API’s Role in Shaping Parenting: Highlights from the 2009 API Think Tank Event in Nashville, TN
In an unprecedented move, Attachment Parenting International gathered eight brilliant minds in Attachment Parenting for the organization’s 15th Anniversary Celebration gathering the last weekend of August in Nashville, Tennessee, USA. Never before had all these parenting experts appeared together at an event open to the public. For the hundreds of parents, students, and professionals sitting in the seats of Belmont University’s Troutt Theatre the afternoon of Saturday, August 29, 2009, the “Making an Impact Now: Creating a Sustainable Legacy for Children” Think Tank Event proved truly to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Moderator Lu Hanessian, author of Let the Baby Drive, founder of WYSH, host of API Live! teleseminars, and member of API’s Board of Directors, introduced the panel of speakers, each walking from behind the stage curtain to sit on chairs arranged in a semi circle under a six-foot banner proclaiming API’s anniversary theme: “Growing More Attached.” Making up the panel were:
- Martha Sears, RN – nurse and lactation consultant, La Leche League leader, mother to eight children, co-author of 25 parenting books, and member of API’s Advisory Board and Editorial Review Board.
- William Sears, MD – pediatrician and pediatrics professor at the University of California’s Irvine School of Medicine, father to eight children, and author or co-author to more than 40 parenting books, and member of API’s Advisory Board.
- Ina May Gaskin, MA, CPM – midwife, founder and director of the Farm Midwifery Center in Tennessee, and author of two childbirth books.
- Mary Ann Cahill – co-founder and former director of La Leche League International, mother of nine children, and author of a parenting book.
- Isabelle Fox, PhD – psychotherapist, author of two parenting books, mother, and member of API’s Advisory Board.
- James McKenna, PhD – anthropologist, professor, and director at Notre Dame University’s the Mother-Baby Behavioral Sleep Lab, author of three infant sleep books, and member of API’s Advisory Board.
- Barbara Nicholson, MEd – founder of API, mother to four children, co-author of Attached at the Heart, and member of API’s Board of Directors, Editorial Review Board, and Research Group.
- Lysa Parker, MS, CFLE – founder and former director of API, certified family life educator, mother to two children, co-author of Attached at the Heart, co-leader of API of Huntsville/Madison, and member of API’s Board of Directors, Editorial Review Board, and Research Group.
“This is quite an illustrious panel!” Hanessian said. Special tribute was paid to Nicholson and Parker, for “without you two ladies sitting at the table 15 years ago and commiserating about the future, we would not be here,” Hanessian said before launching into a discussion that could have easily lasted longer than the two hours allotted.
Hanessian opened the Think Tank Event through a series of questions exploring the theme, “Making an Impact Now: Creating a Sustainable Legacy for Children.” To sum it up, she wondered on behalf of parents worldwide what parenting for the future means for the choices parents are making everyday in their homes?
But first, how did API come to be?
API in the Beginning
API, like any effective organization, was borne out a need: “I realized when I had my first child, how few supports there were,” Parker said.
She found new mother support in her local La Leche League, which described a different way of parenting than much of mainstream promoted – one that resonated with her sense of self and where she gravitated toward in her parenting approach. “I think that was a miracle moment for me,” Parker said.
Through the years, Parker and Nicholson saw a need for this parenting approach to get into the reach of more parents. As special education teachers, they encountered children labeled with emotional and behavioral issues and learning disabilities who were, rather, in need of connection with an adult attachment figure. “A lot of problems weren’t really a learning problem but an attachment problem,” Nicholson said.
Read the entire history of API’s founding in the special Attached at the Heart issue (PDF) of The Attached Family magazine.
Ultimately, API came to be as a way to better educate and support attached families, but Attachment Parenting was around long before 15 years ago. Martha Sears and Dr. William Sears, called the Father of Attachment Parenting (AP), coined the term years before API was founded. But the parenting principles that make up AP didn’t start with the Sears.
“In my first year of practice, a wise professor said to me: Surround yourself with very wise mothers,” said Dr. Sears, who is celebrating his 40th year of pediatrics practice this year. “That was my first introduction to Attachment Parenting.”
“I worry most about the disempowerment of parents,” said Dr. McKenna.
“We live in a culture of fear,” Hanessian agreed.
API strives to give the power of parenting back to the mother and father, so that they know how to make the best decisions for their children and family despite the sometimes ill-informed and biased advice offered not only by friends and family members but also by medical and other childcare professionals.
“Take back the power,” Parker said. “For far too long, people in the culture have dictated how we should raise our baby, how we should have our baby.”
Gaskin explained how this empowering of parents best happens when advocated for early – at birth. By choosing a midwife, new parents can ensure that the mother and baby can likely be together from labor and delivery forward. By starting as early as possible in keeping parents with their child, their parenting journey pushes forward with connection being considered “normal.”
Parents’ naturally gravitate toward connection, when not influenced by outside forces. What API advocates is for parents to follow that intuition.
