The Growth of Competitive Parenting (or ‘When You’re Not AP enough to be an Attachment Parent’).

I spend my life as a ‘parenting expert’ (yes – I hate that terminology too) in a strange dichotomy.

On the one hand I am far “too crunchy” for many. They send me emails almost daily stating that I live in “la la land”, that I can’t possibly have any actual parenting experience, or if I do I must have easy children with no medical problems or behaviour issues (for the record I have both). They say I can’t have more than one child for if I did I would know that my “nice in theory, hippy, advice doesn’t work” (I have four kids). They tell me that I must only have young children, that I can’t possibly have teenagers, as what I suggest clearly only works for young children (I’m already there!). My suggestions of understanding, empathy, connection and having respect for children are scoffed at regularly, especially when I give advice in a mainstream parenting publication, Facebook page, or God forbid: The Daily Mail.

On the other hand there are the ‘die hard APers’. They are often far more acerbic in their analysis of my advice and support. Surprisingly so for those who practice peaceful parenting. I am regularly questioned for my suggestions that don’t fit into what they presume to be ‘attachment parenting’ (which tends to not fit my definition). If I so much as support a parent who is formula feeding, using a cot in a separate bedroom, swaddling, or doesn’t want to babywear you can bet your life I’ll get an email from someone telling me I’m “letting the side down” or that I’m “selling out“.


Here’s the thing. Well actually three things, though:


1. Attachment parenting is based on attachment theory. John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth at no point said that all babies and toddlers should bedshare, be carried, baby led wean, breastfeed, wear cloth nappies, be born at home and never, ever cry. These ‘tools’ have nothing to do with attachment theory (which is what I support, rather than attachment parenting). They are modern-day additions that have formed an idealistic label. They are not necessary, certainly not in order to foster a secure attachment with a child. They may make *our* job easier (and I’m a fan of them all), but they are not a pre-requisite.

Contrary to public (AP) opinion it is perfectly possible to be a great, respectful and empathic parent if your child sleeps in a cot in their own room, is formula fed and you use a buggy. Attachment theory is about providing a ‘secure base’ for the child. Allowing them to attach when they need to and detach when they need to. It’s about being ‘good enough’ as a mother (or father) to allow the child small, well-timed, doses of separation so that they emerge as an independent, confident child and adult as they grow. It isn’t about “the stuff”. I have met several ‘attachment parents’ who religiously use these tools, yet fall quite short of the mark when it comes to fully respecting and empathising with their child. This ‘stuff’ doesn’t make you a better parent than somebody who doesn’t use them, but responds fully to their child. Sadly though this ‘stuff’ sometimes leads those who religiously use them to feel and act in a superior manner to those who don’t use ‘the stuff’.



ap2. Parenting is bloody hard. We ALL make mistakes. At some point we ALL will not quite meet our child’s needs. At some point we will ALL do something ‘wrong’. We’ll ALL feel guilty.

If you haven’t yet, it’s because you’re not quite far down your parenting path enough. I promise you, that day WILL come. Don’t make your fall harder than it will already be. Seriously though, that’s just what being a parent is all about. We’re human, we all make mistakes. The real key is in recognising that mistake, accepting it, forgiving yourself, rectifying the situation and moving on.

We don’t have a supportive tribe around us. We tend to not be given much encouragement from others about our parenting skills. The last thing we need is other mothers criticising us. Especially when they don’t know us. We need to support each other. There are ways and means of gently leading a mother to the information that she (perhaps doesn’t yet know) that she needs. When she gets there though it’s important that she is given the time and space to digest that information herself. If the information is forced upon her, or disseminated in such as way that it is too painful for her to consider, she will never be open to it. It’s easy to live in a parenting ivory tower, but it’s an awful long way to fall when your inevitable mistake happens, especially if you’ve alienated the people who might catch you when you fall while climbing up. We really do need to extend more empathy to other parents if we ever want to make a change for the better.



3. People know me as ‘a gentle parenting advocate’, which is true (see this piece for what I believe gentle parenting encompasses). I am however far more of an advocate of the ‘do the least harm’ parenting philosophy.

Everyone is fighting their own battles and has their own demons. Usually well hidden. When it comes to the internet in particular we have no idea what they are. We don’t know if the reason that they ‘can’t breastfeed’ is actually due to the sexual abuse that they experienced as a child. We don’t know if the reason that they ‘can’t bedshare’ is because they are taking strong antidepressants that nobody else knows they take. We don’t know if the reason that they ‘need to sleep train’ is because they are teetering on the edge of severe PND and/or a marital breakup.

If we don’t know why somebody has made the choices that they have, then we are in absolutely no position to judge (and certainly not in a position to tell them what they SHOULD be doing). This should be a great time to use our ‘gentle’ skills. It’s time to use the empathy that we speak so much about and give other mothers a break.

I’m not advocating that all mainstream, common parenting is OK, or that “whatever goes” is fine. It isn’t (and there are certain things that I could never, ever support). Doing the least harm however is often as good as it gets in a lot of cases though. I have taught parents to sleep train using methods that I would never normally condone because I recognised that the alternative would have been far more damaging to the child. I have supported parents through birthing procedures that I would never support usually because for them or their baby (all things physical and emotional considered) it was the route of least harm. I have suggested swaddling and dummies to many parents who formula feed and *need* sleep and I have also suggested the use of rewards for children if the circumstances meant they were necessary (and sometimes they are)……and I will carry on suggesting these too. Just as I will suggest ‘AP tools’ where I feel appropriate too.

Unless we have walked a mile in somebody’s shoes who are we to judge them or tell them what is best for their child?


I get that people are passionate about parenting and supporting the rights of a child. I am both. This is why discussions get so heated. The intentions are all good. The responses they elicit less so.

What time has taught me though is that my ‘ideals’ and the information that parents really need (at a particular moment in time) are far apart. Time has also taught me that when I have a strong reaction to something parenting related it is often because it has triggered unresolved feelings in my own life. These are my feelings that I need to deal with, not project onto somebody else.

To make a difference to the world, or perhaps just a few children, we need to leave our ideals on the back bench for a bit and listen. Often that means coming from a place of ‘do the least harm’ and that’s OK. In fact it’s more than OK. Imagine if all parents ‘did the least harm’ for their children, how different the world would be then!

Imagine if all parents treated each other with the very tenets of GentleParenting that I have just mentioned: undertanding, empathy and respect. What a world that would be, imagine how much we could change things for children if we all supported, rather than attacked each other!



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Published by SarahOckwell-Smith

Sarah Ockwell-Smith, Parenting author and mother to four.

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