New parents often worry about attachment to their baby – will I be able to build it? My baby cries a lot – does that mean that we aren’t attached? If I put my baby in daycare, will they get attached to the daycare staff rather than to me?
Based on the ideas about attachment that have been circulated over the years, these are entirely valid concerns. But it turns out that not only should we not worry about these things, but the the research that these ideas were based in was highly flawed.
It’s often forgotten that attachment theory was developed in the period after World War II, when policymakers were trying to get women out of the jobs they had held during the war, and back into their ‘natural’ place in the home.
In one of his earliest papers Dr. John Bowlby – the so-called Father of Attachment Theory – described 44 children who had been referred to his clinic for stealing, and compared these with children who had not stolen anything. He reported that the thieves had been separated from their parents during childhood, which led them to have a low sense of self-worth and capacity for empathy. He went on to say that “to deprive a small child of his mother’s companionship is as bad as depriving him of vitamins.”
But much later in his life, Bowlby revealed that he had conflated a whole lot of kinds of separation into that one category – everything between sleeping in a different room to being abandoned in an orphanage. And in addition to being separated, many of the thieves had also experienced physical or sexual abuse. The fear that spending time apart from your baby will damage them in some way is just not supported by the evidence.
What other common beliefs do we hold about attachment relationships that aren’t supported by evidence? Well, quite a lot, as it turns out! Listen in for more.
Check this episode for more attachment research: What it is, what it’s not, how to do it, and how to stop stressing about it
Link to the book mentioned:
Cornerstones of Attachment Research (Affiliate link).
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Jump to highlights:
- (03:30) Download the free Right From The Start Roadmap
- (06:11) Dr. John Bowlby, who is known as the founder of attachment theory
- (06:40) A brief overview of attachment theory
- (08:06) What is attachment theory
- (09:44) A closer look at the word attachment
- (12:55) Five aspects out of Freud’s psychoanalytic theory
- (14:32) 44 Juvenile Thieves – One of the major ideas about separation from parents
- (17:50) What is the word monotrophy
- (18:49) The four dimensions that distinguish African-American views of motherhood from American views by Dr. Patricia Hill Collins
- (20:49) Aka Pygmy tribe in Africa
- (21:37) What is PIC or Parental Investment in the child Questionnaire by Dr. Robert Bradley
- (24:19) The Strange Situation Procedure developed by Dr. Mary Ainsworth
- (30:30) White middle class mothers in Baltimore stand for what attachment should look like in families of all types around the world
- (33:36) Two main cross cultural studies
- (40:13) The cognitive thinking component of the attachment relationship
- (47:29) What is Outcomes
- (01:01:25) Summary
Click here to read the full transcript
Jen Lumanlan 00:03
Hi, I’m Jen and I host the Your Parenting Mojo podcast. We all want our children to lead fulfilling lives. But it can be so hard to keep up with the latest scientific research on child development and figure out whether and how to incorporate it into our own approach to parenting. Here at Your Parenting Mojo, I do the work for you by critically examining strategies and tools related to parenting and child development that are grounded in scientific research on principles of respectful parenting. If you’d like to be notified when new episodes are released, and get a FREE Guide called 13 Reasons Why Your Child Won’t listen To You and What To Do About Each One, just head on over to your YourParentingMojo.com/SUBSCRIBE. You can also continue the conversation about the show with other listeners in the Your Parenting Mojo Facebook group. I do hope you’ll join us.
Jen Lumanlan 00:55
Hello, and welcome to the your parenting Mojo podcast. Today’s episode is called most of what you know about attachment is probably wrong, and has been a long time in the making. I actually started looking at it for a course that I’ve developed with Hannah and Kelty of upbringing called right from the start. Of course, it’s for people who are expecting a baby and or who have a child under one year of age and we really help you to find a path that feels right for you from the start. In the nine main course modules, you’ll learn about the six parenting roles to embrace to release you from the guilt and the overwhelm by clarifying your flexible ongoing role as a parent. We look at topics like sleep, attachment, play and movement, feeding, preparing siblings, and many other topics as well. Within each topic, we look at what society says that we need to do in each situation, and how we might want to adjust our approach to fit with our values. I give you an overview of the research on each topic in about 10 to 15 minutes, so much shorter than the average podcast episode and then we look at how to actually put the ideas into practice. There’s also a section in each module on troubleshooting when it seems like things aren’t going the way you’d hoped. We have a community of like minded parents who are all going through the course together and to share ideas and get support in a non-Facebook platform, and you can join group coaching calls with me, Hannah and Kety as well.
Jen Lumanlan 02:15
We have parents in the course are expecting new babies; some already have one or more children and know they need to do things differently with this child. Well, for others, this is their first child coming through birth or adoption or surrogacy. Other parents already have a child under the age of one and are implementing the ideas in the course in real time. They’ve been able to have massive shifts in perspective to get through that tough newborn stage, even if they were already aware of and practicing respectful parenting approaches. They tell us they’re jealous but excited for others that this course now exists and they wish there had been something like it available when they had their firstborn.
Jen Lumanlan 02:49
Even the parents who had never heard of doing group coaching calls before have been surprised at the intimacy and community we create in these calls and online as well. We plan to run the course three or four times a year, so you never have to wait too long for it. So if you’re expecting or have a child under the age of one, or you know someone who is we invite you to download the free right from the start roadmap, this roadmap gives you a ton of information on the six parenting roles that we look at in the course. And the skills you’ll need to parent in a way that’s aligned with your values. This isn’t just a little one page thing; it’s 14 pages of information on all these roles and skills and ideas that you need to not just survive that first year, but really thrive. So you can download the free roadmap at yourparentingmojo.com/roadmap, and information about the course itself is at yourparentingmojo.com/rightfromthestart.
Jen Lumanlan 03:38
All right, so let’s get into our episode. We did an episode on attachment theory a while ago where I interviewed Dr. Arietta Slade about what the theory is and what it isn’t, which is attachment parenting and we’ll go into that in just a bit. But I was rereading Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk’s book The Body Keeps The Score a while ago and this little nugget jumped out at me actually it’s a bit more than a little nugget and he says “The scientific study of the vital relationship between infants and their mothers was started by upper class English men who were torn from their families as young boys to be sent off to boarding schools where they were raised in regimented same sex settings. The first time I visited the famed Tavistock clinic in London I noticed a collection of black and white photographs of these great 20th century psychiatrists hanging on the wall going up the main staircase. John Bowlby, Wilfred Bion, Harry Guntrip, Ronald Fairburn and Donald Winnicott. Each of them in his own way had explored how our early experiences become prototypes for all of our later connections with others and how our most intimate sense of self is created in our minute to minute exchanges with our caregivers. scientists study what puzzles the most so they often become experts in subjects that others take for granted. (Or as the attachment researcher Beatrice Beebe once told me most research is research). These men who studied the role of mothers in children’s lives had themselves been sent off to school at a vulnerable age sometime between six and ten long before they should have faced the world alone. Bowlby himself told me that just such boarding school experiences probably inspired George Orwell’s novel 1984, which brilliantly expresses how human beings may be induced to sacrifice everything they hold dear and true, including their sense of self, for the sake of being loved and approved by someone in a position of authority.”
