Don’t Blame Feminist Mamas: The Difference Between Attachment Parenting and Helicopter Parenting

Last year, a study came out saying that moms who parent “intensively” are more depressed and stressed than other moms. In one news report on this study, the author assumes that intensive parenting means both “attachment parenting” and “helicopter parenting.” The headline reads: “Attachment Parenting: It May Cause More Stress, Less Happiness” and the links between paragraphs lead to a quiz called “Are You a Helicopter Parent? Take Our Quiz.”

I think it is time to bust some stereotypes and parse out attachment parenting vs. helicopter parenting. Attachment parents focus on fostering a sense of security in babies and young children, via breast-feeding, child-led weaning, co-sleeping, babywearing, and responding to the midnight cries of children. It turns out that feminist mothers are more likely to adhere to attachment parenting than non-feminists. I don’t know what the connection is, but I do know by experience that if a mom of young kids was educated at Harvard, or has a graduate degree, or reads widely, she is probably also a card-carrying member of La Leche.  Maybe it’s that feminist moms read, and investigate, and don’t accept what we are told about parenting without researching it. Recent studies suggest that our culture’s insistence on letting children cry it out alone in their cribs to get them to sleep are leading to hollow adults who have trouble with empathy. Attachment parenting is a counter-cultural parenting movement, based on sound child development research, that is about raising secure, compassionate, confident kids.

Helicopter parenting, however, is about raising Super Kids who do everything sooner than the neighbor’s kids. It is about making sure your child has fully developed every possible skill or talent they have. It is about over-involvement and micro-control as the children grow older, due to fear and worry over performance. The science is against this one, which you can read about in books like The Over-Scheduled Child: Avoiding the Hyper-Parenting Trap, and Under Pressure: Rescuing Our Children from the Culture of Hyper-Parenting. College-age kids of helicopter parents tend to be more worried and depressed, just like those “intensive” moms.

Now, I suppose that either an attachment mother or a helicopter mother could have beliefs that lead to greater depression and stress (such as “women are better parents than men”; “mothering should be child-centered”; and “children should be considered sacred and are fulfilling to parents”).  In fact, I agree somewhat with the last two items, but not with the first, and that makes the difference in my own mental health. I don’t believe that women are inherently better parents than men. Did you know that feminists tend to be less hostile toward men than non-feminists? That may translate into a more welcoming attitude toward fathers’ involvement, meaning less exhaustion and more happiness for a feminist mom. In my own life, my ideal has always been that my husband would co-parent with me, partly due to my egalitarian beliefs. And, he has. Until my son was almost three, my husband and I switched off child-care and were gone from the home about an equal amount of time. All this time, my son continued to breast-feed and all of us co-slept. There are ways to foster attachment without killing yourself, especially if you don’t assume your husband is incapable of adequate parenting.

Can an attachment parent also be a helicopter parent? Probably not, because the intentions behind the two parenting philosophies are so different. I understand the temptation to fully develop that supple child’s brain while you can. I admit to buying Baby Mozart CDs and reading to our son in the womb. But as an attachment parent, I know that kids are more than their brains, more than their talents, more than their performance. In my own case, our lives are probably under-scheduled. We unschool, and so a lot of my now seven-year old’s learning comes from family outings, conversations and books we read together based on his interests. The foundation of our lives is our relationships with each other. Yet, every one we meet notices the broad range of what our son knows, and we are not trying to make him the smartest kid on the block nor even the smartest version of himself. We want him to find joy in learning and life, in the context of meaningful relationships.

So, that’s the difference between attachment parenting and helicopter parenting. Attachment parents want what is best for their kids’ development, but not so they can be the best. By the way, I think we need to shift our focus from moms to parents, in studies and discussions; dads impact their kids as much as moms do. But seeing attachment parenting as yet one more mistake of the over-involved mom is just based on inaccurate information.


About sjmharrison

Exploring feminine images of God in the Bible.

Posted on March 24, 2013, in Parenting and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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