By Rebecca Sheikh, from Flourishing Childhood
“Parenting has nothing to do with perfection. Perfection isn’t even the goal, not for us, not for our children. Learning together to live well in an imperfect world, loving each other despite or even because of our imperfections, and growing as humans while we grow our little humans, those are the goals of gentle parenting. So don’t ask yourself at the end of the day if you did everything right. Ask yourself what you learned and how well you loved, then grow from your answer. That is perfect parenting.”
― L.R. Knost
You’ve probably heard the word attachment used in relation to Attachment Parenting if you have children. Attachment parenting was born out of a need to change the way babies and children were being treated and understood. The most widely shared advice in the 1920’s was by John B Watson who in his manual, Psychological Care of Infant and Child wrote, “Never, never hug and kiss them, never let them sit in your lap. If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say goodnight. Shake hands with them in the morning.”
The Attachment Parenting philosophy started by William Sears and his wife Martha completely opposed this view and drew on the wisdom of John Bowlby’s Attachment theory. Bowlby discovered that we have intricate relationships that develop between ourselves and firstly our primary caregivers and that the way this attachment forms has a profound impact on all of our subsequent relationships and our internal working model. We can either form secure attachments or different types of insecure attachments. You can read a detailed article on Attachment theory’s origins here. The Attachment Parenting philosophy also drew on the work of Jean Liedloff who wrote the Continuum Concept after studying traditional tribes and how they interacted with their babies and children. From these came many more incredible ideas and philosophies transforming how we care for children today. One of which is The Aware Parenting Philosophy of which I am a level 2 instructor and the regional co-ordinator of the U.K and Sub-Sahran Africa. And there are so many more, Hand-in-Hand Parenting, Dan Hughes’ work, The Circle of Security, Dr Laura Markham, to name a few.
We are in fact unable to parent without attachment. However, due to our own experiences as a child we may have had less than ‘good enough’ experiences as Donald Winnicott, a child psychologist, termed it. We need enough ‘good enough’ experiences to help ensure a secure inner working model. If you like me had a childhood marked with stress and trauma and less than ideal attachments this can be challenging when having a child. Robin Grille, the author of Parenting for a Peaceful World and Inner Child Journeys says, “At first it can be unsettling to discover how transparent our body language can make us, how poignantly our actions tell our tale. We wish to leave our past behind, but our past will not let us go; its imprint remains in our neurology, our neurochemistry, our gut microbiome and our behaviour.”
Thankfully it’s not all doom and gloom. But it takes a lot of work for those of us who had more difficult childhoods. We may need to get therapeutic support to heal or find healthy ways to release our unexpressed anger. But there are a host of other supportive resources we can draw on such as having a regular listening partner, trying to meet our needs, finding healthy ways to release the unheard feelings within us, learning to use Focussing, breathwork and Inner Child work. Beautifully, Robin goes onto say, ‘…the cognitive webs that give life to our Inner Child remains receptive to growth and change. Psychological growth is much like the growth of a plant. Metamorphosis is not instantaneous, but with the right nutrition, is inevitable.” (Grille, 2019) And slowly we can begin to heal.
It is essential we begin this inner journey for our children as “in fact, experience shapes brain structure. Experience is biology. How we treat our children changes who they are and how they develop. Their brains need parental involvement. Nature needs nurture.” (Daniel Siegel) Once we find the outer and inner resources for ourselves, we can provide children with the right support so that they can feel loved and develop a secure inner working model which will go with them into their adult lives. John Bowlby says, ‘there are in fact, no more important communications between one human being and another than those expressed emotionally, and no information more vital for constructing and reconstructing working models of self and other than information about how each feels towards each other’
It requires a paradigm shift in how we have traditionally cared for children. We need to reach deep down inside to find our own inner authority and trust what we know is right. Aware Parenting has 3 main aspects, that of attachment style parenting, non-punitive discipline and understanding the healing effects of crying raging and laughter in children. We know that the first thousand days are essential for babies and caring for them in an attuned way and responding to their crying and needs immediately is vital. We also need to use non punitive discipline to help our children when they are struggling with their behaviour rather than the old rewards and punishments paradigm. Dr Solter says, “children are most in need of loving attention when they act the least deserving of it.” Parents often wonder what on earth they then do to help their child to listen, behave or stop doing something they don’t want them to do?
In Aware Parenting we understand that there are 3 reasons why children behave in unwanted ways. Firstly, they have an unmet need, secondly, they may lack information or thirdly they have an accumulation of stress. (It is also important to rule out any medical reasons for children’s behaviour) If we meet the need, provide information, or allow the healthy expression of emotions through tears, tantrums or laughter, the unwanted behaviour will stop. Dr Solter explains, “when adults understand that crying itself is a genuine need, this behaviour no longer looks like manipulation.” and that, “ to feel fully loved children need to know we accept all of their emotions even the more painful one.” Parents often worry they will become permissive parents if they do not squash unwanted behaviour. Children of course need limits, but limits set with a loving no to the unwanted behaviour and a warm and accepting yes to the feelings behind the behaviour is far more transformative and also allows for the connection not to be lost helping develop more healthy attachments with our children.
Once we has sifted through all these difficult parts and old paradigms we can provide for our children what Dr Gordon Neufeld, the author of Hold Onto Your Kids calls ‘unconditional parental love’, this is, “the indispensable nutrient for the child’s healthy emotional growth. The first task is to create space in the child’s heart for the certainty that she is precisely the person the parents want and love. She does not have to do anything or be any different to earn that love – in fact, she cannot do anything, since that love cannot be won or lost…The child can be ornery, unpleasant, whiny, uncooperative, and plain rude, and the parent still lets her feel loved. Ways have to be found to convey the unacceptability of certain behaviors without making the child herself feel unaccepted. She has to be able to bring her unrest, her least likeable characteristics to the parent and still receive the parent’s absolutely satisfying, security-inducing unconditional love.”