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Early Childhood: Critical Relationships with the Mother

Attachment Theory, Mothers’ Memories and Mothers’ roles

The study of the relationships between the very young child and its parents is known as attachment theory.[1] One of the earliest studies was conducted by British psychologist, psychiatrist and psychoanalyst John Bowlby after the second world war. Bowlby was the fourth of six children born into an upper middle-class family; his mother thought that special attention to children would lead to them being spoiled and the young Bowlby normally saw his mother only one hour a day after teatime.[2] His primary carer was a beloved nanny who left the family when Bowlby was four. As was common in upper middle-class English society of the time Bowlby was sent to boarding school at age seven.

After the second world war Bowlby studied patterns of family interaction in healthy and pathological development: he focused specially on how attachment difficulties were transmitted from one generation to the next. Bowlby posited that “the inheritance of mental health and mental ill health through the medium of family microculture… may well be far more important than is their inheritance through the medium of genes”. In other words it is not so much the actual experience of the mother’s early childhood relationships with her parents but “the way in which a mother considers her own historical relationship with her primary caregiver, which is central to the development of her own child’s attachment”.[3]

Psychotherapist and writer Dr Jessica Zucker reviews research conducted by, amongst others, the late Stephen Mitchell of New York University, Mary Main of the University of California (Berkely) and colleagues, which revealed that “what was important was not whether the parent has been deprived or nurtured as a child, but the degree of coherence versus incoherence in the parent’s subsequent memory of her childhood”.  The organization of a mother’s narrative and how it has been processed over the years was found to be the most crucial predictor of attachment style, rather than actual lived experiences and behaviours.

Bowlby’s work on delinquent and affectionless children led to the conclusion, “the infant and young child should experience a warm, intimate, and continuous relationship with his mother (or permanent mother substitute) in which both find satisfaction and enjoyment”. There was mutual rejection of Bowlby’s work by psychoanalysts on the one hand and on the other by Bowlby of current psychoanalytical explanations for attachment. Bowlby drew on studies of animal behaviour (ethology) in developing explanatory hypotheses for his observations. Bowlby’s research in turn influenced later studies of animal behaviour on primates.

A number of evolutionary anthropologists including Sarah Blaffer Hrdy have challenged the notion that in rearing the child, the mother “goes it alone”.[4] Hrdy argues that social support has been crucial to human success and that compared with other primates humans are uniquely cooperative. The ethnological record shows that the nuclear family though not rare, has not been common either. However, the fact of a mother at home alone with an infant or toddler is a new one in human experience and it may not be natural for either writes Melvin Koner, Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Anthropology and Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Neurology at Emory University in his review of Barbara Hrdy’s work.

The late Beatrice Whiting and John Whiting, Harvard anthropologists were amongst the first cultural anthropologists to do systematic cross-cultural studies of childhood considered even the closest mother-infant relationships were embedded in a dense social environment. Writing of the !Kung hunter-gathers in Botswana that “From their position on the mother’s hip [infants] have available to them her entire social world…. When the mother is standing, the infant’s face is just at the eye-level of desperately maternal 10- to 12-year-old girls who frequently approach and initiate brief, intense, face-to-face interactions, including mutual smiling and vocalization. When not in the sling they are passed from hand to hand around a fire for similar interactions with one adult or child after another. They are kissed on their faces, bellies, genitals, sung to, bounced, entertained, encouraged, even addressed at length in conversational tones long before they can understand words.” [5]

This “cooperative breeding” is compatible with the notion of the centrality of the single caregiver of which Bowlby wrote: the mother or primary caregiver should be more important but need not be exclusive. Other studies of hunter-gatherer societies reveal cooperation in child rearing and a predominant role of the mother. Hrdy’s lifetime of work has, according to Professor Koner, “repeatedly undermined our complacent, solipsistic, masculine notions of what women were meant “by nature” to be”.


