I identify more as an ‘attachment parent’ than an ‘authoritative parent’ but I’ve always wondered why people would raise their children in an authoritative or authoritarian way. So I did an experiment and got in touch with my own inner authoritarian parental energy to see what I could learn from it. The lessons were valuable indeed. This is what I discovered:
T here’s a bit of a war going on these days between parents who adhere to attachment parenting principles (which essentially describes any style of parenting where the child’s needs are taken seriously and an attempt is made to meet those needs – something most parents would do – but has come to represent parents who co-sleep, wear their babies in slings, and exclusively breastfeed) and parents who are more authoritarian in approach, believing that children need to be trained to fit in with the parent’s lives and so ought to learn routines, to sleep independently and through the night as soon as possible, and so on.
I’ve followed attachment parenting principles myself without initially (over fifteen years ago now) knowing about it as a movement or parenting philosophy. It just seemed right for me. I knew that security, breast milk, physical touch and emotional connection were important, but I also knew that it’s not always possible to provide these things.
I think most parents realize this and we all do the best we can, probably using a combination of strategies and techniques, depending on what works with each child, even in each moment.
But because there are still plenty of people who continue to raise their children in an exclusively authoritarian or authoritative and/or non-attachment way, simply as a matter of choice, I decided to do an experiment in the spirit of attempting to understand why these parents would do so.
I searched within myself for a part of me who would raise their children in an authoritarian way.
Meeting my inner authoritarian parent
Well I didn’t have to look far – almost immediately an image of my mother formed in my mind with her voice telling me how important it was for babies to get into a routine and to learn the rules of being a socialized human being.
I questioned my inner representation of my mother further and found that her ideas came from a system of beliefs (religious in origin) where children were essentially sinful, which included being chaotic, having no self-control, no self-discipline and being just like untrained animals. There was no malice in her voice, but it had rather a businesslike quality.
This inner mother argued that anyone could see that babies, especially when they became toddlers, tried to assert their own needs in aggressive ways and so needed to be ‘trained’ out of it. If a parent attended to every cry and whimper, then she’d be spoiling the baby and allowing it to control her.
I was surprised to find within me a voice that advocated controlled crying, leaving a baby unattended for long periods, and giving minimum physical contact to avoid ‘spoiling’. I would not parent in such a way myself, yet here I was doing this process and I could hear this authoritarian voice in my own head! (My actual mother was a mostly like this but not as extreme as the version of her in me.)
The underlying vulnerability of the authoritarian parent
I settled back into my usual self and then hooked into the more authoritarian inner voice again. I wanted to get down to what its vulnerabilities were, what it feared would happen if parents simply bonded closely with their babies and loved them.
For there are always underlying vulnerabilities when a person is adamant about their position on an issue.
The vulnerabilities for this inner authoritarian parent turned out to be fear of loss of boundaries, of individuality, of order and reason, of permanent enmeshment, of the loss of control. There was also worry about losing too much sleep, career opportunities, professional image, and time for itself.
Interestingly, there was also sadness in the voice about how many parents no longer follow ‘traditional’ rules, with concern about the loss of hierarchy within families and that patriarchal society would fall apart. For many modern parents and myself such change in our societal structure is welcome but to someone identified with traditional rules it is scary. (See my piece on the Inner Patriarch, a self that holds the rules of the outer patriarchy but affects both women and men from within.)
The limitations of attachment parenting and the gifts from your inner authoritarian parent
When you look at conflict from a Voice Dialogue perspective, you don’t label one side as ‘right’ and the other as ‘wrong’, even if you identify mostly with one side. Both sides have some truth to them, both have gifts to offer, and each has limitations.
Attachment parents can easily see the limitations of the other side, but what are the limitations of our own side and are there any gifts the other side can offer?
For a start, many mothers (and it usually still is mothers) can lose touch with themselves as individuals when they become too enmeshed with their child and its needs. That can lead to over-tiredness, depression, loss of interest in previous interests/work/hobbies, decreased sex drive and/or interest in one’s partner, irritability, and sometimes feeling irrationally angry at their children or partner. Some mothers even get to the point of feeling as if they have ceased to exist in their own right.
Other mothers can give up all their power to their child. So the child develops a sense of absolute entitlement to have his or her needs met, at the expense of everyone else’s. This leads to children who lose respect for their mother and feel they can do anything and that no one else matters (narcissism).
So one of the gifts of authoritarian parenting is the ability to stay in touch with the part of yourself who can separate from your child and think of you. That allows you to see what your own needs are as well as your child’s. That side of you will be able to think about and plan activities that interest you and are not necessarily related to your children. If you are 100% focused on your child’s needs, then you are unable to consider your own.
If you co-sleep with your child, then being able to listen to the feelings of the non-attachment part of you who wants to sprawl out on the bed without concern about squashing the baby will help you to take some sleep-time for yourself. Being able to leave your baby to sleep on its own sometimes will give you space to honour that part of you who wants to be alone or only with your partner or with your other children.
The importance of energetic connection as opposed to physical presence
For here’s another factor to consider: connection with your child is more important than whether you are always physically present. A mother can be physically with her baby – even while doing something as intimate as breastfeeding – but not be connected with her baby energetically. While a mother can also be physically apart from her baby, but stay connected energetically. (This article explains energetic connection further.)
So you can put your baby down to sleep as often as is comfortable for you both, yet create a conscious connection between the two of you as you leave the room. Your inner authoritarian parent will love that!
You can also maintain your connection if you become involved in other things, keeping a kind of invisible link between you. Many mothers do this naturally and unconsciously anyway – it is how we ‘know’ when our baby needs us.
It is the connection between parent and child that is the main gift of attachment parenting. Being close and focused on your child’s needs naturally leads to a closer connection, and that’s something some non-attachment parents and their children might miss out on.
But in practice most parents use a combination of strategies in how they parent and so most would find a way to connect with their children that suits their personality, values, family circumstances and so on.
So if you feel you might have become too attached with your child, then use the gifts that authoritarian parenting offers, such as a more impersonal approach for discerning whether a child’s need is a want or a need. You can still wholeheartedly follow attachment parenting principles, but if you remain conscious of the opposite perspective and can draw on its gifts too, then you have a real choice and greater inner resources available to you on your parenting journey.