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Bringing Up Baby

Are We Too Attached?

By Jerome Kagan

One of the strongest articles of faith among psychotherapists is the intuitively attractive proposition that the security of early attachments to parents has a profound influence on adult mental health. Thousands of articles, books, and conferences have probed this topic, and many therapists have made attachment theory a cornerstone of their clinical approach. Even clinicians who aren't particularly loyal to attachment theory accept the general proposition that the quality of infants' emotional experiences with their caretakers affects their vulnerability to psychological disorders as adults. However, when I examine the evidence for this belief as a research psychologist, rather than as a clinical practitioner, a different, less clear-cut picture emerges. Three major assumptions underlie attachment theory. First, variation in the caretaker's interactions with the infant creates variation in the infant's emotional bond to that person. This bond is called an attachment. Most psychologists, including this writer, regard this assumption as true and proven by evidence. Second, the consequences of the quality of the early attachment are preserved for many years and influence the older child and adult's personality and vulnerability to pathology. This assumption, as we shall see, is far from proven. The final premise involves the measurement of the infant's quality of attachment. As we shall see, many psychologists believe that an experimental procedure called the Strange Situation is a sensitive measure of the different types of infant attachments. This assumption, too, is a hypothesis still awaiting confirmation. A theory that rests on three assumptions, only one of which has consensual validity, should require closer examination before being embraced as indisputably true. But many clinicians believe that all three assumptions of attachment theory have been proven to be correct.

Attachment Theory in Perspective

Some influential ideas in the social sciences have their roots in the life experiences of the creator and his or her culture. This appears to be true of attachment theory. Let us consider the life experiences of the British psychiatrist John Bowlby, the father of attachment theory. As the fourth of six children growing up in an upper-middle-class London family, Bowlby, born in 1907, and his siblings were cared for by nurses on the top floor of the family's spacious home. He recalled seeing his mother for perhaps an hour each day after teatime, and his father, a prominent surgeon, once a week. His favorite nanny, with whom he had a close relationship, left the household when he was 4. By 7, he'd been sent to a boarding school. He later said of that experience, "I wouldn't send a dog away to boarding school at age 7."

Of course, we can't know whether the frequent separations from parents and the loss of the nanny contributed to Bowlby's strong ideas about attachment. We do know, however, that from the beginning of his career, he was unusually sensitive to the importance of a child's experience of parental love. He'd been trained in psychoanalytic theory and had a personal analyst. At age 21, he worked for a short time at a progressive school for emotionally disturbed children. Some of these children had experienced early separation from their parents or obvious neglect, and Bowlby interpreted their disturbed behavior patterns as support for his belief that a mother's love for a child was vital for healthy psychological development—as vital as good nutrition is for physical growth.

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