Growing up in Australia

The “Longitudinal Study of Australian Children” (LSAC), entitled “Growing Up in Australia”, initiated by the Australian Government and managed by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, commenced in early 2004. Six behavioural and biological science design teams are researching the areas of health, education, childcare, family functioning, child functioning and socio-demographics in the lives of the 10,000 children and their families.

Researchers using data from the study found that young children (aged 4-5 years) learn faster and are better socially adjusted when they experience the following:

• A family member reads to the child on three or more days per week;

• There are ten or more children’s books in the family home;

• The child enjoys being read to by a family member for more than ten minutes at a time;

• The family frequently takes the child to activities and events.

A longitudinal Study of Indigenous Children, better known as Footprints in Time, was launched in April 2008 by the HonJenny Macklin MP, in partnership with prominent Aboriginal lawyer and academic Professor Mick Dodson, Chair of the Study’s Steering Committee.

The Australian experience in relation to policies to increase qualifications for pre-school staff is but one example of the marginalisation and politicisation of the issue that is at the very heart of the improvement of education and learning in society. To be clear: there is little hope of reducing the educational achievement gap, which is after all one of the major points of concern in the entire education area, so long as the child care is reduced to just another cost issue, part of the ‘get people out to work’ campaign or, simplistically, just part of the ‘mothers should stay at home’ mantra.

Parental leave and healthy development

Though the benefits of early childhood intervention have been clearly demonstrated, response to it has been a quite different matter. As economics editor of the Sydney Morning Herald Ross Gittins observed, “If scientists discovered a cure that would reduce disadvantage, make a lot of people happier, foster economic growth and save the taxpayer a fortune, would our politicians embrace it with glad cries? Probably not. They’d pay lip service and set up a few pilot programs, but fall far short of fully exploiting the discovery’s potential benefits. How do I know? Because that’s the way they’ve reacted to one of the most important discoveries of our times: the strategic significance of early childhood intervention.”[6]

There have been several important longitudinal studies of intervention, mainly centred on children from poorer families, most of them in North America. They all show the same kind of thing: extraordinary gains to the community at large as well as personally, with some upside risks but no downside risks. The conclusions are clear: investment in early childhood education brings greater returns than intervention at any later time. These include economic returns through increased employment prospects in jobs with higher salaries, increased taxes, reduced crime and involvement in drug taking and so on. The differences in cognition, behaviour and wellbeing are obvious by age 3; subsequent educational experiences build on the gains of early intervention but delaying substantial intervention until later years brings less gain at greater cost, individually and for the community.

There is some argument as to whether the intervention involving out of family care is as beneficial for children in higher socioeconomic circumstances; within-family care for disadvantaged children can become no more than child minding with little or no gain. Parental leave for working parents during the first six months at least of the child’s life is essential, though this is a matter of ongoing research as to whether return to full or part-time work makes a difference.

The Council on the Developing Child at Harvard University observes, “Studies in other countries indicate that parental leave with wage replacement is associated with positive health benefits for children and mothers, but research focused explicitly on how paid parental leave affects child outcomes is not sufficiently developed in the United States to inform the policymaking debate”.

The Council concluded that a more thoughtful policy is needed for parents in the workforce, particularly for those who earn low wages, a policy which recognises the essentiality of building relationships in the first six months of life. The Council, like McCain and Mustard and Laurence Aber, point to the fundamental significance of the relationships of the developing child with other people, especially parents.

Policies on parental leave in Europe

In most European countries about one in two new mothers return to their job within the first year after the child’s birth.[7]  But the quality and affordability of childcare is a major issue. So is the provision of parental leave and the flexibility of employers in providing opportunities for the mother to return to work without disadvantage relative to the gains which had been achieved to the time when the mother left work to give birth. There is substantial variation amongst countries in all these matters. For instance mothers in the U.K. have fewer work opportunities and less childcare support than mothers in a number of European countries. Day care in the U.K is the most expensive in Europe.

