New Old Theories

The history of child rearing is filled with theories that in their time were put forward as scientific truths.  Inevitably, they were replaced by other theories supposedly reflecting newer scientific truths.  As the interest in child development grew, so did the dissemination of these theories in popular form – one perhaps related to the other.  Prescribed child rearing methods changed based on these new “truths” in what might be called the “flavor of the month” or year approach.

Looking back, the incorporation of various theories into recommended methods, at times seems to reflect a need in society rather than science.  For example, there was a period in which it was thought harmful to development to pick up and hold babies, either for comfort or play.  That was a time before antibiotics when there was a great fear of germs and infant mortality, but the message given to parents was that picking up and holding babies would lead to spoiled children.  

As social needs change, so do the uses of particular theories in applied methods of child rearing.  At times, old theories are given a new life when something in the social environment seems to make them particularly relevant.  It often seems as if everything old is new again.  This seems to be the case in the recent revival of attachment theory.

John Bowlby, the British psychologist who introduced the theory of attachment in the 1950’s, described an innate need to form a strong bond with a caregiver that has an evolutionary basis.  He viewed attachment as a psychological or emotional connection not based solely on feeding by a caregiver.  Bowlby was influenced by studies of animal behavior, and rejected the Freudian theory of attachment based solely on the caregiver serving as a need satisfying object. 

While not widely accepted at the time, most parents – especially mothers, have always been aware of the special bond between their children and themselves, and understood that it was of greater significance than merely providing food.  Fortunately, many mothers have always used common sense in their use of theories raising their children. 

Unfortunately, the way theories are incorporated into popularly prescribed methods seems to carry with it a threat.  Bad things happen if you don’t follow the prescribed method.  The theory and the method to which it gives rise, carries with it a description of the various problems to be found in children who are not “securely attached.”  In part this is due to the later work of Mary Ainsworth who developed a research method that would establish various categories of attachment and their significance for later development.

Attachment theory has found its way into a particular method of child rearing, extreme in its application and seemingly defying common sense.  The recommended co-sleeping is but one aspect of the level of required attention from parents.  An experienced nursery school teacher who used the attachment method with her now four-year-old son, reported that her husband says he wants no more children – he doesn’t think he could go through that again.  Her son is protesting going to school, saying he and mom can just stay home and play. 

The problem is not with attachment theory, which has great validity.  It is rather when methods based on theories are taken too literally, giving total weight to one idea while ignoring both life reality and the importance of all else that is known about child development.

It is interesting to speculate about why at this time, when more women than ever are employed outside the home or pursuing careers, a method has been put forward interpreting an important theory to mean total attendance to any perceived need or wish of a child.  Women today are having a hard enough time finding the appropriate  balance between their own needs and the needs of children and family, without the additional burden of theories used in a way that promotes guilt and anxiety.

Perhaps the real truth lies in the use of judgment and common sense when it comes to raising children in the real world.


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