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Does Attachment Parenting Mean Permissive Parenting?

angry face

Bea practicing her "angry face".

One of the most common criticisms of attachment parenting and gentle discipline is that it’s too easily interpreted as passive, permissive parenting. Sometimes parenting might seem permissive because a parent’s behaviour is not always what it seems on the surface. That mom standing a long way away from her toddler on the slide might be very confident that her physically agile kid can handle that slide, and maybe she’s right. But there is a point where free-range parenting and a healthy dose of benign neglect become unhealthy and overly permissive.

One of the best parenting books I’ve read is Barbara Coloroso’s Kids Are Worth It. She advocates for natural consequences and letting kids learn from the results of their actions, with three categories of exceptions:

1. It’s dangerous
2. It’s unhealthy
3. It’s unkind

I like these guidelines because they’re simple, flexible and natural. My kid is tap dancing on the floor above our downstairs neighbour’s bedroom at 6am? It’s not dangerous or unhealthy, but it is unkind, so I try to redirect that desire to tap dance into some other activity. The toddler fights being buckled into the car seat? Sorry, there’s no wiggle room on that one. Not being buckled into the car seat is dangerous (not to mention illegal). Same goes for toothbrushing – teeth need to be clean in order to stay healthy, so the teeth must be brushed one way or another.

Of course, no guidelines are perfect, and no parenting book can tell you exactly what to do in every situation, although many sizable tomes have tried. What about play that has the potential for kids to get hurt, but everyone’s enjoying it right now? What about play fighting, or sulky attitudes, or a toddler shouting happily in a quiet indoor space? What about playful bossiness, or groups of little girls excluding one another? What about letting a child run through a kid-friendly restaurant? What about the child who always says, “I don’t want to go,” but then has a great time once she’s out? What about throwing playdough, or sand, or toys?

Sometimes a parent has to make a call about what kind of behaviour is appropriate in a given environment and follow through with actions that prevent the child from continuing. Children need a parent or caregiver to tell them when their behaviour is inappropriate, not necessarily in a punitive way, but as a way of teaching them how to behave in a social group.

Being the parent means being the responsible adult in charge, and that means having power in the relationship between parent and child.  With a healthy relationship it may look and feel more like “power with” rather than “power over,” but a parent needs to be able to step in and redirect when things are going sideways.  I see a lot of parents advocating for natural consequences, and I agree that it’s best for children to see for themselves how their actions resulted in a particular outcome. But really young kids sometimes just aren’t able to put the cause and effect together by themselves, nor do they have the brain development to control their impulses. A child needs a consistent, loving caregiver to set firm boundaries and expectations of healthy, safe and kind behavior. And that may look like a mom carrying a screaming toddler away from the park after he threw the sand yet again.

How do you feel about stepping in and controlling your child’s behaviour?  Are you ashamed to carry your screaming toddler out of a public place, or do you hold your head high knowing you’re doing the right thing?

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Rachael April 27, 2011, 7:10 am

    Thank you, Michelle! These three guidelines are so helpful — an easy way for me to check in with myself about why I’m asking (or telling) the Critter to do what I’m asking (or telling) him to do.

    • michelle April 29, 2011, 9:07 am

      I use the guidelines to check in that way myself too – it is a good way to tease apart whether I’m just feeling irritated with a particular behaviour or it’s actually dangerous/harmful/unkind.

  • Michelle April 27, 2011, 5:43 pm

    Great post! You are right that in a healthy relationship, power is more like “power with” than “power over,” but with young children, there will always be times when it is in fact “power over.”

  • stefanie @very, very fine April 27, 2011, 9:32 pm

    yes yes yes! if i hadn’t just linked to you, i’d link to you for this. maybe i’ll keep it in my pocket for a lazy day in the future. i was just arguing about AP with some people on the facebook moms group i belong to. someone asked how to navigate a “sticky situation” in which her child was asked to be a ringbearer. i asked if anyone had asked the child if he wanted to participate and people got c-r-a-z-y. “permissive!” “putting him in the middle!” “triangulation!” “he doesn’t have an opinion!” “it’s not his decision!” it made me very sad that they couldn’t tell the difference between what you describe — redirecting, guiding, helping, healthy power — and lording over.

    • michelle April 29, 2011, 9:02 am

      Thanks! It is a fine line sometimes between setting too many arbitrary boundaries and not setting enough, but I think it’s easy for the AP community to overlook the importance of healthy limits. Of course, given the common attitudes in society (like you just described!) it can feel like people don’t need to hear about how important limits are, because we’re inundated with it all the time.