Disclaimer of the day: I probably should have read all of David Code‘s To Raise Happy Kids, Put Your Marriage First before I started writing about it. What an idea! So far, this is one of the best books I’ve discovered while writing this blog, and it’s helping me pull together a lot of ideas I’ve read about elsewhere but never quite pieced together before. Or maybe I did, but have just forgotten. That’s what happens with sleep deprivation–large chunks of your memory start doing drive-bys while you stand out on your front porch, drooling.
So let me try and give you Code’s basic premise without butchering it too badly. As babies, our livelihood depends on our attachment to our parents: if we’re securely attached to them, they respond to our needs and we live. So to make sure we understand what’s going on with those large, parental-types, we “monitor our caregiver’s cues and remain constantly vigilant of her (52).” In addition to all this survival stuff, attunement is also how we learn our social skills.
By interacting with their caregivers in this parent-child loop, babies soak up basic ground rules for interacting, such as how to be attentive and listen, how to start a conversation, how to read the other person’s feelings, and other social graces that help us to interact with others as we grow up. (54)
(Remember that one for later. Whatever your interactions with your caregiver, they set the stage for your future relationships. Scary, huh? Now think back to all those bad boys you dated before you met your mate. Makes a little more sense, doesn’t it?)
And then comes weaning. And here, Code says, is where things get a little messed up. “Weaning,” he writes, “is a much more important transition than we realize. In fact, our emotional weaning as children affects our future personalities, our attitudes, and the way we interact in relationships (55).” Oh, yeah! Strap yourself in, baby, because here we go!
According to Code, many of today’s parents are over involved with our kids because we’re trying to make up for the lack of love and attention we felt we missed out on as children. (If your childhood was perfect and you come from a fantabulous family, you might want to skip this post. As well as every other post in this blog, probably.) So we overcompensate, and get a little too stuck in the parent-child bond in the process (59). And then what? You can hear those warning bells going off in the background, right?
Without realizing it, this…parent with the best of intentions may (unknowingly) create her own worst nightmare, because coddling can impair a child’s future independence and survival skills…. Attunement is simply a sophisticated mechanism for communication between caregiver and child, but now it begins to deliver messages to the child that don’t seem to jibe with Mommy’s behavior. His caregiver may be verbally telling him to grow up, do well in school, and succeed, but the nonverbal messages he’s receiving via attunement tell a very different story: “You can’t handle this; let me take care of you.”
It is exactly this incongruence between what parents say verbally and what they communicate through attunement that causes many problems for our children today. What we say to our kids doesn’t matter nearly as much as what we worry about, because our worry is communicated much more clearly than we realize, via attunement. (61)
Frightened yet? You should be. (If not, go see the documentary Race to Nowhere. That’ll scare the bejesus out of you.) Read on:
Many of us worry about our child picking up emotional scars in childhood, and we want to minimize the trauma in our child’s life, so we soothe him, instead of letting him learn to self-soothe. We worry about our kids’ future: we want them to do well in school, go to top colleges, and succeed in their careers. So we help them with their homework. We worry whether our kids will become happy, fulfilled adults: we figure this starts with living joyful childhoods. Thus, we don’t burden them with preparing meals, washing the dishes, or doing household chores. But we’re completely unaware that our attunement is communicating one message, loud and clear: “I’m worried about this. You can’t handle this, and you don’t need to. Someone will take care of this for you.”
OK, there’s so much I can and should be saying here about all my own obvious parenting mistakes in this realm, but for now I’d like to end with this provocative passage:
Here’s the definition of overparenting: it is doing for your child what your child can and should do for herself. Today’s parents rescue our children from their anger or sadness. We rescue them from conflict and problem-solving. We use electronics to rescue them from boredom or loneliness, and we rescue them from feeding or cleaning up after themselves.
And we think we’re preparing them for a successful launch into happy adulthood? (61-62)