Jen Lumanlan 05:17
And it’s not that Bowlby was torn from the tender arms of his loving mother to go to boarding school. He was born into an upper middle class family in London, which means he was mostly raised by a nanny into nursemaids, and was allowed to see his mother for an hour a day because many parents of her class believed that too much parental affection would spoil a child. The Nanny was the consistent figure in his life until she left the family when he was almost four, and he described this loss to a biographer as one as great as losing a mother. Bowlby’s father was surgeon to the king’s household and an experienced loss as well. His own father had been killed during a war. John Bowlby’s father was often unavailable for long periods, and a beloved godfather died during his childhood as well. So despite financial privilege, His childhood was marked by trauma and loss.
Jen Lumanlan 06:02
And so I thought, huh, that’s interesting. It seems as though there’s more to the story about attachment than I realize, how can this history not have influenced the way that Dr. John Bowlby, who is known as the founder of attachment theory, affected him? So I thought, huh, that’s interesting. It seems as though there’s more to this story than I’d realized. How can this history not have influenced the way that Dr. John Bowlby, who is known as the founder of attachment theory, develop that theory. So I took that little nugget of information away.
Jen Lumanlan 06:33
And then I started looking around for other perspectives on attachment theory, and I found! So in this episode, we’re going to give a brief overview of what attachment theory is, which is kind of a bit more complicated than we might think. And as we’re doing that, we’re going to examine these ideas from different angles to see how much of these ideas we actually want to take on in our parenting and what we might need to shift.
Jen Lumanlan 06:54
And before we get started with that, I do want to acknowledge the monumental contribution of Dr. Robbie Duschinsky to this episode. He published a book in 2020, called Cornerstones Of Attachment Research and I have to say, I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Each of the five main chapters is between 60 and 100 pages long, and each chapter has an average of 500 references. So we get the usual tour of the peer reviewed literature, but we also get details like “In a four day workshop in 1985 at the University of Washington, Mary Ainsworth sat on the floor to be as close as possible to the screen, as Mary Main showed her tapes coated with the new disorganized classification”, Dr. Duschinsky got access to John Bowlby’s his private archives. So we hear about the notes that Bowlby himself made in the margins of the personal copies of the books that he owned on this topic, Dr. Duschinsky, he compares the illustrations in the original manuscript of a peer reviewed paper, with the ones that were finally published, and reports on delays in doctoral dissertation completions on related topics due to maternity leaves. This book represents a simply staggering amount of work and it’s all brought together in an incredibly readable style.
Jen Lumanlan 08:05
Okay, so let’s get started on what attachment theory is. The first thing we always need to say when we’re discussing attachment theory is that attachment theory is not attachment parenting. To the extent that if you mention attachment parenting to a researcher who’s working on attachment theory, you invariably get responses accompanied by winces and groans. We did mention this in our last episode on attachment, but it’s important enough that it bears repeating here. So Dr. Bill and his wife Martha Sears had already developed some ideas about parenting that they had called “immersion parenting”. But Martha Sears said that “At a talk one time in Pasadena, a grandmother came up to bill and said she thought the term immersion mothering was a good one because some moms find themselves in over our heads. When he told me this, I realized we needed to change the term to something more positive, so we came up with a AP meaning attachment parenting. Since the attachment theory literature was so well researched and documented by John Bowlby and others” There’ s a citation for that quote in the references for this episode. And so the reason that the Sears were able to ride on the coattails of Bobby’s authority was because Bowlby had made a lot of ambiguous and over general statements about the dangers of separation, and the need for mothers to spend time with their babies. In essence, Bowlby and Sears were involved in a circular relationship that perhaps neither one realized – Bowlby used words like attachment that people would recognize and be drawn toward to support the popular appeal of his ideas, and Sears use Bowlby’s words to make parents think that attachment parenting was based on academic research, which made it more popular with parents and it became a self reinforcing circle. So let’s take a closer look at that word attachment.
Jen Lumanlan 09:47
Bowlby started out by observing infant primates and notice that they try to get close to an adult when they’re alarmed or are separated by crawling or by smiling or crying to draw the adult closer and Bowlby thought Bringing the adult closer would remove whatever stimulus the infant was considering a threat or discomfort. Bowlby believed human infants are born with the same capacity to look for a familiar caregiver when they’re alarmed or separated, he wrote: “When given an opportunity, all infants without severe neuro physiological impairments will become attached to one or more specific caregivers”. And we’ll look more critically at that idea in just a bit, but let’s take it at face value for now. If the caregiver can then respond in a way that removes the threat or discomfort, what is called a secure attachment relationship is formed. And it is important that we refer to it as an attachment relationship, not just attachment. If we just say attachment, we’re applying that the child is attached to the mother, while saying attachment relationship emphasizes This is an interaction between two people. The mother’s emotional attitude and sensitivity are crucial to the child’s development. And if she’s not physically or emotionally available, then the attachment relationship will not develop successfully. And the research does assume the primary attachment relationship is with the mother, one of Bowlby’s early texts said: “Little will be said of the Father child relation, his value as the economic and emotional support of the mother will be assumed”. And so we’ll come back to that idea in a bit as well.
Jen Lumanlan 11:12
Dr. Duschinsky observes that the way the word attachment is used in everyday language is different from Bowlby’s usage, and he actually used it in at least two different ways. And then it’s again used differently by the researchers who have come after Bowlby. In everyday usage attachment means being bound or connected to something else, either physically or emotionally. Bowlby used it in a broad sense, meaning any and all intimate relationships and also in a narrow sense meaning a specific set of behaviors and states that help a child to communicate that it needs attention from a caregiver and as an illustration of the kinds of uses that have shown up over the years. One psychologist Dr. Michael Rutter, noted that attachment meaning inbuilt predisposition, means that children show attachment, meaning discreet behaviors within attachments, meaning dyadic relationships, and how does this happen? attachment a hypothesized internal controlling mechanism.
Jen Lumanlan 12:06
So having one word being used in so many different ways makes it seem like everyone who uses it is getting what they need out of it, and even Bowlby admitted by the 1980s that he was only continuing to use it for historical reasons. Even though he meant he needed to clarify what sense of the word he meant every time he used it. And in fact, apparently he never even wanted to develop a theory at all. He once said that when he was younger, he envied the clinical intuition and grace of his colleagues who helped patients even when they didn’t use a particular theory. And other peers help patients even when the theories they used weren’t actually very helpful. Bowlby himself noted that he tended to apply theories to understand his patients problems, which could sometimes work well. But when the theories didn’t work, he didn’t know how to proceed, so he decided to develop this new theory. He had initially trained as a psychoanalyst and pulled five aspects out of Freud’s psychoanalytic theory. #1. Infants have a complex social and emotional life. #2. Early experiences can have lifelong implications, #3. Mental representations of early experiences impact later behavior and development. #4. Defensive processes play a role in affect regulation, and #5. That the loss of an attachment figure at any age represents an emergency.
Jen Lumanlan 13:20
But the reason to develop new theory was the flaws that Bowlby noted within psychoanalytic theory, a lack of acknowledgement of what were the actual family experiences that shaped the child’s experiences, an excessive reliance on sexual explanations for challenges people were facing. Attachment theory was also shaped by Bowlby’s experiences with his own children, as he noticed they would come to him when they were scared, which went counter to the commonly accepted idea that children would go to their parents when they wanted something positive like food. One important implication of these ideas was that they refuted the approach Bowlby’s own mother had taken and that you can’t really spoil a child by showing them physical affection, and that in fact, children he’ll feel confident that they are loved would be less anxious about separation. And when long term separations did happen, that children genuinely did grieve this loss, which was contrary to the major idea in psychoanalytic theory. We said this grieving couldn’t possibly happen until the child has reached adolescence.
