Catholic Attachment Parenting
1 Jn 4:18
Children who have been coerced all their lives are usually in defensive detachment mode or hyper compliance mode, and don't want to do anything you want them to do, or will do anything you expect of them to the terrible detriment of their own development. Once you remove the coercion, they're going to go a little crazy for a while until you regain their trust. They have to be brought to rest first, like the new convert comes to rest in Christ in the life of grace before moving into the purgative way. Ideally, parents are already affirmed, mature, and at least on the cusp of the unitive way before they are trying to help their children through these phases of their own lives and relationships. But if you come to parenting more or less stuck in the purgative way, it's going to be hard to support your children through the life of grace, first of all, and especially through the purgative way, since you're still struggling through it yourself. But when you've gotten through that phase, at least on a certain level, then you can begin to really support and nurture your kids. This is why we've always emphasized on this list that before we can really collect our kids, we have to collect ourselves. Re-attachment begins when parents near the end of the purgative way and are now in a position to focus more of their attention on their children, going back to square one, to the life of grace and re-initiating the bonding process. Once there's a secure bond again you can move into phase two of re-building boundaries, structures and strictures, making expectations known, always taking resistance as a possible sign of insecurity and dealing with that before pushing ahead--the purgative way for the child. Probably most of us aren't going to have kids one might describe as having entered the unitive way until they're fully grown, fully mature physically, emotionally and spiritually.
Just based on my own observations, I think each phase has within it a miniature of all three (some authors note 4, 5 or 7) phases, and I'm sure if you looked at each healthy interaction as if under a microscope you'd find all these phases present, from the life of grace in the initial connection, to the purgative way, where expectations are made known and maybe even wrestled with, to the unitive way, where resonance is achieved, an understanding and agreement made. St Teresa notes a phase between the purgative and unitive ways which she calls the illuminative way, where there's a dawning of consciousness, an awareness or mindfulness of one's self with respect to the other, a moment of profound humility where you see a situation or a whole life from another point of view, an awakening. I personally believe that one's style of parenting corresponds to where one is in the spiritual life, those still in the purgative way on the more authoritarian side (possibly those in the life of grace a little more permissive), those in the illuminitave way I would consider in the re-attachment phase, and those in the unitive way enjoying already secure attachment on the parts of their children. (I hope I'm making sense.)
If you skip the life of grace part of the relationship, or interaction, moving immediately into the purgative phase, there's going to be trouble, there's going to be counter-will, and resentment, and frustration. You have to build a bond of trust, make a secure connection first before entertaining expectations. And you'll never get to the unitive phase without the secure attachment forged during the phase of grace. That's why it's so important not to discount the principles that pertain to infancy, like feeding with love and respect, providing nurturing touch and consistent loving care, and providing safe sleep. When you don't invest in the secure bond provided through practicing these principles, you're going to have a very difficult time with responding with sensitivity and positive discipline! And you can forget about balance!
(There's so much more I could write concerning affirmation, or lack of it, and skipping the life of grace phase of the parent/child relationship. There's a wealth of information that could be applied to the re-attachment efforts of parents, gleaned from the work of Drs. Baars and Terruwe on healing the unaffirmed. I just don't want this post to get any longer!)
So, when some say "consider all the chores your own," or "don't expect instant obedience from your kids," or "let them direct their own education," etc. I think you might safely assume they're in re-attachment or the illuminative way moving towards the unitive (or I guess they might be in the life of grace moving toward the purgative way--who really knows for sure!); and those who are comfortable with asking more of their kids, or expecting more, but who are willing to work through resistance with respect and patience, not resorting to threats or force are at least nearing the unitive way. Of course, I'm over simplifying the whole mess, but I hope it makes some sense--that our personal development and the development of our relationships with ourselves, our neighbor, and with God follow a predictable course and that depending on where the two people are in these three areas the dynamics of a relationship will withstand more or less--that life and relationships are processes and that wherever you find yourself and your loved ones, don't worry, God isn't finished with us, yet! And worrying about it is counterproductive because it weakens faith--but even that is probably part of a process, as long as you don't get stuck.
I don't mean to make it seem like it doesn't really matter what you do, God is taking care of everything. I don't mean that at all, because what we do makes it more or less easy for us to submit ourselves to letting God take care of everything. But I do mean that unless we give up on love, and completely lose faith in Him, He will take better care of us than we could ever take of ourselves, and our children, even when we don't realize it, and the only thing holding us back is our own worrying.
"And that's all I have to say about that!"~~Forest Gump
Parents have daily opportunities to practice the corporal and spiritual works of mercy in their homes. Some of the works of mercy are pretty straight forward, like feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, and visiting the sick, but others, like visiting the imprisoned, and burying the dead, are not so obvious. Could it be that these two are not relevant to our relationships with our children? I suggest that this is not the case and would like to show what these two works of mercy might look like with regard to family life.
One who is imprisoned is one who is cut off from society, one who has suffered a profound attachment rupture and is suffering the excruciating pain of attachment void. Mercifully visiting one in such a state would involve offering comfort and an opportunity to connect or fill the void of loneliness through the senses, hence a “corporal” as opposed to a “spiritual” work of mercy.
