By Naomi Aldort, author of Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves, www.naomialdort.com
Q: My relatives criticize Attachment Parenting. They question my ability to parent and tell me that I am jeopardizing the children’s development and keeping them dependent and attached for too long. How can I best fend for my views and protect my children from my relatives’ intervention about breastfeeding, bedsharing, and wanting to be with me?
A: One of the main reasons we find it so hard to inspire respect from relatives and friends is because we seek their agreement. When my children were young, my father used to interrupt every one of my attempts to explain our parenting philosophy; he would say, “That’s rubbish” followed by, “Let me tell you how it works.” He never heard what I had to say.
With time, I learned to generate his respect by honoring who he is while keeping my own vision unharmed. I realized that my desire to explain got in the way of granting my father his own thoughts. He needed to be heard and to have his point of view appreciated. My fear that if I showed interest in his ideas I will have to follow them was unfounded, not because he did not wish that I would, but because it was up to me to be the parent of my children.
Engaging in parenting discussions with relatives is like telling them that they have a say about how your children are raised. Defending our position, we enter our relatives’ court and lose our own ground of self-confidence; we become their kids, instead of being our own adult beings. We cannot elicit their respect while we are caught inside their web of thoughts, or when we attempt to sway them to ours side.
Your relatives and friends can have their opinions while you keep being the parent you choose to be. There is no need for them to agree or even understand your ways. Your parenting is not up for a vote.
How to Elicit Respect & Non-intervention
Listen to your relatives’ doubts of your parenting ways and validate their feelings and thoughts. Give them your ear but do not give them power over you. Be appreciative of their caring while staying secure in your own path.
After her phone session in which we spoke about listening to her mother-in-law (MIL), Teresa had the following conversation:
MIL: “Danny should sleep in his own bed and his own room. How will he ever become independent?”
Teresa: “Are you worried that Danny will never be able to sleep and do things by himself?”
MIL: “He is already unable to sleep by himself. What are you waiting for?”
Teresa: “I understand your worry and appreciate your love and concern.”
MIL (Interrupting): “Good, then buy him a bed and get him to be like a normal kid.”
Teresa: “So, you are concerned that if he doesn’t sleep by himself at four, he will develop a problem with independence. I can understand that.”
MIL: “Well, he will!!!”
Teresa: “You may be right and we shall both get to see. Thank you for sharing. I value your thoughts.”
(Notice, so far, not a word about bedsharing, no defense at all, just creating a connection.)
MIL (angrily): “OMG, you experiment at the expense of Danny. How dare you!”
Teresa: “Oh dear, you see my parenting as a harmful experiment? That must feel painful.”
MIL: “Well it is. You said yourself that you will see how it turns out.”
Teresa: “Yes, you are right. I cannot know for sure. I wish I could. It is really hard to know.
MIL (in a softer tone): “Hmn. I guess I didn’t know, either. But I followed the normal way, like I was raised.”
Teresa: “Yes, that would make it much easier. Trying a new way has its challenges. I just learn and do what I see as best, just like you did.”
MIL: “I wish you let him sleep by himself, so he can also come visit us overnight.”
Teresa: “Yes, I know. I love that you are so connected to Danny.”
The conversation continued and Teresa never discussed cosleeping. At the end, she said, “I know you want the best for Danny and my way is not easy for you. Would you like to read some of what helped me to feel so good about it?”
Her mother-in-law may not want to read anything, but the door is open and it is clear who is raising Danny. It is also clear that she is appreciated and the connection has been strengthened.
Show interest instead of fear, understanding instead of resistance. Understanding someone’s ideas doesn’t mean that you are now going to do what they say. Your fear is self-perpetuated. When you are confident in yourself, you can feel relaxed and able to focus on other people’s ideas. Keep a loving connection; you can inquire about their childhood and their parenting experience. You may even find pearls of wisdom in what they have to say and be able to use these without altering your parenting path.
“But I Need My Family’s Approval…”
Some parents find it difficult to avoid being defensive because they believe that they need their family’s approval. You owe it to yourself and to your children to move away from needing approval and be self-reliant. Not only you will be a more authentic parent, but your child will learn from you to be rooted in himself. In a phone session, a mother said to me, “For years, when my Dad would criticize me, I used to see myself as a failure and I yearned for his agreement. Now I take my worth for granted and I can listen to him easily.”
Being confident does not mean putting on a tough front. On the contrary, when you don’t fear your own ability to stay true to yourself, you can be vulnerable and soft with those who love you and care about your child. Your relatives are more likely to feel included when you share your doubts, and they may even engage in an inquiry rather than tell you what to do.
In addition, when free of needing approval, you are more likely to stay open rather than become righteous. There is always something to learn. Let go of the need to convince anyone of anything and you will find yourself at peace with the view of others and unthreatened by their words. You are not going to do what they say or try to please them; you only listen and appreciate their concerns.
The Power of Listening & Connection
One father who took my advice told me that he listened to his parents’ criticism and then he said, “I can understand your concerns. You certainly had a much different experience as parents. Our ways must be bewildering for you. It will be interesting to see how our children grow up.” He then asked them about their own experiences and engaged himself in listening to their thoughts and stories. His unspoken message was one of confidence; they can have their feelings and thoughts, and he is going his way with parenting. A week later, his mother bought herself a book on Attachment Parenting.
Most often, relatives only need to vent their feelings and show that they care. If they express real interest, you may be able to give them an article to read, a book, or a CD to listen to. This will give your choices credibility beyond mere opinion. It will also spare you the painful debate.
When relatives engage with your children, you can be assertive and provide leadership. One of my children once asked, “How come some children do whatever someone tells them to?” The answer is: They learn it from their parents. If your children see you losing integrity with your values when criticized, they will learn to lose their own integrity later on and succumb to peer pressure. Model assertiveness balanced by honoring diversity, so your children can have inclusive and nurturing relationships while staying authentic with their own values.