PAM: Hi everyone. I’m Pam Laricchia from livingjoyfully.ca, and today, I’m here with Emma Marie Forde. Hi, Emma!
EMMA: Hi Pam!
PAM: It’s so nice to have you back for another book chat.
EMMA: Yeah, I’m really looking forward to it.
PAM: It should be really fun. This time we’re going to talk about the book Attachment across the Lifecourse by David Howe, and you’re going to start us off, right?
EMMA: Yeah, that’s right. So, I’ll just start by saying a bit about David Howe.
He’s an emeritus professor of social work and he began his career working as a social worker and a child care officer, and then later he worked as a university professor and teacher at the University of East Anglia. He retired in 2010, but he continues to write and lecture internationally.
So today I was thinking that I would start by taking a quote from Chapter 1 which highlights the importance of relationships that attachment theory and how it attempts to explain and explore these throughout the lifecycle:
“Intimate attachments to other human beings are the hub around which a person’s life revolves, not only when he is an infant or toddler or a child but throughout his adolescence and his years of maturity as well, and on into old age. From these intimate attachments, a person draws his strength and enjoyment in life and, through what he contributes, he gives strength and enjoyment to others. These are matters about which current science and traditional wisdom are one.”
I wanted to start off by just giving some background as to my own personal interest in attachment theory. I have had a long-standing interest in attachment theory as part of my work as a clinical psychologist. Before having children, attachment theory played an important role in my clinical work in the various settings I worked in with children and families. I was also involved in observing the interactions between children and their families on a weekly basis over a 3-year period while I was taking the Tavistock Infant Observation Course.
I really found the course was invaluable in terms of learning more deeply about children’s relational development and I found attachment theory was a useful way of thinking about the relationships between the children and their carers. And I was able to observe the kinds of relationships and environments in which children could thrive—and I found that these tended to be the intimate relationships between the parent and child which were usually at home where it was possible to provide more individualised and responsive care and where parents themselves tended to feel more nurtured and supported.
So, I was really interested in chatting to Pam about this book because I feel that living an unschooling lifestyle the quality of the relationships that we have with our children is so important because the quality of our relationships really determines how our children feel about themselves and whether they feel safe, secure and confident to play and also whether they feel they can explore the world around them.
Really, our relationships with our children create a basic foundation on which a child’s emotional and mental well being develops and this is what makes it possible, I feel, for unschooling to take place. So, for me, understanding more about attachment and attachment theory has been so helpful to me in terms of thinking about the relationships that I’ve been able to nurture with my own children, and continue to do so.
PAM: I loved the suggestion, thanks for bringing the book up when we were talking about books we’d like to cover! Because that’s something that we’ve found so many times over the years, that the relationship is foundational, so it was really interesting to me to read more about the research and the attachment theory in this area. That was very cool.
EMMA: And really, the attachment side of things really is the reason we are unschooling, because the unschooling lifestyle has really enabled us to facilitate the continued relationship with breastfeeding and being with them and spending time with them. I feel that we couldn’t have really done that if they had gone to a mainstream school, or not in the same way anyway. I’ll go on, should I say a bit more about the book?
EMMA: The book is divided into three main parts, and it aims to provide an introduction into the origins and development of attachment theory. It explores how attachment has been conceptualised and the role it plays not only during the early years but throughout the lifespan and into older age.
Part one of the book looks at the key conceptual components of modern attachment theory—so it looks at things like attachment behaviour, caregiving, safe havens and secure bases, emotional co-regulation, and the internal working models we develop and our capacity for meta thinking and self-reflection which, in terms of attachment, is conceptualised as mentalisation or mind-mindedness.
So, that’s sort of at the start, and then it moves into part two which looks more at the four main attachment patterns, which are: secure, avoidant, ambivalent and disorganised. And looks in quite a bit of depth, really, at how each of these patterns manifests at each stage in the lifecourse.
And then it moves into Part three where it looks in more depth on some of the unresolved questions and controversies around attachment theory. So, for example, it looks at the relative contributions of nature and nurture in relationship to attachment styles. And it also looks at things like whether gender and disability have any, if attachment has any impact on those issues. And finally, it really looks at whether attachments remain fixed or whether they are flexible and if they can change across the lifecourse. So, it provides quite a comprehensive overview.
Attachment across the Lifecourse introduces us to the work of John Bowlby who is really known as the father of attachment theory. Bowlby was a British psychoanalyst and psychiatrist, and for a considerable period of his career he was head of the Child and Family Department at the Tavistock Clinic in London, which was 1946-1972, which is also the same clinic where I did my observation course which I enjoyed so much.