Not many of us may have the opportunity to practice this work in an actual prison in the world, but mothers and fathers have numerous opportunities to practice this work in their homes. Sometimes a rupture comes about when parents find it necessary to set limits in order to protect their children physically or spiritually. When this happens, the child may experience a sense of loss, becoming at first angry, and then, as the futility sinks in, sorrowful, grieving the loss of something had or desired, which is usually indicated by the shedding of tears. These tears are the body’s way of cleansing itself of the toxic chemicals that are released when the fight or flight response is triggered. In this case, visiting the imprisoned means providing physical and emotional presence to the child, filling his need for connection with loving eye contact, nurturing touch, soothing voice tones, and active listening. It does not mean imprisoning the child physically or emotionally through disconnection and isolation until he’s ready to visit you with an apology. This is not the picture of a work of mercy, but a work of coercion and manipulation through which is engendered in the child’s soul not charity but resentment. In real life, this is partially why very often prisoners come out of prison more hardened than when they went in.
At other times a child may indicate that he is experiencing an attachment void through boredom, another common problem of the imprisoned. Boredom can occur when a child’s stress level drops below what he is adapted to. The body experiences this drop in stress as a loss of equilibrium. It is unsettling for the child and his first impulse is to go in search of some excitement to restore balance. In this state he is very vulnerable to getting into trouble, or causing a lot of it for others. This in turn makes him vulnerable to having the void deepened through a limit setting rupture. But merciful parents can recognize this condition for what it is and provide a haven for the child in which to come to rest, filling the void with nurturance, resonance, presence. A conversation, a shared snack prepared with love, a game for two, a story, a back rub—all these can help a restless child regain his balance in a wholesome way and draw him out of the prison of idleness.
Another very significant way in which a child may become imprisoned within himself is through the shame that is the terrible consequence of toxic rupture. A toxic rupture occurs when the child experiences himself as rejected by his primary attachment figures (parents, older siblings, extended family members, teachers, coaches, parish priests, etc.) and must retreat to deep within himself to hide what is valuable and vulnerable. This is a prison of abject loneliness where he has locked himself away to defend against the onslaught of an affront to his littleness that is too much to bear. When these kinds of ruptures occur too frequently, a child can soon become imprisoned for life within a dark, small, empty cell that even he eventually forgets. Hidden from the light of day for too long, maturation and development into a healthy, holy adult is stunted. So long as he remains in this prison he will never know joy, peace or love. But a merciful visitation after such a rupture, a humble reconciliation, can free the child from this prison of isolation so that he can re-enter society and grow in knowledge and virtue.
For parents reading this who are just now realizing that their precious child is imprisoned within himself, rest assured, it is not too late to free him. Repeated visitation, and reconciliation can, with time, heal the child’s spirit so that he can emerge once again into the freedom and grace that is the privilege of sons and daughters of God. When parents can confess that it is they who deserve to be punished for their sins against their child, for failing to cherish and respect him in his dignity as a person created in God’s image, they pay the debt for which he has been suffering and free him from it.
The practice of burying the dead in our homes will have to wait for another post. Meanwhile, let us redouble our efforts and resolve to give food and drink to our children with love and generosity; to clothe them with dignity and respect for their individuality; to shelter them with orderliness and care for their littleness; to nurse them to health with patience and gentleness, whether their illness be physical or spiritual; and to visit them promptly and frequently whenever they become imprisoned within a shroud of shame, afraid to live with joy and courage the life you have so generously cooperated in giving them.
"Everyone [even a child] has some burden, more or less heavy, to bear: physical or moral weakness, the press of duties and responsibilities, fatigue or other troubles which weigh on his shoulders. Everyone feels the need of a friendly hand to help him carry this weight. This hand should be held out to him in fraternal charity, which for love of God, knows how to be all things to all men. 'Bear ye one another's burdens, and so you shall fulfill the law of Christ' St. Paul exhorts us (Gal 6,2). A Christian knows that he is not isolated, but is a member of a unique body, the Mystical Body of Christ. 'So we being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another' (Rom 12,5). This knowledge of his solidarity with the brethren [secure attachment] makes a Christian live, not enclosed in the tiny circle of his own interests, but with his heart open to the needs and interests of others."
So it is our knowledge of our incorporation in Christ that should remove our anxiety and enable us to give generously of ourselves to our neighbor, beginning with our spouse and children; and this in turn, will open their hearts to the needs and interests of others.
"Charity always believes in the good will of others, even though it may be accompanied by faults; it always hopes in the good which it knows how to discover in every creature, although it may be eclipsed by many deficiencies [the flight from vulnerability]. What is more important, charity supports everything, never finding any burden too heavy. To support, according to the etymology of the word, means 'to place oneself under a weight to carry it.' Charity feels that it must stoop with love to take up the burdens of others, particularly those burdens which all avoid because they are troublesome."
"Behold the charity which, instead of fleeing, seeks out those who are suffering through natural and moral imperfections [rather than sending them to their rooms to suffer alone!], and busies itself with them so lovingly that they never guess how painful the effort is, nor how troublesome their defects are to others. Charity bears all things, endures all things with a smiling, serene face, never showing itself annoyed or crushed by the burden it bears."
How sensitive children are to perceiving that they are a burden to their parents! I cringe at the memory of so many times when my reactions to their requests have lent themselves to the impression that my children were a burden to me. And even though the memory of their sad expression is punishment enough for me, still the consequence of my sins afflicts my children and often tempts me to recoil from yet another burden I have laid upon them, perpetuating this awful cycle. What a horror and plague is sin! And what an awesome responsibility is parenthood. While lay Catholics stand in outrage over the recent scandals in the priesthood, we may do well to become more mindful of how our own actions offend the innocence of our children.
