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Sunday, December 26, 2010

AP is harmful to children

I have strong philosophical and scientific objections to AP as currently promoted by MDC, as an incredibly harmful and dangerous approach to raising kids. While I have objections based on AP being harmful to mothers (the mommy=martyrdom assumptions are overwhelming), I am going to focus this argument on how it is unnatural and harmful to children.

Attachment Parenting, as currently promoted by MDC, is focused exclusively on attachment between child and mother (with lip service to father). Mothers are encouraged to never leave their babies or children EVER, even with other loving caregivers, because it is seen as potentially undermining the attachment. Anything that is potentially separating mother/child is seen as dangerous to the attachment, such as setting behavior expectations, night weaning, or anything that the child sees as unpleasant.  In the extreme, mothers are told to even school their children at home, partially to avoid breaking the attachment between mom and kids.

But in fact, the mother/child dyad doesn't really need much help. Hormones from birth and nursing and instinct and cultural expectations for mothering behaviors already prime mothers and babies to be attached to each other.

So what attachments need support? The attachments will non-full time caregivers.  Dr Sarah Hrdy in her book, Mothers and Others and in her other book, Mother Nature, offers very good evidence that the cause of our current evolutionary state (big brains & hyper social) is because of our ability to become attached to people who are *not* our mothers.

Think about it. Babies are so fragile for a really long time. In the standard environment of evolutionary adaptation (EEA), it would be physically impossible for a mother of a newborn to gather enough calories to support herself and her newborn AND protect herself against predators. Her survival and that of her infant (and any other children, especially in a world of high maternal mortality) require reliance on other people for survival, i.e. alloparents. Women who did not have this support were much less likely to have children who survived to have their own children. Women who did were much more likely to have surviving offspring.

Humans have created many interlocking strategies to gain this support, including:
* the ability to form new family groups out of unrelated people, and create family relationships with non-blood relatives (adoption, marriage, "brotherhoods", "sisterhoods", clans, etc).
* high levels social and status awareness, so that women can negotiate support for themselves and their children from others within and outside their families.
* very early social skills in infants (such as social smiles) and receptive hormonal responses in adults so that these non-mother adults are encouraged to fall in love with the baby, and therefore are more likely to help care for the baby. We see this also in our love of baby animals.
* regular customs of shared care-giving throughout the world in every culture.

However, unlike mother/child relationships, these non-parental relationships are more fragile and more contextual. The child has a larger burden to maintain and support these relationships, and a great deal of childhood is spent learning how to get along with others, negotiate and compromise, and work together to problem solve. In a world of high maternal mortality, the better a child was at developing his/her own positive relationships with his/her community, the higher likelihood of the child's survival after the death of his/her mother.

In light of these facts, AP should be more about supporting NON-mother attachment, since attachment is not a zero sum game. The more attached a child is to a community of people, the more the child has the ability to create new attachments and negotiate those attachments in a healthy way. The attachment with family is strengthened by additional attachments because it gives the child experience with new attachments and hopefully an appreciation for the family attachment.

A child who does not learn to to create, promote and negotiate attachments outside of a small family circle is essentially socially crippled, especially since we still all rely on our larger communities to thrive and succeed. Some children are more naturally adept than others, but just like any other skill, there is a baseline level at which all children will need in order to succeed. Experiences with Asperger's and Autism, which are essentially social skills deficits (among other elements) show us both how the lack of these skills can hurt children as well as how much kids are capable to learn about social interaction even when their natural abilities are compromised.

Day care, preschool, moms day out, playgroups, clubs, religious education, summer camps, and even school are all places many children learn to form and negotiate attachments outside of their families. To deny your child access to these places because they are anti-AP is in my mind, the absolute opposite - it is anti-attachment to keep your child's social world focused on the mother.

And it is harmful to the child and to all the people your child will interact with over his/her lifetime.



  1. Great read! I remember studying alloparents in biological anthropology and the joke was that perhaps babysitting was in fact the oldest profession. It would also explain why it was evolutionarily advantageous for older women to live after menopause because she could care for her grandchildren and that would help her to live longer since she still had value in a community.

  2. yes, the reason why postmenopausal women live!

    In fact, there has been evidence that children in developing countries that have maternal grandmothers have higher survival rates than children without maternal grandmothers.

  3. "attachment is not a zero sum game" -- great line, I'll remember that.

  4. While I've only rarely read Mothering magazine or visited their website, I do consider myself an attachment parent. I'm surprised to read here about AP parents trying to minimize their children's opportunities to create attachments with people outside their immediate family.

    I belong to a large local community of AP families, and the primary drive behind the creation of and involvement in this group is to create broad support and availability of relationships (attachments) and experiences for our children. So far, in every instance I've observed, children who are deeply attached to their parents are also very comfortable developing healthy attachments with other non-family adults and children they have come to know and trust. It's my understanding that having a healthy, deep attachment to primary caregivers simply creates a solid foundation for a child's ability to then create healthy attachments with others.

    While there may indeed be some extremely over-protective AP parents out there who limit their children's opportunities to bond with people outside their family, please don't assume this attitude is the norm among all AP families. My first-hand experience with this particular group of 70+ AP families is that they actively embrace opportunities to widen their children's access to a supportive community and indeed see this interaction as vital for the healthy development of their children.