• Original Articles By Dr. Lavin Featuring Expert Advice & Information about Pediatric Health Issues that you Care the Most About

    Parenting: Attachment, Nurturing, and Guiding

    Time magazine featured a cover photo that could have not possibly made breast-feeding more provocative.
    A young mother was dressed in tight, stretchy clothes, with one breast out and being suckled by a three year old boy in a nice suit, standing up, on a stool.
    Not one of these features is typical of the usual breast-feeding scenario except for the fact that it included a mother and child and that the mother was young.  More typically, children are breast fed in a setting of more quiet intimacy, cuddled, out of the glare of the paparazzi, with neither mother nor child dressed for business success.
    So the first comment on the Time magazine cover is that it was designed in nearly every aspect to be provocative, and it worked, here we are talking about it!
    But it also gives us the opportunity to look at a popular philosophy of parenting, attachment parenting.
    Attachment parenting derives from a very strong and valuable tradition of parenting often referred to as nurturing parenting.   Nurturing parenting is based on the stance that the key role of parenting is to offer nurturing care and love to our children.  It has its roots in the studies of childhood that helped launch the modern era of psychology in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  It is worth noting that one of Sigmund Freud’s greatest observations was that events that take place in infancy and childhood can have profound consequences in that person’s adult life.  This was a powerful and earth-shattering observation at the time it was made, even though most of us would consider it an obvious fact today.  From Freud, the concept grew in the hands of the great English pediatrician and psychoanalyst, D.W. Winnicott and his intellectual heirs, including the wonderful Haim Ginott and Selma Fraiberg.
    Nurturing parenting also was a reaction to the strictures of authoritarian parenting, a stance that cared little for the thoughts and feelings of children and instead placed most value on the imposition of adult authority and its rules.  This was the dominant mode of parenting in post- World War II middle class America and remained so until the rise of nurturing parenting with the publication of Dr. Benjamin Spock’s seminal book and the work of Dr. T. Berry Brazelton.
    I was honored to have been trained in my understanding of child development by Dr. Brazelton and had the opportunity to personally observe the power of loving responsivity to bring out the best in children and their parents.  The work of Dr. Brazelton and others profoundly changed the way America raises its children.
    Where once toilet training was forced on children at young ages with physical punishment taking place when they failed to pee or poop on command, now toilet training is left mainly up to the child, to be approached and managed as they see fit and when they choose to do so.
    This revolution took place in the late 1960’s and not much has really changed in the philosophy of American parenting since those days.
    From this perspective the work of the Sears family sits firmly in the current traditions.  In this perspective, parents are expected to care very deeply about their child’s needs and desires, to be knowledgeable about how these change from one phase of childhood to another across development, to be responsive from moment to moment to the child’s emotional abilities and states.  We know from much study and research that the child gains much from this approach, it helps and it works.
    But we have also found that there is one piece missing from this picture, and that is guidance.  One of the unspoken assumptions about the nurturing stance of parenting is that the child will be profoundly grateful, that in return for an expert, caring, and responsive parent, the child will also be caring and responsive.  And why not?  After all, if someone was attending to your every need, wouldn’t you take kindly to them?
    And yet, we have observed that starting at about 18 months of age, this is not the case for nearly every family.  For some striking reason, nearly every child sometime between 18 and 24 months of age starts doing something no nurturing parent expects or looks for, they start picking fights.  This is no casual event. Recent studies in human evolution and cultural anthropology demonstrate beyond a doubt that this provocative behavior is programmed to emerge at that age, likely as a central feature of the emergence of human consciousness which actually also happens at that age.
    This behavior appears important to help children learn what rules really count, how to negotiate, how to learn to problem solve.  In short, the provocative nature of the 1-2 year old serves many important purposes.

    It is this set of behaviors, however, in which our current models of nurturing parenting find their limits.  A careful look at the approaches of attachment parenting will also find a substantive approach to these provocations lacking as well.   At its heart attachment parenting suggests that the stronger the attachment the better the parenting.  This is a powerful fact, but should not be the entire extent of what parents bring to their children.  It is true that without good attachment there can be no good parenting.  But that does not mean that attachment is the only activity parents should pursue.

    Love is at the heart of parenting, but it is not the case that simply loving will solve all problems.  What if your child asks how tall your father is, to take a silly example, it would not help matters to answer that question with only a lot of love.  The love would be welcome, but not actually help your child deal with the issue at hand.  So it is with the common provocations of young children over 18 months of age.  As noted, children at this age are actually built to provoke, and they do.  The most common issues they test and push their parents on are well known to all:
    1.  Discipline- breaking rules to see what parents will do
    2.  Food fights- challenging parental desires on what they will eat
    3.  Toilet training- resisting the leap to caring for their own poop and pee
    4.  Sleeping all night- pushing parents to wake up several times a night to be with them

    In our experience, what is at the heart of these behaviors is the child’s hunger for guidance.

    The cover of Time magazine sparks the wrong controversy in our opinion.  For too long the nation has been consumed with a false choice.  The choice placed before us seems to force us to choose to either be too harsh or too lenient with our children.  Often the choice is expressed as whether we will love our children or make them cry.  But this dichotomy places all parents in a very uncomfortable position because both choices turn out to be inadequate to the task as hand.  Of course, taking as a goal to make your child cry is a nonsensical position to take, it has no value, and no one we know ever actually adopts this choice.  The other choice, to love your child, is extreme in the other direction, that is, it is what we all do.  There is no thoughtfulness in this choice, it is more of starting point than a level of skill and ability attained.

    To our mind the best stance to take on parenting can be put very simply, though achieving it can be challenging.  That stance is:  yes, love your child, but do not stop there, also guide them.
    We fully support the nurturing model of parenting and promote it.  But the challenging 2 year old demands more than love, he or she demand guidance.  They want to be taught, to be led, to be engaged.
    We develop this concept more fully in our book on parenting, Who’s the Boss? Moving Families from Conflict to Collaboration.  But it is clear that if parents do not learn how to guide, their children will continue to demand this from them, so parents might as well take it upon themselves to learn how to teach, to guide, as well as nourish the wonderful role of loving and nurturing.

    And so we ask parents to look beyond the cover of Time magazine, and the attachment model of parenting. The cover of Time offers only provocation, and the attachment model of parenting only comfort.  We know that parenting is not about provocation and although its foundation is entirely love, it cannot stop there.

    Dr. Arthur Lavin

    *Disclaimer* The comments contained in this electronic source of information do not constitute and are not designed to imply that they constitute any form of individual medical advice. The information provided is purely for informational purposes only and not relevant to any person’s particular medical condition or situation. If you have any medical concerns about yourself or your family please contact your physician immediately. In order to provide our patients the best uninfluenced information that science has to offer,we do not accept samples of drugs, advertising tchotchkes, money, food, or any item from outside vendors.

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