"Attention to the needs and sorrows of others, with a constant readiness to give one's help, is no justification for expecting a like return... Charity does not give an order to receive; it gives without counting the cost and without measure, for it knows that the honor of serving and loving God in His creatures is ample reward. Charity loves, serves, gives, and spends itself lavishly, solely for the sake of loving and serving God in others, for the joy of imitating His infinite generosity, for the joy of feeling itself the child of the heavenly Father who bestows His favors upon all without distinction. What greater reward can there be than to be able to call ourselves, and to be in all truth, children of God! To enjoy this [intrinsic] reward, charity seeks to fly from every [extrinsic] earthly recompense and hides the good it does... It seeks by preference to benefit those from whom it can expect nothing in return..."
Wow! There's an awful lot about punishments and rewards in that thought that I think even Alfie Kohn would agree with!
"Sometimes, just when one of about to perform an especially delicate act of charity for another, a strong feeling of antipathy toward that person arises from the sensitive part of the soul because of the absence of some sign or token of respect or consideration. This is manifestly a temptation which must be overcome as soon as it appears, that it may not take root. Anyone who would yield to these feelings and act accordingly, under the pretext of justice or of teaching a lesson, would soon become very exacting to the great detriment of charity."
How true this is in parenting! The devil wastes no time at all tempting us to start a tally of who deserves what based on his own contributions! But what a fatal error this is, especially within the family, undermining secure attachment to its foundation. If it were even possible to make a tree bear fruit before it was fully mature, it's roots having spread deep and wide enough to support the weight of its fruit-laden branches, it would topple over and die, its fruit rotting on the ground. But this is exactly what so many of us expect of our children, forcing the flower and stealing young fruit from the branches, not waiting for it to ripen and be offered freely. And what is our excuse? That we ourselves are starving. And why? Because we have still put off the Cross and the imitation of Christ. If we are not living up to the precept of fraternal charity in our own homes, it is because we are only in a casual, on-again-off-again relationship, if at all, with the source of all charity Who is Jesus. Only He can fully affirm us so that we will be empowered to affirm our children; only He can satisfy all our needs so that we will be empowered to fill the needs of our children; only He can satisfy our heart's desire so that we will be empowered to satisfy the desire of our children's hearts; so that having arrived one day at full maturity, our children will be empowered to rest in Him and be affirmed by Him, and fulfilled, and satisfied.
Neurologically speaking, the more charity a person experiences, the more at peace will be his limbic system, enabling growth in his anterior cingulate which increases his capacity for charity and facilitates communication between his intellect and will, bringing his passions into line more and more easily. When the child's lower nature is quieted in appropriate ways, rather than becoming suppressed through deprivation (to which injury is usually added insult when parents punish the child for not being happy and accepting about being deprived!), then the child can focus his energy and attention on developing his higher nature--his intellect and virtue. The more communication between his intellect and will and the greater his capacity for charity, the greater and greater is his capacity to embrace suffering.
A child needs two things from his parents to be successful (besides the obvious!)--to be healthy, happy and holy. He needs security, which is the same as faith, hope and charity. And he needs direction--orientation, toward what is right, and true and good. Direction without faith is impotent, and faith without direction is lost--this is just another way of saying good works without (faith, hope and) charity are empty--they merit nothing; and faith without good works is dead.
Until the child has the opportunity for his anterior cingulate to develop, through secure attachment, he is a slave to his passion and will remain so. He does not have full use of his free will--a function of the intellect--and cannot be held entirely responsible for his actions, anymore than an unskilled rider can be held responsible for the wild rompings of an untrained horse. But the way to train the horse is not to starve it or beat it into submission. Any horse treated thus can only go so far so fast and only when threatened by the rider. But a horse who trusts his rider and whose rider communicates to him gently and patiently, calming his fears, will trustingly orient toward his rider and happily do his bidding.
Secure attachment has to happen in the brain, between the intellect and passions, even as it happens in the parent/child relationship--or rather, it is the security provided by the parent (unconditional love), and the direction of the parent's good example, that makes possible the secure attachment between intellect and passions and the healthy development of the brain and the spiritual life.
All human beings are obedient to someone/thing. We all follow the direction of that which we trust--whether it's ourselves, the media (world), God, etc. But obedience which is a virtue springs from charity like all other
virtues--not from servile fear, which, as the Church has always taught and as is now confirmed through the study of the brain, stunts the growth of charity. When we communicate to our children God's unconditional love and acceptance, they will naturally orient toward us, like a flower does to the sun. They will want to obey us, because they trust us and know that we love them and have their best interest at heart. (This doesn't mean that they will always succeed at obeying us--they are weak just like we are and equally incapable of embracing a Cross that is too big for them. These times should serve to remind parent and child of our ultimate and utter dependence on God, and help us to grow in humility and patience.) If I'm not mistaken, this is how God uses His children, the members of His Mystical Body, as instruments through which, as well as through the sacraments, He communicates His life and His love which is sanctifying grace. When we radiate Christ to our children they will be drawn to Him like moths to the light--this is the meaning of the Canticle, "Draw me, we shall run in the odor of your ointments." I believe, too, that this is the overarching message of Pope John Paul's Theology of the Body--even of his whole pontificate!
In order for parents to do this they must first allow themselves to be drawn, which consists simply of a total surrender of self to Christ--a kind of spiritual marriage. This is why contemplative parenting is so mutually
sanctifying for the spouses, as partners in parenthood, and their children.
