Family Matters

Mayim Bialik on Attachment Parenting: ‘Very Small People Have a Voice’

The actress, neuroscientist — and, now, author — extolls the virtues of co-sleeping, extended breast-feeding and wearing baby as a bodily accessory.

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Attachment parenting — that catch-all term for natural childbirth, co-sleeping, wearing baby in a sling and breast-feeding for a really long time — has got a new celebrity advocate in “Big Bang Theory” actress Mayim Bialik, who has joined the ranks of famous people penning parenting guides. In Beyond the Sling: A Real-Life Guide to Raising Confident, Loving Children the Attachment Parenting Way, Bialik draws on her experiences raising her two sons, Miles, 6, and Frederick, 3½, as a jumping-off point from which to evangelize the attachment parenting, or AP, lifestyle.

It’s a good one, according to Bialik, who wound up as an author after comedy writer Teresa Strasser interviewed her for a podcast. “I wouldn’t want to parent like you,” Bialik recalls Strasser saying, “but you make it sound non-judgmental and make it make sense.” Strasser introduced Bialik to her agent, who was smitten with her Ph.D. in neuroscience. That, plus her mom creds, screamed “book material.”

Personally, I’m a little uneasy with the term “attachment parenting.” It feels presumptuous; after all, what well-intentioned parent isn’t attached to her kids? Still, I must admit subscribing to some degree to many of the tenets of AP. In an interview, Bialik, 36, noted that AP is actually a continuum. “It’s not all or nothing,” she says. “Some people sleep with their kids, some people breast-feed their kids until they’re 5 and some people don’t. The core principle is that a child’s voice matters.”

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Here, she answers questions about what it means to be an attachment parent and why she doesn’t believe in telling her kids to say “please” or “thank you.”

Healthland: How did you become interested in attachment parenting?

Bialik: We saw friends parenting before we had kids and saw some really interesting relationships emerging that weren’t governed by fear or force. Their children were expressing themselves appropriately without ruling their parents’ lives. I saw it matters that very small people have a voice.

Isn’t a common criticism of attachment parenting that the child’s in charge?

Developmental psychologists favor a child-centered philosophy at home. We are raised in a culture where parents’ needs and happiness are often put before children’s. I have a life. My kids don’t run my house. Attachment parenting is not a passive parenting style. The subtle difference is that you are very committed to being near your child and you’re also committing yourself to not encourage early independence but to embrace the natural progression of independence.

There’s a relatively recent notion in primate history that we not be with our children. I’ve heard a lot of people say, “I don’t really want to raise my kids. I want a nanny or I’ll put them in day care.” Being a caregiver for your child is part of the job description of being a mammal.

So can working parents not be attachment parents?

There are all kinds of attachment parents. It’s up to us to make it work in our family structure. If you work, it’s even more important to bond with them at night.

Why do you not guide your children to say “please,” “thank you” and “I’m sorry”?

We talk about positive modeling. And believe it or not, it works. We talk about lowering other people’s expectations of when they will say it. Grandparents, for example, often expect pleases and thank yous. We had to have conversations with them that we believe in teaching natural expressions of appreciation. Eventually, in a very age-appropriate manner, my children have generated “please,” “thank you” and “I’m sorry.”

In your book, you say you have never given your children antibiotics or Motrin and have dosed them with Tylenol six times. Is that part of AP too?

Attachment parenting takes no stance on medical issues or elimination communication [toilet-training babies; Bialik’s a fan. She writes: “Babies are born potty-trained; it’s the parents who need the training!”]. You will find in a lot of attachment parents the general desire for more education.

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You spend a lot of time in your book talking about babies. Do AP principles apply to older kids also?

On one hand, certain aspects do extend into adolescence like gentle discipline. But the significance of understanding infant attachment is important even if you no longer have infants. A lot of people look back and will say to me, “Now I understand why it was so hard to get my child out of the bed. By conventional standards, I was told I was spoiling him.”

Does our society just not understand the needs of children?

There’s something very wrong with the way we view pregnancy and labor to begin with. Many obstetricians don’t even know about breast-feeding. Many women are told they should give formula until their milk comes in.

Speaking of breast-feeding, you raised some eyebrows when you wrote a while ago about breast-feeding your 3-year-old. Are you still nursing him?

It’s Fred-led weaning. We stopped at night. He does still breast-feed during the day. He got sick and breast-fed four times a day. It’s not for everyone to breast-feed a toddler. I never expected to breast-feed a toddler. Given our family, there’s nothing wrong with breast-feeding Fred.

There’s another book that’s out by someone who’s your polar opposite. French feminist Elisabeth Badinter wrote The Conflict in which she says attachment parenting, on-demand breast-feeding and co-sleeping are undermining women’s equality. Have you heard of her?

She has children, she breast-fed her children. She sounds like a loving person. Academically she is discussing separating ourselves from our biology. It is a legit discussion. What I argue for is that feminism ultimately means choice and some women choose attachment parenting because they love it and believe in it. The most empowering feminist act is for women to be taught about the ways babies bond and then decide what they want to do.

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