Historical Perspectives – On the Primary Connection Between Parents and child

The current emphasis on the importance of the primary connection between parents and infants is a relatively new phenomenon. For example, biblical references to the relationship between parents and children often emphasize the child’s obligations to the parent, but little mention is made of the parent’s obligations to the child, other than to provide discipline. Emotional connection with infants was actively discouraged through the middle-ages. Some have attributed this to the fact that infant mortality rates were so high, the implication being that parents simply waited to see if the child would survive before an emotional commitment was made. Of course, there are always exceptions to the cultural norm and, even during those times, individual parents did recognize and value the uniqueness of their infants. There are cultural differences that could be explored but for purposes of this column, we will focus on Western psychology’s contribution to thinking about the parent-infant connection.Freud’s work first drew attention to the importance of the first three years of life and challenged the prevailing belief that young children and infants were incapable of thinking and feeling and, therefore, what was done to and with them was of no importance. A comparison can be made between the attitudes a century later towards preborn and newborn babies.Although Freud’s work eventually led him to the conclusion that very early memories reported by his patients were based in fantasy rather than actual events, he opened the door to investigation of very early experience. His conclusion that thoughts and feelings can be as important an influence on our lives as actual events allowed psychoanalytic investigations to continue in the face of much opposition to accepting the possibility of widespread immoral sexual acts committed against children by their parents. That debate still rages, updated as questions about the validity of repressed memory. At the base of it is the importance of early experience, whether that experience is based in actual events, fantasy, or a combination of both. The difficulty with Freud’s approach, once he came to the conclusion that he was dealing with fantasy, was, and is, the impossibility of proving or disproving his theories.

Melanie Klein (1932) carried the emphasis on the influence of fantasy and internal experience to the extreme, stating that children’s emotional problems are almost entirely due to fantasies generated from internal conflict between aggressive and libidinal drives, rather than to events in the external world. As a result of this theoretical perspective, she forbade John Bowlby to talk to the mother of a three-year-old whom he analyzed under her supervision (Bowlby, 1987).

Bowlby had, due to previous experience in working with children, come to believe that actual family experiences were much more important. In his early theoretical papers Bowlby (1940) revealed his interest in the intergenerational transmission of attachment relations and the possibility of helping children by helping parents. This position, although developed independently, is compatible with object relations theories such as those of Fairbairn (1952) and Winnicott (1965). Partially in reaction to Klein’s approach, Bowlby became intent on developing his theories with a sound basis in empirical validation.

Attachment theory was the result. Developed in collaboration with Mary Ainsworth (see Ainsworth and Bowlby, 1991), attachment theory draws on not only psychoanalysis, but concepts from ethology, cybernetics, information processing and developmental psychology. Mary Ainsworth developed the empirical methodology to test some of Bowlby’s ideas and also contributed the concept that the attachment figure provides a secure base from which an infant can explore the world.

Another primary contribution of attachment theory is the concept that, by understanding early development, we can enhance human experience. The focus is changing from negative influences and understanding of what goes wrong to understanding what goes right and how to contribute to that positive influence. As opposed to Freud’s focus on negative sexual and aggressive influences, we are now emphasizing understanding of the powerful human emotions connected with attachment and bonding–in other words, love.

For those readers looking for a more in-depth discussion of attachment theory, I refer you to Goldberg (1995) Attachment Theory: Social, Developmental, and Clinical Perspectives. This book is a comprehensive addition to the literature. Based on an October 1993 conference in Toronto to honor Bowlby and take stock of his theory of attachment, its origins, influences and implications, Goldberg’s book provides a solid foundation for understanding attachment theory. Bowlby and Ainsworth’s primary gift to those of us investigating earlier origins of attachment (i.e., prenatal and perinatal) is the grounding in empirical studies. This book is not only a tribute to Bowlby, but a foundation for many other researchers and clinicians seeking to understand our very earliest experiences as human beings. Magnificent living theories and powerful methodologies lead to changes in individual perceptions and to changes in social structures.

Our next update will move to the work of Klaus, Kennell, and Klaus (1995) to explore the building of foundations for secure attachment and independence and the impact of this theory on hospital practices.


Ainsworth, M. & Bowlby, J. (1991). An ethological approach to personality development. American Psychologist, 46, 331-341.

Bowlby, J. (1940). The influence of early environment in the development of neurosis and neurotic character. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 21, 1-25.

Bowlby, J. (1987). Colloquium presented at the University of Virginia.

Fairbairn, W. (1952). An object-relations theory of the personality. New York: Basic Books.

Goldberg, S., Muir, R. & Kerr, J. (1995). Attachment Theory: Social, developmental, and clinical perspectives. Hillsdale, NJ: The Analytic Press.

Klein, M. (1932). The Psychoanalysis of Children. London: Hogarth Press.

Winnicott, D. (1965). The Maturational Process and the Facilitating Environment. New York: International Universities Press.

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