What Really Matters
by Rebecca Thompson, M.S.
Q: There is so much conflicting information out there concerning child care and what children really need. One expert says to use time out, while another says to use time in. What really matters if I want healthy, well-adjusted children and, later, adults? Help!
A: Connection! Connection! Connection!! When I interviewed Pam Leo, author of Connection Parenting, (click here to hear the free audio recording of the call), she addressed this issue briefly. If what you are doing creates connection with your child, keep doing it. If it creates disconnection in the relationship, it isn’t going to be effective long term.
Many of our cultural parenting practices create disconnection, as does much of the advice from “experts.” It starts with connecting to your unborn baby and making decisions regarding birth that support connection. The decisions we make around birth DO matter. If the birth isn’t ideal, it takes connecting with the baby’s experience and recognizing that the baby may be fussy to discharge the stress surrounding the birth. Cry it out, bottle feeding (especially when the bottle is propped and baby isn’t held), putting baby into non-human carrying vessels, such as bouncy seats and swings for longer than a few minutes, and sleeping in isolation are all ways we disconnect from our very young children. It starts here. Many people feel that babies can’t remember anyway, so it doesn’t matter. But each and every experience is stored in the cells of our bodies and is “remembered” at a cellular level. What happens to us in those early years and how those around us are feeling, whether it is about us or not, has a powerful influence on what we believe about ourselves when we grow older. Those early experiences are a powerful determinant of the kinds of things we think once thought becomes possible, according to Jean Leidloff, author of The Continuum Concept.
Physical connection is essential for proper development. Buy a sling, which is a special piece of fabric used by women all over the world, to hold your baby close to your body. Make it a point to spend as much time as possible holding your baby. Your baby will let you know when he is ready to move out of close proximity. You can’t hold your baby too much.
If your child is older, physical contact is still important, so make space for it. Have a bath together, go swimming together; spend time rocking if she’ll let you hold her no matter how old she is chronologically. This is especially important if she wasn’t held frequently during those early years, such as when a child joined your family through adoption or because the importance wasn’t emphasized when your child was younger. Emotional connection through physical touch is vital at all stages of development, from the prenatal stage into adulthood. Always remember to respect your child’s cues and limits regarding touch.
According to many, many experts and studies of resiliency that take a good look at those individuals who seem to weather life’s storms the best, they all have some things in common. Studies found that having one person who really cares and is emotionally connected makes all the difference. It can be a parent, a teacher, a coach. Children need to feel special and connected to others in order to develop normally. Another study showed that one of the biggest predictors of a person developing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after a traumatic event is the inability to connect with another person and share the distress. Those who have a connection with others from the beginning are much more resilient. This is about attachment.
What is attachment?
Attachment, in technical terms, according to Allen Schore, is the dyadic and interactive regulation of emotion. “The apex of dyadic emotional regulation, a culmination of all development in the first year and a harbinger of the self-regulation that is to come.” (Sroufe, 1996)
What does that mean, exactly?
It means that we need connection with another person in order to develop normally. After birth, it means that lots of time is spent holding baby, ideally breastfeeding, which creates a cascade of hormones within the mother’s body that help her to connect. Ask any mother who has breastfed one child and not breastfed another and she’ll tell you that there is a connection between the child who was breastfed that is stronger than the bond she feels to the child who was not breastfed.
When baby cries, the baby’s needs must be attended to. While many experts recommend letting a baby cry-it-out so that baby will “learn” to sleep, this doesn’t do what many believe it does. Ask any mother who is connected to her baby how she feels putting baby down in a crib to cry and not attend to the baby and she will describe feelings of complete overwhelm. And this is the mother. A mother who can ignore her baby’s cries is a mother who is already disconnected from baby. What allowing a baby to cry really teaches baby is that her cries are not important. She does eventually go to sleep, but it is because she has fallen asleep from sheer exhaustion because she gave up believing someone could hear her. What message does this give to a growing child? Is this the message you are intending to give?
When a baby’s cries are heard and acknowledged, even if it means that we are simply holding the baby as she cries, the baby learns to calm her own system down- that’s self-regulation. It isn’t something that we can put a baby down alone in a crib to learn. It must be learned in relationship and through connection.
But I don’t have a baby anymore. What do I do to “attach?”
All the well-intentioned advice suggesting that we punish our children, scold them, show our disapproval, withdraw our love and attention to avoid rewarding negative behaviors miss the point of a loving relationship. When you come home at the end of a hard day, do you want your spouse to meet you with a withdraw of love because things didn’t go the way you’d hoped. Of course not! We- all of us- long for someone to connect with us and to understand what it is like for us. Our children need the same thing from us. When they are not behaving as we expect them to, they are communicating with us that they aren’t in a happy place. Why would we react to that with heaping on more unhappiness? Yet, this is exactly what we do, expecting peace and happiness in our families and from our children.
Simply being present with our children, connecting with them emotionally, discovering what she is interested in and what her stressors are, and seeking to truly understand our child will take care of most of the problems. Yes, that’s right. Connection is all that really matters.
Think about it…
Rebecca Thompson, M.S., is the founder of The Consciously Parenting Project. Rebecca has been actively educating parents and facilitating parent groups and workshops that encourage conscious decision-making in family life since 1998. As the mother of two boys, she has personal as well as professional experience navigating the terrain of parenting. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Education and a Masters degree in Marriage and Family Therapy, with specialized training in attachment and trauma. Click here to read her blog.