The reason we call this contemplative parenting, is because the brain is stimulated in the same way as in contemplation by resonant relationships, which is what kind of relationships the principles of attachment parenting afford the family. In contemplation as well as in securely attached relationships there is a sense of the presence of the other, or feeling felt by the other--it is the sense of the Presence of God in Himself and in one another. This is a Trinitarian relationship in its fullness. This is how, through Christ centered relationships, we are drawn into the life of the Blessed Trinity and how all those we love are drawn with us, "like a torrent in the ocean."~~St. Therese of Lisieux
- Step 1 - Admit that you alone through the use of coercion, training tactics, behavior modification strategies, etc. are powerless to control your children's lives and that your own life has become unmanageable
- Step 2 - Come to believe that the transformative power and joy of unconditional love can restore you to sanity and enable growth in sanctity through horizontal detachment and vertical reorientation
- Step 3 - Make a decision to turn your will and your life and the lives of your children over to the care of God through Trustful Surrender
- Step 4 - Make a searching and fearless examination of conscience
- Step 5 - Admit to yourself , to God, and to one other person, i.e., the priest in sacramental confession, a spouse or trusted friend, the exact nature of your wrongs
- Step 6 - Make entirely ready to have God heal all these defects of character by coming to rest in His unconditional love and mercy
- Step 7 - Humbly ask God to heal you in His own good time by embracing The Cross for love's sake through an act of blind, profound faith ("The blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead rise again, the poor have the gospel preached to them..")
- Step 8 - Make a list of all the offenses you have committed against your children, and become willing to make amends to them
- Step 9 - Make direct amends to your children wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others
- Step 10 - Continue to take personal inventory and when wrong promptly admit it and apologize
- Step 11 - Seek through prayer and contemplation to improve your conscious contact with God, praying only for knowledge of God's will for you in each moment and the power to carry that out
- Step 12 - Having had a spiritual conversion as the result of these steps, embark upon the apostolate of Catholic parenting, bringing this message to other families, and practicing these principles in the context of ALL your relationships
[Note: Each of these steps will be elaborated upon in subsequent posts.]
Even though attachment parenting looks different in relationship with a baby than it does with a toddler, or a teen, there are some underlying principles which are constant. I hope that the following will sum it all up:
Human beings are needy and dependent. We depend ultimately on God, and in His wisdom He has made it necessary that we depend on one another, thereby affording each of us the opportunity to share in His power of sanctifying souls. It is in the vulnerability of these interdependent relationships that we learn to love. It is this neediness and vulnerability that is the fulcrum on which teeters the fall and elevation of man's nature. In seeking to be like God, our first parents fled from their vulnerability and denied their dependence on Him. The loss of sanctifying grace through the fall is the primary attachment void. Concupiscence is associated with the anxiety aroused by this void--man fears that he is unlovable and unable to love. Since he was made to love and be loved (as a shark was made to swim and eat), the fear that he is not lovable and cannot love arouses his deepest, darkest passions. If he cannot love he can never be happy--neither in this life nor the next. He cannot give what he has not received. If he is not loved and cannot earn love then he will never be able to give love. The futility is in trying to earn unconditional love, which by its very definition and nature cannot be earned, but is a free gift, already merited for us by Christ. In becoming man--embracing our vulnerability and dependence, submitting unconditionally to the will of men, Christ elevated us to His level--the Divine level--tipping the scale, so to speak, in man's favor. Peace and sanctity consist in embracing our vulnerability and dependence, coming to rest in the unconditional love and bountiful, merciful providence of God, and surrendering ourselves unconditionally to His Divine Will.
Babies and children (as with all human beings) have many physical and emotional needs all falling under the umbrella of their primary need to receive and give unconditional love: food, warmth, touch, security, empathy (emotional safety), autonomy, order, self-control, freedom, self-esteem (a sense that I am lovable and able to love). When these needs are filled in healthy ways children tend to behave as healthy children ought to behave, and their passions are subdued. When these needs are unfilled, their passions are inflamed and they become unruly and uncooperative, in exactly the same way that children do when their hunger for food is left untended. Prolonged deprivation triggers a defensive flight from vulnerability (pride) which can lead to serious habits of vice: rebelliousness, violence, drugs and alcohol, gluttony (and other forms of eating disorders), materialism, backbiting, loss of the sense of modesty, sin and the sacred; sexual licentiousness and perversion; sloth, despair and suicide. The deprived become the depraved. (Dr. Neufeld shows in Part II of HOTYK how prolonged attachment void leads to all these evils).
Gentle birthing, extended breastfeeding and giving children freedom within healthy limits to make their own food choices; holding or wearing your baby as much as he wants and as you are able; ensuring safe sleep emotionally and physically, i.e., co-sleeping or bed-sharing; avoiding separations and providing consistent loving care when they're unavoidable; responding with sensitivity; positive and gentle discipline which seeks to identify and fill the underlying need to re-establish equilibrium and only afterward to solicit cooperation (in the spirit of the words of St. John of the Cross, "Where there is no love, put love and you will find love."), rather than inflicting the suffering of deprivation, i.e. negative discipline: withdrawing physical comfort (spanking), affection (glaring, yelling, etc.), admiration and sense of self-worth (shaming), proximity (isolation in time-out), etc., in order to forcefully modify behavior; and balance--interior and exterior--balanced parents and balanced environment--all work together to provide for the child's needs, and at the same time help parents to become more virtuous people. A Trinitarian relationship is born in which parents, acting as intermediaries of God's grace, give the unconditional love and acceptance the child needs to grow in virtue so that he can eventually return that love. In turn, parents unconditionally accept the child's attempts to love, providing him with encouragement, hope, and a sense of power, autonomy and self-worth. A mutually sanctifying cycle of giving and receiving unconditional love is initiated and the Blessed Trinity is enthroned in our hearts and in our relationships. The feeling of being felt that is the hallmark of the secure attachment is none other than the awareness of the Presence of the Blessed Trinity "incarnated" in our mutual, self-sacrificing love for one another, "Where two or more are gathered in my name, there am I in their midst."