“Danish institutions allow for a broad variety of female employment opportunities by giving proper incentives to supply labour, like an individual taxation of income or by individual and non-derived social security coverage. Danish women have no substantially positive or negative labour supply effects with respect to an increasing number of kids, regardless of their children’s age.”[8] In the U.K. on the other hand a mother’s chances of staying in full-time employment are reduced by 10% for each child she has so that many women change to part-time employment or leave work altogether.

A UNICEF study published 2008 suggested that “government policies on maternity leave and childcare provision could be at odds with “today’s knowledge of the critical developmental needs of the very young child”.[9] The UNICEF report went further:  it cited research from Britain and the US suggesting that children who spend too long in formal childcare at too young an age may suffer from long-term effects, including behavioural problems, aggression, antisocial behaviour, depression and an inability to concentrate – although the effects are thought to be relatively small. The report was extremely critical of policies and practices in the U.K. which led the then Minister to complain to UNICEF.

A blog (‘A report from Unicef that you could have written yourself’) on the Times website Alpha Mummy associated with the article on the UNICEF report asked, “Why aren’t childcare workers held in the same esteem as university professors, surgeons or scientists? They may not need the same educational qualifications, but the good ones have rare and very specific qualities: truckloads of patience, empathy, organisational skills, leadership and even charisma. It’s time to acknowledge that a good childminder, nursery employee or nanny performs work that’s specialised, in demand and vital to tackling the problems we have in society as a whole. If the market doesn’t sort out the salaries of these professions, then government needs to step in and correct that.”

Policies on parental leave in Australia

A recent study in Australia of the relationship between working parents and time spent with very young children[10] revealed that in low and middle income families the combined effect of fathers working long hours and mothers working was children spending significantly less time in language-related activities. In high income families, parental employment hours had no impact on children’s time use. These findings suggest that for children at greatest risk of poor developmental outcomes, developmental opportunities may be enhanced by strategies that reduce levels of long work hours by fathers.

As already noted, a different situation exists in many European countries, including most Scandinavian countries: child care and parental leave are the norm for all. Children in those countries by and large perform better scholastically in later life and the equities in society are substantially greater! Those countries are at the same time amongst the most competitive and the most innovative economies!

In Australia, progress in implementing a meaningful policy has also been slow, as noted by Gittins. When an OECD group investigating early childhood education and care policy visited Australia in 2001 it noted that there was a commonality of broad issues with other countries.[11] There were “the divides in relation to care and education, school and early childhood education and care (ECEC), central or local control, migrant and/or Indigenous issues, class, geography, and administrative and funding complexity” of other countries as well as “interplay between: research, policy and practice in ECEC; family, children, staff and the workplace; culture and autonomy; local, national and global solutions”.

The OECD team observed, “A national strategy for ECEC needs firstly to be underpinned by some shared values or vision of children and childhood in Australia. These can become directional signposts for policy and practice. If ECEC is to be more than the learning of abilities and skills, it needs a philosophical underpinning. Otherwise it risks becoming a technical proceeding, without an anchoring in politics and society, and open to influences from all sides.” A clear shared underpinning philosophy of ECEC in Australiawas not obvious.

In Australia over the five years to 2004 there was a 30% increase in the number of mothers who work and place children in care. And social policies have recently increased the pressure on single mothers to work.


A recent book by Robert G Lynch “Enriching Children Enriching the Nation”[12] analyses the costs and the fiscal, earnings, and reduced crime benefits of public investment in 1, a targeted, voluntary, high-quality prekindergarten education program that serves only three- and four-year-old children who live in families in the lowest quarter of the income distribution, and 2, a similar, but universal prekindergarten education program made available to all three- and four-year-old children.

“Assessments of well-designed and well-executed programs in early childhood development have established that participating children are more successful in school and in life after school than children who are not enrolled in high-quality programs. They tend to have higher scores on math and reading achievement tests and greater language abilities. They are better prepared to enter elementary school … have less need for special education… They have lower dropout rates… and higher levels of education attainment. They also have better nutrition, improved access to health care services, higher rates of immunization, and better health. Additionally, they experience less child abuse and neglect, and they are less likely to be teenage parents.”


