Waking Up to Relationship: A Call to Parents

The other day, Calah Alexander had a great post about a parenting epiphany she had.   You should go read the whole thing, but here’s the part that grabbed me the most.

[Unfortunately, these days]  “Parenting” does not imply a relationship. It implies a philosophy (attachment parenting, free-range parenting, authoritarian parenting) and a skill set that can be learned if one will only read the right books and follow the right methods. It’s become such a pervasive mentality that I’ve spent nearly eight years brushing aside advice to “consider my relationship with my children” as tangential. I’ve genuinely thought that was a lot of sentimental clap-trap; what matters isn’t our relationship, it’s the rules and how I enforce them, or the gluten, or the co-sleeping, or the crib-training, or this, or that, or anything but this kid breaking down in tears in the living room because all she wants is to have a relationship with her mother.

I really liked her post and her decision to re-focus on the fact that she knows her children best and that her own relationship with her children—as opposed to some technique or listening to what some expert has to say–is the most important aspect of effective parenting.

And yet, when I read a post like this, I also see a potential tendency to throw the baby out with the bathwater.   Along with epiphanies like this often comes a certain reactionary impulse that says, “those damn experts have been making me feel so guilty for all this time with all their damn techniques. I’m done with them.”  Actually, I largely respect this.  As Calah points, out, parenting not about technique.  It NEVER is.  It’s always about relationship.

Here’s the Rub

But to be honest, this is one of the things that regularly makes me and other attachment parenting experts want to beat our heads into a wall.   This idea that “parenting is something you do to kids (not a relationship you have with kids)” is so pervasive that parents can’t help applying it even to parenting styles that require rejecting that mindset–like attachment parenting— in order for them to really work!   People write attachment parenting off as just another set of techniques, just another philosophy, just another set of parenting rubrics set up to make parents feel like failures.  But AP is not about techniques at all.  It is entirely about relationship.

“But how can you say that, Popcak?!?  AP is all about techniques.  Co-sleeping, baby wearing, extended nursing, its all ‘do these THINGS or else your baby will be a brain damaged amoral axe murderer!”

I am aware that a lot of people think this way, but they are entirely missing the point of AP.  They approach AP with their pre-existing “parenting is something you do to kid (not a relationship they have with kids)” mindset and completely reduce AP to a series of techniques to which they must slavishly devote themselves…OR ELSE.  And, in doing so,  they completely undermine the effectiveness of AP and most of the benefits they could get from it.

What Are You TALKING About, Popcak?

“Well,” you might ask, “if things like co-sleeping, and baby-wearing, and extended nursing and all the other AP recommendations aren’t techniques, then what are they?”  That’s a fair question.  Let me attempt to answer this way.

Can you have a relationship  with a person without communicating with them?  Can you have a relationship with someone without using some kind of language (verbal or non-verbal) to interact and get to know them?  I would say, “no.”  Sure, it is possible to have quiet moments with a really good friend.  Times where you don’t say anything.  But those times are dependent on all the things you’ve been through already, all the things you’ve said and done before, all the communication you have already shared.   To have a relationship with a person, you need a way to communicate with them and the way that most people communicate is through language.

Relationship:  The Asperger’s Way

Now, imagine for a moment that you focus on language as a “technique.”  Imagine that you read communication books and talk to communication experts with the sole purpose of learning the “right formulaic responses” (TM)  that will net you the closest relationship with the least effort possible. What if you treated language as a means to an end, a technique you used on people to “create relationship.” What if you treated language as just “things you say to a person in the hopes of getting a particular response?”  Would you be missing the point of language?

In fact, some people do approach language exactly this way.  People with high-functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder (formerly called Asperger’s) often see language as a series of formulas they have to memorize to get social interactions “right.”  But of course, language doesn’t work that way.  Language does facilitate communication which does, in turn,  facilitates relationship, but if you treat language as a technique, a series of formulas, then it won’t really be communication and it really won’t facilitate relationship.  It ends up feeling fake. The harder you try this approach the more frustrated you become.

Baby Talk

So let’s bring this back around to parenting. You can’t have a relationship with someone unless you share a common language.  What is the language of babies and toddlers?  It isn’t words.   It is touch.  It is presence.  Babies are very concrete.  They feel close to a person when they are actually close to that person.  They feel disconnected when they are physically disconnected from other people. That isn’t philosophy.  That’s a neurological/psychological fact.

Attachment parenting practices teach parents to speak a baby’s concrete language of touch and presence.  As adults, we have largely lost touch with the significance of concrete connection.  We rely too much on words and symbols to convey closeness.  Babies don’t understand any of this.  For a baby, if you are touching them, you are in relationship with them. If you aren’t touching them, you’re not.

Attachment parenting practices aren’t techniques as much as they are a way to teach adults how to speak “baby” again.  If you treat attachment parenting practices like a technique; if you are counting down the days until you can stop holding your baby, or nursing, or bed-sharing or any of the other things because they are just tiresome tasks some expert told you to do (…or else!), you are like the person with Asperger’s using language as a technique and you will feel frustrated, angry, and burned out because you are missing the forest for the trees. “I did all the right things the expert said to do to this baby. This better work!”

But, if you use AP practices as a means of learning to speak “baby”; if you use AP practices to keep yourself close enough to your baby to learn that this look means, “I’m hungry” and this sound means, “I’m tired” and this motion means, “I love you!” then you are not just using attachment parenting techniques on your child, you are using attachment parenting as a vehicle for learning the language of connection that enables you to have a unique and personal relationship with your child–which is what AP is all about.

I don’t want any parent to ever do AP because I or any other “expert” said this is the right thing to do to your kid.  If you take this approach, you’ll fail anyway.  Don’t waste your time.  AP is not just like every other parenting philosophy that has you do certain things to a kid in the hopes of getting a certain result out of a kid.  To work, AP requires a different mindset altogether.    AP suggests doing certain things–not as techniques–but as reminders to us grown-ups, who have forgotten the grammar and vocabulary of the language that is presence and touch, to actually tune in to your unique and unrepeatable child so that you can learn how to have a real relationship from day one.  A relationship that–once your child begins to learn the language of words and symbols–will be all your own and that will enable you to say with confidence that you are the expert on your child.   You can claim that expertise, because you have been speaking this child’s language from your very earliest days together and you know your child from the inside out.

To learn more about how you can become the expert in your child’s life, check out Parenting with Grace:  A Catholic Parents’ Guide to Raising (almost) Perfect Kids


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