Jen Lumanlan 14:17
And then a truly unfortunate set of circumstances led to the mostly incorrect views that many people hold even today about attachment theory. Firstly, one of the major ideas about separation from parents was developed in a paper published in 1944, called 44 Juvenile Thieves. In the paper, Bowlby looked at the records of 44 cases of children who had been caught stealing, who had been referred to a child guidance clinic and compare these two randomly selected control cases from children who attended the clinic with no history of stealing. 12 of the thieves had experiences of early separation from the parents compared with four of the control children, and Bowlby theorized that parental separations lead children to have a low sense of worth and capacity for empathy. A more speculative theory linked early separations specifically to delinquency and criminal behavior. Now hearing this, it makes you never want to leave your child alone again, but much later in his life, Bowlby acknowledged that these children had not only suffered repeated extended episodes of separation from parents, but also physical and sexual abuse. In addition, different degrees of separation were all conflated into one. So brief separations, like sleeping in a different room were conflated with the use of daycare to child neglect to the child being sent to an orphanage. And specifically, this was described as maternal deprivation, meaning the child specifically belongs with their mother. And so any caregiving arrangement where the mother wasn’t with the child all the time was seen as deficient.
Jen Lumanlan 15:47
Bowlby had observed in his early papers that not all separations would result in these negative impacts because children’s own inherited tendencies caused them to respond differently. Some children will be hugely impacted and others not so much. The other factor is the result of the separation on the child’s behavior, and then the impact of this on the parent. When reuniting after a separation, the child may initially reject the parent and then cling possessively in a way the parent may find hard to cope with. If the parent is able to comfort the child negative impacts will likely be minimal. If the parent isn’t physically available or emotionally capable of comforting the child, then the child mourns the loss and eventually despairs that they will ever be reconnected. But it’s certainly not the case that separations alone without other kinds of disruptions as well leads straight to negative outcomes for children. In fact, it isn’t even the most common pathway, only 20 to 30% of the children who have the worst experiences in life go on to display severe problems, with the majority doing quite well in life.
Jen Lumanlan 16:50
The second unfortunate idea is the implication that the expected caregiving environment for an infant is with the child’s mother. Very late in his life, Bowlby stated that the attachment system quote “contributes to the individual’s survival by keeping him or her in touch with one or more caregivers.” and that “a baby interacting with and forming, trusting meaning secure relationships, meaning attachments, with a larger number of significant persons, will as a child and later as an adult, walk more securely in the world” but this as a rather different position than the one he put to the world earlier in his life. And this came about when Bowlby noticed that babies will cry until they were picked up, and that this behavior was directed toward preferred targets even when other caregivers were available. Bowlby wrote to a colleague and asked his advice on a term to use to describe how these social responses were usually directed to particular individuals. Note the S in individuals and the colleagues suggested the word “monotrophy”, which is actually a word from chemistry that describes the existence of one stable form and other unstable forms as a substance. But despite the randomness of lifting this term from chemistry, you can see the mismatch that occurred, Bowlby was looking for a term describing individuals and mono implies turning to a single individual. Bowlby his actual theory did not state that attachment is limited to one person. But readers of his work came away with this impression. Because his book attachment Volume One only uses the term monitor op once and refers readers back to an earlier paper where it’s defined as “the bias of a child to attach himself especially to one figure”.
Jen Lumanlan 18:31
And so this idea has been seized on by critics who point out that humans evolved to engage in cooperative care with mothers, fathers, grandmothers, aunts, siblings, adult friends all involved. We see this in cultures around the world as well as here in the US as well. The sociologist Dr. Patricia Hill Collins has listed four dimensions that distinguish African American views of motherhood from your American views. And these are women centered childcare networks. economic support is part of mothering community, other mothers and social activism and motherhood is a symbol of power. Attachment theory also positions the middle class White family is superior to the people and cultures around the world who share child rearing with other mothers, and where the person most responsible for an infant’s well being maybe a five year old girl, and it’s possible that lower rates of attachment security often observed in places outside the US might reflect different caregiving structures and cultural values, rather than insensitive attachment systems.
Jen Lumanlan 19:32
Dr. Duschinsky argues that Bowlby was too focused on a child’s need to find care from its primary caregiver, and ignore the ultimate strategy of finding additional people who could provide that care if those people were available. The general consensus among researchers seems to be that as long as the child isn’t passed around so much, it becomes hard to develop at least one stable relationship and isn’t in daycare for many hours a week which is defined as over 70 hours a week which is quite a lot more than a typical work week, and as long as nights are spent with the primary caregivers, then that primary caregiver does not need to be present to the degree that Bowlby claimed in his writings of the 1950s. For example “to deprive a small child of his mother’s companionship is as bad as depriving him of vitamins.”
Jen Lumanlan 20:18
And so I reviewed the effects of daycare on young children and Episode 81. On how can I decide which daycare or preschool is right for my child, and the research base does not support Bobby’s early conclusions. In fact, if daycare or preschool reduces stress for the mother and or allows her to return to a job that she enjoys, the net benefit of daycare and preschool is likely to be positive. We should also note that women who have children and are employed are referred to as working mothers, while fathers who work outside the home are referred to as men. There are cultures such as the Aka Pygmy tribe in Africa, where each parent is responsible for providing 50% of the family’s food, and 47% of the Father’s day is spent holding the infant or within arm’s reach of it. So it is possible for men to be active, intimate nurturing caregivers. Neither men nor women are natural caregivers, but when mothers spend more time with their children, they become more sensitive to the child’s signals, so fathers feel less competent and then become less competent. Men in Western cultures are more likely to default to a good provider model of working more hours to earn money, rather than becoming emotionally involved with a child.
Jen Lumanlan 21:28
Another important aspect of considering the mother as the primary caregiver is what kind of care that mother is expected to provide. Dr. Robert Bradley at the University of Arizona developed a Parental Investment in the child Questionnaire abbreviated to PIC, to assess the parents, physical and psychological availability, responsiveness and sensitivity signals using four constructs, delight, sensitivity, separation and anxiety, and acceptance of the parenting role. All sounds well and good, but the actual statements and what really is a survey rather than a questionnaire have to be seen to be believed. So in the acceptance of parenting roles section parents have to indicate the extent to which they agree or disagree on a four point scale with statements like “Raising a child is so demanding, I look forward to a time later in life when I can have time by myself. And sometimes I wish people would be just as interested in me as they are in my baby.”
Jen Lumanlan 22:20
Statements in the delight section include: ” I carry pictures of my child with me wherever I go. And holding and cuddling My child is more fun than most other things I do.” In the knowledge sensitivity section, there’s lots of parents hold their children and carry them around way too much, and in separation anxiety, there’s except for emergencies or going to work, I wouldn’t think of leaving the house without my child, even if I could get a sitter. And sometimes I feel as if my child and I are one.
