Becoming Attached

What experiences in infancy will enable children to thrive emotionally and to come to feel that the world of people is a positive place? Attachment theorists believe they have some answers.
The Temperament Debate

To many young developmentalists and to others who have heard about attachment principles through popular authors, one of the attractions of the material has been how commonsensical it is. It seems only right that our earliest relationships become a part of us, and that something like an internal working model accounts for the types of relationships we develop later in life.

"It's intuitively pleasing, that's what's getting in the way," says Jerome Kagan, one of Ainsworth's most consistent antagonists. "Because it makes intuitive sense, people are assuming it's right. But most of the time intuition is wrong. I mean, intuitively the sun goes around the earth, right? Intuitively the earth is flat, right? Why is psychology the least advanced science? Because our intuitions aren't very good."

Kagan, an influential psychologist at Harvard University who eschews ideological labels ("I'm part of the reasonable school"), is the author of The Nature of the Child, which casts a critical eye on such popular assumptions as "a mother's love for her infant is necessary for the child's future mental health" or "the events of infancy seriously influence the future mood and behavior of the adolescent." His position on attachment is complicated, because he attacks it from several directions, and his objections are not always compatible, though he argues them all with great verve and authority.

Kagan first of all believes that too much attention is paid to early experience. Children, he argues, even after suffering extreme loss, are far more resilient than we tend to think. He cites studies of teenagers who experienced deprivation when very young and rebounded handsomely in adolescence.

According to Kagan, the commotion about attachment is mainly a sign of contemporary mores. "In the forties and fifties the children now called securely attached were called overprotected, and that was a bad thing. My view is, if you're attached, you are motivated to adopt the values of your parents. If your parent values autonomy, you'll be autonomous; if your parent values dependency, you'll be dependent. Because most American parents in this historical moment value autonomy, their attached children are autonomous."

Kagan argues that some of the children whom Ainsworth has labeled securely attached become upset when left alone in the Strange Situation not because they're securely attached but because they're unable to deal with uncertainty. They've been trained for dependency, and are showing the ill effects of this training.

Similarly, Kagan believes that many children who have been classified as avoidant in the Strange Situation have simply been trained to control their fearful responses. They learn such control not because they've been ill-treated but because control is something their parents value. He further charges that attachment theorists have placed too much emphasis on security that is something they value and are not attentive enough to the advantages that our society confers on those able to handle adversity. Thus a parent rated as insensitive on Ainsworth's scales might actually be giving a child superior training for the modern world.

Needless to say, such interpretations challenge the very core of attachment theory that consistent availability and warmth yields autonomous children. They also run counter to many of Sroufe's empirical findings. A researcher who investigates inborn temperament, Kagan in any case plays down the long term impact of parenting, for he strongly believes that genes contribute to much of what we become. He cites studies that indicate that children who are assessed as irritable shortly after birth are likely to be classified as anxious a year later. He insists that many children classified as avoidant appear indifferent to their mothers' comings and goings not because they've given up hope of getting anything from their mothers but because they are better able to handle stress. Compared with their counterparts who have been labeled secure or ambivalent (with equal injustice, according to Kagan), the so called avoidant children are simply constitutionally less fearful. He remains unmoved by Minnesota studies showing that the heart rate of an avoidant child goes way up when the mother leaves the room and way up again when she returns, even as the child's behavior remains calm, data that seem to suggest that the avoidant child is indeed angrily estranged. Kagan argues that heart rate acceleration in such situations may be a function of temperament and says he has unpublished data suggesting just that.

Other developmentall sts similarly favor a genetic approach, and in recent years an eruption of new research much of it on identical twins who have been raised separately seems to have convincingly established that a great many of what we think of as personality traits are inherited. There seems to be a genetic predisposition toward shyness or sociability, toward thrillseeking or placidity, toward easygoingness or irritability. But whether you trust others or not, whether you anticipate love or rejection, whether you feel good about yourself as a person are these things inherited? No, Ainsworth says. These are not inherited traits, they are learned; and although subject to change, they are initially determined by the sensitivity and reliability of the care you received in your first years. Although Sroufe goes so far as to contest that any baby is inherently difficult, some attachment theorists will now acknowledge that at the extreme fringes of temperament, which are what Kagan tends to study, anxious attachment may indeed have some genetic basis. But generally they believe it is far more likely that temperament alters the style of a secure or insecure pattern, not the pattern itself.

