Friday, October 30, 2009

AP Principle #7: Hold On to Your Kids with spontaneous connection

This post is a continuation of Hobo Mama's celebration of Attachment Parenting Month, October 2009. This article focuses on the seventh principle of attachment parenting: Practice Positive Discipline.

Do you have a list of parenting books you've been

Meaning To Read?

The ones that show up on everyone's favorites lists, and that you maybe buy or borrow or check out of the library again and again, but you never seem to actually finish? The ones you think you might actually really agree with if you could just, I don't know, make it past the introduction? The ones that feel kind of like a school assignment, and you've always hated that feeling of "This is good for you; you must read it"?

No? Just me?

Ah, well.

At any rate, high on my list is Hold On to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers, by Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Maté.

It's a book that gets passed around and adulated on attachment- and continuum-friendly parenting forums, and I even stuck it in my aStore as a parenting book suggestion, because even if I haven't read it through, I pretty much trust all those other voices telling me it's the real deal.

So why haven't I been able to finish the dang thing?

I think it has something to do with the writing style, something to do with the subject matter, and a lot to do with me. As to the first, I find the writing to be rather dull. There, I said it. It's full of all these anecdotes that, to me, cloud the point of the book; I keep wanting to get down to brass tacks and find myself floating through another maybe-pertinent story about the authors' children. As to the second, the book aims at parents of older children, particularly teenagers, at the ages when children begin to pull away and attach to peers rather than adults, and I have a two-year-old who nurses 'round the clock and doesn't know what to make of the other short, monkey-like mammals who sometimes invade his space. Therefore, reading this book takes a little imagination on my part, remembering my own adolescence and extrapolating Mikko's. As to the third, maybe I'm just immature or easily distracted or something. Ooo — look — something shiny!

No, no, focus...all right, I'm back.

I got pretty far this last go-round from the library, before it was due back, again. I convinced myself that, since I seem to get bored and lost and feel detached from the text, that I would allow myself to skip around and ferret out, from the table of contents, what chapters might give me practical steps of how indeed to "hold onto my kid," rather than the endless anecdotes that kept tripping me up and giving me more questions than answers.

The funny thing is that, as I skipped to all the sections that I thought might be relevant, I realized I actually had read them all before. I guess I'd had that strategy in mind the last time, and then forgot. That's how bored I get when I'm reading this book.

Oh, no, I just realized Gordon Neufeld will probably send his spies out after me now and haunt my comments section, like the agents for The M Coat. (I knew I should never have made fun of anything attachment-y! It's like kicking a puppy.)

No, please, Dr. Gordon, look, I'll say nice things. I promise.

In fact, I copied down a whole section of your lovely book that I particularly enjoyed, and here it is. Serendipitously, it corresponds with today's attachment parenting principle (#7) and the only one without a corresponding Baby B:

Practice Positive Discipline

Hold On to Your Kids, in general and at heart, is a book about positive discipline. There are different names and particulars that attachment parents use when talking about discipline. You'll hear the phrase "gentle discipline," as well, and of course not everyone agrees on exactly what such discipline encompasses. But there are some basic principles most attachment-type folk agree on. Attachment Parenting Interntional talks about a whole-life sort of discipline (which from its root means to disciple, or teach) that starts with firm attachments at birth, that understands and accounts for age-appropriate behavior, that models appropriate actions, that seeks continual communication with the child, and that uses positive and redirective means of correction. I think a really good, philosophy-setting book along these lines (and I recommend this one a lot, because I actually did read it all the way through — yea, me!) is Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason, by Alfie Kohn.

But back to HOTYK, which, yes, is so popular in certain online parenting circles that it has its own accepted abbreviation. (Seriously, what is wrong with me that I can't read this book through? Is everyone else just pretending to be orgasmic over it?)

Here's the part I wanted to share with you. I think it works with very young children on up through teens, and even with adults, so it's relevant to any life stage. It comes up in the chapter I skipped to, the one giving concrete ideas for what the authors call "collecting" your children — that is, bringing them back into attachment with you, so that they will form their closest bonds with the people who love them and want the best for them rather than with their peers, who by contrast are in need of a compass themselves and are not fit to be other children's leaders and behavioral models. The idea is that coercive punishment and bribery are not needed if children and parents are sufficiently attached and communicating — and it is up to the parent to cultivate and preserve that attachment.