Jen Lumanlan 22:48
Now, I would argue that according to these measures, I’m a pretty terrible parent. I never carry pictures my daughter around with me. And if someone asks to see pictures of her, I go to my husband’s Facebook feed. I enjoyed holding and cuddling her, but certainly not more than most things I do. And we didn’t leave her alone a lot because we couldn’t afford a sitter, but if we could have, I would have done it in a heartbeat. I would argue that a high score on some of these measures actually indicates enmeshment, which is an inappropriate degree of intertwining of the relationship between two people. To the extent that personal boundaries are unclear. Sometimes I feel as if my child and I are one would certainly fit the bill there. So the problem here is this scale is used to measure the strength of attachment relationships, but positions over attachment as the ideal and promotes the cultural norm of the mother who gives unreservedly to her child. And secondly, I would hypothesize that any parent who had to answer these questions will come out of the session pretty much convinced they’re doing something wrong, unless they were already over invested in their child. And as much as Bowlby ignored the role of fathers and raising children, the conclusion of Dr. Bradley’s paper describing the parental investment of the child questionnaire notes that “the applicability of the PIC to fathers is unknown. So the title of the paper seems just a little bit misleading. This trend occurs throughout attachment research, and little is known about the importance of fathers in children’s lives, not because they aren’t important, but because researchers have chosen not to study the issue.
Jen Lumanlan 24:19
OK, so let’s move on a bit to look at what’s called the Strange Situation Procedure, which is a test for children aged 12 to 18 months that was developed by Dr. Mary Ainsworth. The test is done in a lab behind one way glass so the experimenters can watch what the child is doing during a series of eight episodes, each lasting about three minutes. So firstly, mother, baby and an experimenter are together in the room. Then the mother and baby are left alone. A stranger joins the mother and baby and then mother leaves baby and the stranger alone. Mother returns and the stranger leaves. And next the mother leaves so the baby is alone. The stranger returns and then the mother returns And the stranger leaves.
Jen Lumanlan 25:02
And this test is scored mostly on the child’s behaviors during the two times the mother re-enters the room based on the intensity of four behaviors related to proximity and contact seeking, maintaining contact, avoiding proximity and contact and resistance to contact in computing. The researchers also observed the extent to which the child explored the room and the toys in it. Whether the child searched for the mother and what feelings they expressed, for example, crying or smiling.
Jen Lumanlan 25:30
Based on a sample of 26 middle class American children and their mothers who were all White, Ainsworth developed three categories. A baby who was distressed when the mother left avoided the stranger when alone but was friendly when the child was there and it was positive and happy when the mother returned, was classified as securely attached. A baby who was very distressed when the mother left the room seemed afraid of the stranger approached the mother when she came back but resisted contact with her was classified, insecure or resistant. A baby who’s showed no signs of distress when the mother left who was not distressed by the strangers presence, and who showed little interest when the mother returned was classified as avoidant. A fourth attachment style known as disorganized was later added as well where the normal sequence of behaviors wasn’t seen, apparently because the child’s fear or confusion.
Jen Lumanlan 26:20
Bowlby apparently had urged Ainsworth not to use the word secure for one of her categories because it was too value-laden, and if security is assumed to be what we’re aiming toward than a failure of security implies danger and destruction. One researcher more recently surveyed psychology students about what they thought about the concept of security, and found the students assume that Ainsworth meant confident which was equated with being socially dominant. It also feel the misconception that insecure babies have been broken by their caregivers.
Jen Lumanlan 26:51
The Secure group had initially been called the B group of babies. And within the B group, there was a subgroup called B3, which Ainsworth had described as normative partly because it accounted for 42% of this total sample, but also because “it is the subgroup whose members have the most harmonious interaction with their mother.” If you’ve been listening to the show for a while, then all kinds of red flags are probably going off for you. At this point, the word normative conflates the mathematical average behavior, with the idea of it being normal, and that deviance from normal implies some kind of defectiveness. The mathematical normativity combined with the harmonious pneus of interactions between mother and child, led Ainsworth to speculate that this is the natural state of the relationship between mothers and babies. Bowlby was of the opinion that natural is better, and Ainsworth agreed with this and went on to assume that the resistant and avoidant styles were defective.
Jen Lumanlan 27:46
The zoologist and psychologist Dr. Robert Hinde criticized this view because while an optimal strategy would be used when circumstances were favorable, other strategies could become preferred when conditions weren’t perfect. Principles of evolutionary biology hold that just because the B three subtype was common, it couldn’t be described as ideal under all circumstances.
Jen Lumanlan 28:06
Secondly, it was observed that the children who didn’t show distress during the strange situation in the lab are often the most frequently distressed and aggressive children at home. So there was a great deal of instability and observations between the lab and the home settings. To Ainsworth’s credit she never tried to position the strange situation procedure as the single tool to assess the attachment relationship, that it should be used to validate naturalistic observations in the child’s own home, but to many of her peers, the fact that a behavior could be demonstrated in a lab in just 20 minutes was new and exciting, even if it didn’t actually correlate very closely with what happened at home. Ainsworth noted this development was likely related to what she called the publish or perish realities of academic life. If you’re an academic trying to get tenure, you need to publish a certain number of papers every year, and journals often don’t want to publish papers with what are called null findings, which describe no connection between factors the researcher had expected to be connected. So if a researcher has a choice between doing hours of observations in a home-based study that you have to travel to, and analyze endless recordings that might only turn up a null finding, or a strange situation procedure that’s faster, cheaper, and highly likely to turn up a statistically significant result, you’re probably going to go with a strange situation. Dr. Urie Bronfenbrenner, was directly describing the strange situation procedure studies with his now famous “Much of what contemporary developmental psychology is the science of the strange behavior of children in strange situations with strange adults for the briefest possible periods of time.”
Jen Lumanlan 29:43
Ainsworth shifted our position on the use of the strange situation over time in the 1970 paper first describing it the strange situation was described as a tool, “to illustrate children’s attachment and exploratory behaviors in a laboratory microcosm” but in 1978 She presented it as a reliable test for categorizing behaviors as well as the children and the mothers themselves. Since maternal sensitivity was the main factor shaping the attachment relationship, the categorization of the child automatically created a categorization of the mother as well. So a 20 minute lab procedure, which usually wasn’t replicated in the home, was said to establish a causal relationship between a mother’s care and her child’s personality.
Jen Lumanlan 30:27
All right, so let’s come back to the idea that 26 of White middle class mothers and babies from the city of Baltimore could somehow come to stand for what attachment should look like in families of all types around the world. Ainsworth had actually deliberately sought out a homogenous sample to reduce adversities the mothers and children might face, because she thought this would more closely reflect natural ideal behavior, but what ends up happening here is the way that White middle class mothers interact with their babies becomes the gold standard to which all other interactions must be compared. Yes, you’d also studied 28 infants in their mothers in villages outside Kampala, Uganda while her husband was posted there. But she’d actually developed the strange situation and procedure in Baltimore, because she hadn’t seen the same behaviors in the Baltimore children, as she’d seen in the Ugandan study. Rather than considering that perhaps attachment is not a universal concept. After all, she developed this procedure to try to elicit the behaviors she’d seen in Uganda.
