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The Origins of Attachment Parenting

Author // Barbara Nicholson and Lysa Parker

The cover of the May 21st, 2012 issue of Time magazine sparked a powder keg of controversy and debate over the merits of attachment parenting with its provocative headline, “Are You Mom Enough?” Critics railed against breastfeeding an almost-4-yearold and the seeming overindulgence of children through babywearing and bedsharing. To American culture, AP appears primitive, child-centered and anti-feminist, yet attachment parenting practices have deep historical, cultural and scientific roots that have been examined by experts all over the world.

It was recently noted that mothers who consider themselves feminists are more likely to practice attachment parenting, because these mothers are educated and appreciate AP’s sound principles. It raises the question, “Have we become too civilized for our own good?” Has technology and all the conveniences of modern life detached us from necessary intimate connections with our children and our fellow human beings? In their book, Attached at the Heart, Barbara Nicholson and Lysa Parker, cofounders of Attachment Parenting International, agree that there is a chasm between what children need from their parents and the dictates of our adult-centered culture. Nicholson and Parker investigated this dilemma, driven by their own struggles as mothers and their passion to advocate for children. The following excerpt from Attached at the Heart sheds some light on the long road of cultural change.

Two historical figures are largely responsible for our current understanding of children and what drives human relationships. John Bowlby is considered the founder or father of attachment theory, as it was his study of young delinquent boys that led him to understand the links between prolonged early separation from the mother (or primary caregiver) and later “affectionless character.” His work was so radical that he was ostracized by fellow psychiatrists, who refused to believe that the environment had anything to do with how children turned out. Rather, they believed it was their genetic makeup.


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Throughout it all, Bowlby never wavered in his convictions and maintained his position with confidence and dignity. Still, he had no way of actually proving his theory until Mary Ainsworth came into his life.

Dr. Mary Ainsworth, who was originally from Ohio and educated at the University of Toronto, accompanied her husband to England where she began working for Bowlby as a research assistant. She later went to Uganda to study the weaning practices of mothers and realized that she was witnessing the natural process of attachment (bonding) of babies and mothers. Ainsworth used this knowledge to develop a procedure to assess the quality of the child’s attachment to the mother called the “Strange Situation.” Thousands of research studies later, this instrument is still being used today and continues to validate Bowlby’s early conclusions.


Attachment: An Idea Whose Time Had Come

Ironically, during the time Bowlby and Ainsworth were researching attachment theory, similar observations were being made in other parts of the world by professionals ranging from psychiatrists to anthropologists. Studying the dominant parenting practices of cultures around the world has given researchers deeper insights as to why some societies are aggressive and others nonaggressive. In his book Learning Non-Aggression, anthropologist Ashley Montagu answers the question of why aggression and violence are totally nonexistent in some nonliterate cultures:

Years ago Margaret Mead was the first anthropologist to inquire into the origins of aggressiveness in non-literate societies…. [S]he pointed to the existence of a strong association between child-rearing practices and later personality development. The child who received a great deal of attention, whose every need was promptly met, as among the New Guinea Mountain Arapesh, became a gentle, cooperative, unaggressive adult. On the other hand, the child who received perfunctory, intermittent attention, as among the New Guinea Mundugomor, became a selfish, uncooperative, aggressive adult.

Fully recognizing that there are no perfect cultures, through the years we have collected stories from around the world that have indirectly illustrated and validated attachment parenting principles. One of these stories takes place at the end of World War II, when a navy psychiatrist named James Clark Moloney was stationed in Okinawa. He and another doctor were told to be prepared for the devastation they were to see—horrible bombings had forced thousands of people to flee to caves and the wilderness areas, exposed to starvation, life-threatening injuries, and illness. They were told to expect that the psychological impact would be just as horrific, but to their amazement they found that the people were, for the most part, psychologically healthy. As Dr. Moloney started investigating why the Okinawan people had survived so amazingly well, he found that before the war they had no psychological wards in their hospitals, and there had only been one murder in their largest city in the last seventy-five years.

Dr. Moloney felt a key component to the mental health of the Okinawans was how they parented their children. In contrast to the West, where bottle-feeding was quickly becoming the norm, Okinawan mothers breastfed, not only to nourish their babies but also to give comfort. He noticed how the mothers would carry their babies on their backs in beautiful fabric carriers and let them nurse whenever they needed—not on a strict schedule. Most babies were nursed until at least two years of age or older, and if the babies were not with the mother, they were carried by another family member—always in contact with someone they knew and trusted.

Moloney reported that he never saw the use of physical discipline like spanking and referred to the Okinawans as “permissive” compared to standards in the United States. They talked to their children rather than using physical force, threats, or coercion. In spite of the fact that the parents were so “permissive,” the children were very well-behaved and rarely cried. He became convinced that their style of parenting was the key to world peace.

