• June 2012

Are You Dad Enough?

By Kathleen McCarthy
Senior Editor
Be Inkandescent magazine

The cover of the May 21 issue of TIME magazine (right) shows a 3-year-old boy standing on a small chair beside his young, attractive mother.

What makes the image by photographer Martin Schoeller so eye-catching is that one side of the woman’s spaghetti-strap top is pulled down so that her son can nurse from her exposed breast.

Indeed, TIME’s backstory on the cover photo explains that the Los Angeles mom who is pictured “subscribes to attachment parenting,” the catch phrase that encapsulates the parenting philosophy of pediatrician William Sears.

“Dr. Bill” and his wife, Martha Sears, an RN, are parents of eight children themselves, and prolific writers. He has authored more than 40 books, and she more than two dozen.

The well-thumbed book that made the Sears couple the go-to source for child-rearing advice in the post-Dr. Spock era is The Baby Book: Everything You Need to Know About Your Baby From Birth to Age Two, published first in 1992 and updated and reissued in 2003.

Although the Sears’ don’t specify a particular age by which mothers should wean their children, Martha Sears in The Breastfeeding Book notes that “The World Health Organization recommends at least two years of breastfeeding for babies around the world.”

In addition to the typical reasons that support the wisdom of breastfeeding in general—security, immunity, nutrition, and comfort—Martha Sears notes one big payoff of extended nursing: sensitivity. “These are kids who care,” she says of the teens they see in their pediatric practice who “were not weaned before their time.”

It’s not the extended nursing itself that results in empathetic adults. It’s that extended nursing is part of the patchwork of engagement with children that encourages closeness between parent and child, the foundation of attachment parenting. And, the Sears claim, it’s attachment parenting that results in more confident parenting, happier families, and happier homes.

What, exactly, is “attachment parenting”?

According to Dr. Sears, it’s a close relationship between parents and their children. The Sears’ have found that when parents use the seven basic building blocks of attachment parenting listed below, the results are healthier, happier, more well-adjusted kids.

The building blocks include:

1. Birth bonding: “Spending lots of time together after birth and beyond allows the natural attachment-promoting behaviors of the infant and the intuitive, biological caregiving qualities of the mother to come together.”

2. Breastfeeding: “Breastfeeding is an excellent exercise in getting to know your baby—something we call baby reading.

3. Babywearing: “Carried babies fuss less and spend more time in a state of quiet alertness. … Also, when you ‘wear’ your baby, you become more sensitive as a parent.”

4. Bed sharing: “There is no one right place for all babies to sleep. Wherever all family members get the best night’s sleep is the right arrangement for your individual family. Most, but not all, babies sleep best when they are close to their parents. … It may work for you on some nights and not on other nights.”

5. Belief in baby’s cries: “Crying is a valuable signal designed to ensure the baby’s survival and to develop the parents’ caregiving abilities. Babies, therefore, cry to communicate, not to manipulate.”

6. Balance and boundaries: “The key to putting balance in your parenting is being appropriately responsive to your baby—knowing when to say ‘yes’ and when to say ‘no,’ and having the wisdom to say ‘yes’ to yourself when your need help.”

7. Beware of baby trainers: Purveyors of a restrained style of baby care, the hallmark of which is advice for detaching from your child such as, “Let him cry it out,” “Get him on a schedule,” and “Don’t pick her up so much, you’re spoiling her!”

These building blocks, from The Attachment Parenting Book, are not rules, but tools, insists Dr. Sears.

And when added to the parenting arsenal, using them enables parents to become the expert on their particular child, which makes it easier to know how to parent their child well in whatever situation arises.

Keep in mind that attachment parenting will not “make you perfect parents of perfect children,” Dr. Bill writes. But “we can promise you that your children will turn out better than if you hadn’t practiced attachment parenting.”

This high-touch way of caring for children has its detractors. Some feel the standard implied by carrying your child for hours a day, nursing for years, and sleeping with your child at night is unrealistic for most parents and almost certainly unattainable for working parents. The TIME magazine cover was derided not only for the image, which some described as creepy and offensive, but also because of the challenging headline—“Are You Mom Enough?“—that accompanied the image.

The Sears’ also acknowledge that attachment parenting “asks a lot of parents, especially in the first three to six months. You give a lot of yourself to your baby—your time, your energy, your commitment,” they write in “The Attachment Parenting Book.” “But you get back a lot more in return.”

