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Roots and Wings: How Attachment and Temperament Shape Development
Oliver cried lustily. If he could have known that he was an orphan, left to the tender mercies of churchwardens and overseers, perhaps he would have cried the louder.
Little Oliver's crying is an example of the instinctive ability children have to draw caregivers near. If a caregiver does approach, then a gradual bonding process — called attachment — begins. How reliably and lovingly caregivers behave determines how securely attached children become. Childhood attachments may even affect our relationship style as adults.
Children, of course, also have a hand in their own development. Not only is their behavior shaped by their caregivers' treatment, but they also shape their caregivers' behavior. Consider how differently you treat children based on their activity level, attention span, mood, intensity, and reaction to novel stimuli. These and other aspects of children's dispositions — collectively called temperament — are thought by some researchers to remain constant across the lifespan.
Both attachment style and temperament affect children's behavior and, of course, the way others treat them. Few subjects could be of greater interest to camp professionals.
It's Not About the Food
In 1939, Sigmund Freud wrote, "Love has its origin in attachment to the satisfied need for nourishment." In other words, bonding between a child and her primary caregiver is based on that adult's ability to satisfy the child's biological drive of hunger. Like many of Freud's ideas, this "drive reduction" theory of attachment (also dubbed the "cupboard theory") was controversial and based solely on clinical intuition, not research. About twenty years later came the revolutionary research that proved attachment was not about nourishment. Instead, it was about touch.
Orphaned Monkeys Lead Revolution
In the 1950s and 60s, University of Wisconsin psychologists Harry and Margaret Harlow conducted a series of groundbreaking studies with rhesus monkeys. Among the most enlightening (and rather heartbreaking) was one with eight baby monkeys who were separated from their mothers hours after birth. Each was placed in a cage with two inanimate surrogate mothers — one made of wire, the other of terry cloth. Four of the monkeys got milk from their terry-cloth mothers; four from their wire mothers.
Over the next 165 days, all eight monkeys drank milk and gained the same amount of weight, whether their nourishment came from their wire mother or their terry-cloth mother. However, all the monkeys spent much more time clinging to the cloth mothers than the wire mothers, no matter which provided milk. Freud would have been surprised! The researchers also found that when frightened, the baby monkeys would cling to the cloth mothers, not the wire mothers. In 1965, the Harlows wrote:
The most startling and disturbing finding from the primate labs was the disorganized social behavior of some infant monkeys reared in social isolation. When these monkeys were brought together, they did not know how to play with one another. And when they were grown, these animals lashed out violently at new infant monkeys placed in their cages. The Harlows reasoned that childhood interaction with real monkeys was critical to primate social development.
Orphaned Children Prove Hugs Matter
In the wake of World War II, the World Health Organization asked British psychiatrist John Bowlby to investigate the effects on children being separated or orphaned from their parents. This assignment led him to propose a new attachment theory, based on evolutionary and ecological data, including the Harlows' stunning research. Bowlby's visits to orphanages, hospitals, and nurseries convinced him that reliable, loving, social interaction was critical to children's emotional health. He observed that when first separated from their parents, children cried and showed other signs of fear and distress. After some time, they would despair and act depressed. If left without a loving, reliable caregiver long enough, these orphaned children would become indifferent to human contact altogether.
If human infants need an adult for survival (for protection and food), then evolution had likely favored those babies who exhibited behaviors that promoted closeness between themselves and their caregivers. Crying, for example, usually brings caregivers closer. Bowlby called this "attachment behavior." Looking, smiling, reaching, and eventually talking can also function as attachment behaviors.
Bowlby also believed that attachment was essential for learning. Secure attachment gave children the courage to explore, and exploration allowed for new experiences. In turn, new experiences promoted learning. (Is this sounding relevant to camp yet?)
