Moral Landscapes

Living the life that is good for one to live

Baby-, Parent- or Life-Centered Parenting?

Confusing Attachment Parenting with Obsessive-Compulsive Parenting

A recent article (and cover) in Time Magazine caused some buzz about what type of parenting is appropriate for baby and parent, highlighting Dr. William Sears and “attachment parenting.” The book, Bringing up Bebe, offers a glimpse into parenting practices in France with a decidedly different view. Is one style better than another for baby?

Part of the problem in many discussions of parenting is an “either/or” view---that the choice of life with baby is either child-centered—parents sacrifice themselves completely to the child, or parent-centered, the child is sacrificed to the parent.

Relative to attachment parenting, parent-centered parenting represents emotional detachment from the child (due to culture, work, birth experience). Sometimes the parent-child relationship is considered competitive, a zero-sum game, where only one or the other can win. In behavior it means that the baby should minimally inconvenient the parent, should follow adult schedules as soon as possible. In a work-obsessed culture like ours, it sometimes seems to be the baseline view among journalists who publish on their opinions (e.g., The Case Against Breastfeeding); see here for summaries of scientific information about breastfeeding).

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Parent-centered parenting can make practices harmful to baby seem necessary, like ‘cry-it-out’ sleep training, formula feeding and Baby TV. Cry it out training breaks the heart of a baby and undermines a fundamental sense of trust in self and others that can haunt the child for life. Formula feeding as a non-emergency choice undermines the body of the child with lasting effects like early puberty and multiple diseases in childhood and later in life (see here for a series with references comparing formula and breastmilk effects). Baby TV or videos are experimental replacements for the intense social experience that a baby’s brain needs for optimal right brain development.

But child-centered parenting can be obsessive-compulsive parenting that smothers the child with parental intrusiveness. In this case the parent plans family life around goals for the child, whether flashcard practice, swimming lessons or preschool readiness training. Behaviorally, it means adults stop their work or play and isolate themselves with their children, changing everything to meet the perceived needs of the child.

Both approaches have a one-up, one-down orientation to the parent-child relationship. In parent-centered parenting, the parent is one-up, is given more power. In child-centered parenting, the child is one-up. Both parent-centered and child-centered perspectives are unnatural, in terms of 99% of human genus history.

The natural approach, which I call stone-age parenting (similar to“attachment” parenting), is represented in the book, The Continuum Concept (also mentioned in the Time article as the inspiriation for Dr. Sears!). It describes the evolved alternative that humans presumably practiced for 99% of their genus history. The baby is treated as an equal but with extra needs for the time being. Adults integrate baby into adult life while fully meeting the baby’s needs. The baby is always on the body of an adult—there is no question that it should be otherwise. (Did they intuitively know that touch helps the baby keep growing well?) Breastfeeding is understood to be normal, natural and necessary and there is no fuss about it, once established. The baby suckles or nourishes itself at will. But the mother continues life as an adult, part of the community, doing many of her regular tasks. Babies At Work works to facilitate this approach.

My students and I recently read The Continuum Concept together. Here are comments from some of my students about the messages in the book:

“One message in The Continuum Concept that touched me was the idea of a child’s independence. Though I’m not a mother, even as a babysitter, I feel frustrated when a child refuses to do what I think best. However, Liedolff demonstrated in one tribe, that a young child refusing to join a clan activity was not forced because “he belonged, like anyone, to himself,” and “no one presumed to override his right to decide for himself just because he was small and weak enough to be dominated physically, or because his decision-making abilities were less experienced” (94). In the case of a safety issue, perhaps this is not a good tactic, but overall, respecting a child’s self-ownership seems like a worthwhile challenge”. (Caroline)

 “Independence in a child must be established through love and security. A baby cannot be forced to be independent as soon as he or she is born, though many parenting practices attempt to do just that out of fear that the child will be dependent. Dependence is a natural stage in the development of independence and denying the child the love and care that they need out of fear that the child will need you only frustrates their development of independence.” (Ashley)

"Liedoff threads together evidence from her anthropological studies and her own personal experiences into a narrative filled with insight, humor, and hope. She revives the child in us all, and shows just how to bring up our children to be healthy and happy in accordance with the natural continuum along which humans have been operating for countless generations.” (Anna)

If you are a detached-style parent, evolved, expected care (stone-age parenting) can look like obsessiveness. But it is not. If you are an obsessive-style parent, evolved, expected care can look too detached. It’s not.

How did we get to either/or parenting? That’s a long story, but here are a couple of current issues. As parents receive less support from extended families, neighbors and social structures, and as work life has become all important to adults, parents seem to head in one direction or another, toward overly detached parenting---sorely distracted or eager to escape from their children,  or toward overly smothering parenting---desperate to get their own needs met for control or affection.

Perhaps it is time to revisit the golden mean (Aristotle) between the two extremes.

Going the middle way means that parents need to find ways to get their needs met in ways other than “living through their children.” Parents need to receive much more support from communities and society—like year(s) long parental leave, multiple additional caring caregivers, flexible work situations. We can look to France and other advanced nations for ideas. Life-centered-parenting means living with the paradox, and challenges, of intertwined, equally-important lives.

Darcia Narvaez is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Notre Dame and Executive Editor of the Journal of Moral Education.

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