“Our fourth child is the one who taught me about intuition,” three decades ago, Martha Sears said, adding that the first three babies were so-called easy babies – or, in other words as McKenna explained, this fourth child would be one of the babies who aren’t as convenient for parents as they wish they would be. This fourth baby required Martha Sears to cosleep in order for her to get some sleep. Although she was following her intuition, it was a scary time for her because the mainstream culture did not support this sleeping arrangement at all. Sears had to learn how to listen to her baby and trust her intuition despite what was popular in parenting advice at the time.
“Thirty years ago! Isn’t that unbelievable that we’re still plagued by that doubt?” Hanessian exclaimed.
What API does is to help parents realize that they are the experts in their child’s care and that, as humans, we are driven toward connection with one another, especially between parent and child. In Western culture, especially, this often means that how they feel toward childrearing doesn’t quite jive with the mainstream advice. API first empowers parents by allowing them the freedom to look beyond mainstream parenting advice to that connection-building that just feels good and right within themselves.
But the key to helping parents pursue this intuitive parenting style is showing the overwhelming research that support AP and API’s Eight Principles of Parenting. Martha Sears agreed, giving an example of the need to show parents the research discrediting cry-it-out sleep training.
Armed with research, API has helped to turn the tide. Parents are now able to find AP resources to support them in their parenting journey. Even in the mainstream culture, more and more experts are saying for parents to listen to their babies.
There are still challenges, though. Western culture is driven by a working population and both parents in most families work outside the home. Dr. Fox recalled a point in her practice when the family dynamic had noticeably changed – when parents were unable to describe the history of their child’s behavioral problems for which Fox had been called to assess and repair, even unable to provide basic childcare facts such as the child’s fears or the potty training technique used. What she found was that the children she most often saw with behavioral issues were those who did not have a consistent caregiver in the early years of life.
That’s why API is so important, Nicholson said – to get these observations, and complementary research, out to parents to show them the long-term effects of nurturing parenting.
This change in parenting practice among the mainstream culture takes time. As Dr. Sears pointed out, parents have been practicing AP for more than 40 years, and while Western culture is incorporating more AP principles into mainstream parenting advice than ever before, AP is still a long ways from widespread acceptance.
Cahill, one of seven women who co-founded La Leche League International 53 years ago, agreed that cultural change does take time. The reason is, parents want to be “good” parents and it can be difficult for a mother or father to sort through the advice they receive from literally every person they encounter, whether the pediatrician, a teacher, a clergyman, a family member or friend, or even by observing what other parents model at the park or grocery store.
“When I had my first baby, I wanted to be the best mother. I wanted to breastfeed,” Cahill said. “And I utterly failed.”
But what she came to realize is that she didn’t fail; instead, society failed her. She didn’t receive any support for breastfeeding. That’s the value of API – a source of support.
Dr. Fox agreed, saying that it’s common for parents to attend childbirth education classes but that they don’t often attend parenting classes until they have a problem they need help with. “Mothers need help with childbirth, but they also need help with [at least] the first year,” she said.
‘Good’ Parenting vs. Good Parenting
That “good” parent myth is also fueled by the voices parents hear in their heads from how their own parents had raised them, Fox said. “We hear our own parents’ voices, and we hear that parent’s voice be critical to us.” Without being aware of the power of those voices, parents will judge how “good” they are by how well they following their own parents’ paths.
“In the beginning, I had to overcome some deficits myself,” Martha Sears explained. Her mother had spanked and practiced other non-AP approaches. She struggled, like many parents must, against that voice in her head that conflicted with her intuition in terms of discipline and communication. In the end – at the point of decision making – all parents either make the choice to do what their parents did with them, or they change through education, support, and often intense emotional work.
Martha Sears said it’s important for parents to keep the future goal in mind: “Remember that you are raising someone else’s future mother or future father. It’s important to get yourself emotionally healthy, so that you can give that gift to your children that keeps on giving.”
Among API’s Eight Principles of Parenting is Preparing for Pregnancy, Birth, and Parenting. Through this principle, API is able to empower people early in their parenting journey – which ultimately makes the challenges of raising children, discipline and communication, easier in the long-term, said Martha Sears. “When you can find a solid way to connect with your children early, you have fewer problems [later],” she said.
“This organization [API] is the only one in existence, except La Leche League, where parents can learn that and that teaches this foundation of attachment,” Martha Sears said.
It can be difficult for parents to sort out their own voice from all the other voices they hear. So, how can parents sort out which voices – whether from their own parents or another outside influence, including API – aligns best with their need for connection with their child?
Today’s Western society is the only culture in history that needs to read a book to know how to parent, said Dr. McKenna. Books are wonderful, but the best teachers are other parents – those experienced in AP. Let’s look at what the expert parents said at the Think Tank Event in response to some of the most confusing areas of parenting. (More...see note below.)
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