John Bowlby was actually responsible for the development of the first British Child Psychotherapy Training. John retired in 1972 but he continued to research and write and to continue his work with the Tavistock Center, and he died in 1990. His theoretical and research papers were published over a period of 5 decades, so all the way from the 1930s right up to the 1980s, and his last book was published in 1990, which was only just a few months before his death. Since his death, his son Richard Bowlby has continued to extend and disseminate his father’s work, so that’s quite interesting, so his sort of legacy has continued in a number of ways.
And that really takes me on to the applications of attachment theory, because as a result of John’s original ideas and his work, there have been significant changes to public policy, including changes to hospital policy to enable children and parents to stay together, and also things like changes to social work practice. It’s recognized how serious it is to remove children from their family of origin and this is really only done when it’s felt there are no other alternatives, when there has been cases of abuse and neglect, and there is no other realistic hope of the caregiver and child relationship can be rehabilitated.
It’s realized that there is a preference for children to live with one-to-one relationships rather than living in institutionalised care. Attachment theory and research has also looked at the provision of care during the early years and influenced programmes designed to improve parent/child relationships. More recently in the UK there has been a development of programmes that encourage attachment aware schools, so his work is continuing to have an influence on our everyday lives.
And, I was going to say, although John originally conceptualised attachment theory, Mary Ainsworth, who was a developmental psychologist and researcher, helped to develop and elaborate on the theory, drawing on quite rigorous research methods which she developed. She found ways of empirically observing and assessing attachment relationships between children and their parents which really took attachment theory to another level.
And attachment theory has been such a catalyst for a huge amount of research exploring all sort of aspects of attachment relationships throughout the lifecycle. So they’ve looked at adulthood, which the book does look into, and older adulthood. And people like Mary Maine, Pat Crittenden, Judy & Allan Schore, Alan Sroufe and Philip Shaver are just some of the key contributors to modern sort of developments in attachment theory, so it’s continuing to- well, it’s very dynamic, and it’s continuing to change. So, that’s quite exciting really. So, shall I go on a bit more?
PAM: Yeah, no, I think now we’ll get into a bit more of, well that’s a great history, I think now we’ll dive into what attachment theory itself is.
Attachment theory can really be thought about as the science of relationships. Attachment theory itself draws on a range of disciplines including evolutionary theory, ethology, psychology, psychoanalysis, systems theory and cognitive science. It brings all those diverse strands together to form a quite a comprehensive theoretical outlook. A basic definition of attachment, which is presented in the book, is, “Whenever young human infants feel anxious, in danger or need, their attachment systems are activated. This triggers attachment behaviour, the goal of which is to recover proximity to the caregiver where safety and comfort lie.”
Bowlby believed that there were innate care-seeking behaviours, which are attachment behaviours, which were basic and instinctual and which all young children possessed. So, these were like signaling behaviours such as protest, crying, clinging, and other displays of distress, which are signaling to a caregiver that they are needed, to keep them close.
There are also behaviors such as vocalising, cooing, burbling, sucking, smiling, visual tracking, which we see even quite little babies doing quite often, eye contact, following, and raising their arms, you know, to be picked up, are all attempts to elicit contact and connection and to keep the caregiver.
From an evolutionary perspective developing an attachment to a primary caregiver can be thought about as a behavioural strategy that’s designed to keep us close, safe from danger and ultimately to keep us alive. And from birth, babies are able to differentiate between different people. One of the things I always remember is that they can smell the difference between their mother’s breast milk and another mother, like a different mother, so they can sort of differentiate from a very short time after they are born. This enables them to sort of form preferences for people and in their lives and can show clear preferences for their primary caregivers.
By the end of the first year, children have developing those sort of key relationships, and they do show quite a strong preference usually for one individual carer—there is some degree of flexibility in it, but they do tend to have one main carer.
Just as children have an attachment system in the ways of signaling for care, he believed parents also have biological urge to care for, comfort and keep one’s young safe. “It is organised around the goal of protecting, regulating and responding to the child, just in the same way as the child’s attachment system is organised around being protected, regulated and responded to.”
So, it’s kind of like a reciprocal relationship where parents and infants are working together.
PAM: I found that really fascinating, that dance of how the parents and the child, even babies, really connected and intertwined, with caregiving systems being responsive.
I’m going to move a little bit into part two. Part two is pretty big, as you mentioned, because he goes into the four different attachment patterns, and then he actually looks at all four of them over the lifetime so you can see how it plays out. It’s super interesting.
