The use of theory
Child psychology and development studies contribute, and in many ways shape the way we bring up or children today. However, we cannot see scientific theory separately from the social context in which it was written. Knowledge can have a beneficial influence on parenting, if it is located in its cultural context, and used with attention to an individuals’ specific circumstances and considered with thought to its critique.
Taking those warnings on board, it is helpful to look at some basic concepts of child development, which can serve as a point of reference in prioritising our learning as parents.
Bowlby’s Theory of Attachment
Attachment theory, first discussed by John Bowlby become one of the best known theories in child psychology. It is widely accepted that an infants secure attachment to others, is one of the most important ‘lessons’ which parents can give to their children, and which influences how we relate to others throughout the life.
We all need a trusted base from which we can build healthy relationships with others.
Attachment is described as a unique emotional bond, between carer and child, which enables an exchange of comfort, care and pleasure. The secure attachment is characterised by four signs, which are exemplified below by the babies’ behaviour toward their primary carer:
- Proximity Maintenance – a baby expresses a desire to stay close to the carer, reaching to him/her and preferring the carer above others
- Secure Base – an attachment figure is a base from which child can explore the world and always comes back to carer, to assure his/her assistance in those free explorations
- Separation Distress – a baby experiences anxiety in the absence of an attachment figure.
Safe Haven – a carer always offers a comfort in the face of thread – baby facing distress turns to the attachment figure for the solace
Attachment can be fully observed between 12 and 18 month of child’s life. This ability to bond with important others in a trusted way stays with us for life and becomes a crucial skill in developing supportive social network and intimate relationships.
Three other non-secure ‘styles’ of attachment are not discussed here, but can be explored from other sources
Bowlby’s theory was criticised from two main perspectives.
Feminists critiqued Bowlby’s theory saying it idolises motherhood and traditional families (as Bowlby underlined the importance of having the single first attachment figure). This was also discussed in the political context when the theory served the government in UK to persuade women to come back to their domestic roles, after working on some ‘male’ positions during the World War II.
Prof Sir Michael Rutter, called ‘the father of child psychology’, backed the feminists’ view, with his studies and stressed that it is desirable to have multiple meaningful relationships. He also criticised Bowlby for generalised and simplified position, which didn’t distinguish between consequences of not being able to develop attachment and developing one that is later lost. Rutter differentiated those two situations, claiming that it is always better to have a history of attachment, even if the attachment figure has been lost.
There is one important message deriving from the attachment theory:
As a mother/father or a main carer, to facilitate your child in developing a secure attachment, respond appropriately, promptly and consistently to the child’s needs.
This is how the child will be able to feel safe enough to explore the world, knowing that she or he can always return to you as to the safe haven.
Coming back to the beginning of the post: the former theories of parenting (prominent before Bowlby’s) were recommending exactly the opposite. Parental guides were advising for example not to pick up babies between feeds, because ‘they will become fussy and needy’. This is where the science luckily stepped in and ‘proved’ the damaging effects of those strategies.
To bring the application of the attachment theory further, lets ask ourselves some questions regarding the way we bond with our children:
1. Who else, except you, does your child have a chance to develop meaningful relationship with?
2. What is your experience of attachment? What is your style of bonding with others?
3. What do you need (to learn/to get support at) to be able to provide safe and trusted environment for your child?