In a study by Jay Belsky, mothers' evaluations of their infants' temperament at three months and nine months bore no correlation to the infants' attachment patterns at twelve months. Sroufe, in another study, identified new mothers who were depressed and unresponsive, and evaluated their babies. "We could show really clearly deterioration in those kids. They looked pretty good at three months, but at six months they didn't look so good. About half of them were anxiously attached at twelve months, and all of them were at eighteen months. We're talking a serious downhill slide. What are you going to say? The baby was born a downhill slider?"

One of the charged issues tucked into the temperament debate is the blaming and defending of mothers. Attachment theorists are careful to point out that attachment isn't everything an insensitive caregiver is not the only road to psychopathology. Nevertheless, the emphasis placed on attachment classifications, and the assumption that those classifications reflect maternal sensitivity exclusively, can give the impression that all psychiatric sorrows emanate from bad mothering.

At this point in its evolution attachment theory does not seem to account adequately for the poor mother infant fit; the mother who has a hard time relating to the infant but does come alive to the toddler; or the baby who, because he is extremely irritable or aggressive, because he is not as smiley and responsive as some, or because he is constitutionally unable to take much pleasure in the attachment relationship, may require an unusual degree of sensitivity and patience. A mother who might be fine with the average baby may not have the emotional wherewithal to handle a baby closer to the temperamental fringe. Studies of mothers with children in more than one attachment category seem to support this idea in certain cases. The mother's difficulty with a particular child may also owe much to her life circumstances, such as receiving inadequate emotional support from either her husband or society as a whole. And it may be complicated by unnecessary self blame. In all such cases, attributing anxious attachment simply to maternal insensitivity would be both unscientific and unfair.

Stephen Suomi, Harlow's successor at the University of Wisconsin, now at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, has been working on the interaction between temperament and attachment in rhesus monkeys (he's actually done modified Strange Situations on them). Suomi has found that heredity seems to determine whether a rhesus monkey will be socially forward or retiring, and that excessive timidity in and of itself can lead to problems in relationships. But these are only tendencies, he says. A nurturant mother in some cases it may have to be an exceptionally nurturant mother can erase temperamental deficits.

Some of the temperament findings are being slowly absorbed into attachment thinking. But genetic determinism continues to irk Ainsworth. "Those who claim that it's all in the genes say that the way the baby is handled in the first years of life doesn't really matter a damn. That's a trend I deplore. You just have to observe abusing mothers with their children over time, as my friend Pat Crittenden does, and you'll see it sure has an effect. It doesn't necessarily mean the child is going to abuse his own children, although a lot of them do, but it certainly makes it very difficult for them to have normal, satisfactory interpersonal relationships."

Even at this level the temperament debate may never be completely settled. For it can always be said, no matter how abysmal the mother's parenting style or how dysfunctional the child. that a miserable mother has simply passed on her miserable genes. And as Ainsworth says, "There's no way of winning that argument." At the current stage of research a lot depends on whose statistics and judgment you trust and what makes the most sense. A lot also depends on how much faith you have in Ainsworth's seminal study of a quarter century ago.

Ainsworth's study was not unimpeachable. As her former student Michael Lamb, now the chief of the Section on Social and Emotional Development at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, pointed out in a controversial 1984 critique, Ainsworth was not able to get perfect reliability checks on all observers in the home situations (were they definitely measuring the same thing?). No videotapes were available for review. Also, except for research in Germany by Klaus and Karin Grossmann, Ainsworth's study has rarely been replicated, which is quite surprising when one considers the skyscraper of research and theoretical conclusions that is balancing on this small base. In every study that begins by assessing infants in a Strange Situation at twelve or eighteen months and continues to evaluate those children for years afterward, assumptions are being made about the style of the parenting each child has received, and conclusions are being drawn about the effect that style has had on every aspect of the child's life. But the parenting itself is almost never assessed. It is only inferred from the infant's Strange Situation classification. That inference is possible mainly because of Ainsworth's twenty three Baltimore families. If her study is flawed and the correlations it demonstrated are open to question, the whole attachment edifice begins to wobble.