And you can, quite easily, think of friends and family and other people in your lives where you start to recognize the behaviors that he is talking about. That’s so interesting.
What I wanted to do is to just quickly go over the basic four attachment patterns because I think it helps put those definitions into a bit more context, so hopefully that will help people understand a bit better.
And remember, as Emma said, the goal of attachment behavior is to bring their caregiver closer to them, either physically or psychologically, to make sure that they are thinking of them and looking out for them, so they feel safer.
Secure attachment patterns develop when caregivers are available and responsive to them at times of need. There is predictability in that, right? The parents are good at reading their babies’ signals—and I loved his point, not perfect, but good. He says that even sensitive caregivers get it right only about 50 per cent of the time. But what stands out is that they actively acknowledge and repair the disconnecting moments.
So, if you can’t respond immediately to your child’s distress, but when you do, after you finish pouring your drink or you tea, you acknowledge that and say “Oh! I was just getting this! I hope you can wait…”, or you know just some sort of response to them so that they know that you are coming and they learn to wait that little bit and know that their response is coming, you know what I mean?
He concludes that, “Sensitively responsive parents who can tune into, and see the world from their child’s point of view are likely to have securely attached children.” And in turn that, “Securely attached children are the most likely to develop emotional intelligence, good social skills, and robust mental skills.”
I loved when he talked about seeing the world from their child’s point of view because when we talk about unschooling, that is something that is really important, we talk a lot about trying to see things from their point of view. Not even putting ourselves in their shoes, because that’s still us looking at their situation from our perspective, with our experience, but getting into their point of view, knowing the experience that they personally have to attach and understand their situation.
Avoidant attachment patterns arise when, from the child’s point of view, their attachment behaviours cause their parent to become more distant and rejecting. Over time, the child gets the message that they don’t enjoy being a parent, that they see caregiving is a chore more. They learn that their parent is actually most available to them when they are NOT distressed. So, to achieve closeness with their parent, the baby learns that suppressing their attachment behaviours increases their chances to stay close to their caregiver.
Ambivalent or anxious attachment patterns arise when parents’ caregiving is inconsistent and unpredictable. From the child’s point of view, they can really find no reliable pattern between their attachment behaviours and the caregiver’s response. So how can they more consistently try to bring their caregiver closer? The child begins to feel anxious because that caregiving feels arbitrary to them. So, they tend to exaggerate their distress to provoke a response and get their caregiver’s attention. And interestingly, they also tend to resist being placated because in their experience, once they calm down they are back at square one again, right?
And the fourth pattern was disorganized. The first three are organized enough that the child finds some way, some attachment behaviors that they can, perform to increase the chance of their caregiver responding, but there are situations where the child finds it very difficult to find a pattern in their caregiver’s response, and as such can’t organize any kind of strategy of attachment behaviours to bring their caregiver to them in times of distress, hence why it’s called disorganized. These parents feel unable to cope with the demands of parenting, and they may feel overwhelmed by their own fears and worries. So, when the child feels fear, they have no reasonably consistent way to lessen it, and it stays with them. And David describes the implications as… “[that fear] dysregulates their emotions, overwhelms their cognitive capacities, and damages their ability to develop an integrated state of mind with respect to all attachment behaviors.”
When I was reading through that–then he takes that and extends it right through older childhood, teens, adults, but from these descriptions, it’s so interesting to see, at least with the three organized attachment patterns, they are shaped by the caregiving environment the child finds themselves in—there’s really no “wrong” pattern, from the child’s perspective. Each pattern of those behaviors maximizes their caregiver response.
And he spends time too talking about the parents themselves, these are patterns that they are playing out that they learned in relationships, so there is nothing wrong with these patterns, per say, because it’s all about what the parent knows and how the parent is feeling in that environment, and what the child figures out to try to mesh with them as best they can so that they can feel safe when fear arises, right? I thought that was really super interesting, to see that these are relationship patterns, right? They are not necessarily negative at all, and it’s the child figuring out the best way to get what they need.
It was also interesting to read in part two how these attachment patterns that we learn in early childhood are how we understand relationships and bring that understanding into relationships over our lifetime. That’s how we were talking about how the parents may have, say, an avoidant attachment pattern that they developed through their childhood, so that’s how they react in relationship when someone, whether it is an adult or child, when someone has a need to try to draw them in.
