The In-Arms Parent

Social-emotional development flourishes when children have close, supportive, and trusting relationships with adults.
–Howes and James

Mayim Bialik was a child actress well-known throughout households in the 1990s as Blossom, the title character in the sit-com of the same name. Since her time on the television show, Mayim has gone on to complete a degree in neuroscience, and has written a book, Beyond the Sling, about parenting. Specifically, her book is about attachment parenting. I’m excited about this book and expect that reading it will be time well spent.

Mayim discusses parenting from her personal experiences as a mother, but also adds in perspective from her background in neurology to look at how highly affectionate, hands-on parenting that includes great deals of attention have a positive affect on child development. She is in agreement with those psychologists, neurologists, pediatricians, and parents who believe a baby can never be shown too much attention. Attachment parenting dismisses the notion that a baby can be spoiled, and instead supports that what seems like too much attention to some is a strong contributing factor to helping a child develop a healthy sense of security in the world from birth. I find myself supporting this belief as well; indulging a baby with your attention is not indulging, it is giving a new little human being what it needs to feel safe and loved and it will not turn him or her into a clinging, confused, or spoiled individual. I have also heard this style of parenting referred to as “in-arms parenting,” a term I like for its simultaneous warmth and strength–what parenting is all about.

Attachment parenting is what it sounds to be: you attach yourself to your child with your time, attention, and affection. This doesn’t mean no discipline or to give in to every wish as your child grows up, not at all. Instead, it focuses on the strengths that parent-to-child bonding offers to the individual first, but carries on to greater results in all of that individual’s relationships as he or she grows on through life. To quote from Attachment Parenting International’s principles of parenting, The long-range vision of Attachment Parenting is to raise children who will become adults with a highly developed capacity for empathy and connection. It eliminates violence as a means for raising children, and ultimately helps to prevent violence in society as a whole.

To get to the long-range vision, you have to instill within your children love and strength, and the concept that true strength is loving and emotional, not a thing only of logical mental sturdiness.

Aside from the positive effects that developing with love give to us, it is also a beautiful experience to bond so closely with your child. And, as many a person has said, the baby stage passes so quickly. We grow fast, skipping through to adulthood in ever-changing phases. The day does quickly arrive when your child no longer fits into a sling on your body, or even in your arms, and to sit on your lap is just simply not practical when you realize your child is towering over you, along with feet firmly planted on the floor next to yours. Of course, this can be funny, as I can attest to from my own experiences of my teenage daughter sitting on my lap. But I can also attest to the fact that you will sometimes have a longing to skip backwards though time and let your four-year-old settle into your lap as if it were a nest, especially when you find yourself at the cusp of young adulthood, your child stepping into the earliest spaces of her independence which, in a few years, are going to be beyond the family she grew up in, somewhere out in the great, labrynthine, busy world.

I can tell myself with contentment that the sole reason my daughter and I are as close as we have been throughout her life is that this closeness started where it needed to, at the beginning. Rarely did she fall to sleep on her own; I carried her not just to get from car to store or house or whatever destination, but in the house, while sitting in a cafe, while sitting in a park or anywhere else, holding her close for no reason at all other than to know my child was close. She slept in her crib sparingly the first year (always research not both benefits and possible risks before venturing into a family bed to make it a safe choice), and on nights she wasn’t rocked to sleep she was sometimes pushed in an umbrella stroller through the house, happily falling asleep to the comforting motion and the closeness of a parent. My daughter was a very attached baby, which from my perspective means “nurtured,” and from others’ perspectives sometimes meant “spoiled.”

What I can relay about our experience: she was never clingy, she had the same occasional moments of temper tantrums or lack of sharing as her peers but not more than her peers, she was not afraid to venture into new experiences away from her parents, and she was actually very happy and willing to venture into new experiences on her own. She was an independent soul from early on, and to this day maintains her spirit of independence, along with a willingness to show compassion to others as much as possible. She is still a human with her various human faults–I would not claim that attachment parenting transcends us into perfected states–but when she talks about going to college to become either a teacher, a physician, or a child psychologist, and when I hear her talk lovingly about the young step-siblings she has inherited via her dad, I am happy for her that she can look at the world she occupies with love and concern. And I do believe I can credit this in part to my nurturing/smothering mother-love as soon as she was past the womb and available to be loved in all manners of closeness, including being kangarooed.

To “kangaroo” your baby is also how it sounds, and, I believe, a lovely experience for parents and baby: wearing your baby either in a sling or in your arms, close to your body, as if in the comforting pouch the baby kangaroo is privy to. Baby’s don’t understand verbal affection, but they do understand the secure feeling of being held.

If you are a parent and you are a let-the-baby-cry-himself-to-sleep parent, there’s no reason you shouldn’t be. There is no reason to believe that if you give your child love and direction in life he will grow up to be an insecure, broken, troubled adult because you chose the crying it out method for sleeping or in any other instance. We all have styles that work or do not work, and a good parent is a good parent. Having enough affection, at any age, won’t hurt us though, and anything that brings us closer to our children and gives them a sense of security in this world is worth considering.

We can all, as parents, look back and find things we wish we had done or had not done, and offering daily, hourly, minute-to-minute affection is likely never going to be something we regret having done and may be something we wish we had considered. I am especially grateful that I followed my instincts on providing affection in the attached, in-arms way considering the disruption of divorce that has limited my time with my daughter since she was ten. It’s certainly a positive thing that she has maintained close relationships with both of her parents, but it’s unfortunate that a divorced household means a child is parented one parent at a time, away from one while with the other. It’s an unnatural feeling to not have your child with you for all of the regular happenings of daily life: getting ready for bed, reading stories, doing homework, cleaning the house, running to the grocery store. It’s an upside-down lifestyle that wreaks intense havoc on both parents’ and child’s emotions. Had I never had this experience, I would still be happy for taking all opportunities to be attached to my daughter in her earliest times; but in light of this experience, I feel blessed to have created such a tightly clasped bond early on, keeping our love strong and thriving through distance as well as years.

And this is what attachment parenting is about: love that builds, strengthens, and doesn’t get overshadowed and pushed aside during conflict. Loving attention that becomes so natural, your child grows up to easily give back to others compassion, empathy, kindness. Individually and universally, understanding what unbiased love for others is what we need to solve our problems and to be secure in our world. Love your baby as much as you can, kangaroo him, kiss her limitlessly, hold him when he cries, rock her to sleep in your arms, let her stay in your arms awhile as she sleeps. The baby who receives an abundance of affection will not seem spoiled or clingy–this baby will simply seem loved, from the beginning and on into life.

Love and the security it gives will build us, not break us.