Ainsworth is not insensitive to this and would like to see more replications. But longitudinal studies of that magnitude take time, money, and immense effort. Young workers prefer breaking new ground to tilling the old. Although Ainsworth believes that much has been established in partial replication, the question lingers.

Attachment and Modern Living

Meanwhile, the field has been transformed. In the past twenty years infants and mothers have been observed as never before, with some researchers using film and doing frame by frame analyses. Such work has tended both to bolster and to spread attachment ideas, partly because it has demonstrated a level of attunement and communication between mother and infant that was not perceived before.

The groundbreaking work of the psychoanalyst Margaret Mahler on the process of separation and individuation in infancy has also stimulated new thinking about the early bond. Like Ainsworth, Mahler made pioneering observations of mothers and children, but, probably because she was more wise observer than true scientist—neither employing a rigorous methodology nor generating testable hypothesesher impact has been more limited. Very influential in psychoanalysis, which has always relied on informed speculation, her concepts have made few inroads in developmental psychology, which favors scientifically testable assumptions.

The Strange Situation, in contrast, has proved to be the great enabler of further studies indeed, the most widely employed assessment tool of its kind. Today attachment research is, to use Ainsworth's word, "zooming," each month, it seems, bringing fresh evidence of the importance of quality of attachment in our lives. Both research psychologists (who work in academia) and clinicians (the social workers, psychologists, and psychiatrists who treat patients) are drawn to the theory because attachment does something that is rare in psychology: it combines the pleasures of testable hypotheses with the prospect of changing the world.

"I really do think that this work has great relevance to the well being and happiness of mankind," Ainsworth says. "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."

There is something simple and life affirming in the attachment message that the only thing your child needs in order to thrive emotionally is your emotional availability and responsiveness. You don't need to be rich or smart or talented or funny; you just have to be there, in both senses of the phrase. To your child, none of the rest matters, except inasmuch as it enables you to give of yourself. What's more, you don't have to be an outstanding mother, just in Winnicott's famous phrase a "good enough" mother.

The pressures on people to think otherwise, however, are relentless, especially in an urban environment where whether you get your child into the right nursery school can seem more critical than how he experiences your love. The "superbaby" phenomenon, which encourages parents to believe that what kids really need is to have their IQs juiced up with a rigorous program of infant stimulation, is emblematic of those pressures.

"I don't think it's healthy," Ainsworth says, "to be at the child too much, to have him taste this, and smell that, and feel this, trying to enrich all aspects of his life. It's too much, it's intrusive. The normal kind of interaction that takes place in the course of routines, where there is some conversation and smiling back and forth and perhaps a little play, or in periods that are consciously devoted to play — I think that is what the infant needs in the way of stimulation. That doesn't mean the child's interest in other things shouldn't be encouraged, but he'll have that interest if he just has a chance to explore. Stimulation is something you do to somebody else. It's experience the child needs."

Where Ainsworth's message has been heard, it has helped to refocus child rearing debates away from arguments over specific techniques and toward the more comprehensive issue of sensitivity. Questions like whether to breast feed or bottle feed or at what age to introduce solid foods, though still important, no longer carry the same urgency. Attachment theory suggests that babies thrive emotionally because of the overall quality of the care they've experienced, not because of specific techniques. A bottle fed baby whose mother is sensitively attuned will do better than a breast fed baby whose mother is mechanical and distant.

Ainsworth has been accused by some feminists of being out of touch with what they see as current life styles, because she is skeptical about the viability of working motherhood. But she contends that it's the children who are out of touch, by perhaps millions of years, for that is when our evolutionary adaptations were forming including adaptations that may have made proximity to the primary caregiver a cornerstone of secure development. "It's very hard to become a sensitively responsive mother if you're away from your child ten hours a day," she says. "It really is."

But unlike Bowlby, who strongly believes in full time caregiving, who contends that women are best equipped biologically to play this role, and who would like to see a campaign equivalent to the Attorney General's crusade against smoking to convince parents that day care is bad for their babies, Ainsworth admits the possibility that supplemental mothering could be arranged without harm to the child. "From the point of view of the child's general welfare, the mother should be pretty consistently available. That doesn't mean she has to be there every moment, can never go out, never have anybody else look after the child, or anything like that. But fairly consistently available. Women's lib people have been finding it comfortable to assume that it doesn't matter what you do and that a woman owes it to herself to work and do what fulfills her. People who focus primarily on the welfare of children tend to ignore what suits the mother. But it's really a matter of how do we adjust these two things. Had I myself had the children I longed for, I like to believe I could have arrived at some satisfactory combination of mothering and a career, but I do not believe that there is any universal, easy, ready made solution."