But it’s also very cool that you can definitely shift your attachment patterns, but it takes intentional work. What jumped out at me is that, when we look at it through the lens of unschooling, it’s clear that secure attachments with our children are important for unschooling to thrive, and you talked about that a bit too. And as I think about deschooling and how so many of us find that the bulk of the work of moving to unschooling is our own personal work to do, and even in the Q&As, a lot of the questions are about our relationships with our children, and I think often all that that we are doing as we move to unschooling can be getting ourselves to secure attachment patterns so we can provide those secure caregiving behaviours for our children and develop that strong and connected relationship that really is foundational for unschooling.
David describes this process of moving from an insecure to a secure attachment as “earned secure attachment.” So, it’s done by making sense of our own experiences and creating that coherent, reflective narrative. You were talking about mind-mindedness, right? That meta cognitive thinking to understand our childhood experiences and how we got to the behavior patterns that we have now, and understanding the secure environment that we want to give to our children, and how can we change our patterns. So much of the work, I think, for many of us, is changing those attachment patterns. I found that super interesting.
EMMA: I was just going to mention how important I think it is and that work that you mentioned in the deschooling process, and that work that we kind of do as parents.
For me, I think part of that process started before I even had children, so I was kind of aware as I was sort of learning, I guess I was learning a about psychology, from quite a young age, I was interested in college at about age 19. I engaged in sort of therapy in those ten years, between 19 and when I went to have children at about 34.
I thought that during that process I was engaging in developing a secure attachment by developing a secure relationship with a therapist, someone I could really trust who I saw on a weekly basis, and who enabled me to sort of reflect on my own childhood and life experience, and to develop a narrative, and so I think that’s another reason why it speaks intuitively to me, and to me it was tranformatory, it took me from being someone who did feel more anxious and insecure about relationships, to thinking it was possible to maybe have my own children.
I think part of doing the observation course sort of demystified the process of having children and nurturing those close relationships. So, for me, I feel part of that work was going on even before I even started to think of having children. And I think for some people, they may have children, and then that sort of works as a catalyst to start this work. I think it just depends, but I feel it is something you definitely can do, and I think it can be really valuable. I mean, it’s been valuable to me, and I think it’s had an impact on my daughters.
PAM: He talked about how a therapist can be sort of a transitional attachment figure, right? To help give feedback, and a place where you can develop that more solid kind of relationship, to look at the patterns because so often when we are looking at less secure attachments, so often it was because the parent didn’t really understand what was going on. Maybe they had been avoidant all their life because that was what they learned in their situation, and because they avoided it, they never really spend time thinking about it, or about ways you can spend time being in relationship with people.
EMMA: And it’s really been helpful to see, for me to know, on an experiential level that it is possible to change your attachment patterns, that they are not fixed, and it is something that he goes on to focus on in the book. I think it’s really helpful for both children and parents, and it’s why it’s something I focus on, it can be such a powerful way of bringing parents and children closer and also sort of making changes in your life.
PAM: That’s one of the things that we focus on in our Q&A episodes is taking a situation and come up with other ways to look at it. That just helps other people see that there really are different narratives that you can put on to a certain situation. We learn how to see things from other people’s perspectives, including our children. I find it very fascinating.
EMMA: Should I go on to the next bit then? OK, so going into the next part for me was looking at how aspects of the secure caregiver role can provide a kind of secure base and thinking about how this fits with unschooling.
There were four main ideas that I wanted to pick up on which I feel the book looks at which are directly relevant to our unschooling journeys.
The first one is the secure base, which is the idea that the parent can act as a sort of safe haven. Someone that the child can feel confident to go out and explore the world with knowing that they’ve got that secure relationship there, they feel like they can be sort of free to play.
David says, “The more confident and secure children feel in the availability of a responsive attachment figure to be there at times of need, the more independent and playful they can be. Caregivers who provide a secure base allow their children to be autonomous, curious and experimental.”
So, for me, when children feel that their attachment/dependency needs are being taken care of by their caregiver, this enables them to relax, to be relatively free of anxiety and to play and really learn about the world around them. And this, for me, really connects with reading Sandra Dodd’s work when she talks about the “unschooling nest,” how important that the environment is that we create which Sandra Dodd describes.
Sandra emphasises the importance of relationships and how the emotional climate of the home forms an important context in which unschooling can thrive, and for our children to thrive. It’s something that sort of just kind of jumps out at me.