Jen Lumanlan 31:27
Again, to her credit, she notes in her 1970 paper describing the attachment styles that “cultural context must be taken into account when assessing the security versus insecurity of attachments,” but a massive disconnect formed here with very little research being done on how the concept of attachment styles translates across cultures, and by 1978 Ainsworth herself argued the strange situation findings describe normal behavior, and supported Bowlby’s theory of attachment, meaning that all children should display similar behavior in similar situations. Dr. Alan Sroufe, whom we’ll meet again in a few minutes, argues for studying people who have experienced less than usual amounts of stress, as well as people who have experienced intensified stress, because we can more easily understand the role of social factors play in our lives when we look at both the places where these stresses are absent or extra intense, rather than simply looking at people who are faced little social stress and holding them up as the standard against which everyone else must be measured, is the best way to understand the world.
Jen Lumanlan 32:34
This cultural validity disconnect was apparently partly caused by a disagreement between Bowlby and the anthropologist Dr. Margaret Mead, as Mead had one said that an infant would do fine with 20 different caregivers. More recent anthropological research has indicated this is not the case, but the children certainly can form attachment relationships with multiple people, even if not as many as 20. Bowlby’s thinking about multiple caregiving relationship seems to somehow have gotten stuck at how 20 attachment relationships were clearly impossible, and so he and essentially, most of the attachment theory followers didn’t look at multi person interactions and didn’t work with anthropologists to do this either. This was compounded by problems of looking for universal cultural claims, especially when these appear value laden as the language around attachment and security do, and the problems with trying to do a strange situation procedure outside the lab when anthropologists mostly work in the field, and that in some cultures, it would be highly unusual for a researcher to separate parents from their children even briefly.
Jen Lumanlan 33:36
There were two main cross cultural studies done in the 1980s one in Germany, which found that a majority of the parents and children in the sample had avoidant rather than secure attachment relationships, which was attributed to the German preference for avoiding displays of distress and promoting independence. And a study in Japan noted that where families co-sleep, co-bathe infants are carried on the mother’s back, a three minute separation may create panic in the child rather than being a mild stressor, which resulted in the over classification of ambivalent attachment relationships. That because cross cultural research has been lacking and Ainsworth language about appropriate caregiver responses is ambiguous and clarified during training, which is usually done in person and may not be accessible to all researchers. We don’t know nearly enough about how cultural practices positively and negatively impact children’s attachment.
Jen Lumanlan 34:29
Another thing that causes parents a lot of anxiety related to attachment was the language used by researchers related to crying. Ainsworth and her colleague Dr. Silvia Bell described in 1970 paper that when mothers responded promptly to infants crying in the first quarter of their lives, the children cried less in the last quarter of the first year. Dr. Duschinsky reported this as a symbolic victory for attachment theorist since the finding provided evidence contrary to the behaviorist theory, that if a parent rewarded crying with a child The child would cry more, and instead supported the attachment theorist claims that a child who feels insecure that the parent will come if they truly need something or cry less.
Jen Lumanlan 35:10
Dutch Professor Marinus van Ijzendoorn had been asked to babysit his six month old godson for a period of several days and nights in the early 1980s. And this is the level of detail that Dr. Duschinsky’s book gets to, and he couldn’t get the child to stop crying, and he vowed to dig deeper into Ainsworth findings. Ainsworth would have had to take written notes during her home studies, but Van Ijzendoorn isn’t used a newly available audio recorder and spent four years collecting data and he found the opposite of Ainsworth’s results, that responding sensitively actually resulted in more rather than less crying. Journals actually refused to publish the results for several years because they were seen as an attack on attachment theory, but Van Ijzendoorn didn’t see that finding that when caregivers responded to fuss or cry signals and babies cry more often by the end of the first year, as a contradiction to attachment theory as a whole, but rather is a criticism of Ainsworth’s small sample and the failure to distinguish between low level of fussing and loud cries. He argued that low level fussing is not an attachment signal. So whether or not parents respond to this has little implication for the attachment relationship and may even encourage more fussing. Loud prolonged crying is an attachment signal and sensitive responses are needed to those cries. This paper is rarely cited in practic practical applications of attachment research with citations of Ainsworth’s paper predominating, especially where researchers need evidence in support of interventions to improve parenting skills.
Jen Lumanlan 36:42
Based on what I’ve seen of these kinds of interventions, researchers often have a hard time designing and delivering an intervention themselves that makes us statistically significant difference, and then the effects are watered down when you’re training non experts to deliver the intervention to a broader group of people who aren’t statistically homogenous. And I wonder if the attachment theorists stuck with the more sensitive parenting equals less crying story, because it’s too hard to try to teach the nuances of sensitive responding in some situations, but not to worry about others. It’s like when my health care provider gives out handouts at well child visits that advised timeouts instead of spanking. It’s not the timeouts are actually good for the relationship between parents and children, but they are better than spanking, and they use timeouts message is a lot easier to convey, then have problem solving conversations with your child where you try and understand the needs underneath their feelings and then develop solutions that work for both of you. And of course, once again, it doesn’t take into account the appropriateness of different solutions to different cultures, for example, that Japanese parents might respond quickly to low level fussing while German parents might take much longer to respond.
Jen Lumanlan 37:50
So the idea that I want to leave parents with related to crying is that you don’t have to respond to your child’s every cry to develop a secure attachment relationship with them. And even if you’ve realized your attachment relationship with your child is somewhat rocky maybe due to postpartum depression or a colic or any one of the other struggles we face early in parenting, you can still take comfort that research has indicated that children tend to have better outcomes when they demonstrate an early insecure attachment relationship in the strange situation procedure, which is later followed by more sensitive care, rather than an early secure attachment relationship followed by later insensitive care. In other words, the first two years of life are important, but they do not determine the future of the child.
Jen Lumanlan 38:34
One aspect of the attachment relationship that was neglected in the early research that focused exclusively on small White middle class samples was the societal level implications of attachment theory. If you perceive the attachment relationship as one that’s primarily guided by the mother’s sensitivity, with some input from a child’s temperament, then if the attachment relationship is not secure, it’s primarily the mother’s fault and the mother’s problem to fix. But Dr. Alan Sroufe at the University of Minnesota has done long term studies, with large sample sizes recruited specifically because of their exposure to poverty and other adversities, and did this because a lack of resources is a predictable precursor of child abuse. Dr. Sroufe argued that “as a member of society, one shares a responsibility respect to the quality of care available to all children,” a perspective I think is sorely lacking in our culture. As I mentioned in the recent episode, on the Mother’s Day MomiFesto, we tend to see children as a parent’s responsibility, except when the parent doesn’t do well by White middle class standards, in which case we say they’re doing it wrong, and we try to get them to fix what they’re doing, and if they can’t, or they won’t, then we take the child away. If we really cared about children, as much as family focused politicians say we do. We might implement policies to bring families out of poverty, which is a major stressor for parents, rather than just telling parents they’re doing it wrong. We’d also provide support to children have access Against abuse as they become parents themselves, so they could learn new models of being with a baby instead of leaving them to figure it out by themselves until we swoop in to tell them the doing it wrong.
Jen Lumanlan 40:10
Another of Dr. Sroufe’s important contributions has been looking beyond the cognitive thinking component of the attachment relationship to the effective or emotion based bond. For Bowlby, the primary purpose of a child’s exploration was to learn about new things in the world. Sroufe argued that the child also learned how to moderate their emotions through exploration as tension has continually escalated and de escalated by playing games like hide and seek, and the baby and caregiver use these episodes to create a reservoir of shared positive emotion. The child does cry to bring the parent closer but that’s not the end goal as Bowlby had thought, physical proximity isn’t so important if the parent isn’t able to comfort the child is the feeling of being comforted. That’s the ultimate goal.
