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Bowlby’s Theory of Attachment and Child Care
In the light of changes to the family since 1950 are Bowlbys ideas about care for young children still relevant today?
In this paper, Bowlby’s theory of attachment and child care will be outlined along with additions from other theorists such as Rutter and Ainsworth. From this we will see how the evolution of the family unit since the 1950s has been affected by such theories along with welfare policy and social theorists which have influenced family life and childcare practices in the UK.
Bowlby described attachment as the bond that develops between a baby and its primary caregiver. It is characterised by the interaction patterns which develop in order to fulfil the infants’ needs and emotional development. Bowlby noted the apparent distress in children separated from their mothers in unusual circumstances e.g. hospitalisation. In studying the more abnormal and distressing situations he attempted to shed light on an understanding of normal emotional attachment development, and how a disruption could prove damaging to the child emotionally and through to adult maturation.
Bowlby suggested that the presence of the mother was just as crucial to the baby as being supplied basic needs such as food. His conclusions led him to postulate that the distress at separation from the mother was universal in babies. Bowlby characterised this distress as following the pattern of infant protest, followed by despair and ending in eventual detachment. The term ‘separation anxiety’ was brought about echoing ethological survival techniques in which patterns of actions enable survival of young animals. Such ideas influenced Bowlby in postulating a significant period attachment of one to five years which was imperative historically to biological survival, and if they were not in place then emotional and intellectual problems would occur in adulthood.
This can be seen as a rigid attitude and has played a large part in influencing childcare decisions through the establishment of a connection between maternal absence, child care (including institutional and foster care) and later developmental problems. Studies from Rutter and Ainsworth have agreed with an attachment principle but have developed it to include situational variables such as previous home life, relationships, depth of bonding and care and reasons and reactions of the caregiver in dealing with an absence and return situation that can have an effect on the child above any basic separation. The length of absence, quality of care giving within that absence and inherent flexibility and adaptability of infants as well as their capability to make multiple attachments all need to be taken into account within this area.
During the 1940s Bowlby made a connection between the attachment of an infant and mother and the shaping of an infant’s personality. From this an association was placed on the mother caring for the child instead of working. At this time welfare policies were focussed on a post war development of the family, and working freedoms afforded to women during the war were heavily curtailed as was war time nursery care. Popular policies suggested women should now be investing in their families as a duty.
Thus if female workers were not being encouraged politically as an economic asset then child care policy provision was also diminished. Here Bowlby’s ideas fuelled policy through popularising images of home based child care and family values by experts. Rutter later influenced changes through his findings of multiple attachment making in children – although stressed that continuity of attachment was important. He was in support of child day care as long as it was continuous and high quality, although a preference of parental care was suggested by Rutter.
There is a difficulty in isolating variables which result in positive and negative attachments. Indeed some feminists argue that stay at home mothers are often at risk of harming their children through an inability to cope and lack of support from immediate or extended family. Associated with this argument is that of the risk from domestic violence which increases isolation and effects the development of the child – even if the primary caregiver is ever present. From the 1950s an increased development of the nuclear family has been argued to provide a duel function. In this the family is seen to provide close personal relationships and act as an economic strategy for development and to maintain stability and control.
Such evolution of the family has been characterised by transience and isolation of family units from the extended family and community itself. A close knit extended family can provide more options for child care and support whereas otherwise external methods of care are needed. If maternal proximity with the under-fives is crucial then entire communities would be maladjusted by design and this clearly cannot be held across the board.
Again the issue of consistency and quality over quantity of child care can be bought to view. Popular media along with welfare policies have in recent years sought to not only improve childcare and rearing practices, provide support, normalise differing household situations such as lone parent, and expansion and regulation of child day care provision. Feminist theory has been at the forefront of women’s re- entry to work force as well as a normalisation of divorce and single parent or co-habiting (step) households. On the other hand the feminist push for women’s employment rights has resulted in inevitable contradictions as women are pulled in both directions, and indeed even the act of having children at all is currently considered heavily in an economic light due to the increased cost of living and childcare fees.
Nowadays we can see increased governmental intervention in support of the family in the form of lengthening maternity and paternity and parenting care rights, children’s rights, tax credits, flexible working, child care and pre-school provisions and subsidies, and the importance of family environment and child security building in issues of fostering and child protection. Thus the family by whatever shape of form it may take in the UK is heavily affected by the economic requirements and government policy provision. It is now the norm for women to work as well as be responsible for child care and household upkeep. Subsequently it is the norm for mothers to be separated from babies before their first birthday due to monetary need – and often this has to be longer than desirable due to a cycle of economic need and high child care fees.
Overall, I can conclude that Bowlby’s ideas although outdated have persisted through the decades and still influence child rearing and day care decisions. It can be seen as persisting in governmental policy to this day for example, in maternity leave being extended to cover twelve months leave – Bowlby would surely support this move. In all Bowlby’s ideas of attachment and primary parental care giving remain pervasive and are ingrained within the family unit in the UK, although an acknowledgement of multiple attachments and quality of child care are now highlighted over simply the primary care givers proximity.