This is the fourth in a series on Thursdays summarizing the work of Dr. Gordon Neufeld in his Power to Parent DVD course. This one is about how to keep from losing a child to competing attachments. If you haven't read the first three installments, you can find One here, and Two, and Three. Each concept builds on the last, so it's important to read them in order.
He began by talking about magnetism as an attachment force. All magnets are polarized, and there is an element of incompatibility with attachment. He showed a picture of a magnet with a variety of metal shavings, and all of the shavings line up on the north pole and the south pole, but they repel each other. This force is alive and well in attachment, because if a child matters to one parent, then there is a possibility that the other one won't seem to count to the child.
For every pursuit of proximity, there is a resistance. Parents can find themselves on the wrong side of the attachment magnet. It seems to be a natural instinct to push one parent away in order to remain attached to the other. It's not personal, but it's a survival instinct (I can certainly attest to this as a child of divorce).
If kids feel that people are on competing sides of their magnet (parents, teachers, peers, etc.), they will experience competing attachments. Kids are like the solar system, and they need to orient around the sun, not other planets. It's important for children to share an attachment in common (i.e. parents and teachers) and not worry that their attachments are competing with each other. Kids are meant to orbit their parents, not their peers or anyone else who will compete with you.
As an attachment forms and strengthens, the brain says, "Now we have to protect this attachment." It polarizes, creating boundaries between those who are safe and those who are not (this is the "making strange" stage for babies and natural shyness for preschoolers and children). This is how nature protects our attachments. When the child is not ready, they are shy, and they can't form new attachments. He explained that kids are never shy with people they are attached to.
This concept was really helpful for me to understand, as shyness is not a bad thing. It's a good, protective device which is natural for children. He suggested going for depth of relationship with a shy preschooler, not breadth by forcing them into more relationships. A shy person wants to attach to someone that their attachment is connected to. Dr. Neufeld calls this a working village of attachment.
He talked about matchmaking our kids with adults by intentionally creating a connection. We do this unconsciously with siblings by endearing them to each other by matchmaking for a non-competitive relationship, saying things like, "What a great big sister you have, you are fortunate to have someone so caring as your sister." We need to build their attachments one by one as resources for our kids to feel safe and loved. Our culture used to do this for us, but now we have to do it ourselves for our kids.
The problem is not in the number of attachments the child has, but in the number of competing attachments (anything that is in competition with their attachment to us). Anything that pulls our children out of orbit from their main attachment has the potential to compete with us as parents. We can feel when there is resistance in our relationships as we come close and the person pulls away. Does your child keep friends and parents apart? When attachments are working well, kids want their attachments on the same side of the magnet (for parents to like their friends and boyfriend/girlfriend, etc.).
We tend to think that kids have to detach from parents in order to become their own person. This is not true. Attachment is the womb of individuality and maturity. Going back to Dr. Neufeld's plant analogy from session two, the deeper the roots of attachment, the more likely children are to give birth to their own individuality. Without these deep roots, a child can miss out on a sense of security, and the idea that she matters, and can end up taking care of others instead of herself (and I know this is true because it happened to me as a child).
To keep from being replaced by competing attachments, we can either reduce the sense of separation from our child, or increase their attachment village. We need to work on significance, going deeper with our children and helping them understand that they really matter to us. If we offer them a sense of unrequited love and acceptance, this makes us irreplaceable and then there is no competition.
We need to hold onto our parenthood for as long as we need to parent. Kids aren't ready to separate and become independent until they have been allowed to be fully dependent on their parents. They need us, and it's okay that they need us. This is the opposite message that most of us receive today while parenting, but I found it so liberating, and in testing it out within my family, I have found it to be utterly true.
I don't want my kids in competing attachments of any kind. I want Jason and I to be the sun in their solar system, so that they can safely orbit around us. When those roots have gone deep and done their work, our kids will be ready to individuate and become independent, but on their timetable and not on ours.