The way we choose to parent is an incredibly personal and sensitive decision. When we hear criticism of attachment parenting (or are the direct target!), it’s easy to feel vulnerable. Why wouldn’t we? We pour every fiber of our being into our children! They are our heart and soul in tiny human form. When someone suggests we are not doing the very best for them, we often find ourselves going into fight-or-flight mode. We may be quick to lash out with our mama bear defenses or simply retreat and do nothing. Unfortunately, neither response typically produces the result we are hoping for: Respect for our gentle parenting choices.
Criticism of attachment parenting may span from passive comments “Time-outs and spankings worked great for my kids!” to relationship extortion, “I’m happy to babysit for you, but she’ll have to cry it out at bedtime!”. No matter the form, this judgment is real and painful. At the same time, no level of criticism is worth compromising what you believe is right for your children. So how can you begin to heal the wounds and rise above the negativity? First, let’s clear up some common misconceptions. Unwanted commentary often stems from gentle parenting myths, particularly among those who subscribe to “old school” parenting methods. Next, we’ll jump into 5 essential ways you can overcome attachment/gentle parenting criticism and respond to your biggest naysayer with confidence.
What is Attachment or Gentle Parenting?
Gentle parenting and attachment parenting are terms often used synonymously. In short, both are all about following instincts and responding sensitively and intentionally to meet your children’s needs. Attachment or gentle parents allow their innate instincts to drive decision-making. Furthermore, they recognize that harsh punishments and power struggles do not elicit behavioral change and often seek out positive parenting methods over traditional discipline.
Attachment and gentle parents recognize encouragement, nurturing communication, and natural/logical consequences as effective parenting tools.
Attachment and gentle parents often (but not always) breastfeed into toddlerhood, co-sleep or bedshare, and steer clear of sleep training. They talk about and validate big feelings with their children and avoid corporal punishment and time-outs. In other words, gentle parenting is the antithesis of old school parenting!
Why Criticism of Attachment Parenting Occurs
Attachment or gentle parenting can hit a nerve with loved ones who follow (or followed) an old-school way of parenting. (I like to call it the “stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about!” approach). Since attachment parenting is all about empathy, let’s first stand in the shoes of these loved ones and try to understand where the criticism may stem from.
When it comes to babies, western culture has been infiltrated with ideas such as “you shouldn’t spoil an infant”, “babies need sleep training” and “children should be seen not heard.” Unfortunately, many of these beliefs do not stem from facts. Furthermore, the concept of emotional intelligence (the ability to make decisions based on accurately identifying feelings in yourself and others) was not even introduced until 1990. As a result, most of us did not grow up with a gentle parenting approach to discipline. It simply wasn’t the norm.
When loved ones observe other parents draw from different values or practices than their own, it’s easy for them to feel defensive. When a friend or family member sees you validate your child’s feelings amidst a tantrum, it could touch a nerve. Especially if they aren’t accustomed to such an open dialogue of feelings. Loved ones might even subconsciously feel like you are telling them their parenting is “wrong” just by observing your contrasting approach.
It’s not always easy, but try to assume that your critic has the best intentions. While we may not agree on what is best, nearly all parents do their best with what they have and what they know.
The biggest misconceptions about attachment/gentle parenting
Myth #1: Attachment parenting makes kids “needy” and “too attached”
This one can drive us crazy because it’s quite the opposite! An attachment parenting style is all about creating a trusting relationship between parent and child. This nurturing foundation serves as a “secure base”, feeding a child’s confidence to explore the world and form additional healthy relationships.
Which came first, the “needy child” or attachment parenting?
In my journey, I chose attachment parenting after discovering I had a high-needs, highly sensitive baby. Not the other way around! This is a common pathway among new parents and likely fuels this misconception. I fully embraced attachment and gentle parenting when my son was 12 weeks old. This was the same period when he would burst into hysterics at the mere sight of a stranger. There were times others expressed that his early case of “stranger danger” had resulted from my husband and I “never” putting him down. Naturally, we felt like we had to defend ourselves and try to explain.
We simply couldn’t pass our son around like a hot potato at social gatherings. When we did, he became completely inconsolable! While going stranger to stranger may be fine for some babies, it just wasn’t what he needed at that stage. We started listening and responding to his needs, rather than society’s new parent “rules”. From then on, things drastically improved. From the comfort of his baby carrier, he slowly began to smile and engage with strangers in the checkout line. By 18 months, his daycare told us he should “run for office” because he made it a point to say hi to every guest that walked past his classroom!
What child development tells us
When we make generalizing statements about “needy” babies and gentle parenting, we completely overlook the reality and significance of individual temperament. In the field of child development, there is something called “goodness of fit” between child and caregiver. Goodness of fit measures how well the caregiver’s parenting style matches the unique needs of the child. Simply put, high-needs babies and highly sensitive children seek out and benefit from an attachment parenting approach. Without question, the “which came first” debate has caused a great deal of confusion surrounding attachment parenting.