Early childhood intervention is not child minding but an investment in the future more important than almost any other intervention in education. It must involve qualified early childhood educators. Think of parental leave and the costs of good support in early life, the experiences of urban settings of high rise apartments and the lives of “minority” families which are portrayed time and again in police dramas brought right into our living rooms on our TV screens. Numerous studies demonstrate just how significant the physical, social and economic environments portrayed in these dramas are in producing the tragedies which perpetuate poverty and violence.[13]

Around 50 per cent of the educational achievement of children at school is contributed by what the child brings to school, as Professor John Hattie’s meta-analyses have shown[14] and a substantial part of their subsequent achievement involves the relationships established in the early years of the child’s life.

Study after study in many countries shows extraordinary gains for investment in early child care as well as the critical importance to the child in later life of the relationships developed in the first few years. Yet firm meaningful policies are not put in place in countries such as the US. This would be considered astonishing until one realises that most of those involved in approving the necessary legislation are not directly affected by such policies. They more often find it useful politically to exhort parents to exercise their parental responsibility!

The recently agreed policy framework for early childhood in Australia importantly align with practice in many other OECD countries. Special attention will be needed concerning children with disabilities and Indigenous children.


 [1] This summary is derived from the Wikipedia entry for John Bowlby.

[2] In talking about his book Social Animal: How the new sciences of human nature can help make sense of a life (Random House, New York, 2011) David Brooks quotes a study of people having coffee with one another, “… and they measured how often they touched each other. .. In Rio I think the people … touched each other about 180 times an hour; in Paris it was about 120 times an hour; in London it was 0 times an hour, and so culture matters, our education matters” (see ABC Radio National Background Briefing 8 May 2011

[3] See the blog of psychotherapist and writer Dr Jessica Zucker’s blog, ‘Integenerational Transmission of Attachment’. Referring to research on attachment, Zucker writes, “The organization of a mother’s narrative and how it has been processed over the years was found to be the most crucial predictor of attachment style, rather than actual lived experiences and behaviours”. The Minnesota Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children led by Dr L. Alan Sroufe of the University of Minnesota is tracing the course of individual development to understand the  factors which guide it toward good and poor outcomes.

[4] See ‘It Does take a Village’ by Melvin Koner, a review of  Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy (Belknap Press/ Harvard University Press) in the New York Review of Books for December 8, 2011

[5] Quoted by Hrdy and by Koner in his review of Hrdy’s book. In 1954, Beatrice and John Whiting began the Six Cultures Study of Socialization, a project that involved field studies in Mexico, India, Kenya, Okinawa, the Philippines and the United States

[6] ‘Cast the die early and reap the rewards’, Sydney Morning Herald 22 March 2006; see also Andrew Leigh, ‘Intervention: better earlier’, Australian Financial Review, 12 July 2007.

[7] University of Essex – Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER) media releases 

[8] Research by Chiara Daniela Pronzato, ‘Women Returning to Work after Childbirth: Different European Experiences’ presented June 2005.

[9] Alexandra Frean ‘Childcare is bad for your baby, working parents are warnedThe Times December 11, 2008

[10] Judith Brown, Michael Bittman & Jan M Nicholson, ‘Time or Money: The Impact of Parental Employment on Time That 4 to 5 Year Olds Spend in Language Building Activities’, Australian Journal of Labour Economics 10 (3) 2007; Adele Horin, ‘Long work hours leave little time for child’s play’, Sydney Morning Herald December 11, 2010

[11] OECD Country Note – Early Childhood Education and Care Policy in Australia November 2001.

[12] Published by Economic Policy Institute, Washington DC: this is a review

[13] See essays on ‘Community and Inequality’ (to come)

[14] See essay ‘Best Teaching’ Part 1