Jen Lumanlan 40:54
Dr. Sroufe has done a lot of work to track long term outcomes of attachment. He and his colleagues observed 11 year olds in summer camp and found that children with avoidant attachment relationships initially did just as well as children with secure attachment relationships in the early stages of a summer camp when everyone’s nervous and trying to figure out situation, but the ones with avoidant attachment relationships were less effective when they were asked to do tasks that required them to infer what other people were thinking or engage in group work. The researchers concluded that by age 5, much of the variance in adolescent social competence could be accounted for, and since preschool social competence was predicted by strange situation classification when they were infants, attachment relationship style has a long term effect on children’s social competence. But this does not mean that if we aren’t able to form secure attachment with our children that they’re going to suffer later in childhood, adolescence and beyond. It’s not that there’s a direct relationship between attachment and later outcomes, but rather that a child’s early experiences create vulnerabilities and strengths that affect their later experiences, including what kinds of experiences they seek out and how these are interpreted, rather than directly producing particular outcomes. A child with an insecure or avoidance attachment relationship whose parent or caregiver is later able to provide more sensitive care may do very well, while the same child who faced structural challenges like racism and poverty may struggle much more. So these experiences don’t happen in a vacuum; the attachment relationship itself exists in the context of the child’s relationship with their parent or caregiver, but the quality of this care the person can provide is linked to the challenges that they are facing. A parent who’s struggling to put food on the table may be more stressed and when parents are stressed, they may not respond as effectively to their child. A combination of a difficult attachment relationship plus ongoing structural stressors make it more likely the child will struggle in later years, and the longer the stresses are in place, the greater the likely impact. Compounding the problem in our culture, we tend to see resilience as an individual quality, and the individuals should develop grit and growth mindset to better cope with their environment. Rather than asking why we need to be resilient in the first place, and working to change those social conditions.
Jen Lumanlan 43:12
This has really important implications for what we do when things don’t appear to be going well for a child. Bowlby was active in promoting attachment theory to social workers who found the predictive nature of attachment theory with observable behavior, predicting the child’s attachment, which would itself predict children’s outcomes later on professionalize their knowledge and made them seem more credible. The UK Department of Health published guidance for social workers called assessing children in need and their families in the year 2000, which stated that “secure attachments are so important in the early years, where these attachments are absent or broken decisions to provide children with new attachment figures must be taken as quickly as possible to avoid developmental damage,” the obvious implication here is that if a family is investigated and anything other than a secure attachment relationship is found, the family is essentially diagnosed according to the White middle class standards of an ideal relationship and found to be deficient and the child being removed from the family is a very viable pathway. The assessors focus exclusively on the relationship between the mother and child and make the mother responsible for this relationship which draws attention away from the broader family, the absence of social support, even any neurodevelopmental challenges the child may have. In one survey of mental health professionals, 40% reported that mothers shouldn’t work outside the home and 74% believe that mothers part time employment was more beneficial to children than full time employment, which means that mothers may be perceived by mental health professionals as inadequate if they simply accept full time employment.
Jen Lumanlan 44:46
When researchers compare family intervention methods, the results are not pretty. These studies often assign some families to a social services support as usual control condition and others to an experimental condition. One study found that compared to the control condition which received social services as usual, attachment relationships improved dramatically when parents are supported and understanding a child’s needs, or an understanding how the struggles they have had in their own lives are now showing up in their parenting. Study in the UK provided each struggling family with a key worker who helped the family to decide what services they need in a whole family plan, and found the project reduce the number of children removed from their homes and placed on child protection plans. The hard part about this is that these interventions are rarely scaled up and used as the way support is provided to families, and the old, ineffective ways of assessing and removing children under the guise of social services support continue on.
Jen Lumanlan 45:44
And if we look further out than adolescence, we also see things like violent behavior later in life being blamed on insecure attachment relationships with the person’s primary caregiver, who is usually assumed to be the mother. And of course, if it’s the mother’s fault, the attachment relationship is broken, the deficit lies in her and is her thing to fix. Rather than being caused by structural issues like patriarchy, which should be addressed at a societal level, not an individual level. It’s commonly accepted wisdom that children have better outcomes in families with two parents, but researchers have argued that the better outcomes occurring in children living in families with two parents don’t actually arise because the father’s there, but because the mother is relieved of the stress of doing everything alone, the child has more adult supervision and another attachment figure, and the family likely has a higher income.
Jen Lumanlan 46:31
Many women often feel responsible for the violence that’s perpetrated against them in families. So now not only are they blamed for not forming the correct attachment relationship with their child, but the violence they’re experiencing in their relationship is also their problem and their fault rather than a social issue. When mothers and babies in troubled families are assessed, they expects of babies witnessing multiple abuses of their mother, and what effects that abuse had on the mother’s ability to care for her child, and compounding factors like poverty are all ignored, and social services focus on the mother’s deficits. Even the process of the assessment itself with an outside observer who comes in and sees the individuals as objects of study, and makes no attempt to build trust with the women and looks only for specific pieces of information about attachment rather than considering the broader context may feel like a perpetration of the abuse itself, rather than something that’s designed to support the family.
Jen Lumanlan 47:26
I also want to dig a little deeper into what we mean by outcomes. Executive function is one thing that’s commonly assessed in both childhood and adolescence to demonstrate differences between children and traditional tests of executive function tend to emphasize an optimal age at which developmental milestones are achieved. If a child achieves these on time, or early, then all as well, but if they are late, then that’s considered a problem, and anyone who’s ever panicked because their child wasn’t rolling over or crawling or walking at the same time, as everyone else’s, knows that the vast majority of the time being late to a milestone has absolutely no impact whatsoever on a child’s life. Some researchers argue that the tasks and skills emphasized in typical tests of executive function mimic the prototypical Western masculinized cognitive approaches, including speed, efficiency, control of body and emotions, and separating the rational from the emotional and privileging the rational. Any child who exists in the world in a way that doesn’t prioritize these functions is seen as deficient, and mothers are seen as important in this view only as they support their child’s development, which is why the general public speaks of a child’s attachment style rather than the attachment relationship. The child is the only really important person in this dyad.
Jen Lumanlan 48:43
And when we think about longer term outcomes, what society wants is for the child to develop into a law abiding citizen to take their place in the capitalist machine. Reducing dependence on the state is a primary neoliberal goal. So the argument goes that if we focus on the first three years of a child’s life will produce citizens who then have more responsible children themselves because they have a “more responsible attitude to pregnancy and marriage.” We can expect middle class White people to develop the required secure attachment relationship, but some researchers argue this can’t be expected from other people. Poverty, debt, housing problems, domestic violence, chronic health or mental illness are not considered factors where the examination Now this would be an interesting side note in the research literature, if one of the researchers you had this opinion wasn’t Ian Duncan Smith, who went on to be Secretary of State for Work and Pensions in the UK, from 2010 to 2016, which is a very powerful role in the UK government, and who was responsible for massive cuts to welfare payments to encourage individuals to take more responsibility for themselves. Attachment is thus seen as critical for social and economic security for the nation, because teenage pregnancies and violence result in its absence, which leads to an increased need for social support and an argument against the Need for those supports because attachment is seen as a natural process, the state shouldn’t need to intervene in it.
