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On Today’s Menu:
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** Share some birthday cake for a researcher of emotional health in children.
** Linger to ponder what does and doesn’t ‘spoil’ a child.
** Savor a last ½ cup smiling over a true story of putting theory into action.
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From time immemorial
mothers and poets have been alive to
the distress caused to a child by loss of his mother;
but it is only in the last fifty years that, by fits and starts,
science has awoken to it.
– John Bowlby
Slice of Cake:
Isobel Crawley: Were you a very involved mother?
Dowager Countess: Does it surprise you?
Isobel Crawley: I’d imagined them
surrounded by nannies and governesses,
being starched and ironed to spend
an hour with you after tea.
Dowager Countess: Yes,
but it was an hour every day.
– from Downton Abbey
by Julian Fellowes
When John Bowlby was growing up, it was common for upper-middle-class British families
to leave childcare to nannies and nursemaids.
Fathers were busy.
Mothers often visited with their children only at tea time.
Bowlby’s family was no exception.1
The popular belief at the time was that too much
attention and affection from parents risked spoiling the child.
Here are four things I learned this week
about John Bowlby
As a young man, John followed in his father’s footsteps and went to medical school.
After graduating—and while he considered what to do next—
Bowlby volunteered at a school for “maladjusted children.” 3
He later said that there were two children at this school who changed the course of his career.
One was a teenage boy who been sent there for theft and had no stable parent to go home to.
He was described as ‘isolated, remote, and affectionless.’ 3
The other boy was a 7-year-old who followed Bowlby around so much he became known as his shadow.
Working with these two boys convinced Bowlby to become a child psychiatrist. 3
To be a psychiatrist in the 1930s was to be neo-Freudian.
For a while, Bowlby worked under the renowned psychiatrist Melanie Klein, who originated psychoanalytic play therapy. 7 Klein believed that children’s emotional problems were due to “fantasies generated from internal conflict between aggressive and libidinal drives” 3 (Very Freudian.)
When Bowlby asked to interview the mother of a troubled 3-year-old, Klein rejected the idea. She told him: Talking with the child was enough.3 This made no sense to Bowlby, who was coming to understand that a powerful way to help children was by helping their parents.3
A few years later, he would write:
Having once been helped to recognize and recapture
the feelings which she herself had as a child and to find that
they are accepted tolerantly and understandingly, a mother will
become increasingly sympathetic and tolerant toward the same
things in her child.
– from Personality and Mental Illness (1940)
by John Bowlby
Another paper by John Bowlby, The Study and Reduction of Group Tensions in the Family (1949) is considered the first ever paper describing family therapy.3
Another interesting (and very non-Freudian) influence on John Bowlby was the study of animal behavior (ethology).
In the early 1950s, a colleague encouraged Bowlby to read ornithologists Konrad Lorenz and Niko Tinbergen’s work on imprinting of newborn goslings. As Robert Karen writes:
“Bowlby did so and became imprinted himself.”
Bowlby was especially excited about how Lorenz & Tinbergen’s research provided clear evidence of bonding behaviors in young animals. 7
We were fumbling around in the dark;
they were already in brilliant sunshine.
– John Bowlby about the research
of Konrad Lorenz and Niko Tinbergen
Bowlby began to further theorize that because a human child’s survival depends on close mother-child proximity; a stressed or fearful a child will instinctually seek its mother for protection.5
Bowlby’s 1958 paper, Nature of the Child’s Tie to Its Mother, is on this theme.
(John Bowlby may have been the very first evolutionary psychologist—
some 30 years before the phrase was coined.)9
Attachment theory was my favorite concept from child development classes.
As I understand it, it’s the idea that when infants have a warm, secure relationship with their early caregivers, they learn how to regulate their feelings, safely explore their environment, and develop successful social and emotional relationships throughout their lives.
Attachment Theory is based on John Bowlby’s study of the link between maternal loss and later personality traits—combined with Mary Ainsworth’s research into children’s feeling of security after her study of mother-infant bonds in Uganda and her work with families in her lab at Johns Hopkins University.3
The behaviors Mary Ainsworth had identified
as attachment behaviors in the Kampala infants
were also abundantly evident in Baltimore,
suggesting that babies everywhere
speak the same attachment language.
– Robert Karen7
Bowlby and Ainsworth became close collaborators, and co-wrote Child Care and the Growth of Love, published in 1965.
As much as I’m big fan of Bowlby and his work,
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention a couple of the critiques of Attachment Theory.
One critique is that Attachment Theory can make women—especially, women who work outside the home—feel as if any problem their child has is a reflection on their performance as mothers.
Attachment theorists are careful to point out
that attachment isn’t everything…
Nevertheless, the emphasis
placed on…maternal sensitivity…can give
the impression that all psychiatric sorrows
emanate from bad mothering.
