"A child's future relationships are almost entirely
determined by the quality of attachment to the mother." Discuss,
referring to relevant empirical evidence.
The primal importance of a child's bond to its mother has
always been recognised, and is a topic that has fascinated people for
thousands of years. Playwrights from Sophocles to the modern day have
explored this, and in more recent times psychologists have devoted much
research and conjecture to understanding it. Among psychologists, there is
much debate about exactly how important this attachment is, and why.
At the turn of the century, the treatment of new-born babies
was regarded as having little significance for later life, as babies were
thought to be immune to influence. This idea, like many others prevalent at
that time, was attacked by Sigmund Freud. He believed (see Freud, 1933 for
a synopsis, but this theory was put forward considerably earlier) that the
relationship a child has with its mother is a prototype on which all future
relationships are based.
Freud's theory held that the child becomes attached to its
mother because she is its source of food, hence she gratifies its most
basic needs. Slightly later in childhood, the drive for food is
supplemented by another basic drive - the need for sexual pleasure.
According to Freud's theory, the mother, who is already an object of love
because of her role in satisfying the first need, becomes an object of
desire with whom the child wants to gratify its sexual desire (this is with
reference to boys - an equivalent mechanism was proposed for girls, but
much criticised, and Freud eventually admitted to not understanding female
sexuality). In the normal course of growing up, the child comes to accept
that this can not be, and sets out to become an adult, and find another
figure with whom to satisfy this need. It follows that if future
relationships are a substitute for the mother-child bond, then they will
also be modelled on it.
Many people have questioned this cynical view of infants,
including John Bowlby (1969, 1973). He disregarded what he called Freud's
"cupboard love" theory of attachment, believing instead that a
child is born biologically pre-disposed to become attached to its mother
for two important reasons. These are the need for comfort, and the fear of
the unknown, both of which are characteristics that can be observed in all
children. Thus the bond with the mother is formed for less crass reasons
than simply that she is the provider of sustenance.
Bowlby's conjecture has been supported experimentally by Harlow (1958). He studied rhesus monkeys, one of the primate species most closely related
to humans. In his study, new-born monkeys were raised without their
mothers, instead of which they were provided with two 'mother substitutes'.
One was a wire 'mother' equipped with a nipple that provided food, whereas
the other was a 'mother doll' made of terry-cloth. While the monkeys soon
learned which was the source of food, and went to the "wire
mother" to feed, they became attached to the "cloth mother,"
which was their source of comfort when frightened. This shows that infants
need their mother for something other than food, and this comfort can only
be provided by an appropriate figure - the cloth mother is a better
substitute because it more closely resembles the monkeys' real mothers.
Though he disputed Freud’s explanation of the child’s love for
its mother, Bowlby agreed that the attachment a child forms to its mother
is crucially important for the rest of its life. That a primary attachment
is important is generally accepted, but the contention that it must
necessarily be with the child’s mother has also been debated. In the late
20th Century, more and more mothers are having to work while their children
are still very young, and yet this social change does not seem to be
creating a mentally unhealthy generation. Clarke-Stewart (1989) studied
children who had "had extensive non-maternal care" during the
first year of their lives, and did not find evidence of this having harmed
them. These children had formed attachments, but not necessarily to their
mothers, and this arrangement seems to be adequate.
Having seen that the formation of a primary attachment is
important, the next issue is how this attachment is formed. One approach is
that babies are born Ôprogrammed’ to form an attachment to something, which
under normal circumstances is the mother. An equivalent process in animals
was studied by Konrad Lorenz (reported in Hess, 1959).
Lorenz studied baby birds, and found that a newly hatched
chick instinctively follows the first moving object it sees as soon as it
can walk. If it has the chance to follow this object for about 10 minutes,
it develops a strong attachment to it, and is distressed if they become
separated. In nature, this first moving object would be the mother’s legs,
but Lorenz found that the process (which he called "imprinting")
can take place with any other object, such as his own legs, a model duck,
or even things totally removed from nature like a wooden rectangle. He
found that this imprinting need not necessarily occur immediately after
birth, but that there is a "critical period", during which the
chick is ready to be imprinted. In ducklings this period lasts about two
Klaus and Kennel extended this idea to cover human babies,
claiming that the first few hours after birth constitute a similar critical
period, after which a bond can still be formed between mother and child,
but it will not be as strong. They found that a lack of contact between
mother and child can lead to "disorders of parenting", which have
adverse consequences for the child. These findings have been disputed, and
it is only generally accepted that this critical period has short-term
consequences; in the long term it is thought that bonds formed later can be
as strong (Bee, 1995).