When children's needs are filled, they can remain at peace--at rest, as opposed to in flight from their vulnerability (a.k.a. "flight from suffering," "fear of the Cross"). It is only in this peaceful rest (in Christ--in a Trinitarian relationship) that human beings can grow physically, emotionally and spiritually. Moments of unrest and strife which are unavoidable in this life are easily weathered, and calm is quickly restored.
Parents become more virtuous by learning to depend more and more on the love and mercy of God for their happiness and peace, until they eventually embrace The Cross, surrendering themselves and all whom they love to the merciful providence of God ("Draw me, we shall run in the odor of Your ointments."). Here is where they find balance--the balance of their horizontal humanity upon the vertical beam of Christ's Divinity--The Cross. All virtue springs from charity; all vice springs from fear of the Cross. As they grow in virtue they impart, almost effortlessly, these virtues to their children and to all with whom they are in relationship.
What began as a natural, human endeavor, is seamlessly transported and elevated to the supernatural level, becoming a divine work in the souls of all the members of a family. Though sacntifying grace filled each of our souls at baptism, the cultivation of charity in our souls requires our cooperation--"The Higher does not stand without the Lower" C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves. Wise parents will learn how, by their patient example and guidance, to solicit their children's cooperation through love, which must be an act of their free will and cannot be caused by force--fear of suffering or the promise of a reward which is extrinsic to the act itself.
When children (human beings) are given the opportunity and the freedom to experience the joy and suffering that is intrinsic to their actions (not imposed from without), the development of a true moral conscience occurs. It is only within their own true conscience that they can perceive the impulses of the Holy Ghost and live confidently and joyfully at peace in a state of total abandonment to God's will.
Parents model trustful surrender by accepting unconditionally with meekness and humility their children's needs and feelings, gently redirecting their actions when inappropriate or physically/spiritually dangerous--avoiding the use of force except in cases of imminent danger. When we give loving, validating presence to a child who is suffering through hard feelings--frustration, disappointment, anger, sorrow, fear--we "watch one hour" with Our Lord in His agony, when all His other disciples fell asleep. We refuse to deny Him as poor Peter did. We help to shoulder the burden in imitation of Simon of Cyrene. We wipe the sweat and blood from His brow like St. Veronica, and we weep with the women of Jerusalem over His Passion. We don't deny His suffering; we don't urge Him to flee from it or try to shield Him from it, again as poor Peter did, after which The Master rebuked him, "Get behind me, Satan;" we remain with Him at the foot of the Cross in the company of Our Lady, St. John and the Magdalen until "it is finished;" the meaning of Our Lord's prayer, "Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit" is felt deeply, down to his very bones ("The have pierced My hands and My feet; they have numbered all My bones"); and God's work in this moment is accomplished in the soul of this child.
Of course, sometimes it is we who need someone to watch an hour with us and it seems everyone has fallen asleep. Futility crushes us as we are confronted with our own neediness, inadequecy and dependence and we must pray with Christ, "Not my will, Father, but Thine be done." It is in just such a moment as this that we are given the opportunity to discover the meaning and purpose of suffering, and the entire Gospel message is made clear. Our souls are illumined by the light of truth, and the Holy Ghost can now begin to instruct us, now blind to all other lights, in The School of Charity.
Again, what began as a natural love has been augmented and transformed into supernatural charity.
All parents have this natural love for their children, but it is fear of the Cross which keeps us from cooperating in the transformation. Attachment psychology is God's own gift to a cynical, skeptical, non-believing people who have lost faith and hope in the transformative power of unconditional love. For us who have so much trouble believing in anything we cannot perceive with our senses or measure in a lab, there are now countless studies that demonstrate time and again that it is love, not extrinsic force or fear, which has the power to make us fully human; and horizontal, human love that is elevated and balanced upon the vertical beam of Divine love has the power to transform each one of us into an "Alter Christus," fully human, yet divinized in the Body and Blood of Christ.
This, in a nutshell, is Catholic Attachment Parenting.
This reminds me of what G.K. Chesterton said, that "The young man who rings the bell at the brothel is unconsciously looking for God." In our life long quest for satisfaction and happiness it is ultimately Christ we are seeking, as He is the source of all true satisfaction and happiness. This is why it's so important that we take care not to repress our children's capacity to desire, as this is what compels them ever onward toward Divine Union. If it were possible for a man to experience every possible pleasure on the face of the earth, at the end there would be nothing left but Christ. That's just it--He is the end, there is nothing else in the end but Him. The danger is in the fact that few men will live long enough to find out this way. Christ came to call us now, to free us from the slavery of sin, which is our state so long as we are seeking happiness in things. That's why every healthy relationship must begin with an act of renunciation, of detachment. Man leaves father and mother, detaches, and cleaves to his wife. If he doesn't do this completely his gift of self to his wife will not be complete. This is where I see the analogy of cellular mitosis to be most fitting. Cells have to divide completely before they can reattach to one another in a way that promotes growth. When they don't we get anomalies in nature that are not ideal. When we bring a child into the world, the kind of renunciation called for is almost total. I only say "almost" because I'm not sure it's exactly on a par with that called for in our relationship with Christ--maybe it is, I can't say for sure.