Here's how Hold On to Your Kids says to do just that:

"The ultimate gift is to make a child feel invited to exist in our presence exactly as he is, to express our delight in his very being. ... The child must know that she is wanted, special, significant, valued, appreciated, missed, and enjoyed. For children to fully receive this invitation — to believe it and to be able to hold on to it even when we are not with them physically — it needs to be genuine and unconditional. ... Our challenge as parents is to provide an invitation that is too desirable and too important for a child to turn down, a loving acceptance that no peer can provide. In holding on to our gift of unconditional love, the child will be holding on to us emotionally — just as the infant held with closed fist the parent's finger." [p. 184-5]

A very wise mama on an email list I'm a part of has talked about her scheme for continually connecting with her children. I don't have her express permission to share it or her name with you, but I'll just say that her words have been a source of gentle exhortation to me to pursue connections, hour by hour throughout the day, with Mikko. This mama I have in mind has several children, but she tries to be present with each of them throughout the day — a ruffling of hair here, a hug there, a comment on an artwork in progress or an invitation to participate in a chore — and she tailors the frequency of her connections to the child's age: Young children need connection more frequently, on average, than older children, who might be able to go longer without feeling their mother's absence. Since Mikko's still quite young, according to her schema, I (or another beloved adult or, potentially though not in my case, an older sibling) need to connect with him, in at least these little ways, every 10 minutes at most when he's awake.

But Hold On to Your Kids cautions that these connections (a) must not seem to the children to be some sort of calculated task on our part, and (b), even more importantly, the children should not have to ask for these connections:

"We cannot cultivate connection by indulging a child's demands, whether for attention, for affection, for recognition, or for significance. Although we can damage the relationship by withholding from a child when he is expressing a genuine need, meeting needs on demand must not be mistaken for enriching the relationship. In collecting a child, the element of initiative and surprise is vital. Providing something to hold on to is most effective when least expected. If what we have to offer can be earned or is seen to be some sort of reward, it will not serve as nurturing contact. Our offerings of connection must flow from the fundamental invitation we are extending to the child. This step in the dance is not a response to the child. It is the act of conceiving a relationship, many times over. It is an invitation to dance the mother of all dances — the dance of attachment. Again, it's a matter of conveying spontaneous delight in the child's very being — not when he is asking for anything, but when he is not. We show our pleasure in his existence by gestures, smiles, tone of voice, a hug, a playful smile, by the suggestion of a joint activity, or simply by a twinkle in our eyes." [p. 185]

As difficult as it can be to hear sometimes, when children seem to have an inexhaustible need for connection, and when as parents, we sometimes just want to step back and detach for awhile, HOTYK addresses the fact that the more demanding a child is, usually the more insecure and actually the more in need of spontaneous and enthusiastic connection he or she is:

"It is true that a highly insecure child can be exhaustingly demanding of time and attention. The parent may long for respite, not more engagement. The conundrum is that attention given at the request of the child is never satisfactory: it leaves an uncertainty that the parent is only responding to demands, not voluntarily giving of himself to the child. The demands only escalate, without the emotional need underlying them ever being filled. The solution is to seize the moment, to invite contact exactly when the child is not demanding it. Or, if responding to the child's request, the parent can take the initiative, expressing more interest and enthusiasm than the child anticipates: 'Oh, that's a great idea. I was wondering how we could spend some time together! I'm so glad you thought of it.' We take the child by surprise, making him feel that he is the one receiving the invitation." [p. 186]

I liked the suggested response to a child who is requesting connection — a heartfelt and excited "yes, please!" I want to remember to respond that way the next time Mikko holds out his arms to me or asks to nurse — and the time after that, and the time after that.

It can be hard to seek connection so enthusiastically, particularly if we have our own hang-ups from childhood disconnection, as I do. We (I) may see our young ones' natural baby neediness as some sort of disgusting clinginess that will only grow if we feed it.

Neufeld and Maté agree that this is a common fear in Western culture:

"We have no problem inviting the dependence of infants, but past that phase, independence becomes our primary agenda. Whether it is for our children to dress themselves, feed themselves, settle themselves, entertain themselves, think for themselves, solve their own problems, the story is the same: we champion independence — or what we believe is independence. We fear that to invite dependence is to invite regression instead of development, that if we give dependence an inch, it will take a mile. What we are really encouraging with this attitude is not true independence, only independence from us. Dependence is transferred to the peer group." [p. 187]

The authors point out that when we love fellow adults, we willingly help them out in ways they could help themselves. We don't disdain to get them a drink when we go to the kitchen, saying, "You're old enough — you do it." If we really do love them, we gladly perform tasks that could in some ways be seen as inviting dependence on us. This is because we don't fear other adults' dependence — we welcome our loved ones' need for us, and we don't feel responsible for their independence; we figure they can manage that on their own.

