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Most parents would agree that parenting is extremely complex and challenging. What works for one child, might not work for another – even within the same family.

Parenting practices and beliefs around the world can also be strikingly different. Japanese children, for example, are often allowed to ride the subway by themselves from as young as seven. This would be considered unthinkable to parents in some other countries. 

Researchers have explored cultural and historical differences in parenting practices for many years. Studies tend to agree that three major factors often explain differences in parenting style: emotional warmth versus hostility (how loving, warm, and affectionate parents are towards children), autonomy versus control (the degree to which children are given a sense of control over their lives), and structure versus chaos (how much children’s lives are given a sense of structure and predictability).

Attachment theory explained

John Bowlby formulated his ideas on attachment theory during the 1950s. He worked as a child psychiatrist at the Tavistock Clinic in London during World War II – noting the devastating impact of maternal separation and loss on child development.

Working with Mary Ainsworth, a Canadian psychologist, Bowlby provided support for the idea that mothers and children are mutually motivated to seek proximity to one another for survival. He argued that a mother’s sensitivity to her child’s desire for closeness and comfort was a critical factor in shaping attachment and child development.

This sensitivity relates to a mother’s ability and capacity to detect, understand and respond appropriately to her child’s cues around distress and threat. If her baby is distressed, a securely attached mother is attuned to the distress – she detects it, she is motivated to alleviate it, and she offers a set of soothing responses to do so.

Leading attachment researchers have argued that a consistent lack of such maternal sensitivity in infancy and early childhood results in a belief that the world is unsupportive and that one is unlovable.

The key principles of attachment theory have become embedded in contemporary Western ideas about parenting. And the language of attachment theory underpins the “attachment parenting movement” – which advocates methods such as co-sleeping – where babies and young children sleep close to one or both parents – and feeding on demand.

Some argue, however, that this has shift has negative consequences. US writer Judith Warner suggests that attachment theory has fuelled a culture of “total motherhood”, in which mothers are placed in a demanding position of “total responsibility” for their child’s needs. Attachment parenting, she says, pressures working mothers (particularly) towards a life where they must perpetually work a double shift – both at home and in the workplace – in the interest of their child’s development.

Nazi child rearing

In contemporary Western societies, emphasis and value are placed on the development of our unique “self” and a private emotional world. And attachment theory’s child-centred focus on the emotional needs of infants – and how parents respond to them – lends itself nicely to this value system.

But this hasn’t always been the case. A look at parenting in Nazi Germany and how subsequent generations have struggled to bond with their children raises questions about what happens when societies engineer beliefs about parenting that are starkly at odds with the propositions of attachment theory.

German historians and psychologists have written extensively about the works of the Nazi educator and physician, Johanna Haarer, whose baby-care manual, The German Mother and her First Child – published by the prolific Nazi publisher Julius Friedrich Lehmanns – sold around 600 000 copies by 1945.

Haarer’s manual is most notable for parenting strategies and beliefs that contradict attachment theory. To some extent, her work could be accurately described as an “anti-attachment manual”. She said that babies should be separated from their mothers for 24 hours after they are born, and they should be placed in a separate room.

This separation, Haarer instructed, should continue for the first three months of a baby’s life. A mother could visit the baby only for strictly regulated breastfeeding – no longer than 20 minutes – and she should avoid playing or dawdling around. Haarer believed that such separation was a critical part of a baby’s “training regime”. If a baby continued to cry after it had been fed on schedule, if it was clean and dry, and if it had been offered a dummy, “then, dear mother, become tough” and simply leave her to cry.

Ultimately, her work reflected and shaped child-rearing practices that aligned with the goals of the Hitler Youth movement. Parents were encouraged to produce children who could be integrated into the community, showed no signs of self-pity, self-indulgence or self-concern, and were brave, obedient and disciplined.

Many caregivers

Much of the contemporary Western evidence suggests that, in contrast to what the Nazis thought, attachment still plays an important role in many societies when it comes to raising children – even though the ways in which such attachments are arranged can vary dramatically. And while researchers have provided evidence that certain features of attachment may be universal, others can vary remarkably from culture to culture.

It has been presumed, for example, that there is a universal need and motivation for all infants to form attachments to caregivers. They are thought to be neurologically hardwired to seek close attachments and to be equipped with a behavioural repertoire that has evolved to facilitate this.

But how such attachments are formed (and with whom) can differ. Bowlby’s attachment theory emphasises the importance of an infant caregiver bond – most exclusively with the mother or a primary caregiver. But this is not universally true that has to be mother or primary caregiver and is largely a reflection of Western middle-class societies.

The Conversation

The Conversation