At some point after my “tirade” against Attachment Parenting (which you know was not really a “tirade” but more of a, “yo! why you be frontin’?”), a bunch of people were linking to Dr. Popcak’s blog post which (in a passive aggressive way, IMO) insisted that Attachment Parenting is the method with God’s stamp of approval. No he didn’t say that. But he said it. Just read it and see if you get what I mean. He clearly starts out saying that there’s not an approved method, but then by the end he’s suggesting that the clear choice is to use attachment parenting: breastfeeding, babywearing, co-sleeping, etc. Again, he’s not saying that. Maybe I’m way too sensitive approaching this? Someone?
I agree with a lot of things that Dr. Popcak has to say in this piece. I thought it was pretty cool how he applied Theology of the Body to parenting to give us some insights into the nature of love even as it applies to our roles as parents. Yes, we should, as Catholic parents, strive to live out our calling as parents in a way that is consistent with the Church and with our understanding of who God is, etc.
Yes. There there is a Catholic way to parent, guided by the morals of our Church and even enlightened by Theology of the Body. But there is not just one method of application. If you decide to put your baby in a crib rather than co-sleeping, you have not just written virtue out of their future. You have not eliminated intimacy nor have you somehow eliminated any opportunity to embody love for your child. And if you have fallen into the trap of thinking that following a set of rules will save your kids soul, then I’m sorry to tell you that you will be disappointed.
Readers of Dr. Popcak (maybe not Popcak, himself), have equated his message with the “clear choice” for Catholic parents who want to raise “virtuous, truth-seeking children.” (I’m sorry if I fail to see the connection between breastfeeding as an infant and virtue as an adult.)
But check out this quote a friend shared with me from Gaudium et Spes (Pope Paul VI):
“Often enough the Christian view of things will itself suggest some specific solution in certain circumstances. Yet it happens rather frequently, and legitimately so, that with equal sincerity some of the faithful will disagree with others on a given matter. Even against the intentions of their proponents, however, solutions proposed on one side or another may be easily confused by many people with the Gospel message. Hence it is necessary for people to remember that no one is allowed in the aforementioned situations to appropriate the Church’s authority for his opinion. They should always try to enlighten one another through honest discussion, preserving mutual charity and caring above all for the common good.” (p. 43)
Dr. Popcak compared parenting to other occupations. But parenting isn’t our “occupation” per se. It is our vocation. And I think we can gain a little insight on this “parenting method” question by comparing our vocation to the other vocation: that of the priesthood.
There are clear rules, sure. There are clearly defined abuses too. There are also many different “flavors” of priest. We have diocesan priests and religious: Franciscans, Jesuits, Benedictines, Dominicans, etc. All have their different charisms, focuses, methods! And yet they are all part of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. And it is beautiful! We are not arguing the Benedictine rule vs. the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius as if one is not really the Catholic way. The Church embraces both.
Similarly with those whose vocation is to marriage (and also to be parents) we can see different methods applied while still living out our calling as Catholic Parents. You may choose attachment parenting. I may choose a more structured approach. Someone else may choose no “method,” but follows their parental intuition in each situation (probably more of where I am at at this point…not a huge fan of “method”). But since the Church, in all her wisdom, has not deemed it necessary to pronounce anathemas on non-co-sleeping parents, or to even make the recommendation to co-sleep, why do we feel it is our place to make such declarations?
Why I Don’t Like Methods
I can see that there is value in early attachment with an infant. I can see that regardless of where I come faith-wise. But I can also see value in recognizing when your child’s needs have been met and they are exerting their will against your will (usually later in their infancy…I can see it in my one-year-old who also has temper tantrums at his toys who are not doing what he wants them to do). This is called concupiscence. It’s in our kids whether or not you want to recognize it! Not every cry is out of need.
I’ll grant that yes, in early infancy, crying is solely how the baby communicates need or discomfort and while I will never admit that I use any kind of attachment parenting, I meet my baby’s needs regardless of when these needs arise. But there does come a time when baby crying is not just need-based. At some point, baby has learned that if he wants something (even illegitimate wants) he can cry to try to get it. It’s at that point that as parents you need to apply a greater calling of love than just what makes you emotionally comfortable (stopping baby from crying), and seeking out the good of your child.
Love seeks one thing only: the good of the one loved. It leaves all the other secondary effects to take care of themselves. Love, therefore, is its own reward. – Thomas Merton
By seeking out the good of your child, you have to apply reason. You have to make sure his needs are met, and that his cries are truly not out of need. And we are, indeed, called as parents to have a self-less love for our children. If they need to eat in the middle of the night, we meet that need, even if it means we will be groggy in the morning.