Klaus and Kennel then postulated a second stage of attachment,
which is the "opportunity to develop real mutuality". This takes
place over the course of the first few months of the baby’s life, as parent
and child interact with and respond to each other, allowing a "natural
interlocking pattern of attachment behaviours" to develop. This second
phase of attachment is more widely accepted than the first, and has far
greater long term significance.
The main remaining issue is that of what happens if the child
does not form a primary attachment in this way. The most obvious case is of
children who form no such attachment at all.
Harlow, having studied attachment behaviour in rhesus monkeys,
followed this up with a study of the consequences of having no attachment
at all (1962). He reared monkeys in isolation for various periods of time,
and found that those who had no contact with others (neither their mother,
nor any peers) for the first year of their lives were severely disturbed by
the experience. When brought out of isolation, these subjects did not
participate in the active play which is characteristic of normal monkeys,
but instead huddled and withdrew. When they matured, they proved incapable
of mating, and those that were artificially inseminated were incompetent
parents. Mothers who had no experience of being loved by a mother showed no
love for their children, even abusing them horrifically.
To establish whether or not a similar phenomenon occurs in
human development, Goldfarb (1955) studied children who were brought up in
orphanages with little or no human contact for the first 3 years of their
lives, and compared them to children who were adopted at birth. Both groups
had been separated from their natural parents, but the adopted children had
the chance to form normal attachments to other people. He found that the
adopted children performed better on tests of aptitude, and the orphans not
only performed less well, but also became socially maladjusted. They either
became "insatiable in their demands" for human love and
attention, or showed no interest in other people.
This clearly shows that the lack of a primary bond is damaging
to a child, but there is also the issue of what happens when a bond is
formed, but is not as secure or strong as it should be. To study this, one
must first define a Ôsecure attachment’.
Mary Ainsworth (Ainsworth and Bell, 1970) devised a test to
determine the quality of a one year old infant’s attachment to its mother.
This test, known as the "Strange Situation", involves observing
an infant’s reactions when a stranger enters a room in which the infant has
been playing in the company of its mother. The mother then leaves, leaving
the child alone with a stranger, and after a short time the mother returns.
On the basis of this experiment, children can be classified as
"securely attached" or "insecurely attached". The
securely attached children showed some distress when the mother left, but
were prepared to interact with the stranger. When the mother returned they
greeted her enthusiastically, and she could comfort them if they were
upset. Insecure children responded in various ways, either not reacting to
the mother, or rejecting her when she returned, or being so distressed by
her leaving that they refused contact with the stranger.
If the quality of attachment is as important to later
relationships as has been claimed above, then one would expect children who
rate as securely attached when a year old to socialise well when they reach
school. Longitudinal studies (such as Waters, Wippman, and Sroufe, 1979)
have confirmed this hypothesis, with findings that rate securely attached
children higher on a wide variety of scales, including self-esteem,
altruism, sociability and classroom behaviour.
In conclusion, it seems fair to say that children must develop
a secure primary attachment in order to develop in a healthy manner. There
is much evidence, however, that this attachment need not necessarily be to
the child’s mother, as their father, another caregiver, or in exceptional
circumstances a peer group can perform a similar function. Whoever the bond
is formed with, however, a secure and strong attachment is clearly
essential for healthy future relationships.
Ainsworth, M. D. S.; & Bell, S. M. 1970. Attachment,
exploration and separation : Illustrated by the behaviour of one-year-olds
in a strange situation. Child Development. 41:49-67.
Bee, H. 1995. The Developing Child. Harper & Row.
Bowlby, J. 1969. Attachment and loss : vol. 1. Attachment.
Bowlby, J. 1973. Separation and loss. Basic Books.
Clarke-Stewart, A. 1989. Infant day care : Malignant or
maligned. American Psychologist 44:266-273.
Freud, S. 1933. New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis.
English translation by J. Strachey, 1965.
Gleitman, H. 1995. Psychology. Norton.
Goldfarb, W. 1955. Emotional and intellectual consequences of
psychological deprivation in infancy : A reevaluation. In Hock, P. H. &
Zubin, J. (Eds.), Psychopathology of childhood. Grune and Stratton.
Gordon, I. J. 1962. Human Development from Birth through
Adolescence. Harper & Row.
Harlow, H. F. 1958. The nature of love. American Psychologist
Harlow, H. F. 1962. The heterosexual affection system in
monkeys. American Psychologist 17:1-9.
Hess, E. H. 1959. Imprinting. Science 130:133-141.
Waters, E.; Wippman, J.; & Sroufe, L. A. 1979. Attachment,
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