Now I'm not sure if this next part is true of cells, although I'm inclined to think it must be, but in the psychological arena, successful individuation prerequires secure attachment. "It is not good that man should be alone." We are hardwired to be attached to someone--and of course as Christians we believe that someone is Christ. Now parents can provide security that surpasses peers, as can spouses for one another, but the attachment figure who can provide security which surpasses ALL created realities is Christ. In Him we have absolute security.
Now another interesting thing about secure attachment is that those who know it, in the experiential sense, are able to share it with those who don't, or in the words of Conrad Baars, more or less, only the affirmed can affirm the unaffirmed. Studies show that children who are securely attached will relate to children who aren't in a way that offers at least a taste of its joy--in a way that provides at least a small portion of what is lacking. Parents who are secure are able to provide their children with security. Parents who are affirmed can affirm their children. We are able to share what we have received, but we cannot give what we have not received.
In the spiritual realm, only we who have been affirmed in Christ, not just sacramentally, but experientially through willingly carrying our cross with love, can share with others the affirmation of Christ which we have received. In doing so, we offer others an opportunity to know and love Christ, and to be known and loved by Him. We offer them an end to their quest, a rest to end all restlessness. We welcome them home after what, for some, has been a long and arduous journey. The world is filled with Ulysseses!
If we're conscious we stand a good chance of diminishing the possibility that our children will ever find themselves among his comrades. And if ever they do, we can trust that Christ is doing everything we're unable to do to lead them back home. It's never too late for us to do our part. Christ prefers to use us as His instruments, but doesn't need our help. It is we who need to help Him. We need to become secure attachment figures to be fully satisfied and happy.
Attachment parenting is as much for our benefit as it is for our children. It's good that babies be carried a lot, but it's better that they have parents who are generous enough to want to carry them a lot. It's good that children sleep in a place where they feel secure, but it's better that they have parents who are selfless enough to want to provide them with that security, even when they're tired. It's good that children learn to be motivated intrinsically by love, rather than extrinsically by fear, but it's better that they have parents who are meek and humble enough to want to provide them with gentle guidance and correction rather than indulging their own insecure egos whenever they feel threatened by their children's foolish choices. It is good that parents provide for all the physical, psychological and spiritual needs of their children as best they can, but it is far better that they acknowledge their inadequacy and entrust all their family's needs to Christ, the one true source of security and rest.
But whoever enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep.
The gatekeeper opens it for him, and the sheep hear his voice, as he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.
When he has driven out all his own, he walks ahead of them, and the sheep follow him, because they recognize his voice.
But they will not follow a stranger; they will run away from him, because they do not recognize the voice of strangers."
I had the opportunity recently to witness for the first time the Catechism of the Good Shepherd presentation on the Parable of the Good Shepherd and I was struck by the above verses. Immediately I saw a parallel to the concept of counterwill. In Chapter 6 of HOTYK, Dr. Neufeld explains that counterwill is a sort of innate defense mechanism which protects the person's free will from unlawful "shepherds." The idea is that everyone is obedient to someone, and this obedience is rooted in trust, and we should not submit to false shepherds who are not deserving of our trust "because [they] work[s] for pay and [have] no concern for the sheep" Jn 10: 13. Their intentions are self-centered, their motives self-serving. Obedience is virtuous only when we are obedient to lawful authority.
The gate, of course, is Christ, and we enter through Him through love of His Cross. Christ is The Good Shepherd, but parents are also shepherds and when our children are attached to us, they follow us because they recognize our voice. Likewise, "they will not follow a stranger; they will run away from him, because they do not recognize the voice of strangers." But when a child is peer-oriented, his good instincts are skewed, and his counterwill works against him, against his parents, and he easily becomes lost. His peers become the shepherds he follows, false shepherds who are in it for themselves, and his parents become strangers, the child becomes estranged from them.
In Chapter 15 of HOTYK, Dr. Neufeld writes, "Temporary breaks in the relationship are inevitable and are not in themselves harmful, unless they are frequent and severe. The real harm is inflicted when we neglect to re-collect our child, thus conveying that the relationship is not important to us or, alternatively, if we leave the impression that it is the child's responsibility to restore the connection." The Good Shepherd goes out in search of His lost sheep. He took it upon Himself to restore the connection between God and man by laying down His life, asking no more of us than that we put our faith and trust in Him, and having done so, follow Him..
When parents allow their own self-interest to influence their parenting, and their fragile egos, so easily threatened even by their own children, to dominate their interactions with their children, they risk driving their sheep right into the folds of false shepherds and into the dens of wolves.
If Christ calls His sheep by name at baptism (which is not the only way for Him to call us, but one we know of for sure), then the counterwill is God's gift, designed to protect us from being seduced by false shepherds. It is incumbent upon parents to take seriously the goodness of the child's will--to trust that, by virtue of the sacrament of baptism, the Holy Ghost is leading this child who knows His voice and follows it. If we wish to assist the Holy Ghost, we must enter by the gate, by the Cross. Only by uttering the words, "Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit," can our voices be united with that of The Good Shepherd. Only then do we have the lawful authority with which to lead our children. The Good Shepherd lays down His life for His sheep; He does not force His sheep to lay down their lives for Him, as do the false shepherds.