Jen Lumanlan 50:07
And he’s not the only one in a position of power with this opinion: English Member of Parliament, Andrea Leadsom, said in a house of commons debate in October 2010, “A human being without a properly developed social brain finds it extremely difficult to empathize with other human beings. In particular, if a baby has what is known as disorganized attachment where one or both parents are frightened or chaotic, they cannot form a secure bond precisely because the parent who is so frightening and chaotic is also the person whom the baby should be turning to for comfort. The baby’s brain is confused and they experienced disorganized attachment, which leads to very significant problems for that baby. If we look into the babyhood of children who brutalized other children of violent criminals or pedophiles, we often see plenty of evidence that sociopaths are not born. Rather, they are made by their earliest experiences when they are less than two years old. Evidence shows that more than 80% of long term prison inmates have attachment problems that stem from babyhood.”
Jen Lumanlan 51:03
Because Leadsom believes that poor attachment is no respecter of class or wealth, the elimination of welfare payments is logical attachment is the parents responsibility. According to Leadsom problems of violence and criminality have roots in mother’s failures, so she can ignore all the other circumstances like violence and poverty that probably surrounded these children as well. Even Bowlby acknowledged that health, social and political resources increase a caregivers capacity to provide sensitive care, but didn’t discuss ways to provide this. Conservative politicians advocate for less government intervention in citizens lives, except when keeping their noses out interferes with the development of citizen consumers, which is assumed to be the natural optimal state of the world. The state’s screening families for attachment disturbances isn’t actually intervention according to lead some “Since the word intervention sounds just a little too much like interference, I would rather change the word focusing in the opposite direction and talk about prevention,” but to prevent these problems, we would actually have to support families. It’s a logical inconsistency that she doesn’t seem to even notice.
Jen Lumanlan 52:17
In the U.S, Dr. Bradley of the parental investment in the child questionnaire fame is quite influential in the world of child development. He has been on a number of Journal editorial boards and served as the associate editor for the influential journal child development. His bio says he’s currently analyzing data from 1.3 million families living in 50 low income nations, which implies that the very idea is that about women’s role in the family is being used to assess women’s competence in caregiving in a variety of places, and perhaps interventions will follow. Much as Bradley once suggested that the PIC be used in Parental Guidance clinics, it seems possible that the guilt of not being able to live up to an apparently superior White middle class standard could do more damage to mothers relationship with their children around the world than it prevents the way we treat our children is consistent with social expectations and the culture we’re in. In the Western world, we highly value independence and autonomy, which is why one of the things the strange situation considers is the child’s willingness to explore. Perhaps it has been difficult to find strong cross cultural trends and responses to the strange situation, because independence isn’t valued as highly in many other cultures, and not because mothers in these cultures are insensitive.
Jen Lumanlan 53:31
So we briefly mentioned the patriarchal forces at work here with authorities who are usually men historically ministers in the 50s it was the attachment researchers today, it’s more likely politicians, having always seen it their place to instruct women on correct child rearing practice, children’s behavior and bodies are increasingly medicalized, and women have to negotiate complex relationships to medical authority and judgment even when they don’t want to. Mothers often managed children’s health at home through feeding and hygiene practices. They train children in safety and self care, taking them to doctor’s appointments into the emergency room when limbs get broken and rashes pop up. Now, there’s a perceived to be responsible for their children’s physical and mental health imperfections. And to ignore this is to both feed into and perpetuate misogynistic systems.
Jen Lumanlan 54:18
But there are racial issues at play here as well. Middle Class women were encouraged to stay home and reproduce in order to support racial betterment. While working class women were required to work. If we picture a mother in our minds, that person may well be a White middle class person, and that tends to be what happens at the playground, where any adult who isn’t White and middle class is assumed to be a nanny. Bowlby saw secure attachment as a natural pre-determined biologically derived idea saying “If growth is to proceed smoothly, the tissues of the embryo must be exposed to the influence of the appropriate organizer at certain critical periods. In the same way if mental development is to proceed slowly it would appear to to be necessary for the undifferentiated psyche to be exposed during certain critical periods to the influence of the psychic organizer, the mother.” But this ignores impacts of exploitation and oppression that impact most women around the world. According to this view is the relationship with the mother and not the historical and cultural circumstances the two are in that organizes the psyche into a whole unified self, which is seen as independent of place and time. If the parent is to respond sensitively, according to attachment theory, the parent must see the infant as an autonomous being with its own wishes and goals that requires satisfaction, but simultaneously see the child is malleable, like a ball of clay waiting to be shaped by the parents hands. When we know that children actually direct and even initiate some interactions with their parents, and in many cultures, the well being of individuals is much less of a focus than the welfare of the group. Infants in some cultures are trained not to expect sensitive responsiveness from their caregivers, which goes against goals of obedience, conformity and respect for authority.
Jen Lumanlan 56:06
If attachment is a biological norm, then it should be universal. Bowlby saw secure attachment as the result of evolution. So responsive parenting is universally the best condition for children’s development and the precursor for secure attachment relationships. But other forms of attachment can also be adaptive, depending on the context. It is adaptive not to rely on a caregiver if the caregiver is rarely physically or emotionally present. Just as the blood disorder sickle cell anemia, is adaptive in terms of Malaria resistance and increases fitness wherever Malaria is widespread, but it’s seen as an illness where Malaria is absent. It’s also adaptive not to get too emotionally close to your child if there’s a high possibility the child will die. Dr. Nancy Sheper-Hughes followed three generations of mothers living in the slums of Brazil, where the average woman had nine and a half pregnancies, eight births and three and a half infant deaths. Well aware that each baby had a 30% chance of dying the mothers didn’t name the babies right after birth and didn’t mourn their deaths. Motherly love and behaviors are not uniform and universal but as Scheper-Hughes says they “represent a matrix of images, meaning sentiments and practices that are everywhere socially and culturally produced.” In other words, what is the right way to raise a child depends on the culture you’re in. Dr. David Lancy confirms this finding in his book The Anthropology Of Childhood where he says, “attachment theory and its descendants have created a narrative of infants at risk of emotional maladjustment. In this survey of sources from cultural anthropology, history and archeology this perceived risk is absent. The survey also reveals the ultimate narrative identifies attachment rather than attachment failure is the risk. A strong emotional bond is seen as impeding a process whereby infants are pragmatically sorted into categories of wanted versus unwanted, timely versus untimely, legitimate versus illegitimate, strong fighters versus sickly ghosts, an innocent versus demonized, leading to sustained nurturance or extinction.”
Jen Lumanlan 58:04
So either many mothers in many cultures around the world have found ways to overcome this innate behavior or perhaps it isn’t so innate in the first place, which you wouldn’t know from the way the idea is promoted by weird researchers, by which I mean people from Western educated, industrialized, rich and democratic countries. Dr. Duschinsky argues in a paper that attachment has, “been among the most significant discourses in shaping perceptions of child development and parenting across and beyond the Anglophone countries. Yet attachment is widely criticized as the textbook case of a politically conservative research program smuggling social norms, under the cover of claims to scientific objectivity.”
