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Dr. Elaine Heffner: New old theories

  • Elaine Heffner

    Elaine Heffner

 
Dr. Elaine Heffner More Content Now
Posted on 1/17/2017, 9:43 AM

The history of child rearing is filled with theories that in their time were put forward as scientific truths. Inevitably, they were replaced by other theories supposedly reflecting newer scientific truths. As the interest in child development grew, so did the dissemination of these theories in popular form. Prescribed child rearing methods changed based on these new "truths."

The incorporation of various theories into recommended methods, at times seems to reflect a need in society rather than science. For example, there was a period in which it was thought harmful to development to pick up and hold babies. That was before anti-biotics when there was a great fear of germs and infant mortality, but the message given to parents was that picking up and holding babies would lead to spoiled children.

As social needs change, so do the uses of particular theories in applied methods of child rearing. At times, old theories are given a new life when something in the social environment seems to make them particularly relevant. This seems to be the case in the recent revival of attachment theory.

John Bowlby, the British psychologist who introduced the theory of attachment in the 1950s, described an innate need to form a strong bond with a caregiver that has an evolutionary basis. He viewed attachment as a psychological or emotional connection not based solely on feeding by a caregiver.

While not widely accepted at the time, most parents -- especially mothers -- have always been aware of the special bond between their children and themselves, understanding that it was of greater significance than merely providing food. Fortunately, many mothers have always used common sense in their use of theories raising their children.

Unfortunately, the way theories are incorporated into popularly prescribed methods seems to carry with it a threat. Bad things happen if you don't follow the prescribed method. The theory and the method to which it gives rise, carries with it a description of the various problems to be found in children who are not "securely attached." In part, this is due to the later work of Mary Ainsworth who developed a research method that would establish various categories of attachment and their significance for later development.

Attachment theory has found its way into a particular method of child rearing, extreme in its application and seemingly defying common sense. The recommended co-sleeping is but one aspect of the level of required attention from parents. A nursery school teacher who used the attachment method with her now 4-year-old son, reported that her husband says he wants no more children -- he couldn't go through that again. Her son protests going to school, saying he and mom can stay home and play.

The problem is not with attachment theory, which has great validity. It is rather when methods based on theories are taken too literally, giving total weight to one idea while ignoring both life reality and the importance of all else that is known about child development.

It is interesting to speculate about why at this time, when more women are employed outside the home, a method has been put forward interpreting an important theory to mean total attendance to any perceived need or wish of a child. Women today are having a hard enough time finding the appropriate balance between their own needs and the needs of children and family, without the additional burden of theories used in a way that promotes guilt and anxiety.

Perhaps the real truth lies in the use of judgment and common sense when it comes to raising children in the real world.

-- Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. And, she blogs at goodenoughmothering.com.