On the rare occasions that I make it back from work before her bedtime, my two year old daughter leaps up from whatever she is doing to rush to the door, open it for me and throw herself into my arms. There is no doubt that young children form very strong emotional attachments to their parents, as their parents do to them. Deprived of these attachments, children become miserable but as they grow up they become better able to cope with parental absence. I see mine every few weeks, my wife sees hers, who live in Australia, about once a year.
Observing the difference between a happy child in a stable family with strong bonds to its parents and one without such supports, it is easy to conclude that these early attachments have a lasting impact on the way that we develop. Shortly after the Second World War, John Bowlby, a psychologist, first published his theories about the importance of bring up children in a loving environment where they can form solid relationships with their parents. He developed his work over the years and more recently it has been carried on by Mary Ainsworth, among others.
Attachment theory quickly became the core idea behind child development. It made logical sense and it could be empirically proven. Numerous studies showed that children brought up in loving homes where they could form stable attachments developed into well-adjusted adults. On the other hand, children from broken homes who had been neglected, or were brought up in foster care, had much less successful outcomes. The statistics did not lie and attachment theory was enthroned as a scientific success.
There were a couple of flies in the ointment. Autism was one. In the 1950s, an attachment theorist called Bruno Bettelheim suggested that autism was caused by cold or withdrawn mothers who did not allow their children to form emotional bonds with them. As a result, he claimed that the children withdrew into themselves and became autistic. A generation of mothers was condemned as the reason that their children were handicapped, just adding to their anguish. But eventually it was realised that if one of a mother’s children was autistic but the rest were not, there was little justification for blaming her. Attachment theory, of course, need not be disproved by a single failure, and a veil was drawn over the autism debacle.
By the 1980s, attachment theorists had to deal with another more formidable fly – feminism. Feminists hated the idea that they were supposed to stay at home bringing up baby rather than getting on with their lives. Battle lines were drawn between breasts and bottles, and between stay-at-home mothers and career girls. Political conservatives discovered attachment theory was an excellent argument for traditional lifestyles. But after some hard fighting, this was a battle the feminists won and it is, in general, no longer acceptable to cast aspersions on a woman who places her baby in a nursery at six months so that she can go back to work. But there is no reason why women’s lifestyle choices should cast doubt on attachment theory as a scientific success. Today it remains the first thing that anyone studying child development covers; it is the foundation of the social services system in the UK; and it supports an entire industry of psychologists and councillors. It has only one drawback – it is almost complete rubbish. Next time I’ll explain why.
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