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Attachment Parenting is NOT Permissive Parenting in Disguise

April 10, 2018

 When working with children, you come across a range of different parenting styles. Today I was having a chat with one of my clients about Attachment Parenting. Her friend was reluctant to book to get help with sleep, because she was an attachment parent and felt it was ‘her job’ to breastfeed her 16-month old back to sleep every 1.5 hours overnight, even though no one was sleeping, and even though this is certainly not normal sleep for a 16-month old. One thing that I feel is really misconstrued about Attachment Parenting, is that a child is ‘allowed to do whatever they please’. I am an Attachment Parent, and this drives me crazy and is certainly not true. The parenting style where children do what they like is Permissive Parenting. Attachment Parenting does have some structure and boundaries, and I would like to take this opportunity to explain the difference to you.


What is Permissive Parenting?


Research around the Authoritative parenting style comes from Diana Baumrind’s work: Effects of Authoritative Parental Control on Child Behavior, 1966. This parenting style is low in efforts to discipline a child and high in efforts to meet a child’s needs. The parent’s role is equal to the child, and the parents are more so seen as a resource rather than a role model. Parents will often fall in to this style when they themselves have a fear of not being loved or are fearful of losing their own freedom.


What is Attachment Parenting?


Attachment Parenting was coined by Dr. William Sears in 1982. It is based on research aboutearly child separation behavior, child grief and caregiver attachment by John Bowlby undertaken between 1940-1950, and this was his revolutionary ‘attachment theory’. Mary Ainsworth furthered this research in 1969 with her ‘strange situation’ study. This study outlined the four infant attachment types ofsecure attachment, avoidant attachment, ambivalent attachment and insecure attachment. It is also known as Intuitive Parenting or Natural Parenting.


Of Ainsworth’s four infant attachment styles, the healthiest is secure attachment, and this is the main goal for Attachment Parenting. Parents aim to strengthen the intuitive, psychological and emotional bond between the primary caregiver (typically the mother, and child). Attachment parenting is rooted in the belief that if an infant's emotional and physical needs are quickly and consistently responded to and met, the child will be likely to build a positive attitude to life believing that he or she is unconditionally loved, that the world is a good place and people mean well and can be trusted, and there are many studies that have confirmed this.


So, what is the problem with Permissive Parenting?


There are some significant pitfalls that come along with permissive parenting. There are basically no rules or expectations, which make it quite difficult for a child to cope with various environments outside of the home. The child is often manipulated using bribes and doesn’t learn to do things from the goodness of their own heart and children often become selfish and bossy because they are not required to consider the needs of others. Insecurity is common because children don’t have clear boundaries and this will also lead to them being more likely to partake in risk taking behaviours.



How Does Attachment Parenting Differ?


Attachment parenting is all about fostering a strong and trusting relationship with the child, and this also has the added benefit of increasing the joy in the experience of parenting. This helps the child to become confident in themselves and able to form good relationships with others and makes discipline easier because children trust what their parents say and want to please them. This in turn develops the child’s sensitivity towards themselves and others and children learn empathy and caring from parents who show empathy and caring.

It is important to understand that this is not achieved with a complete disregard of boundaries. In attachment parenting, boundaries are very important. Read any of Dr. Sears’ literature and you will repeatedly hear him talk about boundaries being important. Just because you are kind and responsive to your child, certainly does not mean that they can do what they like. Parenting like this is permissive parenting, and is not an effective long-term strategy. Boundaries are particularly important because having clear boundaries allows a parent to be confident and consistent, which is what leads to the benefits of Attachment Parenting listed above. 


Working on Sleep with Attachment Parents


Although Attachment Parents are often nervous about ‘sleep training’, it is usually just cry-based methods that are coming in to their minds. You certainly do not have to do anything drastic to improve sleep. There are very gentle plans that can be put in place to teach a child to join their cycles together. They never have to be left alone. Parents don’t even need to take breastfeeding out of their plan, and can always incorporate cuddling and holding. The possibilities are endless, and this is coming back to the work we are doing to change the perception of Sleep Educators. 


Jade is a Director and Lecturer at the Institute of Parenting Support Services and Director and Senior Educator at Early Childhood Parenting. She practices in Adelaide, South Australia. She is the mother of two beautiful children. You can reach her at 0415507004 or

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