11 surprising beliefs that free range and attachment parents share

A lot of people seem to think that attachment parenting means helicopter parenting.

Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Maybe it’s the name? (There are a lot of problems with the name “attachment parenting,” but that’s an issue for another post.) The idea that your children are “attached” to you seems to imply that you keep them close at all times. That you never let them out of your sight. That you, and only you, are responsible for their health, happiness, and well-being.

Maybe I’m an anomaly in API circles, but to me, attachment parenting means exactly the opposite.

The heart of attachment parenting is supposed to be about meeting your child’s needs, right? Which for a newborn means pretty much holding them all the time (or letting someone else hold them, which works too), because, well, newborns usually like to be held. But as a baby grows, he needs to be put down more and more. And at some point, his dependency needs — to be carried, to be fed, to be held and rocked and protected — are outgrown by his independent needs — to walk away from you, to say no, to try new things, to “do it mysewf.” To me, the whole point of attachment parenting — the whole point of parenting, period, really — is to meet his needs so that he can meet his own needs. To teach him to fly so he can get out of the nest. To hold on tight so that you can let go.

And it seems to me that many attachment parents develop into free-range parents. We do, after all, have a lot in common — in philosophy, at least, if not always in practice. Like these philosophies.

1. Children deserve respect. This is in many ways the core of both philosophies. Attachment parenting is focused on treating children, and especially babies, with respect, especially when they are in stages where they are particularly dependent. Free-range parents focus on giving kids the respect of trust and independence when they are ready for it (and on teaching them skills to succeed). But these two stages of respect are really two sides of the same coin: meeting a child’s needs while he is dependent is what gives him the courage and the independence to venture out alone when he is ready.

2. A child’s (or a baby’s) communication is important. Believe in the language of your baby’s cries, say attached parents. What a baby is saying means something, and it’s important. Free-range parents say the same about older children: they are capable of communicating with both you and other adults. It’s good to talk to strangers, as long as you learn how. Kids should trust their instincts about strangers and potentially dangerous situations. We shouldn’t tell them what to think about strangers; we should encourage them to learn to recognize red flags. We should listen to their communication instead of overriding what they think with our own opinions.

3. Children need a tribe. A lot of the criticism of AP centers around the implication that AP parents can never be separate from their kids, ever. And for some AP parents, that is the case. But for most AP parents I know, the reality is that no one person can be that present in a child’s life. They recognize that the norm in most human cultures is for babies to bond with multiple caregivers. And so they encourage several adults to step into the role of parent by bonding with the baby and caring for him. Like free-range parents, who teach their kids to find a trustworthy adult to help them when parents aren’t around, AP parents seek out adults who can do what, in many families, only parents do. AP circles, for example, are the only place (outside of polygamous cults, anyway!) where you’ll find moms willing to breastfeed each other’s babies.

4. Parenting choices should be balanced and based in common sense. Really, I don’t know anyone who disagrees with this, and I know that “common sense” is actually neither. And what seems like common sense in one culture is utter nonsense in another. But I think both AP and free-range parents tend to be balanced in their parenting styles, if for no other reason than because the extreme forms of both styles are pretty extreme. If you take the principles of AP as rules rather than tools to draw from when necessary, you’ll turn into a kangaroo. If you take free-range to its farthest extreme, you’ll be charged with neglect. You have to balance the philosophies of nurture and freedom against the realities of life.

5. Many “modern” parenting ideas are mistaken or silly. The scare tactics of sleep trainers (she’ll be sleeping with you in high school!), misinformed doctors (breastfeed only for ten minutes on each side every three hours!), and nervous neighbors (your kid will be kidnapped if you let him play in the yard!) are all equally ridiculous. I know that for many of my friends and readers, AP ideas seem like the norm that you’re pressured to conform to. But that’s only true within a very small circle. The reality is that both AP parents and free-range parents are bucking the trends of the majority in our culture. Most people in the U.S. are not breastfeeding till age two or sending eight year olds to the park alone. To do those things, you have to be willing to ignore some advice.

6. Do what works. Some people may feel pressure to do AP things because they feel like it’s “the right” way to parent. But I don’t think anyone should, and I think most people who feel pressure to do it end up not doing much of it. Most of the parents I know who claim the label “AP” fell into it because it was easy and it worked. Wearing your baby, continuing breastfeeding, and cosleeping aren’t Olympic competitions for overachieving parents; for most parents who do them, they’re the lazy way of keeping a baby happy. Popping a boob in a toddler’s mouth takes a lot less creativity — and is a lot more effective — than explaining why it’s not okay for him to snatch the red sailboat from little Johnny. Tossing a baby on your back so you can wash the dishes while he falls asleep is a lot easier than spending twenty minutes soothing him to sleep (or days training him) so he will nap in the crib. And sending your kid outside to play with the neighbors is a lot easier than supervising him constantly and arranging enrichment activities and play dates.

7. Parents deserve respect too (and their needs are important too). I know a lot of people don’t get this impression from the AP world. But it is one of the principles of AP. And for me, taking care of myself is a core piece of being an AP parent. When I’m breastfeeding, cosleeping, and frequently wearing a baby, I start to think of the baby and myself as a unit — a dyad, yes, but still in many ways very intertwined, in a biological as well as an emotional sense. So taking care of myself isn’t just equally important as taking care of the baby; it’s actually part of taking care of the baby. And of course this is true of every parent (we all should put our own oxygen masks on first), but for me, AP practices make that truth more obvious. And of course free-range parents are strong proponents of living and letting live — and of trusting parents to make decisions for their own families without pressure or intervention.

8. Kids don’t need lots of stuff. They need you, they need skills, they need knowledge, they need trust. They don’t need a ton of toys and gadgets and entertainment. Less is more.

9. Kids belong outside. It’s not a principle of attachment parenting, but I don’t know a single attachment parent who doesn’t think this. Both free-range parents and “natural” parents tend to kick their kids out of the house, get outside, and encourage physical play.

10. Parents and kids can work together. If I had to summarize the AP principle of positive, gentle discipline in a sentence, that would be it: work with your child instead of fighting against him. And free-range parents have to work with their kids, because you can’t trust your kid without you until you know how he’s going to function without you. You have to communicate with him, teach him skills, and work with him to figure out what he’s capable of and when he’s ready to be sent into “the wild” without you.

11. Parents should educate themselves. Preparation is the first principle of attachment parenting, and it’s true of free-range parents, too. Both say you shouldn’t assume that the way other people do things is the right way for your family. Learn about your own options. Learn the facts. Make your own choices.

Are all attachment parents free range? Of course not — and the reverse is certainly not true either. But there’s a community of overlap. To me, being AP lays a natural foundation for becoming free range. Because you know what? After a couple of years of nursing, carrying, entertaining, and caring for a child constantly, it is easy to let go. The more you take the opportunity to cuddle and snuggle and cater to a young baby, the easier it is to give your child freedom. I did my time; I’m ready to send my toddler out into the wild. Heck, if my four year old ever decides to wean, I’ll probably be ready to send her to boarding school. Get her out of my hair. How’s that for free-range?

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