– Robert Karen7
A wonderful counterbalance to this feeling of blame is the idea that Donald Winicott introduced in 1952
called the “good enough mother.”
After working with thousands of babies and their mothers, Winicott realized that when mothers let their kids down and the child handles it, it teaches the child how to manage themselves a little better. (Winicott is clear to specify that he’s not talking about major failures of care like neglect or mistreatment.)
No one is perfect. There will always be times when we fail to provide what our children need, but these occasional lapses actually increase a child’s own ability to cope with day-to-day problems and disappointments. As Carla Naumburg writes:
“Each time we let our children down, and they get through it, they get just a little bit stronger.
That is the gift of the good enough mother, and it’s time we all embrace it.” 8
Thinking about working parents, I remember hearing US Vice Presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro talking about working when her kids were young. (And I’m sorry I can’t find her exact quote!) She said she’d tell her staff that when her children called, to always put them through to her. If the kids wanted to talk to her—say, with a homework question or to complain that their sister won’t do the dishes and it’s not fair because it’s definitely her turn—Ferraro would take those calls as often as she could. And the reason, she said, is because those everyday issues are important. She’d talk to her kids. Then she’d go back to her legislative committee work.
A second critique of Attachment Theory is that it can worry people whose own childhoods were difficult, and who are therefore afraid of passing the bad parenting that they received down to their own children.
Patricia Finnegan wrote about this:
One of the critical milestones of maturation is achieving the ability
to logically assess the strengths and weakness
of the ways in which one was raised, and to move past them,
effectively ushering oneself into a healthy adulthood.
This is especially crucial when the individual desires to undo
some of the negative parenting that they received in order to affect a more
positive and loving parenting-style towards their own children.
For more than a decade, I led workshops for parents of preschoolers
and my lighthearted title for these meetings was
‘How To Not Parent Like Your Parents.’
A frequent comment was about feeling appalled to find themselves
‘acting just like my dad’ or ‘just like my mom’
and then remembering how bad their parent’s actions had
made them feel as children.
– Patricia Finnegan, M.A.
In her workshops, Finnegan talked about parenting techniques
such as pinpointing ahead of time what negative behaviors they wanted to avoid,
identifying situations that trigger those behaviors,
and then deciding on some positive and workable alternatives.
This kind of planning makes it easier to catch themselves in time,
to stop negative behaviors, and to use positive behaviors instead.
Or if not in time to do better, at least in time to apologize.
The most important thing is to be patient with themselves
and to be honest with their children.
For example, after saying the wrong thing, it’s good to stop and apologize to their child,
saying ‘I’m sorry. I don’t want to be like this. Let’s start this conversation over.’
And to not feel this as weakness, but as real steps toward better parenting.
– Patricia Finnegan
The heart of John Bowlby’s attachment theory is probably best summed up
by a quote from a 1951 World Health Organization report, where Bowlby wrote:
What is believed to be essential for mental health
is that the infant and young child should experience a
warm, intimate and continuous relationship
with his mother or permanent mother-substitute
in which both find satisfaction and enjoyment.
– John Bowlby6
Happy 114th Birthday
** John Bowlby **
– born February 26, 1907
in London, England
Oh! I always deserve the
best treatment, because I never
put up with any other.
– from the novel Emma
by Jane Austen
I’ve been thinking this week about spoiled children.
My mother had a joke:
‘She’s not spoiled,‘ she’d say. ‘All babies smell that way.’
I believe I was a spoiled child. Not because I got everything I wanted, but because when I had troubles or needed something, I felt I could go to my mother and she would want to help me.
A question that is constantly raised
both by mothers and by professional people
is whether it is wise for a mother always to meet
her child’s demands for her presence and attention.
Will giving in to him lead to his becoming ‘spoilt’?
If she gives in to him over mothering, may he not demand
that she give in to him over everything else?
…Will he ever become independent?
– from Attachment (1969)
by John Bowlby
I remember a questionnaire in college that asked:
Can you ask for and get what you want and need from your friends? from your family? from your partner?
I am lucky in that I’ve always pretty much believed that I’ll be listened to and at least sympathized with
(if not always accommodated) when I ask for what I want and need from the people I’m closest to.
How much mothering, in fact, is
good for a child?
The question is perhaps best seen in the same perspective
as the question ‘How much food is good for a child?’
The answer to that is now well known.
From the earliest months forward it is best to follow a child’s lead.
…Provided his metabolism is not deranged, a child is so made that,
if left to decide, he can regulate his own food-intake
in regard to both quantity and quality…
The same is true of attachment behaviour…
No harm comes to him when [his mother] gives him
as much of her presence and attention
as he seems to want.
– from Attachment (1969)
by John Bowlby
Here are three ways
that Bowlby’s Attachment Theory influenced
the way I parented my own children.
Crying it out
When my first born was an infant, the common wisdom was to let babies ‘cry it out’—
That, once you’ve put them down for the night, you shouldn’t pick them up if they cry.
