By Bridget McGann

The other day the Evolutionary Parenting Facebook page posted a 2016 blog post from parenting and social justice writer Sophie Christophy, which was about attachment parenting as a social justice movement. The post was in response to a comment made in an article in The Guardian that attached “a touch of anti-intellectualism” to the Attachment Parenting movement. (In the interest of being thorough, I read that article as well and would describe it as very typical of articles that cover the subject.)

I found this short but perceptive post to be a refreshing read amongst the deluge of commentaries on Attachment Parenting that we have seen since my friend Jamie graced the cover of TIME Magazine in support of the parenting philosophy. Christophy articulated a lot of the thoughts I have about AP in a cultural context. Most notably, she called out the ageist bullshit that pervades Western parenting culture, taking the radical stance that we should perhaps rethink the idea that leaving a child alone in such distress that it vomits should be considered just as cruel and inhumane as we would call it were it done to an adult. She also takes a progressive feminist perspective, rejecting the patriarchal Christian roots of the Attachment Parenting phenomenon, but keeping the parts she likes. As with all social issues, it is right and expected that a school of thought should evolve — or die — as the cultural zeitgeist changes. 

But I think the most perceptive thing she did in her post was to present parenting as an agent of social change. Attachment parenting is not anti-intellectual, she asserts, but it is distinctly intellectual. Its proponents are actively thinking not just about the behaviors they wish to elicit from their children in the immediate future, but they are thinking about what sort of adults they want to raise them to be. 

Christophy comes at this subject from a background in feminism and human rights. I would like to offer some thoughts on the subject from a perspective of someone who hails from an academic background of a different kind: science.

I began studying AP and related parenting topics from the perspective of biocultural anthropology in 2009. After studying to become a doula, I realized that a.) I am no good at “touchy-feely” stuff, b.) I ask too many questions about what, exactly, people mean when they talk about the “energy” in a birthing room, and c.) I was utterly fascinated by the complex socioeconomic etiology of rising c-section rates in the United States. 

It should come as no surprise to you that I came at the subject as a lifelong scientific skeptic, having read and fallen in love with the work of Carl Sagan as a teenager. I also came at it as a non-parent, and as of yet remain so today. (Tall, dark, and handsome men who enjoy hiking and have a high tolerance for having their cultural assumptions ruined with facts apply within.) And I have to admit that I struggle perpetually, as a skeptic and as a person of logic and science, with the way that AP is treated in our culture — as if it is anti-science. Often such commentaries come from people who have not, in fact, read the Sears books, which originally gave attachment-style parenting a name and popularized it. Because it is popular with parents who identify as “crunchy” or prefer a style of discipline that they call “gentle” and psychologists call “responsive,” and because it is counterculture, it tends to be viewed as a permissive, deviant parenting style. People refuse to admit that their ideas about parenting (Attachment Parenting included) are culturally-constructed. Yes, Attachment Parenting is based on a well-tested theory of social development, and on widely-accepted evolutionary theories such as behavioral ecology and life history theory. But the outcome goals associated with it — empathy, compassion, emotional security, and decreased risk of anxiety — are culturally-constructed goals that are inconsistent with the generally-accepted American ideals, which emphasize early independence, obedience, social conformity, and academic achievement.

In my view, and in the author’s view it seems, popular criticism of Attachment Parenting isn’t based on science so much as on cultural constructions about what the “goals” of parenting should be, and scientific illiteracy in terms of how those goals can be achieved…That is to say, the general population is poorly educated in the psychological and evolutionary sciences that form the foundation of Attachment Parenting ideas. And that’s not to say that proponents of Attachment Parenting are even all that educated in science; most of API-accredited Leaders that I have met have very minimal background in the relevant sciences and are prone to logical fallacies when arguing for it. Nevertheless, even when implemented by a scientifically illiterate parent, the principles of Attachment Parenting have less risk associated with them than conventional Western parenting approaches such as spanking, cry-it-out, unnecessarily interventionist childbirth models, and forced early weaning. Within the scientific community, there is no debate over the role that breastfeeding plays in optimal infant development. There is no debate over the benefits of a positive, democratic approach to the discipline of older children. There is no debate over the need to reduce c-section rates in the United Sates. There is a debate over bed-sharing within the medical community, but not really in the scientific community. But even the medical community agrees that same-room cosleeping is preferable to separate-room sleep in early infancy, and that is still not consistent with the cultural norm. 

Which begs the question: What, exactly, is the problem you have with Attachment Parenting? Because since Attachment Parenting came into popular consciousness in 2012, I have seen a lot of journalists, commentators, and armchair psychologists beginning their “investigations” into the phenomenon by asking themselves (and the reader), what is so wrong with these mothers that they would choose to parent in this manner that seems so bizarre? What emotional “holes” are they trying to fill by “forcing” their children to be more dependent on them? Every single one of them, it seems, asks these baseless, woman-blaming questions in one form or another, prompting me to wonder if the writer began this story with a genuine curiosity and beginner’s mind, or if they were framing their narrative from the moment they were assigned the story.

What I want to know is, why the novel resistance to a set of parenting practices that are not just older than our culture, but older than our species? A set of conditions under which our fundamental biology evolved and which remain prevalent everywhere outside of the developed world? I’m not talking about it’s proponents, or the Appeal to Nature fallacies made in support of it, or the unscientific beliefs that often seem to get lumped in with it. I’m talking about the individual practices laid out in those books — breastfeeding, skin-to-skin contact, vaginal birth, avoidance of coercive discipline strategies — which have established science supporting them. What, exactly, is the problem with these things?

I submit to you — and I think Christophy would agree — that we are in serious need of a cultural come-to-Jesus moment about precisely what sort of humans we want to raise in an increasingly unstable and unsettlingly empathy-starved world. What sort of person do we want to have the nuclear launch codes forty years from now? What sort of leaders do we want advising that person? What sort of doctors do we want treating patients? What sort of CEOs do we want to be working for? If you want those people to be people with high levels of empathy, a history of prosocial behavior, and the ability to behave compassionately towards people who live on the other side of the planet from them, then I have GREAT news for the American public: There are well-supported, scientific ways to go about that. No, they’re not guarantees. There’s no such thing as a recipe for raising a perfect adult. What we’re talking about, here, is creating the right conditions — an environment that is conducive to healthy development. We’re talking about minimizing risk. Decreasing the odds that, should your child be born with, say, a neurological deficiency in the areas of empathy or morality, decreasing risk of that neurology manifesting in antisocial ways before symptoms develop. Environment mitigating the effects of maladaptive genetics.

Scientists aren’t fans of “parenting books” — even ones built around a science-based framework. This is because it is difficult to convey to parents just how non-universal and culture-dependent the goals of parenting are, and because it is difficult to convey to a general audience the limitations of research and what that means. And frankly, most parents don’t really want to hear most of what science has to say about parenting. This has been my experience, anyway. So it isn’t what sells in the parenting section at Barnes and Noble. What sells, is books that affirm what parents already believe. Attachment parents have mostly just gotten lucky in that in recent years science has churned up a lot of new evidence in support of behaviors such as breastsleeping and babywearing, which are behaviors so chronologically ancient that our infant biology has evolved to expect them, but which have fallen out of style in the West over the past century. And while this evidence does not make the Bill Sears books a “parenting science” bible and I have a serious problem with anyone who treats them as such, what Attachment Parenting has presented us with, then, is a chance to implement applied science in our own homes — as an act of social justice, and of rejecting harmful cultural assumptions about feminist motherhood “should” look like, and what a “good” baby acts like. And maybe, for some of us, that is an intellectualization of our ancient instincts. But it’s intellectual nonetheless.