Myth #2: Attachment parenting produces “spoiled brats”
“Spare the rod and spoil the child!” No time-outs, no spankings, and no forced apologies are enough to put some old school parents over the edge! But let’s take a step back and look at what’s effective. After working as a professional public school counselor for the past eight years I have seen a huge shift in the way we approach undesired behavior…and it’s paying off. Many schools are moving towards restorative practices over traditional discipline. This means fewer office referrals and no meaningless apologies. Instead, we spend more time talking about feelings and the impact of our choices on others. Let’s face it, in most cases, the consequences are for the grown-ups, not the children. Arbitrary punishments simply do not elicit a change in future behavior.
Why natural & non-punitive logical consequences work
Attachment and gentle parents approach big feelings (and oftentimes the challenging behaviors that come with them) with compassion and empathy. What naysayers often overlook is that effective gentle parenting also includes setting safe and appropriate boundaries, while allowing natural consequences to unfold. For example, if a child refuses to wear gloves, her hands will feel cold. When my now two-year-old throws rice all over the floor, we have to spend time cleaning it up together after dinner. Eventually, with time and maturity, he will make the connection this is seriously cutting into his playtime!
If gentle parents do opt for an imposed consequence, they choose “logical” methods over arbitrary ones. This being said, consequences should avoid the perception of “punishment” under the positive discipline model.
With logical consequences, the selected outcome must relate directly to the undesired behavior. For example, if a child purposefully breaks her brother’s toy, a logical consequence would be to ask her to brainstorm solutions on how to fix or replace the toy. Notice the child isn’t being punished by being forced to immediately give up her allowance. Rather, she is invited to take ownership in the problem-solving process. This is key for building intrinsic motivation for future positive decision-making!
Criticism of Attachment Parenting: 5 Tips for Gentle Parents
Tip #1: Be Informed
Attachment/gentle parenting critics are often just misinformed. If the critique is accompanied by a listening ear, be prepared to calmly explain your parenting “why”. In other words, be able to speak to the research (as well as individual factors, e.g., temperament) that led you to choose this parenting approach.
For me, my biggest rationale for adopting a gentle parenting style is that it simply feels natural. If I were alone on a desert island with my baby and had no prior knowledge of parenting, I would be forced to rely solely on my mother’s intuition. Picking up my crying baby, nursing to sleep, and keeping him close just felt right. After all, we have these biological instincts for a reason!
Of course, a gut feeling might be enough for me, but it might not cut it for some critics. Be sure to familiarize yourself with some key research points surrounding the effectiveness of gentle parenting practices.
Let’s look at the facts (by common areas of criticism)
Here are my go-to sources for evidence-based, yet commonly criticized, attachment and gentle parenting practices. You may keep these in your back pocket as your tools of defense!
If you’re getting grief about your safe co-sleeping or bedsharing practices look no further than Dr. James McKenna’s Mother-Baby Sleep Laboratory Site from the University of Notre Dame. Dr. McKenna is the leading researcher in support of safe co-sleeping practices. He even coined the term breastsleeping! Furthermore, his articles clear up common misconceptions about the relationship between co-sleeping and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), pointing out significant research flaws in design and population (samples often include smoking mothers or those who use unsafe sleep surfaces). Fun fact: According to Dr. McKenna, the rate of SIDS in Japan is the lowest worldwide where co-sleeping and breastsleeping are the norm.
Breastfeeding Past Infancy Facts
For some reason, many people take issue with nursing toddlers past age one. So much so that our culture feels the need to call it “extended breastfeeding”. Sigh. If this is the hot button issue for your critic, be sure to bookmark KellyMom.com‘s fact sheet. There’s no shortage of benefits for nursing your child through toddlerhood: Nutritional, medical, intellectual, and social/emotional to name a few. Additionally, did you know that the longer you breastfeed, the greater the benefits for your health as well? Studies have found the longer some mothers breastfeed, the lower their risk for breast cancer!
Positive Discipline Studies
The Journal of Attachment Parenting features some eye-opening studies highlighting positive results from adopting a positive approach to discipline. It’s also worth mentioning that research suggests a significant correlation between old school parenting methods and challenging behavior in young children. For example, a cross-cultural study published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology identified harsh consequences as a primary contributor to disruptive behavior among four-year-olds.
Tip #2: Speak from Your Heart (& find out how to do it effectively!)
Chances are your parenting critic is someone in your life that you care about. Or at least someone who cares about your child. Heck, they might even be your significant other. Having a conflict or difference of opinion with a loved one, perhaps your parent, in-law, or dear friend can be both intense and devastating. As much as we may want to lash out at our critic at that moment, an impulsive response is not going to strengthen or heal these relationships in the long run. Unless your critic is a mind reader, bottling in your emotions won’t help either.
