From the moment of birth, as a parent you etch your child’s love map—the script from which she will experience every aspect of life. But realistically, none of us is equipped to tackle everything that comes with parenting. Often, we face our first newborn thinking we know enough to at least get started on this parenting pathway, that we’ll as partners learn together what we don’t know, and that somehow, some way, we’ll figure it all out before Baby gets a clue that Mommy and Daddy are clueless.
Even though it’s uncharted territory, most of us know what to expect when we decide to have a baby. We know that when we bring Baby home from the hospital we’ll also bring home tremendous responsibilities and worries and sleepless [and sexless] nights. We look forward to the joy and wonderment of parenthood, but because children don’t come with instruction manuals we anticipate unpredictability in our parenting careers. We bring Baby home, perhaps even a bit uncertain of our parenting abilities. But from the very first time we hold that delicious bundle of warmth, we know that she has taken up immediate and permanent residence in our hearts. She is someone we will love forever (Welch, 2012).
Somewhere along the way the enormity of parenting overwhelms us with the knowledge that our goal isn’t just about raising happy, healthy children. So significant are the tremendous responsibilities with which moms and dads are tasked, family scientist and therapist Virginia Satir once remarked, “Parents teach in the toughest school in the world—the school for making people.”
There’s no question that how we parent is fundamental to the optimal developmental outcomes for our children. But what is “parenting”? Although we use a singular term to describe our responsibilities in raising our children, parenting certainly isn’t a singular activity! We “parent” our child’s physical growth and well-being. We “parent” her intellectual growth and language development. Her moral development. Her social development.
And the manner in which we interact with, nurture, and guide our children influences their development in more ways than are immediately apparent, especially when it comes to developing a child’s ability to love and to be loved by others.
Consider the interactions between you and your parents. Did these experiences allow you to feel that you were worthy of affection and love? Or instead, did your parent-child experiences cause you to feel shame, guilt, and doubt, resulting in fear of intimacy, fear of abandonment, betrayal, and rejection in your adult relationships? As we are growing up, our interactions with our parents convey to us our worth—our value—as individuals, and this perception influences our ability to relate to others in intimate, loving ways the remainder of our lifespan (Welch, 2012).
Given the ups and downs of parenting, it may seem nearly impossible for me to prepare you for what one family scientist describes as “one of the most definitive stages of life”—parenting your child’s love map (Welch, 2012). This is because parenting carries with it many uncertainties, and because of our own unique parent-child relationships we had with our parents while growing up, no two parents experience parenting in the same ways. To complicate things even further, just when we think we have this parenting thing figured out, we have another child who comes into our arms with a totally different personality than the first! Despite all of these obstacles, however, I can teach you about those things known to impact children’s healthy development of love and loving.
In the early years of life (about the first three years) there is nothing more critical in a child’s life than the formation of attachment.
Attachment: An Enduring Emotional Bond
Have you ever observed a mother or father cuddling with their baby or child? Have you ever observed how, when held, newborns instinctively nuzzle into Mamma or Daddy, getting as close to the parent’s warmth, scent, taste, and nurturing as possible? As a maternal specialist and developmentalist, I never grow bored of those first moments parents and their newborn share—parents gaze in awe, wonderment, and bewilderment at their new baby, and the baby, only able to see clearly at a distance of about eight to twelve inches, returns that gaze. Seeing and holding their baby, parents experience an explosion of delight, joy, and bliss. When held, gazed at, nurtured, fed, talked to, stroked, and loved on, the baby too experiences these incredible feelings.
Enveloped together, the parents and newborn experience an affectional bond, an emotional bond between them that if nurtured, will endure across time and distance. Parents experience this bond as love. The baby experiences this bond as trust and security…for now.
Attachment is the special, enduring bond that the infant forms with significant adults in her life. It is best described as an endearing emotional/affectionate bond that ties or binds the child to the parent.
Why is such a bond necessary?
Think about this for a moment. The closeness of a baby to Mamma or Daddy is first and foremost necessary for her survival—the attachment bond ensures that the baby’s physical needs are met. A baby cries, her mother lovingly, tenderly, and consistently meets the demands of the cries. A baby clings to her father when held. The parent instinctively, intuitively holds the baby closer. The infant experiences a warm and intimate relationship with her mother and father; both the parents and the baby find satisfaction and enjoyment. This natural process is repeated countless times throughout infancy and toddlerhood.
In an effort to better understand how separation from their parents impacts children, John Bowlby (1980) observed parent-child interactions, and was particularly interested in the parent-infant relationship. Through his observations, he discovered a unique relational pattern that tremendously influences children’s development from the cradle to the grave. Bowlby discovered that in the process of having its survival needs (feeding, warmth, nurturing) met, the neonate forms a type of bond—an emotional attachment—with her mother and father. This emotional tie serves to keep Baby close to Mamma and Daddy and improves the baby’s chances of survival.
The central theme of Bowlby’s attachment theory, then, is that parents who are emotionally available to their infant and who respond in caring, tender ways to their infant’s needs establish a sense of security within the baby. From this close, sensitive bond, the baby derives a sense of well-being, a trusting sense that the world is safe.
But this affectional, emotional bond does more than meet the baby’s physical needs: The tender attention and affection in the early days, months, and years of life is the foundation for every aspect of the child’s future psychological development. Decades of empirical study have revealed that the attachment behaviors that take place throughout infancy and toddlerhood ultimately direct, shape, and mold our personalities (for a complete review, see Turner & Welch, 2012).
Just as importantly, attachment forms the very underpinnings upon which all love and intimate relationships are built in the future. There is no question about it—the ability to form and experience an emotional attachment to parents in the first 36 months of life is a predictor of an individual’s ability to establish and maintain love relationships in the future.
How is attachment formed? Through attachment parenting.