The rules of attachment
Barely a day goes by in the media without a piece scoffing at "helicopter parents", child kings and attachment parenting.
A new book has criticised hands-on parenting techniques, but are they simply a rational response to a rapidly changing and competitive world?
Pamela Druckerman, author of French Children Don’t Throw Food, starts her book in a seaside village in France, where she goes with her husband and baby girl to have their first holiday as a family. But their holiday is cut short by her daughter’s inability to sit up at a dinner table. She leaves, but not before looking back longingly at the obedient French children at the neighbouring table who sit upright and silent as they delicately eat their fish and chips, leaving her wondering where she is going wrong.
Our proclivity for responding quickly to the needs of our children is creating a generation of overweight, bad-tempered and undisciplined youngsters, not to mention destroying their mothers' lives.
It’s a fantasy family, even for a French one, but it can touch a nerve for the average Australian parent.
Why are our children so seemingly badly behaved? Why aren’t they obedient? Are they really expressing their individuality, or are they just naughty spoilt little brats?
According to Druckerman their behaviour might be down to the culture of hands-on parenting popular in Australia.
Our proclivity for responding quickly to the needs of our children, praising them to develop self-esteem and eating between meal times is creating a generation of overweight, bad-tempered and undisciplined youngsters, not to mention destroying their mothers' lives.
In the American journalist’s bestselling parenting book, she makes the case that Gallic children not only don’t throw food, but sleep through the night from birth, never talk back, never interrupt, are better at taking criticism and have a finer nose for cheese.
Hot on the heels of Amy Chua’s Tiger Mama, Druckerman’s book offers another autobiography-cum-parenting manual. But while Chua recommends ‘‘tough love’’ parenting to get your children into Yale (she once threw a birthday card made by her four-year-old daughter back at her and told her it wasn’t good enough), Druckerman is arguing for a little French nonchalance.
Johnny not sleeping? Close the door and get some earplugs. Need some free time? Dump the kids with someone and go. Tired at night? Don’t bother reading to your child. Sick of paying attention to your child? Ignore them. Still naughty? Send them to boarding school.
Contrasting the ragged mothers of New York City with the well-coiffed and seemingly relaxed Parisians, Druckerman places the blame firmly on ‘‘attachment parenting’’ – a hands-on style that is very much in vogue in Australia as well as the US.
To prove her point, she offers up some hilarious descriptions of New York playgrounds, including one father following his child around the with a running commentary in English and German – ‘‘that’s a swing, that’s a chair, going down the slide now’’ – as the child tries to slip away.
Barely a day goes by in the media without a piece scoffing at ‘‘helicopter parents’’, child kings and attachment parenting. The argument goes that our desire to be good parents has led to a generation of narcissistic, obese, rude and badly behaved children.
It’s easy to see why this type of book keeps coming – Druckerman says early in the book that she was a casualty of the shrinking world of print journalism – but the real question is, why do we keep reading them?
Chua and Druckerman offer simple answers to a bafflingly complex problem. Never before has the world been so crowded, so quickly changing, so competitive. People are not stupid. If parenting has evolved into such a hands-on style it is because parents think it will work.
The culture of attachment parenting started with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who implored French mothers to stop the cruel and dangerous practice of wet nursing in his book Emile. Rousseau was the first philosopher to understand that children were not little adults, but creatures with different needs that had to be fulfilled.
Overwhelming evidence now points to hands-on parenting as a critical reason behind a successful and confident adult life. The OECD recently published a series of studies showing that students whose parents often read books with them in early childhood showed markedly higher scores, irrespective of socio-economic background.
Psychologists know that for people to develop into empathetic and fully functioning adults, they need to have strong relationships with the people who love them most.
According to Linda Perlstein, writing in Newsweek last month, US parents are turning to DIY education in unprecedented numbers, many of them educated, secular and urban professionals who think they can do better than the failing US school system.
You might find the helicopter-parented child a bit of a whinger, but the worst-behaved children are those who are ignored.
Of course, there needs to be a balance, but we have to trust ourselves as well. If it doesn’t feel right to leave a three-month-old baby screaming until it goes to sleep, then it probably isn’t (there will be times where it does feel right, don’t worry about that).
While it’s tempting to think there is a giant social conspiracy keeping us up at night reading to our children and trying to get them to sleep, we can’t take that chance. The buck stops with us.
It’s our responsibility to fast-track our children into a rich, complex and modern life. They will need to be able to find a way to support themselves in an economy that will no longer have as many permanent jobs, find a home in a city much larger and crowded than the one they are living in now and compete in a world that is more technologically advanced than ever before.
Chua’s solution is relentless hard work, Druckerman’s is to let children figure out it on their own, and that of the helicopter parent is to be there to guide them every step of the way. The big question for the next generation is, which theory will win out?
Carmen Michael is an author and journalist. You can read her blog at www.therival.com.au
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