It seems to me that people like Dr. Popcak like to paint a straw man of the cry-it-out parent as someone who is unmoved when met with the needs of their child. Maybe that was a thing at some point, but I’ve never met anyone like that. I have heard people accuse the writers of Baby Wise of such an attitude, but I guess they haven’t read the same Baby Wise that I did.
The one I read stressed flexibility. Yes you encourage your baby into a schedule, but it’s a baby-led, parent directed schedule. There is little “scheduling” of the very young child, but more of a discovery period for parents to understand the infant’s needs.
But the picture Popcak paints of such parents in some of his other writings is more grim. The parent who schedules baby is selfish. The parent who schedules baby is emotionally damaged themselves. The parent who schedules their baby is lacking in natural love or sympathy. To that, I cry, “Bogus!” (Ha! I’m an 80s child…move on!)
Some parents natural style is more like the attachment parenting style. Some parents more naturally like to create structure. The parents primary duty to their children is education, especially spiritual education. We are to make them good citizens. And their training ground for that is to be good members of the family. Good members of my family learn that this time is when our family sleeps. This time is when our family eats. But that may not be your style. You do need to apply Catholic principles to your parenting. But the styles in which you do that may vary.
And just when you think you have it all figured out yourself, you may also find that one child needs a different style of parenting from you than another did. It doesn’t mean you’ve left your principles behind, but it may mean you have to find another way to communicate them. I personally find that I have to just take each situation as it comes and do my best to account for baby’s needs and baby’s good, and the good of our family. And there’s not a method to that.
Some parents are better at getting on the floor and playing with their kids. Other parents show their love by making sure they have home made meals. Other parents show their love by working two or three jobs and hours they hate to make sure their children’s needs are met. All of them are still able to incorporate embodied and intimate love into their styles and circumstances.
This part of the message is what seems to be missing from what Dr. Popcak wrote…though to be fair I’ve never read his book (only the excerpts available on Amazon). He may very well have written a bunch of stuff about not judging other parents who do things differently, and his readers just ignore it. After all, some people read Baby Wise and somehow miss that it’s all about flexible schedules – learning baby’s cues and helping them naturally find their own schedule.
We all like to make things on “the other side” black and white instead of trying to understand nuances, don’t we? I’m equally to blame.
So if there’s not one approved method, what does the Church say?
There is room for our different personalities, strengths, charisms, gifts, etc. in Catholic parenting. I agree with Dr. Popcak that we should be listening to the church and learning from her. He gives two principles to be drawn from Theology of the Body: love is embodied, and love is intimate (and really you should read his post! Just don’t feel like you HAVE to adopt attachment parenting to put these principles to work in your family!). These are great insights into the nature of love, and we do well to let that enlighten our style.
But in all this talk about “the Catholic way,” I was curious what exactly the Church does take the time to make clear to us as parents. So here, let me bestow on you her great wisdom from the Catechism (excerpts, but please check out the whole section here!):
2222 Parents must regard their children as children of God and respect them as human persons.
2223 …They bear witness to this responsibility first by creating a home where tenderness, forgiveness, respect, fidelity, and disinterested service are the rule. The home is well suited for education in the virtues. This requires an apprenticeship in self-denial, sound judgment, and self-mastery – the preconditions of all true freedom. Parents should teach their children to subordinate the “material and instinctual dimensions to interior and spiritual ones.” …. By knowing how to acknowledge their own failings to their children, parents will be better able to guide and correct them: “He who loves his son will not spare the rod…He who disciplines his don will profit by him” (Sir. 30:1-2), and “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4).
2225 Through the grace of the sacrament of marriage, parents receive the responsibility and privilege of evangelizing their children…A wholesome family life can foster interior dispositions that are a genuine preparation for a living faith and remain a support for it throughout one’s life.
I don’t know about you, but I see some very important principles here to apply. Things we know need to be incorporated into our homes regardless of our parental styles are: tenderness, forgiveness, respect, fidelity, service. Our primary duty is to evangelize our children. Their training in our home must accomplish a moral and spiritual formation of the person. We must teach them self-denial, sound judgment, and self-mastery. Parents must lead by example in these things.
Now, looking at what the church does say, I can see how one would choose an attachment method to put his into practice. I can see room for a scheduled method too. I think we can all stand to sit and listen and learn something from each other rather than assuming that cry-it-out parents don’t have hearts or that attachment parents lack discipline.
Instead maybe we’d see that cry-it-out parents are good at teaching their children discipline and self-mastery or that attachment parents are good at teaching tenderness and service. Maybe it’s not either/or. Maybe we need a little bit of both. It looks like we need discipline (don’t “spare the rod”) and tenderness (“don’t provoke your children to anger”).
There may be a Catholic way to Parent…But how that way is applied in our own individual circumstances is not so black and white. It will not look the same for every family, just like our education choices and our discipline choices will not look the same. We are not the same.