In the book, there was a quote that I was going to share as well: “When children feel relaxed and secure, they can enjoy the pleasure and benefits of play, social interaction, discovering new things, learning, being busy and creative, and simply following their curiosity. They explore their environment. However, when danger threatens, uncertainty arises, anxiety is felt, or distress is experienced, the attachment system kicks back into play. Play and exploration immediately stop. In fact, because fear and survival are so basic, activation of the attachment system generally means that other important behaviour systems, such as the exploratory, affiliative, sociable and in the case of adults, sexual motivations are deactivated when we feel anxious or afraid. So that means that we are unlikely to feel playful, chatty, or sexy.”
The attachment figure in our life. Able to explore and to be curious. You can’t just take those things for granted. When you’re unschooling you really need to think about the whole context, and I think that’s what this whole idea of the secure base presents us with here.
PAM: I found that so fascinating, and I love when I see like the same ideas come up in such different contexts. Because I remember reading about and understanding how important that safe, secure environment is when I was reading Finding Flow, the book by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, I finally learned to pronounce his name, I think.
It totally reminds me of the concept of flow, because in his book he talks about how important a safe environment is for anyone to be able to sink into the flow of their activity, and he describes it as “the joy of complete engagement.” That’s where wonderful learning is found, when you are feeling so safe and secure that you don’t need to keep your eye on the environment, keep looking out on things, but you can just get into the moment, get into the flow, and follow your curiosity.
EMMA: I think when unschooling is going well, the child isn’t having to think, you know, the parent is doing a lot of that work, like creating the environment, putting everything in place, so the child can just be free to be themselves, and play and explore.
The second point I sort of wanted to pick out is about partnership, and it is sort of an important concept in attachment theory, the relationship between parent and child working in partnership together.
David writes “A full understanding of attachment requires recognition that interaction between caregivers and babies is two-way [process]. Parent and child respond to each other on the basis that each can predict the other’s behaviour as well as his or her own behaviour during the interaction (Beebe et al, 2010).”
So, they know that, through research studies and we know through our own interactions with our babies and children, that they are inherently social, and they, as soon as they are born, are looking to interact with the world around them, and they really very much want to interact with us on equal terms and in meaningful ways. With both adults and children, someone called Colwyn Trevarthen, he calls this this “purposeful intersubjectivity.”
He’s done some wonderful research looking at the relationship between mothers and babies, and from very early age, how they have this wonderful dance between them. They interact together. He talked about it as a sort of musicality that they have behind them, which kind of links into your ideas about flow. I think in some of his videos you can really see the mum and baby in the state of flow together, and it’s really quite a moving thing to see, and of course, when you’re in your relationships with your own children and you see that happen, I think it does deepen your attachment relationships.
I feel it’s something that’s so key to the foundation of unschooling, you know, partnership is recognized as something that’s an important way of being and interacting with our children, so we’re working with them, sort of collaborating with them, helping them to achieve, meet their needs and goals that they want in ways that are meaningful to them.
I feel this really ties in well with sort with that aspect of attachment and that interaction, and moving away really from more sort of authoritarian approaches to parenting, and approaches that perhaps are more sort of permissive or stand-back-ish, kind of really saying, you know, you can be engaged with your child and meet their needs in this kind of really wonderful sort of dance.
PAM: Yeah, I love the idea of dance. I’ve used it over the years to describe it, the dance of parenting, because it’s so much of understanding where your child is, what their goals are, what they’re looking for, whether now will probably be a good time to sort of step in and help a bit more actively, or maybe to give them a little more time and space for what they’re trying to do.
And I love, back to the point that we’re not going to call it 100% of the time, but it’s about, they’re comfortable saying “oops, no, please, I want to try this on my own” and we are comfortable saying “sure.” It’s that whole dance, making our best guess, and not standing back and being afraid to interact, but making our best guess and dancing with them until we find our footing. When you hit that flow, it’s really beautiful isn’t it?
EMMA: Definitely. And something that comes through the attachment research is how important it is that it’s ok to get it wrong. You are going to make mistakes. I think it’s only about 50% of the time that you are going to get it right. But babies really can be very understanding. It’s the parent taking responsibility to repair and ruptures which can become very important, And not letting yourself become overwhelmed when you have a disconnection, but thinking, “I’m going to reach out to the baby and make things ok.” And I think that’s quite a helpful and a hopeful thing to know, and I think that a lot of people can feel that if they can’t get it right 100% of the time then they’re not going to try.
PAM: That’s why I thought it was so important to share that, because in that strive for perfection we can berate ourselves, which means we are even more fearful to come back and try to connect again. And we talk about apologizing, and we can say “oops,” that’s part of repairing that relationship, and the point is that, as adults, we are wanting to create this sort of relationship with them, so we can take that step, right? That’s a repair that we want to do.
