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.
— from Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

Big Questions

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:

Although the attainment of primary satisfaction from nursing and physical contact characterizes the stage of comfort and attachment, we do not believe that these contribute equally . . . We strongly believe that intimate physical contact is the variable of primary importance . . . [to] establish a bond of maternal trust . . . (p. 292)

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:

  1. children's attachment to their caregivers depends more on physical comfort than on satisfying hunger;
  2. secure attachment to loving, reliable caregivers provides a base from which children explore and learn;
  3. children's behavior during separation and reunion can reveal the nature of their attachment relationship; and
  4. children are born with some stable traits that shape not what they do, but how they do it . . . and how others respond.

Now, what are the practical implications you can pack for camp?

Basic Needs

  • Hot dogs and bug juice may be necessary to sustain life, but physical comforts are an essential ingredient to sustain emotional health. Campers may be comforted by appropriate touch, such as handshakes, hugs, high-fives, and pats on the back.
  • Social development requires plenty of healthy peer interaction. Ensure that staff are around to encourage energetic, interactive play and healthy risk-taking. Think of camp as a social garden where children are the flowers and the fertilizer.
  • First-year campers, only-children, and home-schooled children may be less prepared for the intense social interactions at camp. Give them time and space to warm up to large group activities. Make an extra effort to introduce them to others and nurture their social skills by setting a good example.
  • Interpersonal warmth, reliability, and patience come with practice. Hire only staff with prior experience working with children.

Security and Exploration

  • Your staff are your campers' surrogate caregivers, and they should take their jobs as seriously as any parent. Let the fact that they are protecting somebody's most cherished possession guide their judgment and leadership-by-example.
  • Each camper's cabin, group, or unit has the potential to become a new secure base, similar to home. Train your staff to create a warm, reliable home-away-from-home. This will maximize the likelihood that children will participate in activities, make friends, and take healthy risks.
  • Rhythms and novelty form a satisfying equilibrium. Balance the newness, excitement, and intensity of each camp day with a predictable schedule, daily routines, quiet rest time, and meaningful rituals.
  • Understand that homesickness is a normal reaction to separation. Attachment behaviors such as crying, letter-writing, and talking are developmentally appropriate ways that children have of seeking support and keeping in touch. Encourage campers to express their thoughts and needs.
  • Coach parents to respond to homesickness by expressing positive thoughts about camp and confidence in their child's abilities.

Attachment and Separation

  • Separation from home, whether for eight hours or eight weeks, activates attachment behaviors that give you insight into campers' relationships with their parents. If you detect anxiety, sadness, or homesickness, talk more with the parents and the camper in question to find out how you can help.
  • Some families need guidance on how to separate. Educate parents and campers about what emotions they might feel when they say good-bye on opening day.
  • As Mary Ainsworth put it: "If the attachment system has been activated at a high level of intensity, close contact may be required for the termination of attachment behavior" (p. 8). Translation: If a kid has missed her parents, she may need a hug from them on closing day in order to feel better. Design a closing day that is both relaxing and festive.
  • Some campers will be aloof or even angry when they reunite with their parents. This is a normal response to feeling abandoned, even if the child loved camp and was never actually abandoned.
  • Train your staff to help campers cope with homesickness, while at the same time nurturing their independence. Coping with negative emotions is a lifelong skill.
  • Much more information on preparing for camp, preventing homesickness, coaching parents, and helping kids cope is available in The Summer Camp Handbook (Perspective Publishing, 2000). Visit the ACA Bookstore or Amazon.com.


  • Campers' temperaments vary, from easy to difficult, persistent to inattentive, outgoing to withdrawn. All types of children can benefit from camp. Train your staff to respond sensitively to individual children in the context of consistent behavior standards.
  • Slow-to-warm-up children need time to acclimate to a new environment and time to watch others do activities first. Hire staff who have patience and insight.
  • Difficult or strong-willed children dig their heels in when pushed. Train staff to disengage from meaningless power struggles. Insisting on compliance with every single detail can be counter-productive. Offer children reasonable choices.
  • Easy children adapt well to new environments, but they are also the most easily swayed by their peers. Train staff to set a positive example and propagate a healthy camp culture. Discourage cliques, curb unhealthy trends, and eliminate hazing.
  • Educate parents about your camp, its philosophy, and the type of child you think most benefits from what you offer. Help parents find a camp — even if it's not yours — that matches their child's interests, abilities, and temperament.
  • Learn about incoming campers by talking with parents and having them write about their child. Share this information discreetly with key staff to ensure that children are placed with other campers and staff who complement their levels of activity, adaptability, and distractibility.

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?

Ainsworth, M.D.S., Blehar, M.C., Waters, E., & Wall, S. (1978). Patterns of attachment. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and loss, Vol. 1. New York: Basic Books.
Harlow, H., & Harlow, M. (1965). The affectional systems. In A. Schrier, H. Harlow, & F. Stollnitz (Eds.), Behavior of non-human primates. New York: Academic Press.
Thomas, A., Chess, S., & Birch, H.G. (1968). Temperament and behavior disorders in childhood. New York: New York University Press.

Originally published in the 2003 March/April issue of Camping Magazine.