With our children, however, we do feel responsible for their independence. Neufeld and Maté show how laughable this mindset is by giving the analogy of plants growing. We give plants the conditions to grow strong roots, but we trust in the natural process for them to mature; we don't have any illusions that we control when and how each leaf unfolds. With children, we should have the same trust that they will grow in the appropriate time and in the appropriate ways, if we provide the grounding and nurturing they need. It's actually quite a load off my mind to think that I am not responsible for Mikko's independence, nor for his growing up or maturing. That will happen all on its own, and is his own mystery.

I really liked this summary of that idea:

"There is no shortcut to true independence. The only way to become independent is through being dependent. Resting in the confidence that getting children to be viable as separate beings is not entirely up to us — it is nature's task — we will be free to get on with our part of the job, which is to invite their dependence." [p. 188-189]

So, in the end and despite my extreme attentional issues when reading it, I really liked this book — or at least the parts that I got to. Yes, I'll check it out again and give it another go. Maybe I'll even find a new chapter to read!

Till then, I appreciate the encouragement to connect, connect, connect with Mikko (or to collect him, to use the phrasing in the book), and not worry that my invitation to lean on me and to trust me will foster anything but interdependence. And that is the start to positive discipline: a gentle process where we're both the teachers, and we're both being taught.

6 comments:

Betsy B. Honest said...

Was it Mark Twain who said that a classic is a book that everyone wants to have read but nobody wants to actually read? Yup.

Thanks for summarizing this book that I want to have read but am so totally not gonna read until my kids are older.

Great post. I buy it all and would say my general parenting objective is to be and stay attached to my kids in a way that my parents weren't able to with all their children.

Generally I'd say I'm succeeding though I find when one reads too many parenting books it can seem like you can't possibly be doing enough to actively parent your kids.

Of course my four year old is yelling at me to please please please come downstairs right now while I'm ignoring her to write this... I better go do some tickling...

Jamie said...

Great post! Love the idea of seeking out FUN interaction with your children- I sometimes get so caught up in the work of parenting that I forget about those moments- thanks for making me notice and make the most of every single one today.

geeksinrome said...

great stuff!! Thank you for visiting and commenting on my blog so I could discover yours!

Something my mom did for me that I love doing with my kids as a way to create that spontaneous moment of connection is she'd ask "Did you get your vitamin K today? I don't think so. Come over here and get your vitamins and minerals."

Vitamin K was her code for kisses (and hugs). It was funny her playing on the whole "you have to take your vitamins every day to be healthy" thing that you learn as part of nutrition and she's put that extra spin on it for this spiritual/emotional nutrition that should never be lacking each day.

She left me with a ton of great gifts and this is one of my favorites. (another is being sung "you are my sunshine" melts my heart).

Hobo Mama said...

Betsy: Yes, Mark Twain had it right! "I find when one reads too many parenting books it can seem like you can't possibly be doing enough to actively parent your kids." I have had this experience so many times, so thanks for the reminder (here and on other posts) to chill and not be so hard on ourselves.

Jamie: Yes, I get so goal-oriented (time to bathe, time to eat, etc.) that it's often hard for me to stop and realize what fun and connection can be had in the in-between moments. My son's teaching me, though!

geeksinrome: Vitamin K — I love it! It's so fun when there are specific love memories like that, little things that just make you smile to think back on. My mom used to write silly notes on my napkins for my lunchbox. I want to find little things like that to make some new fun traditions. Thanks!

Sara said...

Do you have any book recommendations for finding inner peace or becoming gentler with yourself and/or spouse? I strive to be a gentle mother (my daughter is 7 months so I’m trying to “fix” myself before we get to the discipline stage) but with the way I was raised and things instilled in me I find that I can fly off the handle rather easily and I want to find ways to step back before I blow and to have a longer fuse. I find that I blow up on my husband (usually after he's approached me with the wrong attitude, but, still not an excuse) often and I'm hoping to learn to be more gentle all around. Thanks!

Lauren @ Hobo Mama said...

Sara: The one that comes to mind right off is Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves, by Naomi Aldort (here on Amazon), which has a lot about healing from our old ways of doing things and teaching ourselves to step back and think and choose before responding. (It's addressed to parenting situations, but could work in others as well.)

I know people recommend Nonviolent Communication as well, and here is a list of some of their books. I haven't read much there yet.

I thought How to Talk so Kids Will Listen...And Listen So Kids Will Talk was also one that is geared toward talking with kids but equally applies to talking with other adults. I'm not sure if that's absolutely on topic for you, but it helped me reevaluate the language I use when I feel tension.

I'll see if anyone else has any good suggestions. It's something I'm trying to work on as well, for sure.

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