So, understanding that, you know what, you are not always going to get it right, and that’s ok, but keep trying, because every time you learn just a little bit more, right? It’s like “Oh, okay, I’m not going to try that next time.” You know, it’s just another piece of information for us so we can not step on their feet so much the next time.
EMMA: Yeah, it’s just getting to know each other!
PAM: Yeah, exactly!
EMMA: Should I go into…
PAM: Number three? Yeah!
EMMA: The next one was about maximizing joy and I really just think this is wonderful. When I first heard it, I thought, oh, this connects so much with unschooling, and I’ll just read the quote:
“Equally important in terms of children’s early emotional development is the caregivers’ recognition and enhancement of the infant’s positive emotional states. The joy of play, the deep bliss and contentment of shared eye gaze, the fun of singing songs together, the pleasure experienced by both parent and child when a new skill is learned give powerful boosts to the security of an infant’s attachment. The positive emotions also help the brain to deal with stress, and lay down rich neurological structures that enhance children’s ability to think about feeling and regulate affect.”
And that’s Allen Shore, (Shore, 2001), who’s done a lot of work in this area, he’s focused on how much the attachment relationship can help us maximize joyful feelings, and this is really important in deepening our relationships and enabling our children to thrive.
Attachment isn’t just about thinking about how we regulate or help our children to manage those negative states, like fear or anxiety, but it’s also really important to think about how we are actually creating an environment and relationships that are full of joy, and I think it’s something that unschooling really focuses 0n in a really very helpful way.
PAM: When I read that, I was like, “yeaaah!” because you know, my website is living JOYFULLY because after spending so much time with my children when they left school and we were figuring this stuff out, joy became—like, I could see how helpful that was in support of our relationships, in helping them, how that environment truly helped them feel more secure, feel more positive, support, they were learning better, and it just supported life better, right?
And it’s not discounting the negative, like you said, it’s not ignoring the negative, you are responding to the negative, like we were talking about before, but it’s also that piece of going after those joyful moments, and creating those as often as you can because it really does help children thrive. It brings your attachment closer, you feel more connected with them, because there’s lots of things bubble up when you’re in a joyful space.
And in that quote you had about the shared bliss and contentment from shared eye gaze and the joy of singing together, what popped up for me is we talk so much about time, the importance of time and space, just allowing these things to unfold naturally, instead of having in your mind “we have to do this and this and this.” My kids are older now, but I have found through all ages, even now as young adults, that having that space and time where there isn’t pressure to do x, y, z within this certain timeframe, that’s when those conversations can bubble up, when you have a moment to share.
Maybe it’s not something that requires a solution, but something fun they found, that they don’t need to come to you to help solve it, but it allows you to share that joy with them, the things they are finding joyful for them to share that joy with me.
Just this afternoon I was having a conversation with Joseph where he shared some really fun stuff that he’s found in the last few days, and you know, just giving that time, just finding the time and making the space for these things to bubble up really helps bring the joy into it as well. That was really cool.
Do you want to go on to the next…
EMMA:I can do, but I was just going to say I think it’s great, that in terms of unschooling, thinking about things like joy, I know some people will say it sounds like a frivolous idea, but it’s actually underpinned by science, if that’s some way helpful, but now it’s here, and it’s interesting that people are actually looking at this and researching this and actually seeing the benefits in certain areas other than just like in unschooling.
PAM: That’s why I love this book, because it is interesting to see that there is research going on and that it is finding so much of what we see through our lens of unschooling. All these different things that we are talking about really are strongly connected with what we are seeing in real life with unschooling.
EMMA: And a bit that ties in just a bit, that you’ve just mentioned, kind of ties in. I know you’ve written an article called, “Time to Think” and you’ve touched on some of these ideas that you talk about in there, about having the space and time to let unschooling and the relationships unfold.
The last point that I was going to pick up on was about mentalisation and mind-mindedness, and how it’s the idea that in the relationship we can help our children by recognizing them as individuals with their own unique internal worlds to develop those capacities within themselves.
This enables them to sort of step back and reflect on their experiences, to have a different relationship to things that happen in their lives, and to manage stress. They are thinking about their emotional world in a different way, which was another key area of attachment theory, which can be part of having a secure attachment.
That was the last bit on that section.
PAM: That’s really important too, because you’re also helping them, you’re giving them words, especially when they’re younger. You’re helping them identify maybe the feelings and where they are coming from. You are helping them make these connections, so that they are able to better understand or even explain, you know, when you’re having conversations with them. It gives them more of a perspective, a way to visualize things so that they can explain to you and you can help them as they are moving through it.
