfed (if possible) because it’s the best food for them. They should be worn as infants because this mimics the natural way that mothers care for tiny, helpless, newborn babies. They should be responded to because their cries are their only way of communicating and they only cry when they need help. As they get older, though, children should, primarily, be treated with respect. Parents should respect their growing baby’s need to explore; they should respect their young toddler’s food preferences and never force them to eat; parents should respect an older toddler’s need for independence on the playground. And a well-attached toddler will certainly have that need.
At its core, attachment parenting is about giving your child the security and confidence to strike out on her own. Attached babies make excellent free-range kids. Because they’ve been treated as autonomous, independent beings all their lives, they naturally expect to be treated as intelligent and capable enough to walk to school. Because they know that their parents love them and will respond to their requests for help, they are confident enough to try new things and take the risks that lead to learning and developing.
TIME made the nation gasp with a photo of a three-year-old nursing. Yes, it’s quite common for AP children to breastfeed beyond the first year. Partly this is for health reasons – the WHO recommends breastfeeding at least two years, and beyond that for as long as mother and child prefer. The AAP recommends at least one year, and, again, as long after that as desired. But AP parents also breastfeed longer because they believe in self-weaning, if possible. They recognize that the breastfeeding relationship is incredibly important for a child and they respect the child’s need to stop gradually and gently. They respect that their relationship with their child is not one-sided, but a dynamic between two fully-realized beings. And while the mother absolutely deserves respect (and all AP experts would agree that a mother should not keep nursing if she is no longer comfortable with it), the child deserves respect as well.
I wish TIME would have featured a cover photo of a tiny infant screaming herself red and throwing up on herself, a common side effect when babies are left to cry in their crib for hours, only wondering why their parents don’t come to them and instinctively fearing the predators that are surely lurking and that their parents aren’t there to protect them from. I wish TIME would have featured a cover photo of a thirteen-year-old stuck inside with his parents on a bright, sunny day, because the parents are too afraid of the “what ifs?” to let him have any freedom. And really, I wish TIME would have featured the cover photo it did, but with an accompanying article about the true value and importance of attachment parenting.