The fixed children

From Los Angeles to Prenzlauer Berg in Berlin (and also in many trendy districts of Vienna) attachment parenting is very popular. This education tends to extremes such as breastfeeding up to the age of four.

The excitement was huge, the anger was just. The young mother, who had herself photographed on the cover of “Time”, with her almost four-year-old son at her breast, triggered a furious storm of debate: about how long children should actually be breastfed. But this discussion doesn’t go far enough. It is only one part of a school of thought that does much more than encourage children far into kindergarten age to suckle their mother’s breast. It is called “attachment parenting” – and it is currently very popular with many mothers from Los Angeles to Prenzlauer Berg (with a small detour to Vienna’s trendy districts).

The problem here is that the educational concept formulated by the American paediatrician William Sears, although well-intentioned, is very gladly interpreted and lived in an extreme way. The doctrine that is now generally accepted is that a successful relationship between child and parents promotes the development of stable personalities and the ability to establish stable social relationships.

No negative emotions. This is exactly what attachment parenting aims at. Only how this goal is achieved is highly controversial. Because Sears’ principles – such as breastfeeding when the child is hungry, intensive physical contact even at night or the avoidance of negative emotions – are sometimes practiced so mercilessly that they turn mothers and children into caricatures. And even worse, psychologists say, they also hinder children in their development.

The whole problem is a question of age. For babies, society now accepts most of the attachment parenting principles. They only become “agitators” when the children reach a certain age. And when there is still talk that children can be breastfed until school age, that they should sleep quietly in their parents’ bed until puberty or that all negative emotions should be kept away from them. “This is a border crossing, a disregard for the child. This has nothing more to do with attachment”, says the well-known German child psychiatrist and author Michael Winterhoff (“Why our children become tyrants”, “Let children be children again!”). “What do you do to a nearly four-year-old child whose mother has herself depicted on a magazine with him on her breast? That’s pure narcissism.”

The first nine months are decisive for laying the foundation stone for a child’s basic trust in its primary caregivers. An infant who needs to be cared for must always be cared for immediately. Otherwise there is a danger that the child could be damaged in its later ability to bind. “But at some point it will be over,” says Winterhoff. “From the age of nine months, children can wait one to two minutes. And at a certain point in time, they have lost nothing at all in their parents’ bed. Not even in the interest of the parents.”

The Viennese psychotherapist Sabine Völkl-Kernstock has a similar view. “Attachment parenting in this extreme form is in total contradiction to everything we know from developmental psychology. Above all to the autonomy aspirations of a child.” If the children are kept “for their own good” in an artificial dependency by their parents, they are in some way forced to remain small children beyond time.

This can lead to an imbalance in the social development of children. Many convinced attachment parenting supporters believe that children should go to kindergarten as late as possible or not at all. But if they do, it is not uncommon for these children to have problems with the social fabric. This is mainly due to the fact that their parents have accustomed them to the expectation that all their needs are always and immediately satisfied. This can make it difficult for children to accept that other people also have needs (and sometimes a similar categorical demand for their fulfilment). At the same time the children have no experience in dealing with frustrations and negative emotions, because the parents have always hermetically shielded them from them. Always set to pause. The bottom line is that, despite the best intentions, a low level of social competence often emerges. “Such children only see themselves and their desire satisfaction. They have no sense of wrongdoing and little empathy. They do not recognize any connections in conflicts and therefore cannot solve them. They do not accept structures and are always prepared for breaks,” says Michael Winterhoff.

The question remains, why do parents overshoot the mark with the best of intentions? “Perfectionism in upbringing,” says Völkl-Kernstock. “One only wants to do everything right, everything must be good for the child, it must never cry and never experience negative feelings. In a thoroughly technologicalized world, there is probably also the longing for alternative designs and for “naturalness”. Not only the food should be organic, but also the education. This does not automatically mean, however, that it is always digestible.


Jamie Lynne Grumet(26) lives in California. Her son Aram becomes four in June and is still breastfed by his mother. Grumet is a follower of attachment parenting and wants to give her son the breast until he gives it up. The cover triggered a worldwide controversy.

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Christina Cherry
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