If you do, they will never learn to sleep through the night.
I put my baby down in her crib. She started crying. I tried to let her cry it out.
I lasted about 35 seconds.
Do I really have to let her cry? I cried to my mom.
No, she said. You don’t.
I rocked my daughter to sleep every night for the next year.
(She in her 20s now. And sleeps through the night just fine.)
Once my daughter was a little older, we liked to go to the park.
One of the ideas in Attachment Theory is that the parent is a secure base that the child can
explore away from because she knows she can come back when she needs to.
I learned what that means at the playground is that it’s not such a good idea for me to switch
to a shadier bench—if my daughter doesn’t see me move.
And I was only 10 feet from where I’d been!
The lesson that day: Pick a bench and stay there.
Another day we went to a party. There was a lot of family and a lot of noise and confusion. From the doorway, my usually highly-social daughter seemed overwhelmed by it all. She was maybe four at the time. I had an idea. I picked her up and carried her in and we found a place to sit that was a little to the side of all the action. I made a point of talking just to her at first, chatting about who was there and what they were doing. When people came up to us, I quietly talked to them with her, instead of about her.
This seemed to work.
After about ten minutes she was up off my lap and running around with her cousins.
May we all continue learning to regulate our feelings, to safely explore our environments, and to develop successful social and emotional relationships throughout our lives.
Thank you, John Bowlby.
“Half Cup More”
Back when Prof B was in graduate school, one of his professors told a wonderful story about John Bowlby that showed that Bowlby didn’t just study attachment, he embodied it.
With her permission, here is that professor’s story…
Dr Barbara Smuts: Meeting John Bowlby
As an American biology student, I did some fieldwork in Africa studying baboons and chimpanzees. While in Tanzania, I became very ill and was evacuated to England. My mother, who was visiting me in Tanzania, accompanied me to England.
I was quite young, and my advisor from Stanford, David Hamburg, was concerned about me being so ill and about my mother & I being alone in England. He knew John Bowlby quite well, and since Bowlby was there in London, Dave asked if he would go visit me at the hospital.
John came to see me not just once but many times over the next few weeks, and we had long conversations about attachment and animal behavior. My mother became friends with John and his wife Ursula, as well, and a few years later she interviewed John for research on her dissertation about child development .
When I was well enough to leave the hospital, the Bowlby family had us to their home for dinner. From then on, whenever my parents visited UK, which was fairly often, they would visit the Bowlby family at home.
John and Ursula and the rest of their family were lovely, warm people and we were very fortunate to have known them.
– Barbara B. Smuts is an American biologist who has
studied social behavior in nonhuman animals,
especially nonhuman primates, bottlenose dolphins,
wolves, and domestic dogs.
She is currently Professor Emerita
University of Michigan, Department of Psychology
The propensity to make strong human bonds…
is a basic component of human nature.
― John Bowlby 6
I really do think that this work has
great relevance to the well-being and happiness of mankind.
It sounds corny, and I don’t go around shouting it from the rooftops,
but that’s what’s behind the whole thing as far as I’m concerned.
– Mary Ainsworth7
Thank you for reading!
— Kelly J Hardesty
Scroll down to the end—and you can leave me note!
Always so lovely to hear from you.
You Can Read More…
notes & footnotes
British developmental psychologist and psychiatrist
by Suzan van Dijken
Contributor to SAGE Publications’s
Encyclopedia of Human Development (2005)
whose work for that encyclopedia
formed the basis of her contributions to Britannica.
Last Updated: Feb 22, 2021
John Bowlby, Psychiatric Pioneer On
Mother-Child Bond, Dies at 83
by Daniel Goleman
New York Times
Sept. 14, 1990
The Origins of Attachment Theory:
John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth
by Inge Bretherton
Department of Child and Family Studies
University of Wisconsin—Madison
1992, \fol. 28, No. 5,759-775
Biography of Psychologist John Bowlby:
The Founder of Attachment Theory
By Kendra Cherry
Fact checked by James Lacy
Updated on March 29, 2020
by Nancy Hazen
The Free Encyclopedia
retrieved by Karen J. Prager, Ph.D., A.B.P.P.
School of Behaviour and Brain Science
for Psy 4331 Personality Psychology
by John Bowlby
2nd Edition in 1983.
by Robert Karen
The Gift of the Good Enough Mother
by Carla Naumburg
September 30, 2013
Evolutionary psychologists, such as Jay Belsky,
now propose that different attachment styles
adapt children to different environmental contexts
and largely reject the notion that secure is better than insecure;
it depends on context.
For more about this idea:
Belsky, J., Steinberg, L., & Draper, P. (1991).
Childhood experience, interpersonal development,
and reproductive strategy:
An evolutionary theory of socialization.
in the journal Child development, 62(4), 647-670.
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© Kelly J Hardesty 2023