As for currently available day care, the research itself is still in its infancy, and Ainsworth prefers not to comment. We don't know how the quality of day care affects attachment outcomes, how many kids are really at risk, how the risk differs at different ages, or whether (to state the case at its most extreme) a mother who stays home bored and resentful is better than one who comes home happy and fulfilled.

Important, too, are the larger societal trends of which day care is only a part. Ainsworth sees the pressures and penchants of modern life pushing us toward anxious attachment, with the unhappy consequences of psychological distress, discordant relationships, and weakening social ties. "People used to have more leisure, more time for fun, for sociability. Now everybody's too busy to be sociable. It's sad."

Economic and social conditions in many Western countries tend to force both parents to work, to penalize those who put their careers on hold for several years, and to give little support to parents, working or not. Traditional societies, as Bowlby stresses, often enjoyed an abundance of secondary attachment figures. Families were stationary, interdependent, and surrounded by relatives, from grandmothers to adolescent aunts, who all pitched in with baby care. While this way of life may be irrevocably lost, compensations could be developed. We could make it easier for mothers and fathers to take time off from work for infant care, train teachers to deal constructively with anxious attachment styles, put additional adults in classrooms to allow for the supplemental connections that seem to benefit kids who are anxiously attached to their mothers, and provide greater support to families. Needless to say, we are ages away from making such commitments.

The Partnership

"You have to think decades," says Bowlby, who sees the struggle for a more child centered society as requiring a huge scientific and civic campaign akin to the one that abolished polio. "We now have ample evidence that certain types of experience in childhood are risk factors. Plainly there is every reason to abolish those risk factors if we can."

If Bowlby has not yet won a consensus on this point, he has at least had the satisfaction of seeing many of his once heretical views widely accepted. His is now an indisputably major name in the field, and in the past few years he has received the honors and accolades accorded to significant innovators. In private conversations even some former detractors have come around. "Fortunately," he says dryly, "I come from a long lived family."

He was fortunate, too, to find a partner who was able to put some of the central features of his theory to the test and then mobilize much of developmental psychology to follow in her footsteps. He looks back now on his four decades of collaboration with Ainsworth with pleasure, gratitude, and perhaps a touch of guilt about her long comparative obscurity.

Despite her own prominence with many who barely know Bowlby's work, to Ainsworth he remains the senior partner. That they have not been riven by the jealousies and competitiveness that have destroyed so many other scientific enterprises may have something to do with her supportive femininity, a trait that men like Bowlby thrive on. "I think that women on the whole are much readier to take the lead from a male mentor than the other way around," she says.

To her students, Ainsworth remains a formidable and dominating presence, capable of a no nonsense approach to the work and hardly self effacing in her views. But the relationship with Bowlby suggests a more self doubting side. "I was pretty insecure as a child, and I suppose I never really let it go," Ainsworth says. "If a paper was turned back with a severe criticism or a grant proposal was turned down as having no value, I would immediately think, well, maybe I'm just no good; maybe there isn't anything at all to this thing I value so much." It seems fitting that Bowlby, who appears blissfully unfamiliar with the experience of self doubt, did the grand synthesis, while Ainsworth was the one to clarify the origins of the more commonplace insecurities that haunt us.

That she is entering the spotlight now with major awards and guest lectureships both pleases and embarrasses her. Unlike Bowlby, who holds the light as if he were born to it, she doesn't seem at home. "It sounds corny and modest," she says with a touch of urgency, "but it's the ideas I've been so enthusiastic about and so eager to put forward, not myself. You ask whether it took a lot of patience to do those longitudinal studies. Well, yeah, it takes patience; I don't think there are any useful shortcuts. But it never felt that way to me, because I find the firsthand details so awfully interesting. The data collections for those longitudinal studies were among the most interesting things I've ever been into in my life."

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