Mayim Bialik: actress, Attachment Parenting advocate, breastfeeding consultant, neuroscientist, and mother of two boys, can now add author to her list of accolades with the recently released Beyond the Sling: A Real-Life Guide to Raising Confident, Loving Children the Attachment Parenting Way. Detailing her personal experience following the Attachment Parenting style of raising a family, Bialik covers ever-present parenting topics such as co-sleeping, breastfeeding, and gentle discipline. Read on for our interview with this smart, compassionate Mama.
Q. You admit that most of your experience comes from a small data set: your own kids. Why do you think this attachment parenting is such an effective method, regardless of the temperament of someone’s children?
A. I don’t know if the right word is “effective”, but Attachment Parenting (AP) is designed to mimic the way our bodies were intended to birth,and to feed and to nourish them and to bond with them. It’s simply natural. It’s an organic way to be, and it’s the way that people have been for nearly all of human history… One of the challenges [as parents] we have now is that we are told,“Well, we have modern science now”. Well, a c-section rate that hovers around 30% and infant and maternal mortality rates where ours are is not proof that we are really doing anything that should continue in this way…We’re not necessarily moving towards better in a lot of ways, and so many of us believe in this style of parenting because it intuitively makes sense. As a neuroscientist, I believe that it is how we were designed to parent. Again, it may not be for everyone, but if we only look at gentle discipline: that’s one of the tenets of Attachment Parenting. It is never acceptable to use force against a child. Imagine if everyone believed that, and there are countries that have made it illegal to use force.
Q.Gentle discipline is an area that a lot of people would like to work on, and many parents wish they were better equipped to handle temper tantrums and difficult situations. I liked in your book how you explain that it is not permissive parenting, for example, and you give several techniques that have been effective for your family. For parents with younger children, who are not yet able to reason or respond to logic, what are some parenting techniques for gentle discipline?
A. The general concept of this style of parenting is that it’s designed for every single developmental level. The book introduces how development works: newborns have needs, they have them day and night, and it goes on from there. At each developmental stage, there are needs and it’s our job to help manage them. I think there’s an overarching understanding that children are trying to do their best and they are exploring in many different ways: that’s their motivation. Not to be disobedient or not to be “bad”. We never babyproofed our house. We used a firm voice, we continually removed children, we used consistency. We never have felt that our children should be trusted with their own safety, meaning it was never like, “Oh, I hope that they’ll listen to me when I say ‘don’t run in the parking lot’. It was “You can either hold my hand or I’m picking you up” or if it became a fight or a total throwdown: “I’m not going to cross this parking lot. Your choices are hold my hand, I’ll pick you up, or we’re going to get back in the car.” And the fact is, even people who mean well, we end up not being consistent or backing down on the wrong thing. Somebody was just asking for advice on this radio station I was talking to. She didn’t understand why her 2 ½ year old kept pulling the DVDs down. It’s because they are in her reach. Is that really what you want to fight about? That’s normal [for a kid to do].
Q. Since you are a parent with a PhD and a husband with a graduate degree as well, it was surprising to me (and I’m sure to others) that you and your husband made an agreement not to introduce academics in any form until they were 5 years of age. Although I understand not wanting to force flashcards or other rigid learning techniques upon them at an early age, can you explain your viewpoint a bit more?
A. We kind of wait until a little older than that even, until 7 as the magic age. The fact that my husband and I enjoy higher academics, the fact that we chose to go to college and pursue higher degrees, that doesn’t necessarily mean starting early with our kids. That’s not the way necessarily to get your kids to achieve what you achieved. And I don’t even know if my kids are going to want that. I think our general framework is consistent with what you hear from Waldorf training that focuses especially on the first seven years as developmentally fun and active and full of imagination and so we’ve honored that. The time frame is that when their teeth start falling out is when the next awakening of their existence begins. It’s not magical or mystical (I guess for some people it may be), but we really believe strongly in allowing the child to exist in the world as a totally imaginative, playful creature. They learn all the time. But the notion that they need to be able to recite their alphabet or know their colors or shapes when they can’t even walk? It’s purposeful, but it doesn’t really have a purpose.
Q. When embarking on your AP journey, what surprised you the most about your decision, whether it be the logical arguments behind issues such as elimination communication or the way that people feel the need to comment on your lifestyle?
A. I think there are two things that have been surprising. The first is how this style of parenting forces you to work on your own issues. I think when you don’t rule by force, and I don’t just mean that physically, but when your perspective is that your child has a voice (not that it trumps yours, but that they have a voice), it really forces you to look at what buttons of yours get pushed. Are your issues respect, are they kids being quiet? What is driving you as a person I think is really revealed in a style of parenting that doesn’t allow you to shut people up when you don’t want to deal with their emotions. It’s a really big challenge, kind of the birth of you…That’s been the first surprising thing is how much I’ve had to dig deep. The second is this astounding need, especially by women, to build politicking around parenting. That if I do something that’s different from you, you have to find a way to make it wrong or that I’m a “bad” mother. I’m hoping with this book to put the brakes on that a little bit. I can do something different than you. It doesn’t mean that it’s wrong, especially if there’s no scientific research that it is…
Q. You are very honest about the sacrifices and the arrangements that you and your husband have made to support this lifestyle. I wondered what some of your suggestions were for single parents,people in unflexible careers or who are at least at an unflexible point in their career, and perhaps families that are on a very tight budget and must have both parents working in order to pay the bills?
A. I should say that Attachment Parenting is not designed for at home parents. It’s not even necessarily designed for families with one parent at home. Dr.Sears who coined the term Attachment Parenting, felt that even more so, if you’re not with your kids during the day, that it was important to believe in these principles, to believe in the importance of touch or sleeping with children of breastfeeding your children when you’re with them and pumping when you’re not. These are all things that are not designed for celebrities who can stay at home, so that’s a general statement. I know single parents who do attachment parenting, I know parents where the husband was completely uninvolved; people can understand the philosophy. If there’s one thing to understand, it’s the concept of gentle discipline. That sort of becomes an overarching method of dealing with children, that is really independent of whether you breastfed or not, whether you had a vaginal or a c-section, whether you work or not: it’s a general understanding about how families can communicate. It honestly doesn’t have anything to do with whether you work or not to believe that a child’s voice matters. I think we all do the best that we can at the stage of life that we’re at, and Attachment Parenting is not only for people who can reach certain milestones or things like that. It’s kind of hard to be a public face on this, because there is not typical face of attachment parenting, and for sure, my husband and I are not it. All the incredible women of La Leche League and Holistic Moms Network that I’ve learned from, have very different kinds of lives. It’s not a club that you need to look a certain way to be a part of.
Lead image © Denise Herrick Borchert