Dr. Moloney traveled the countryside for many months, interviewing and documenting his findings in a film called The Okinawan. With great enthusiasm and hope, he then took this documentary back to the United States and showed it to standing-room-only audiences in medical schools all over the country. People were fascinated by this “strange” way of raising children, but Moloney’s observations were quickly rejected by most in the medical community. However, a small group of doctors at Wayne State University, all members of a group called “The Cornelian Corner,” were very supportive and became one of the first groups of mental health professionals to support his conclusions. They taught a few American mothers the Okinawan style of parenting and conducted their own research.

An account of Dr. Moloney’s experiences was written in an article published in the November 1949 issue of Better Homes and Gardens magazine, titled “Is Your Wife Too Civilized?” To illustrate Dr. Moloney’s concept of the Okinawan style of parenting, Better Homes and Gardens used a photo of a young American mother with her baby happily secured to her back with a cloth fabric carrier— a very unusual sight in 1949! What Dr. Moloney was promoting then is very similar to what we call attachment parenting today.

In his lifetime, Dr. Moloney didn’t witness an overwhelming acceptance of the Okinawan style of parenting, but in the early 1960s he learned about the founding of a mother’s breastfeeding group in Chicago called La Leche League International (LLLI) and spoke at one of their first conferences. LLLI was the primary organization promoting [what would later be called] attachment parenting until API was founded in 1994. Our culture is at last incorporating some of these ideas, and we are gradually becoming a more nurturing society.

World War II created so much devastation to the world population that scientists and researchers from around the world found unprecedented opportunities to explore and examine human behavior in a variety of contexts. The work of Dr. Alice Miller has greatly shown how culture shapes our attitudes about children. In her book For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence, she gives us unsettling insight into pre-war Germany and the parenting practices that were common at the turn of the twentieth century. She was fascinated that an entire society could fall under the spell of such an extremely authoritarian dictator, and she warns that unless we become more conscious in our parenting, we are destined to repeat the mistakes of past generations.

Dr. Miller researched some of the most popular parenting books in Germany during the years prior to and at the time Hitler and his counterparts were children. She included passages from “parenting experts” of the day in her book, a fascinating yet sad prediction of what laid the foundation for the Holocaust. In the latter part of the 1800s, Dr. Daniel Schreber wrote one of the most popular parenting books of the time, which went through forty printings and was translated into several languages. His advice sounds eerily similar to some parenting books that are on the shelves today:

The little ones’ display of temper as indicated by screaming or crying without cause should be regarded as the first test of your spiritual and pedagogical principles…. [N]ow you should no longer simply wait for it to pass…but should proceed in a somewhat more positive way by stern words, threatening gestures, rapping on the bed…or, if none of this helps, by appropriately mild corporal punishments repeated persistently at brief intervals until the child quiets down or falls asleep…. This procedure will be necessary only once or at most twice, and then you will be master of the child forever. From now on, a glance, a word, a single threatening gesture will be sufficient to control the child.

The key goal here is to control the child’s will before he remembers that he has a will. Domination, veneration for authority, and blind obedience are a recipe for creating a nation ripe for an authoritarian dictator, and, unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened under Hitler’s rule. Tragically, just like the children of American psychologist John Watson, Dr. Schreber’s own children suffered from severe mental illness as adults—one committed suicide and one became a famous patient of Sigmund Freud.


Changing Course

The good news is that a growing number of parents and professionals have become increasingly interested in a style of parenting that actively promotes compassionate, respectful treatment of children and provides the muchneeded support for the attachment relationship. The characteristics of this style of parenting are a hallmark of peaceful societies around the world and are more conducive to cooperation, compassion and peace within the family and society. These practices have been used in some form for thousands of years—some call this kind of parenting “conscious parenting,” “natural parenting,” “compassionate parenting” or “empathic parenting”— some Native Americans refer to it as “original parenting.” In many languages around the world, the word “parenting” doesn’t exist. They don’t try to define it—it’s just something that comes naturally.

The most popularized term today for this style of parenting is attachment parenting, which incorporates what we believe to be the best of most parenting practices from around the world and which have increasingly been validated by research in many fields of study, such as child development, psychology, and neuroscience.

Attachment parenting is a term that was created by pediatrician William Sears and his wife, Martha, a registered nurse, more than twenty-five years ago, early in their book-writing career. The eight principles of parenting have been created through research and developed for infants and young children up to the age of five years or for as long as you, as a parent, feel they apply. It is our hope and plan to expand these principles for preteens, teens, and adults. The core values will never change— respect, empathy, and affection. We like to think of AP as practicing the golden rule of parenting—treat our children as we would want to be treated. Our dream is that one day AP will become the mainstream way to parent, and that as these children grow up, they will be the adults who will permanently change our culture to one of peace and respect for all living beings and the world they live.


Pathways Issue 35 CoverThis article appeared in Pathways to Family Wellness magazine, Issue #35.

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