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Hidden Perils Of The Attachment Parenting Movement

Europe is increasingly turning to this approach of child rearing that sees kids and adults as equals. It may have unforeseen effects on children — but even more so on parents.

Erm ... Mom ...
Erm ... Mom ...

BERLIN — They breastfeed their children until they are toddlers, carry their offspring close to their body rather than pushing them around in strollers and allow their children to have a say in what's best for them. The parents who practice so-called "attachment parenting" pay very close attention to their children to support the development of their individual personalities. This approach to parenting has found many supporters in Germany, but there are also many critics.

Sina Jacobsen and her husband are dedicated to this parenting method. They allow their daughters, an 8-month-old and a 2-year-old, to sleep in their bed, and both will continue to be breastfed for as long as they want. "This guarantees a more relaxed atmosphere for everyone," says the 25-year-old mother from Barmstedt.

She wants to give her children the feeling that they can always count on their mother. She is convinced "that if the fundamental need for closeness is satisfied, it enables children to start something new more easily. If that's not the case, then they will be chasing that need for closeness for the rest of their lives."

But the older the children get, the more odd these parents become to outsiders. "Why breastfeed a child of 16 months? That's old enough to wean them! You can't always carry your daughter around! A child has to learn to go to sleep on her own!" These are some of the typical comments that Sina and other attachment parents hear regularly.

The fear of overindulging your child is deeply rooted within us, says Frauke Ludwig from Hamburg. She tries to encourage parents in her courses to show their children unreserved support. The less babies cry and the more parents pay attention to their children's signals and approach their needs sensitively, the more mentally stable and self-confident their children will be. This is the basic idea of "attachment parenting," developed by U.S. pediatrician William Sears.

Growing numbers of German parents have embraced the method, evidenced by the numerous blogs and Internet forums in which mostly parents share and discuss their experiences of attachment parenting.

More than one way

There is no question that children need an attachment figure to develop well. "This is a universally accepted fact, but there are many different ways to provide this and huge cultural differences as to what is understood under the term "attachment,"" says psychologist Ariane Gernhardt of the University of Osnabrück.

The modern German middle class is increasingly trying to model an egalitarian parenting in which they regard their children as partners and friends. "They want their children to be happy and, above all, to spare them from having negative experiences," Gernhardt says.

Although it's quite possible that ideas about what represents good parenting are good for neither the adult nor the child, says Gernhardt. For example, it's important for children to learn how to deal with difficult situations.

The constant expectations of perfection that parents place upon themselves are a burden. Which is why Gernhardt meets exhausted and despairing mothers during her parenting sessions that are offered through the University of Osnabrück. "These women are often very educated and very well-read," she says. They often come wondering whether they've failed when things don't go to plan or if conflicts abound.

Children aren't the only one with needs. Parents have them too, and it is these needs that children have to accept as they get older, critics say. The demands placed on parents, and especially mothers, are burdensomely high with attachment parenting. Always being present imposes restrictions on women and forces them back into traditional female roles.

In fact, the perfect realization of attachment parenting in the traditional nuclear family often leads to burnout, says attachment parenting supporter and author Nicola Schmidt, who hails from Berlin. "Humans are simply not designed to take care of a baby 24/7," she says. Which is why she encourages parents in her books to get together and support one another. And she says it's never helpful to be dogmatic in your parenting approach.

"Children do not have buttons you can press," says Schmidt, who emphasizes that there is no single recipe for producing a happy child. Your child will not automatically grow up to be happy if you breastfeed for two years and constantly carry him around in a sling strapped to your body. Providing security and trust are much more important factors. "Every family will have to find a way to do so in a manner most appropriate to their personality and circumstances," Schmidt says.

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Francesco Semprini

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