And when we were talking about the insecure attachments, that ability is sometimes something that is missing, that a parent isn’t yet able to really understand. They are just kind of blown away and feel hit when things happen in relationships. They don’t quite know how to sort it out and analyse it and build a coherent picture about what’s going on, right? That was really interesting.
I talk a lot about being able to analyse situations, because it’s not just about the facts of the situation, right? It’s also the emotions that we are feeling, and maybe why we are being triggered this way and that, and the work to being able to understand that helps us figure a path forward eventually.
So, I’m going to take on another piece.
There was lots that I found interesting in the book, but in part 3, David visits the question of how much of a role individual temperament plays in the development of different attachment patterns versus just being the result of variations in the quality of the parenting.
This is really kind of a question of the interaction of nature and nurture. We are going to start with how David defines temperament so we can all start from the same place.
He defines temperament as, “the variety of individual differences and personality traits that seem to characterize each of us as we engage with life.”
We naturally differ in terms of our fearfulness, our sensitivity, our sociability—like introvert/extrovert—our emotionality etc. And temperament is seen as heavily influenced by our genes, and fear and many anxiety-related traits appear to be influenced by heritability. So, where fear compels us to escape from danger and attachment propels us to seek protection, through our range of temperament there will be natural variations in our fearfulness—which in turn will impact our caregiving.
In part 3 he’s talking about some of the critics, and some critics of attachment theory maintain that each attachment pattern is little more than children displaying their natural temperamental makeup, that they simply vary in their biological susceptibility to distress and their ability to regulate it, meaning that the quality of the caregiving has little to do with it.
David explains that, “most researchers now agree that there is likely to be a complex relationship between temperament and attachment, particularly insecure attachments.” And this makes total sense. The mom of a child with a more challenging temperament (the classic “difficult child,”—or, in less judgemental language, a “highly sensitive” or “spirited child”—that mom can find herself needing to spend more time and effort in the caregiving role to help her child feel supported and secure. Because their fear and anxiety, and hence attachment behaviours, are triggered more often, right?
So, David explains that, “even if a child has a naturally difficult temperament but is parented by a relatively stress-free, autonomous, attuned mother who enjoys extensive spousal and family support, that child is likely to be securely attached.”
And I loved his point about spousal and family support is well taken. If a child is needing active and regular support from mom, her ability to do that can be compromised if there are additional challenges arise in her environment, like an unsupportive partner, financial worries, or there aren’t nearby family to help out. And when you add unschooling to the mix, being surrounded by people who don’t understand our choice to unschool, or even conventional parenting that doesn’t understand our child’s challenges and our choice to fully support them by consistently responding to their attachment behaviours, whereas they think “Oh, they are spoiled, they need to learn to deal with it by themselves.” (meaning their fear and anxiety)—so, to continue to be that secure base for them, no matter their age, and no matter what kind of looks we’re getting, or comments that we are getting that “they are too old for x, y, z.”
In those situations, it’s definitely not impossible for the mom, but I do think recognizing those different challenges that she has on her plate and how they weave together can go a long way—just so they understand that they’ve got a lot on their plate and what those challenges are!
You know, even when I know that I have a lot on my plate, at least acknowledging it and understanding that, yeah, this can be hard sometimes, just helps me get to a clearer state of mind, and remember why I’m doing this. It gets me back to “Okay, I am choosing x, y, z because they’re important to me, and yeah, this is hard, but that’s why I did it.” It just helps me get settled again.
David summarized the research by saying that, “although children’s genes and temperament do play a part in the parent-child relationship, the quality of caregiving appears to have the largest effect on children’s attachment organization, at least in the early years.”
And then, of course, out pops that “early years” constraint that he’s talking about. That was really interesting. I loved his point that as a child gets older and enters adolescence and adulthood, they have more control over their choice of relationships and the environment, and he writes that, “This growing freedom provides more opportunities for the individual’s interests, inclinations and predispositions—many governed by genes—to express themselves, free of parental constraint.” Research seems to show that as temperament gradually starts to have a greater influence on adult personality and behaviour, “attachment organization continues to have an important but independent effect.”
I love looking at that through the lens of unschooling. As parents, we are supporting our children’s exploration of their temperament and personality right from the get go, so our kids don’t need to figure out who they “really are” as a person away from parental constraint—in adolescence and young adulthood—they already have that firm foundation of self and they continue to learn about themselves as they explore new environments, when they’re ready, when they’re comfortable.