Out of Africa
Bowlby's "secure base" theory of attachment has stood the test of time and inspired mountains of research. But what about individual differences in attachment style? We have all seen variations in how children separate from their parents at camp. Has anyone come up with a way to categorize these different behaviors? Yes. In fact, it was Bowlby's prize student, Mary Ainsworth, who first began categorizing attachment styles during her work with the Ganda tribe in Uganda. Inspired by both Bowlby and the earlier work of William Blatz, Ainsworth set out to observe how Ganda infants and their mothers interacted. Of particular interest was how the infants behaved when their mothers left the room. Her findings confirmed other cross-cultural research. Most babies develop what we call "separation anxiety" between six and nine months.
Ainsworth's subsequent research in Baltimore was with 106, white, middle-class mothers and their one-year-olds. In a controlled laboratory situation — called "The Strange Situation" — Ainsworth observed how infants behaved with and without their mothers, with their mothers and a stranger, all alone, alone with a stranger, and then reunited with their mothers. She found that the majority of one-year-olds explored the toys in the room when their mother was present, got upset when she left, were not consoled by the stranger, and greeted their mothers with joy when she returned. Ainsworth called these infants "securely attached."
The other infants were "insecurely attached" in some way. About a fifth of the infants seemed indifferent to their mothers' location in the room, sometimes cried when she left, were sometimes consoled by the stranger, and usually turned away from their mother when she returned. Ainsworth called these infants "anxious/avoidant."
The remaining infants showed an "anxious/resistant" style of attachment. They were clingy and anxious even with their mother near, became very upset when she left, and had mixed feelings when she returned. They might cry angrily to be picked up with their arms outstretched, but then struggle to climb down once in their mothers' arms.
Ainsworth's revolutionary research demonstrated that separation and reunion behaviors reveal much about the nature of a child's relationship with his or her primary caregivers.
Some Like it Hot
Attachment happens between children and caregivers, but what exists within children? How can two children, raised by the same parents, in the same house, have completely different personalities? How can one be so mellow and the other so high-strung? The answer may be found in the revolutionary work of doctors Alexander Thomas and Stella Chess.
In 1956, Thomas and Chess began a longitudinal study of 136, mostly white, middle- or upper-middle-class Jewish families from New York City. The research team collected data on the children's activity levels, biological rhythms, responses to new objects, adaptability, reaction intensity, distractibility, attention span, and mood.
Among Thomas and Chess's most interesting findings was a distinction among three groups of infants. They called these one-year-olds "easy," "difficult," and "slow-to-warm-up." Easy babies were playful, regular in their biological functions, and adapted readily to new circumstances. Difficult babies were irregular in their biological functions, irritable, and often responded intensely and negatively to new situations, or they would try to withdraw from them. Slow-to-warm-up babies had low activity levels and their responses were typically mild. They tended to withdraw from new situations, but in a mild way, and required more time than the easy babies to adapt to change.
Thomas and Chess also found they could use some of these temperamental qualities at age one to predict severe behavior problems at age five. Babies who were highly active, intense, grouchy, and easily frustrated were most likely to develop behavior problems as toddlers. The researchers also observed that some of these difficult children provoked negative reactions in their parents, and a cycle of problematic behavior ensued. (More about parenting in article five.) Clearly, some behavior problems are best understood in the context of a child's temperament and the style of parenting that temperament engenders.
What to Pack for Camp
The four studies summarized in this article have revolutionized child psychology by teaching us the following:
Now, what are the practical implications you can pack for camp?
Security and Exploration
Attachment and Separation
Piece of Cake
Attending camp for the first time is a bold risk for children and parents. Everything that is comforting about being together and at home must be voluntarily set aside in the interest of a new experience. Once families have taken that leap, all you need to do is provide a safe, loving, consistent, entertaining, educational environment that is sensitive to children's individual temperaments and responsive to the activation of attachment behaviors, such as homesickness. Piece of cake, right? So, what do you really do in the off-season?
Originally published in the 2003 March/April issue of Camping Magazine.