Jen Lumanlan 58:45
And it seems that the attachment relationship isn’t present cross-culturally in the way we think of it in children either. The strange situation procedure assumes that all children will express anxiety and look for their mother when a stranger appears, but in the sub-Saharan Ivorian bang, or the Cameroonian, so cultures, children don’t get anxious at all. When an unknown researcher picks them up and moves away from the child’s mother with them. They have neutral facial expressions, and the amount of cortisol in their saliva actually decreases as a stranger approaches and picks the child’s up. Close-knit traditional farming communities and Cote d’Ivoire, Cameroon don’t see a lot of visitors so children don’t respond to potential dangers. They also have multiple caregivers who distribute the workload and not in a serial way that Western caregivers do with each one relieving the other to do activities like work housework or self care time. Shared care in other cultures is far more fluid with many people near the child at any time, and the availability and closeness of any member of the community determines who will provide care rather than pre determined time slots. Babies may be soothed by offering the breast bouncing the baby or patting their bottom rather than the Western patterns and extensive verbal soothing, carrying the baby while walking up and down and distracting the child with games and shiny objects. Mothers in Sri Lanka hold their babies close and communicate primarily like non-verbally, especially during routine caregiving tasks. And if researchers see these signals at all, they may not be recognized as sensitive responsiveness.
Jen Lumanlan 1:00:20
Ainsworth’s original description of sensitive responsiveness included more aspects of infant behavior such as bids for connection and expressions of physical needs like hunger, so focusing so tightly on distress using the strain situation, as most researchers do, really narrows our view of the range of factors that are important. Ainsworth had focused on the function of meeting the infant’s needs over how one goes about meeting those needs, leaving room for a lot of cultural sensitivity and how those needs are met. But many researchers who followed in her footsteps instead chose to look at how the needs are met rather than whether they are met.
Jen Lumanlan 1:00:56
Clearly assessment procedures relying on Western values are not appropriate in this context, which means this developmental pathway cannot be fixed and universal, but as an artifact of Western culture. When we use Western norms to judge the methods of parents from other cultures, and determine these methods, damage children, and then propose interventions to fix the situation, we ignore the impact this one issue has on the community’s culturally organized patterns of childcare.
Jen Lumanlan 1:01:22
So, as we come to a conclusion, I want to summarize where we’ve been. We talked about the origins of attachment that had been tiptoed around in the decade before Baldy was active, it really exploded into the public consciousness because of the work of this one upper middle class White English male, who had experienced so much trauma in his life and who was perhaps trying to explain it to himself. In that explaining he used terms very ambiguously, we focused on the word attachment, but there were other words and phrases like internal working model that followed a similar path. This ambiguity allowed him to easily explain his ideas to non scientists, but it came at the price of precision and accuracy. We’ve learned how we can’t really describe a child as being attached or not attached, but should look overall at the relationship between the caregiver and the child. That caregiver is virtually always assumed to be the mother and most of the research on attachment has focused on the mother primarily for the convenience of researchers says middle class White mothers were usually available to take their children to a lab on campus in the middle of the day in the 1960s and 70s, when researchers wanted to study them. This means that the nuclear two parent family in which the father works all day, and the mother stays home to look after the children as presented as the theoretical norm. When actually cross cultural studies suggests the child can form effective relationships with many warm friendly people. Although not an endlessly rotating cast. By positioning attachment as a universal behavior with biological basis which practitioners can then use to make decisions about whether a mother is suitable or not. Attachment theory has likely been responsible for the removal of many children from their unsuitable families. A result in direct contradiction to Bowlby’s original aim.
Jen Lumanlan 1:03:06
Mary Ainsworth developed the strange situation procedure as a quick, cheap, simple laboratory procedure designed to elicit behavior out of American children that she had seen in children she studied in Uganda. Despite her original focus on a variety of behaviors. Most subsequent research has tested a single variable security and explained it using a single factor maternal sensitivity. The mother becomes essentially responsible for how the child turns out and it’s deeply grounded in western assumptions about how the mind functions what is the child’s role in the relationship who is an appropriate caregiver for a child. This has harmful effects on children and mothers who aren’t middle class and White who are less likely to display the appropriate behaviors, and thus more likely to be classified as defective, but it has harmful effects on middle class White children and others as well, since it entrenches the narrative that mothers are the best caregivers, and lack of appropriate maternal responses to the child causes later maladjustment. In reality, it’s more likely that whatever sensitive parenting looks like in your culture, prepares your child to be more receptive to certain kinds of situations in the future, and act in them in a certain way. And that these cumulative experiences which are heavily influenced by the society the child grows up in, combined with their own personality and temperament shape how the child turns out.
Jen Lumanlan 1:04:24
So why does this idea of attachment persist when it’s been so widely criticized, and has been essentially used to keep women in a caregiving role even when they want to take on other roles as well? Part of the reason may be that the theory fits so neatly with our pre existing cultural beliefs about a mother’s role. It makes sense because it seems to explain the biological and evolutionary purpose of women’s reproductive capabilities. It’s perhaps not a coincidence that attachment theory arose after World War II, when women were seen as taking jobs that should now be held by men since we were no longer at war. And suddenly we had adjusted vacation for women to be at home because it was critical for their children’s development and for social well being as well. And partly it fits the convenient narrative of making the nuclear family the cultural center and justifying not supporting those families because rich people can have poor attachment too.
Jen Lumanlan 1:05:16
I hope the lesson that you’re taking from this episode is that yes, responding sensitively to your child is a good thing, if you respond sensitively in the way this is done in your culture. And there are lots of ways to respond sensitively, and even if you haven’t been able to do this in a culturally appropriate way for some period of time. It really isn’t the end of the world. Children’s brains are highly plastic, and if we can shift our approach later than our child will most likely be fine, and even if their experiences go on to entrench a difficult attachment relationship, it’s still isn’t the end of the world. Many people who experienced suboptimal attachment relationships early in life go on to lead fulfilling happy lives, and some people who had optimal attachment relationships in early life don’t. Once again, we come back to the idea that what happens between the mother and child is heavily impacted by factors like the availability of other caregivers to share the load, financial security or insecurity, systemic racism, and a host of other social factors the child experiences throughout their lives. We can’t make mothers and infants responsible for these outcomes and ignore all of these other factors.
Jen Lumanlan 1:06:22
If you found this episode to be useful, and you’re expecting a baby, and or if you have a child under the age of one, then I do hope you’ll join us in the right from the start course. Don’t worry in the course we don’t overwhelm you with anywhere near as much information as you’ve heard in this episode, we actually summarize it much more so you can get just the parts you need in a few minutes at a time will help you to understand not just what one study says about something like attachment being important, but instead will assess whether the body of research says this idea is worth paying attention to and if it is, what that means practically for your everyday interactions with your child. If you want to download the free Right From The Start Roadmap, which gives you an overview of all the skills and tools you’ll need to raise your child in a way that’s deeply aligned with your values as a person. You can find that at yourparentingmojo.com/roadmap and the information on the Right From The Start course itself is at yourparentingmojo.com/rightfromthestart
Jen Lumanlan 1:07:17
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About the author, Jen
Jen Lumanlan (M.S., M.Ed.) hosts the Your Parenting Mojo podcast (www.YourParentingMojo.com), which examines scientific research related to child development through the lens of respectful parenting.