They already know that they grow and change as a person over time, because we haven’t tried to keep them in this mold their entire childhood. They’ve seen that their temperament can change over time. So, maybe they are fearful much longer than most kids, but eventually they start to understand it enough and figure out the tools to manage it for themselves and it starts to become much less of an issue over time. All sorts of things, even extrovert, introvert kind of swings over time as well.
There are so many benefits to living an unschooling lifestyle that help our kids learn this stuff—they don’t have to wait until they are old enough to get away from their parents to figure out who they really are. As our attachment organization—our strong and connected relationships—also continue as they were, our children are confident that we will always be available to help when they find themselves fearful and in need of support for something.
It is fascinating to me seeing the shift in primary attachment as they develop close relationships with partners, and how they become their first level of support when challenges arise and when they are seeking connection and support, comfort. And then I’m next level if they find need more feedback or help, or just want more camaraderie, compassion, etc, just more feedback in general. So it’s been really interesting to me to see how those attachment behaviors and needs kind of just expand out into the world as they get older too.
EMMA: I think it’s so interesting as well, each relationship is unique.
You picked up on that, how the temperament and interaction between our caregiving and the environment and our individual children’s personalities, and I think it’s really interesting how they are emerging in relationship to us in the early years and also throughout adolescence.
And I think taking that partnership based approach means that we are engaging in that dance, so giving them space when they need space, and engaging them when they want support, and providing that secure base for them. They don’t have to wait until a certain time or a certain age when they have that freedom and independence, because it’s been part of their lives since they were babies, really, it’s been something that they’ve grown up with.
It’s an organic process that Trevathen calls the intersubjectivity that’s happening all the time, so, I really liked how you mentioned how those different factors impact the relationship.
PAM: And the way you describe that reminded me, I talked about it in my talk “A Family of Individuals” The concept of fairness or sameness. It’s not me doing these caregiving behaviors and doing them the same for each of my children. Because they are different, and they have different temperaments, personalities and needs and stuff, so those relationships are totally individual with each of them, and the kinds of things that I do can be helpful in one relationship, but if I did that with another child it would not be as helpful.
When we talk about secure relationships in general—and that we are striving for—realizing what that entails inside that relationship is that dance that you are figuring out with each of them individually. Very, very interesting.
Before we go, is there anything that else you’d like to bring up around the book? Or did we hit most of it?
EMMA: I think we’ve covered quite a bit of it.
I just wanted to maybe emphasize that, if you do feel like that you have concerns, if you feel that they don’t have a secure attachment, that you can do something about that. That you can work through your own experiences and develop your own secure attachment.
Dan Siegel, he talks about this quite a bit in some of the books that he’s written, and also Kim Golding, who’s a UK psychologist, she’s written a book called Creating Loving Attachments The approach that I feel she advocates is very similar to an unschooling sort of approach, which you know it’s playfulness, acceptance, curiosity and empathy, avoiding punishments, and just really collaborating partnering and partnering your children, are all helpful ways you can start to build those secure relationships if you haven’t already.
And I think it’s really important to know that it’s never too late, even throughout childhood or adolescence or even as an adult, you can always work and create those secure relationships if you can find access to, perhaps a therapist your trust, or perhaps if you are in a relationship with a person who has an secure attachment, research has suggested that there is some flexibility and that you can change things.
So, and maybe, I just want to add a little bit, because I recently did some training in September in London which was all about focusing on nurturing relationships between parents and children which is called Theraplay, which is all about fostering that connection in a joyful way, which again I think fits really well with unschooling.
Young children right through to teens can do this so, it’s something you can take the ideas for yourself, there are videos on YouTube about various Theraplay activities that you can engage in with your children. Or you could access Theraplay, I know that there’s Theraplay therapists in different countries around the world. But I think there’s a lot there, so I don’t think you have to feel like you can’t develop a secure attachment. It’s always possible and it’s never too late.
PAM: That is an awesome point. Because we don’t want people to go away from the discussion feeling bad at all, we wanted to give them a deeper understanding of these relationships, about how these behaviors are related to how you’re relating to each other, and about how we can learn more about it and you can change, earn secure attachment, etc. That’s great that you have those resources, and I will for sure put them in the show notes!
PAM: Yeah, cool! Thank you so much again for recommending the book, and I know we spent so many hours diving into it, but I really appreciate you taking the time, because it’s really awesome! I hope people listening enjoyed and gotten something out of it as well. So, it’s evening for you now, so I hope you have a great one!
EMMA: Yeah, thanks Pam. Speak to you soon.
PAM: Thank you so much!