Nuggets for New Fathers

“The traditional stereotype of fathers, especially new ones, is that they are well-meaning but fumbling and inept,” Sears writes in “Becoming a Father.”

“I do not think this stereotype is at all accurate. In fact, studies have shown that fathers who are given the opportunity and are encouraged to take an active part in holding and comforting their newborns are just as nurturing as mothers.”

Sears grew up without a father, and yet he not only figured out how to become a good father himself, but passed on the hard-won knowledge to other men. He confesses he had to grow into becoming a father, and he wasn’t a quick learner. “With our first two children I was a lousy dad and an even lousier husband,” he writes. (He seems to have regained the ground he lost; his marriage survived and his oldest two children are both now pediatricians themselves who work with their father in the same pediatric practice.)

The legacy fathers bestow on their children can be powerful. My own father, now 89, is a good man and a great dad—smart, good-humored, ethical, and kind. In fact, I attribute my success in choosing a good mate in part to seeing my father as a model of the kind of man I wanted to be married to, and in part being the product of a happy marriage that allowed me to grow up observing daily how two people nurture a loving relationship over many years.

Those who didn’t grow up with a secure relationship with their fathers will be encouraged by Dr. Bill’s observation of unsatisfying father-child relationships: “A father who is less involved [with his child] does not develop a strong, trusting relationship with his child.” The silver lining is that these fathers are “less influential as a role model. This may explain why some children paradoxically do not appear to be highly affected by weak paternal role models.”

Here are Dr. Bill’s tips for fathers who want to be a good role model for their children, all from “Becoming a Father.”

  • Father as Nurturer: “The father will be a more effective role model as a male, as a disciplinarian, as a decision-maker, and as a family leader if he has been and continues to be nurturing and affectionate with his children from infancy on. … “This is because early nurturing builds trust, and trust forms the basis of all subsequent relationships.”
  • Father as Comforter: “Comfort comes from a Latin word that means ‘to give strength.’ If dads are to be models of strength, they also need to model comfort. This is especially important for sons. A boy needs to grow up learning to be sensitive. He needs to balance assertiveness with tenderness.”
  • Father as Decision-Maker: “The growing child should see that important family matters require a decision-making process that involves both mom and dad. A passive father is an ineffective role model for his children. A father who makes all the family decisions on his own is also a poor role model, someone more likely to inspire anger and rebellion in his children than respect.”
  • Father as a Model of Emotional Expression: “When you empathize with your child’s frustration, joy, or disappointment, you are helping her understand herself better. This is the foundation for learning to empathize with others. Let your children know what you are feeling (‘I’m sad because Grandma is sick’ or ‘I’m frustrated because I can’t fix the drain’) so that they gain experience with interpreting emotions beyond their own. … Children are especially vulnerable to the emotion of anger. While occasional and quickly resolved anger is a normal healthy emotion, persistent and unresolved anger has potential do to harm.”

  • Father as Model of Values: “Father’s role is to use discipline, affection, and his own consistent example to transfer his values to his child at an early age. He can then continually reinforce these values curing those stages in a child’s life when she is exposed to alternatives. The parent’s values become the standard by which all other values are measured. If the standard the child has been given is weak, then she is left to flounder in a sea of uncertainty, vulnerable to unhealthy alternatives.”
  • Father as Model of Trust: “Build up trust with your child when she is a newborn. … Security is a major factor in child development. Feeling secure frees a child to be a child: to learn, to grow, and to practice her skills. Insecurity breeds underdevelopment.
  • Father as Model of Health and Fitness: “Show your children that healthy eating, healthy living, and being physically active are important. A lean, fit father is more likely to have a fit family.”
  • Father as a Model of Sexuality: “The physical soothing and closeness that you give your baby teach her to be comfortable touching and being touched. Responding appropriately to your baby’s cues, honoring her signals for more stimulation or less, help her learn to cope with her own feelings, including her sexual feelings. … Your relationship with your wife will also influence your child’s sexuality. Children should learn from their parents that respect and affection go together in marriage.”
  • Absent Fathers: The absence of a father in the home presents special problems for children. … Boys seem to be particularly vulnerable to father’s absence during early developmental stages when they are learning to control their own impulses. Boys between the ages of 12 and 30 months shows more aggressive behavior when their fathers are absent. … Girls reared in homes where the father is absent show a higher incidence of difficulties in later interactions with males.”

Click here to read more about Dr. Bill Sears and Martha Sears.

To Dr. Sears, to dads everywhere who are trying to do right by their children — and to my own dad — Happy Father’s Day!