I have a bachelor’s degree in social work and a master’s degree concentrated in clinical social work. When I walked across the stage in 2010 to be hooded for my MSW, snug in my uterus was the 8-week old embryonic version of the toddler who is, at this exact moment, sprawled next to me in bed, face blissfully soft with slumber. I was clueless then just how significantly my education and career would color how I parent him.
I often say that I came to gentle, attached parenting through the back door; I ardently embraced some of its tenets long before I was ever a parent, long before I even knew there were these things called “attachment parenting” or “gentle discipline.” From the moment I saw those two pink lines on my pregnancy test, my parenting approach has been very much informed by my life as a social worker.
I spent the 12 years preceding my son’s birth working at first in the domestic violence arena, then in the protective services world, and, finally, in a hospital setting. When I hear or read people portraying attachment parenting as “extreme,” when I hear its practices (such as nursing beyond infancy and sharing sleep) depicted as “abuse” or “neglect,” I get downright pissed off. Because in my time as a social worker, I have been horrified by truly extreme parenting. I have cradled true neglect in my arms. I have testified against true abuse in court. There is nothing extreme, abusive, or remotely neglectful about nurturing secure attachment in your child. And people who posture otherwise need a dramatic expansion of their worldview.
Along with its extensive Code of Ethics, very specific values and principles undergird social work practice. I found that this undercurrent of values and practices naturally and effortlessly flowed into my parenting; below I’ve slightly modified some of these social work values and practices to show how they inform my parenting, swapping in the word “child” for the word “client.”
- My child has inherent worth, dignity and strengths: My child is unconditionally worthy of my respect, and that respect is the centerpoint of my parenting. My actions as a parent are designed to nurture my son’s sense of worth and safeguard his dignity. I do not view him through a lens of deficit (what he cannot do), but rather from a perspective that acknowledges his strengths.
- I begin where my child is: For me, this means I recognize that my child has unique needs, and these needs might vary from month to month, day to day, even hour to hour. For example, my toddler has never slept through the night. I remind myself that he is waking for a need, that this is simply where he “is” right now. I could measure him against other children who were sleeping through the night significantly earlier, frustratedly and desperately wondering why he can’t string together a minimum of 5 hours of uninterrupted sleep. Instead, I try to remind that this is where he “is” developmentally. Sleep is a developmental milestone like any other, and he will achieve it at his own pace.
- I respond to my child with empathy. I’m sure you’ve seen this compelling statement before: My child isn’t giving me a hard time, he’s having a hard time. This view is grounded in empathy. Very little is as powerful as the feeling of being understood. When I respond with empathy to my child–to a hurt, to a behavior I’d like to curb, to a tantrum–I am not only acknowledging and reflecting his emotions, I am also helping to gently and naturally cultivate his own sense of empathy. I am modeling an effective, compassionate way to navigate interpersonal dynamics.
- I respect my child’s right self-determination and autonomy. Within carefully constructed limits, obviously. A toddler’s favorite word? “No,” right? And that’s because he’s taking his autonomy for a test-drive and learning to assert himself. Engaging my child’s choice-making–however simple it may seem–fosters feelings of empowerment, stokes feelings of competence, and honors his voice. It can be this simple: “Would you like strawberries or bananas with your breakfast?” or “Would you like to put that lotion back in the cabinet, or would you like me to help you put the lotion back in the cabinet?”
- The human relationship is…everything. The relationship I am nurturing with my son is, essentially, the blueprint for his future relationships. This is the crux of attachment parenting, isn’t it?
And, of course, social work education is also chock full of other worthy, parenting-applicable insight, such as the stages of human and growth and development and theories surrounding attachment, family functioning, and the like.
I chose social work more than a decade ago out of passion for social justice and advocacy, and I full-heartedly feel it has made me a kinder, gentler, and saner parent than I would have been otherwise.
Rhianna returned to her social work career after the birth of her son…and lasted a whole three days before submitting her letter of resignation. She’s been a stay-home mama ever since, way more fulfilled in her role as mother than she ever was in her role as social worker. And that’s saying a lot.