Rethinking Attachment Theory

Sunday, August 1st, 2010 by Dr Keith J. White

One of my mentors is Friedrich Froebel, author of The Education of Man.  Before writing this seminal work he spent many years observing mothers and their very young children.  Those who watched him at work wondered about his mental health: were there not many more serious contenders for his attention and study?  He begged to differ, and his understanding of child development and learning was based on his meticulous observations of how little children began the remarkable process of making sense of the world into which they had been born.

Attachment in Action

A few days ago I had the privilege of being with one of my four grandchildren and as well as playing with her in the house and on a beach, I was able to observe her at work with the business of childhood: playing as a means of getting to grips with the stuff of life. My wife and I had not seen her for several weeks, and as far as she was concerned we were strangers.  At first she treated us with predictable caution, watching us minutely, taking in every aspect of our faces and movements from the safety of her mother’s arms. After some time she was happy to be in the same room as us, but she made regular visits into the kitchen, using crawling as the most reliable means of locomotion.

It was understandable behaviour to anyone familiar with attachment theory in general, and with the famous documentaries made by John Bowlby and his son Richard on separation anxiety, observing how children reacted to new situations.  There were variations depending on circumstances and how securely attached a child was to his or her mother (or significant other).

The general pattern, however, was an oscillation between times when the child would venture away from mother to explore new people and situations on the one hand, and the need felt by the child to retreat to the safety of mother’s presence on the other.  The mother provided the safe or secure base (”extra-dependence”) from which the child made forays into the unknown (”intra-dependence”), knowing always that there was always an accessible route back to the haven of mother’s arms.

We have witnessed variations of this behaviour over the past thirty or more years. And so we responded sensitively to what was going on, showing an interest in what my granddaughter was doing and showing us, but doing nothing to surprise her or to undermine the process of exploration unfolding before us.  In time she came to experience us as safe people: she was soon playing with various skeins of wool that my wife was using for knitting.  In this she seemed to resemble a playful kitten.  And when she wanted to find out what I was reading she took it for granted that she could use my leg as an aid to stand up.

By the next day we were the best of friends, playing together, playing hide and seek, conversing at length without more than the occasional real words, splashing in a rock pool on the beach, and doing some elementary scrambling together.  (There were lots of toys around, but she always seemed to find something more interesting to occupy her!)

A Missing Link

On reflection I realised that I had missed a vital element of this whole process.  The oscillation typical of a child encountering new people was not simply a matter of moving between the known and the unknown, between the secure and the risky situations.  Rather there was something more subtle going on.  First, she was keen to look at us from beside her mother: she was taking in the situation from her mother’s vantage point.  So she didn’t turn away from us, but always towards us when she reached her secure base.  She didn’t seek to attract her mother’s attention to the pair of us, but simply to study us from being in her arms, or holding on to her leg.

Second, she seemed to operate as if there was a new social dynamic at work: she was one of a group of four people, and the space she enjoyed occupying most of all was somewhere between us all.  It was not so much about a journey between the known and the unknown, as linking them.

I realise that this may all seem rather unremarkable to some and well tried territory to others, but for me it felt like the discovery of something like a missing link.  I could now see how this aspect of attachment theory fitted with what we know about children’s spiritual nature and development.  We know that they are hard-wired to relate to that which, and those who, are beyond the predictable and the known.  And they relish the process of exploring and reaching out beyond what is secure.  But the way they do it is not simply by oscillating between two modes. Wilfred Bion, Experiences in Groups, London: Tavistock, 1961 and Bruce Reed, The Dynamics of Religion, London: DLT, 1978 have described this as a basis of much of their work. What I realised was that little children seek to link them.  They become go-betweens.

No wonder Jesus described little children as signs of the way of living that he had come to demonstrate and inaugurate (the Kingdom of Heaven), and how to “enter” it: for little children as part of their very nature will let their curiosity, tempered by natural caution, lead them into what is new.  And in doing this they create new relationships and bonds: in many social groups it is children who take the lead.  Of course they do not do it consciously: the newly-constituted relationships are a by-product of the process of discovery.

A New Social Dynamic

Froebel (and Montessori) noticed the importance of movement in the development of a child’s learning, hence the attention given to dance and music.  But movement is also vital in the maturing of a securely attached child.  Parents and teachers are neither bystanders, nor the safe figures: they are invited to see and relate to the world in new ways. A new creation is underway when a child is born: not just a new individual human being, but a new social dynamic.

Somehow I had missed this connection until a few days ago.  And now I see it everywhere around me (currently in a harbour village in Cornwall), and notably in an incident in the life of Jesus which I have been studying for several years.  In this story Jesus was trying to find a way of unblocking a fixed and erroneous view of his disciples.  They couldn’t conceive of any other way of organising human groups than by power and hierarchies (”greatness”).  To show them an alternative Jesus chose to place a little child beside him and among them.  I see now that the child was a go-between with the potential (if the disciples were willing to change) to introduce a qualitatively different way of living and relating to each other.

The mothers that Froebel watched so carefully not only noticed what their little children were doing, but reacted to their promptings.  Those who were the best teachers did so in ways which encouraged the continuing exploration of their offspring, and in the process they themselves came to see things in a new way.

So it is that when we are in the presence of little children we are privileged to be invited to learn with them and through their experimentation.

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