Maria Montessori, who so understood and loved the child's littleness, and on whose work the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is based, wrote in The Secret of Childhood, "Since adults are also a part of a child's environment, they should adapt themselves to his needs." It is the height of hypocrisy and immaturity for adults to expect children to do what they themselves are not willing to. She writes, "A child readily obeys an adult. But when an adult asks him to renounce those instincts that favor his development, he cannot obey. When an adult demands such a sacrifice to his own personal interests, it is like attempting to stop the building of a child's teeth when he is teething. A child's tantrums and rebellions are nothing more than aspects of a vital conflict between his creative impulses and his love for an adult who fails to understand his needs. When a child is disobedient or has a tantrum an adult should always call to mind the conflict and try to interpret it as a defense of some unknown vital activity necessary for the child's development."
Only faith will enable us to understand this. Only through love of the Cross and embracing our own vulnerability and all the suffering associated with it, will we ever understand the secret of childhood, and what it means to become as little children. Only when we have entered through the gate can we shepherd our children's hearts. And it is the triggering of their counterwill that is the sign to us that something is yet lacking, that there is blood of ours yet to be poured out for them--either by patient, gentle herding, or by embarking on the long journey in search of the lost one.
During this Advent season, the beginning of the Liturgical year, in meditating on the meaning of patient preparation and the birth of the Savior, I have found it necessary to go back in my mind to the beginning of our discussion of attachment and our journey as parents toward maturity, and reformulate for myself the premise on which our entire discussion is based. I thought maybe it would be good to post at least that, maybe even at regular intervals throughout the year, as a reminder to all of us of our purpose.
To sum it up in one sentence:
Children, like all human beings, need to feel that they are unconditionally loved in order to develop optimally physically, emotionally and spiritually; and in order for parents to communicate unconditional love in a way that is unmistakably felt by their children, parents must be willing to embrace unconditional suffering--to suffer through generous giving, and to meekly and humbly suffer their own inadequacy, neediness and dependence when it seems they have nothing left to give.
Attachment theory proves at least the first part of this premise, and illustrates in great detail the nature of this unconditional love, all its forms and manners, delineating for us all its benefits and all the dreadful consequences of the lack of it. Catholic spirituality defines for us the nature of love of the Cross and offers us ample testimony of the ability of human beings to embrace suffering for the sake of God's will, and the efficacy and fruitfulness of this surrender.
Attachment theory, in promoting putting the relationship first demonstrates in the natural realm the veracity of St. Paul's maxim, "Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all else shall be added unto you," as well as the entire Gospel message, for that matter.
Attachment theory demonstrates the meaning of the Song, "Draw me, we shall run in the odor of your ointments," as St. Therese, for one, explains it--that when we allow ourselves, through love of the Cross, to be drawn by infinite (unconditional) love we will draw with us, "like a torrent in the ocean," all those whom we love. This is the same as Dr. Neufeld's statement that if parents have to become saints to collect, to court, to woo, to draw in their peer-oriented children, or to hold on to their vertically oriented children, then that's just what they'll have to do.
Attachment theory teaches us how to love our children's littleness, and allow them to love their littleness, in the same way St. Therese admonishes all of to love our own littleness. In teaching us how to achieve balance, attachment theory teaches us to accept and love our own littleness, and neediness and dependence and inadequacy, which forces us to lean on the All-Powerful for balance.
Attachment theory teaches us to trust ours and our children's God-given instincts, through which, when properly oriented, among other channels, the Holy Ghost directs and guides our footsteps.
In fostering the full integration of the physical, psychological and spiritual parts of the human person, attachment theory helps us and our children to become "perfect"--one, whole--"as Our Heavenly Father is perfect," as in having no parts but being one--whole--unified--fully integrated--at peace with oneself and with the world.
In the light of Catholic Spirituality, attachment theory teaches us a practical method of detachment along the same path as that outlined by St. John of the Cross, whose feast day is today.
In the light of Catholic Spirituality attachment theory demonstrates the transformative power of unconditional love and shows us precisely how we are to communicate that love to our children and to one another.
In the light of Catholic Spirituality, attachment theory teaches us how we are to become like our Blessed Mother, who loved God perfectly in the ordinary execution of her daily duties to her family, as is so beautifully illustrated for us in The Reed of God.
In exhorting us to give our children presence, attachment theory directs us toward Trustful Surrender to Divine Providence in the spirit of Matthew 6:24-34.
In exhorting us to be emotionally responsive to our children, attachment theory directs us toward meekness and humility in imitation of the heart of Jesus.
In exhorting us to use love and connection, rather than fear and isolation, to cultivate virtue in our children, attachment theory directs us toward the Cross.
When I first read HOTYK I felt the need to consult a dear priest friend of ours, a traditional priest whose seminary formation could never be in question. When I described to him all the things attachment parenting exacts of us, his astonished reply was, "But parents would have to be saints to do that!"
Apparently this is not the case for methods that force independence and exploit the fear of suffering to train up a child. That alone is endorsement enough for me.