For most of us, finding the right words at that moment is the hardest part of facing criticism of attachment parenting. After-the fact, we replay that moment of judgment over and over, thinking of all the things we could have said, or should have said, differently. I want to help you prevent this from ever happening again!
Master the art of assertive parenting self-advocacy!
I am blown away by how often I see fellow parents in online support groups ask for help in responding to criticism by loved ones. It’s a widespread source of pain in our gentle parenting community. I want to make this part as easy as I can for you. Drawing from my education and experience in counseling, I developed a FREE step-by-step guide to help you communicate effectively, assertively, and from the heart with your biggest parenting critic.
In this free guide you will learn how to:
- Address your feelings in response to criticism of attachment parenting
- Decrease the likelihood of your critic getting defensive and shutting you out
- Effectively request a change in behavior
- Set and maintain healthy boundaries
To make things even easier, I’ve also included:
- Example response statements for the most common areas of gentle parenting criticism (sleep, breastfeeding, and behavior/discipline)
- A customizable response plan for you to feel confident and prepared to address your loved one
Feel confident responding to your biggest gentle parenting critic with this FREE guide!
- Are you at the end of your rope dealing with judgment and criticism for your parenting choices?
- Do hot button issues such as sleep, breastfeeding, and discipline constantly come up between you and your partner, close relative, or friend?
- Are you ready to speak your truth and set healthy boundaries?
This straight forward, step-by-step guide will walk you through how to respectfully, but effectively, say what’s been on your mind for far too long!
You will also be added to the Such a Little While newsletter for more free gentle and positive parenting resources. Unsubscribe anytime!
Tip #4: Find Like-Minded Allies
As parents of young children, having a genuine support system is essential. Face-to-face connections with other parents are so important. When you meet in person through support groups, swimming lessons, or preschool, you’ll find parents who share your beliefs, and others don’t. A diverse pool of friends is a wonderful asset!
At the same time, it’s pivotal to find allies with your same parenting values and welcome them into your inner circle. Through online support systems, I’ve been able to connect with so many gentle parents who also practice co-sleeping and nurse their toddlers. I often forget this isn’t “the norm” and I love it!
If you’re feeling affirmed by this article and hold empathy has a primary parenting value, I want to welcome you into the Such a Little While circle of support! I encourage you to join below to continue connecting with like-minded parents through my newsletter.
Tip #5: Stand Firm with No Regrets
We can do everything in our power to educate loved ones, express how we feel, and request their support. At the end of the day, that’s all we can do. Continuing to fixate on factors outside of our control only fuels hurt and anxiety. If you have done your research and feel confident in your gentle parenting approach, it’s okay to stand firm in those beliefs. As parents, we have a responsibility to do what we feel is best for our children, even if friends or family may not agree. Take pride in doing right by your child, especially when the road traveled is not an easy one.
What if my partner is my parenting critic?
If your partner is your biggest parenting critic, my heart is with you. These can be incredibly rough waters to navigate and it’s easy to feel alone and defeated. If you have tried sharing knowledge and research, expressing how you feel, and offering solutions, it may be time to bring in a neutral party to help.
Unfortunately, some counselors and therapists may also buy into the common myths and misconceptions surrounding gentle parenting practices, so you’ll want to do your research ahead of time. Attachment Parenting International (API) provides a great overview of how to choose a marriage counselor. They even have a registry of providers who have formally acknowledged API’s 8 Principles of Parenting. You may also want to consult with your insurance company on your benefits and in-network providers.
What if my partner refuses to go to couples counseling?
If you’re in this boat, my heart is really with you now. You may consider proceeding with the counseling alone. This is an incredibly complex and challenging situation that deserves individualized support and attention. Having a listening ear to help you navigate your perspective and brainstorm solutions is not only a tremendous benefit to yourself but also to your children. Connecting with like-minded allies (tip #4) is also vital in this situation. Please don’t go it alone!
The last thing you need to know about overcoming criticism of attachment parenting
The last point I want to stress if you are facing parenting criticism is that you are not alone. Most, if not all, parents who share our gentle parenting approach have faced this hardship at some point in their journey. While it’s easy to look at this as a disheartening trend, I choose to look at the positive. Since attachment/gentle parenting criticism is so common, it’s much easier for me not to take it personally.
Someone is choosing to put down something you have poured your heart and soul into, every single second since you were blessed with that first tiny baby. To me, it says much more about them than it does about you. It may stem from personal insecurity, deep-rooted feelings about their childhood, or simply an unwillingness to accept that there are diverse viewpoints and values in this beautiful world.
I want to leave you with the words I wish you were receiving from your person. I’m talking about the loved one who has been weighing on your mind throughout this article. It is my sincerest hope that a positive change is headed your way!
You are an informed, intentional parent.
You model the qualities you wish to see in your child.
Yes, you make sacrifices every day, but your child knows they can always count on you.
You are an amazing parent.