By Margie Nichols, Ph.D.
I’m not a fan of attachment parenting. I won’t get into snarky but humorous commentary on the subject, let’s just say I’d rather stick hot pokers in my eyes.
But I’m not enamored of Tiger Moms, either, not just because of the meanness factor but also because I couldn’t care less if my offspring go to Yale or make a ton of money. And I’d feel horrible imposing such extraordinary demands on a child.
I’m an ‘it doesn’t matter’ Mom. On many, many child-rearing issues that people argue passionately about, I believe: it doesn’t matter. Not the little stuff, anyway. Like how you give birth or whether you do the attachment thing or feed the kid on a schedule and let her cry herself to sleep. Like whether you do day care at six weeks or stay home till the kid’s in college. Even, ultimately, whether you breast feed or not (I’m ducking rotten tomatoes from the La Leche League as I write this).
Think that’s heresy? I’m not the only heretic. The first time this point of view rocked the world of psychology was when Judith Harris published “The Nurture Assumption.” Harris had spent many years writing developmental psychology textbooks and in so doing had an extremely broad and comprehensive view of ALL research on child development. She concluded that: nothing mattered. Or, to be more precise, she came to believe that one of the fundamental premises of child psychology – the belief that parents and family are the primary influences in a child’s life- was completely wrong. A careful review of the research, Harris maintained, showed that genetics and community – peers and schools – influence the way children turn out much more than parental child-rearing methods. Apart from abuse and neglect, your approach makes no difference. As she said, if the research shows (controlling for economics) no difference in outcome for children of divorce versus children with both parents, no difference for children of lesbian versus heterosexual couples, no difference for kids put in childcare versus kids with stay at home moms – why would anyone expect comparatively subtle differences in parenting styles to have an impact?
And now, this month, the Psychotherapy Networker has published a piece by perhaps the leading developmental psychologist in the world, Harvard’s Jerome Kagan, that skewers attachment theory. And in the process, Kagan’s subtext is: it doesn’t matter. Kagan points out that despite vast differences in child rearing practices – Chinese babies raised communally (under Mao Zedong); German infants left to ‘cry it out’ without being picked up; American children fed and held on demand – there’s no evidence of differences in mental illness in adults from those different cultures.
Kagan has spent a lot of his life studying temperament – whether a baby is born fussy or calm, smiling or irritable. He’s concluded that genetically determined temperament influences outcome quite a bit: the highly sensitive, reactive baby tends to be anxious and fearful of new experiences as a teenager. Many parents of more than one child understand the concept of temperamental differences. They know that kids just pop out different from one another, that they sometimes seem, especially in retrospect, to have had distinctive personalities from the start, personalities that as parents we watched unfold, rather than shaped.
What’s the take-home in all of this? I’m not advocating giving up on child-rearing, quite the contrary. I am suggesting that, if it really doesn’t matter – why not raise your kid in the way that is most comfortable for you and seems to suit the child? If you like never putting your baby down – do it. If it works better for you to go back to work after a few weeks – do THAT. Once you are freed from the tyranny of believing that there is one right way to raise children, you can intuitively figure out your own parenting style and what your children need. If it doesn’t matter – you’re free to do what matters to you.
(Read Kagan’s article here: https://www.psychotherapynetworker.org/magazine/currentissue/1269-bringing-up-baby)