Guest: Gina Stepp, VISION Magazine; Host: Christopher Springmann
Christopher Springmann: I’m Christopher Springmann and this is Body Language. Are you mom enough? That’s the question that Time magazine headlined in its cover story on attachment parenting, which Time said was driving some mothers to extremes, yes. But very few readers could get past the extreme cover photo of a 26-year-old mom bearing her soul and breast as she nursed her almost four-year-old son, who was quite, uh, attached. Time’s now notorious shock-it-to-you cover is in direct contrast to our next guest’s thoughtful and well-written article on the subject in Vision magazine, entitled “Attachment: Battleground in the Parenting Wars.” She is Gina Stepp, an assistant editor of Vision at vision.org. Gina, welcome to Body Language.
Gina Stepp: Oh, thank you, Chris. It’s nice to be here.
CS: Your editor did a very, very nice preface to the article. Would you please read that? Because I think it’ll really get us into the subject.
GS: Yes, yes. She says, “The term attachment parenting, usually associated with co-sleeping, baby wearing and prolonged breastfeeding, is heard increasingly often these days. Yet it isn’t always well understood, even by the ones who support it.” You know, so a lot of people ask what is attachment? What does it have to do with parenting? And how does it relate to healthy family relationships?
CS: Good question. How would you answer that?
GS: Well, that’s what my article is about. Attachment and attachment parenting are not interchangeable terms, even though a lot of people see it that way. Attachment parenting is simply one way that parenting gurus have tried to apply the scientific understanding of attachment theory. I’ve heard people…
CS: Well, Time magazine, Time magazine trotted out, you know, the usual suspects on this one.
CS: Um, and-and who are these gurus…
CS: …who are fueling the media debate?
GS: Well, you know, they pull out, um, Mayim Bialik, right, who—Uh, she’s Blossom, if you remember Blossom. Uh, but she has a neuroscience degree and she wrote a book called Beyond the Sling with Pamela Druckerman, who was an American parent who moved to France and brought up her first child in France. And she, you know, found some things in the French parenting-parenting approach that appealed to her. They also brought out the tiger mom. Right?
CS: Oh, yes.
GS: Although her book was not even a parenting book. A lot of people forget it was a memoir, not a parenting book. And yet they were taking it as advice.
CS: The media has a tendency to fuel what we sometimes call the culture wars. And the media frenzy, as you described it, focused on the differences between the approaches rather than the similarities.
CS: What are the similarities that you brought out in your Vision article?
GS: Well, the main similarity is that parents have a natural tendency to want to bond with their children.
CS: Oh, absolutely.
GS: Parents—They love their children. So when it comes to what it is that makes good parenting, that’s the bottom line. And so they all got to that, but they just had different ways of getting there. And that is what attachment is about. Attachment is how you form that bond. And you’ve got a window of opportunities to, in the first two years of life is the most important time to do that. And what it takes is responsive parenting.
CS: Well, you say that unfortunately during this debate, the opportunity to actually inform parents about what children do need was completely missed. You suggest it disappeared down a huge media chasm that exists between research and popular opinion. Tell me, Gina, what was missing in the discussion?
GS: Well, what’s missing in the discussion is that attach-attachment theory is scientifically based. You can’t argue with it. A lot of people say, well, I don’t agree with attachment. Okay, they really just mean they don’t agree with the parenting style that gets that label.
CS: Well, you’ve actually said that the term is scientifically meaningless. It reflects a basic misunderstanding of attachment bonds.
CS: What are attachment bonds and why are they important?
GS: An attachment bond is one in which, um, one person is seeking security and comfort, and that’s the child. Uh, so you wouldn’t say I’m—A lot of people say, oh, I’m an attached parent or whatever. That’s meaningless because parents should not be seeking security and comfort from the child. They are an attachment figure possibly, you could say. But the children are the ones who are forming the attachment to the parents. And all children do. Even abused children become attached to their caretakers. They’ll have a dysfunctional attachment style. There are different attachment styles. But your, they want security and comfort from that parent. If the parent does not give it to them, they’re still going to be attached but it’ll be a dysfunctional attachment.
CS: Well, there’s something called the Stockholm Syndrome, in which…individuals who are captives start to identify and empathize and sympathize with their captors. And children to some extent—it’s probably a, this may be a tortured logic analogy—are captives of their parents and their reluctance in many cases or inability, I should say, to bond with their kids and provide them what they need. Do you agree with that? Am I on the right track there?
GS: I think you are. And, um, but, you know, if the parent is unable to give their children what they need, chances are really good they didn’t get what they needed during those first two years of life either. Because that regulates the way you’re going to-to approach all of your relationships the rest of your life in some ways.
CS: Our guest is Gina Stepp, an assistant editor of Vision magazine at vision.org. We’re discussing her article entitled “Attachment: Battleground in the Parenting Wars?” Question mark? You also suggest that the process of parent/infant bonding teaches us to make certain assumptions about our social world. What are those?
GS: Some of the assumptions are how we should expect other people to respond to us in future relationships. It’s laying the foundation, um, for our emotional regulation too. You know, it regulates that fear, the, uh, fight or flight aspects. It helps us, regulate those immediate emotions that the amygdala sends out when we’re in stressful situations.
CS: Well, parents are actually modeling good behavior or what they consider to be appropriate behavior within the context of the culture by the way they act. Children, as I used to say about my daughter, really have very little else to do but study their parents and emulate their behavior. So these first few years are really crucial and set a precedent for future relationships.
CS: Is that what you’re suggesting?
GS: Well, exactly. In both ways. It not only shapes the—It literally shapes their brain. But it also, you’re also modeling behavior that they’re copying, that they’re learning. So they’re learning, but they’re also these critical areas of their brain that are going to sort of be the foundation of their mental health for the rest of their lives. So, you know, it’s very, very important for parents to attune. And that’s what brings about secure attachment is that attuned responsive behavior that parents extend to the children.
CS: You also suggest in your article that even the tiger mom by the end of her book came around to realizing that her confrontational approach wasn’t working. She and her husband, who are both I believe professors at Yale—she is Asian, he is Jewish—are very intense parents and believe in accomplishment and education and achievement, historic values in their communities. But she said that clearly any parenting philosophy that advocates empathy and a sensitive emotional response approach is going to be in the right ballpark. That’s really the bottom line of your article, isn’t it?
GS: It is. And it’s true. She realized in, at the end of the book that by the time she got to the end, what she was doing with the confrontational style was pushing her child away. It wasn’t that responsive parenting. And she had to change some of her—And that’s what people miss. People often miss that she had to change some of her approach.
CS: Well, the truth is that good intentions don’t always produce either good or the desired results. That’s really it, isn’t it?
GS: This is what I’m saying. We don’t have to be paranoid and I doing this right? Am I doing that right? Am I going to co-sleep for a certain number of months? The bottom line is let your natural love take over for that child and respond.
CS: Our guest has been Gina Stepp, an assistant editor of Vision magazine at vision.org. Gina, thank you so much for joining us today on Body Language.
GS: Thank you for having me, Chris.