On The Crisis of Culture
"Humans are created for relationships. Moral growth and emotional growth can only occur within the context of these relationships. Babies hunger for connectedness and warmth. In a society where relationships begin to deteriorate the breakdown of moral behavior is not far behind." Dr. Lee Harrington
"I see many children and families that are involved in far too many activities. They rush around and have little time to talk to one another, too busy for the relationships that really matter and too busy for the relationship with God." Dr. David Willis
On Proactive Parenting
"Experiences with parents are really necessary for children to learn to manage strong emotions." Dr. David Willis
"We are not teaching boys how to care responsibly and morally about others. The goal of our efforts must include the better socialization of our boys and men." Fr. John Cihak
"The way the parent interacts with the child in the first few months and first years of the child’s life has profound impact on the child’s social and emotional development. It sets the course for the predictable developmental pathway. It’s like the trajectory of an airplane. It’s predictable, but it can be modified. Social competence begins in infancy. Self-worth, self-confidence, the ability to pay attention and the ability to communicate all are acquired in the first years of life. And these are the foundations for the four year old to develop self-control, self-assertiveness, self-reliance, and for his ability to form healthy relationships with siblings, other children and with adults. This competence is the foundation for his competence in grade school and adolescence. But the single strongest predictor of a child’s success or failure is the experience of his relationships with his parents in the first years of life. It’s the power of the take-off." Dr. Lynne Bissonnette-Pitre
On Early Childhood Development
"Babies who are left to cry it out cry much more at 12 months than babies who are picked up and held and comforted, and this is because babies who are held and comforted learn more sophisticated forms of communication than crying." Dr. Lynne Bissonnette-Pitre
"When the parent consistently fails to respond to a child’s emotional distress the child begins to feel that his emotions are unimportant or unacceptable. He may even begin to feel ashamed of his emotions and hide them deep inside himself. When he’s under extreme distress he can’t hide them and they come spilling out in an emotional outburst, and if his parents respond negatively to his outbursts, it just perpetuates his feeling that his emotions are unacceptable." Dr. Lynne Bissonnette-Pitre
"Discipline is education and not punishment." Dr. Lee Harrington
"The more self-control and self-discipline the parents have the less they actually have to discipline their children." Fr. Derek J. Lappe
On Moral Formation
"The infant automatically seeks care and nourishment in the relationship with parents. That’s not something the child learns. The child knows that inherently. It’s part of the nature of the child. Likewise, the child has an innate capacity to know and understand good, and he’s looking for that good from parents and from society so that they can fill up within themselves that which they are hungry for, that which is true, good, right and proper." Bishop Robert Vasa
"Children learn the concepts of right and wrong, good and bad, within the context of their relationships, particularly with their parents. Moral lessons are provided within the context of their day to day experiences." Bishop Robert Vasa
Conscience development is closely tied to emotional growth. Dr. Lynne Bissonnette-Pitre
"Men and women have an innate capacity to know what is true. It’s written in their hearts by God. Children have that same capacity to know the truth. God also gives us the capacity to love Him and the capacity to carry out the commands that He gives as a result of that love. Jesus tells us, “If you love me you will keep my commandments.” The fact that the commandment is given—God gives the power to carry it out." Bishop Robert Vasa
"The formation of the moral conscience takes place in concert with the development of the person—the development of moral emotions, the development of self-control, the development of empathy for their peers, the development of an appreciation and understanding of the role of authority in their lives. When parents are connected likewise with the moral teachings of the Church on truth and morality then the children learn the virtues—the moral virtues of chastity, and charity, and honesty, and integrity, and these are picked up almost automatically by the child, and they thus live the rules of the Church without any difficulty or any kind of distress about those rules." Bishop Robert Vasa
On Secure Attachment and Authoritative Parenting
"Secure attachment, authoritative parenting and moral formation are like building blocks, building on one another and culminating in the formation of moral virtues. If any one of the building blocks is missing, it’s very hard to form moral conscience and moral virtues. Children who have insecure attachment to their parents or drill sergeant or permissive parents are handicapped in their development of conscience and moral virtues." Dr. Lynne Bissonnette-Pitre
"Drill sergeant parents tend to be intimidating and use power and control to control their children. Fear and intimidation are the tactics they use to help their children comply and they’re doing this primarily for their own welfare, rather than the welfare of their children. They promote rebellious children, or perhaps even submissive, anxious children who are passive aggressive at a later time in their live." Dr. Lee Harrington
"On the other extreme, there are parents who tend to be permissive. On the outside there’s a lot of love in the family, but there are no real standards. These children grow up without any guideposts and they tend to become antisocial at some point later in life." Dr. Lee Harrington
On Redemption and Healing
"When parents are healed, children are healed and this occurs when parents develop attuned communication, when they become comfortable with all the basic emotions and when they learn self-control—they stop fighting, they stop yelling." Dr. Lynne Bissonnette-Pitre
"The best predictor of how [parents] will parent is how they themselves were parented, and so part of the challenge is to get parents to explore, and look at and reflect upon how they were parented, and then discern, “How do I want to parent my children?” and that may require patience and change and grace in order for them to make the changes which they want and need to make." Bishop Robert Vasa
"Patience really does hurt—it is a self-discipline, it is a dying to self, it is a diminishment of oneself and that is painful—that’s difficult. It is a kind of suffering… This really is not about repressing feelings at all, but rather the full acknowledgement and actual embracing of the unpleasantness. It really is a way of uniting the sufferings of self with the sufferings of Christ, and [a parent] experiences this maybe without even knowing it, that she sacrifices herself in union with Christ for the good of the family, for the good of her children, and she feels good about that. We see the redemptive value of suffering in a small microcosm…" Bishop Robert Vasa
*One caveat: I do not recommend either of the chastity programs suggested for parents in the HFSC program, Theology of the Body for Teens by Jason Evert, et al, or Teen Star by Dr. Hanna Klaus. I believe families would be better served if parents read Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality, or Theology of the Body for Beginners themselves and then imparted these truths to their adolescents gradually and naturally as opportunities present themselves.