Does the mother matter? The most obvious response is that, of course, every close caretaker of a child matters to that child's development into a healthy -- or less than healthy -- individual. But how much and in what particular ways do mother and mothering (their general and overall style of interacting with her child/ren) affect the development of the child? This is a point that has been debated in professional conversations for decades. In many ways, the assumptions and positions that are made by scholars mirror the questions that families have: What is the best way for a mother to interact with her child/ren? How important is the relationship between mother and child compared to that between child and other caregivers? And how much of the modeling of the good mother -- in this case the "sensitive" mother -- is based on patriarchal attitudes that run through Western culture? This paper addresses some of the most important traditions in how motherhood is conceptualized looking primarily at children of preschool age.
John Bowlby is one of the most important theoreticians in the area of mother-child bonding and hiss theories have influenced a number later scholars and clinicians. The major aspect of his model is that in order to grow up to be healthy (in terms primarily of mental acuity and health but also in terms of physical health) is that each child must be able to form a "secure base" to her or his mother. Without such a base a child is literally like any other physical object in the universe that does not have enough underneath it to support itself: Bowlby gives us an image of a child teetering back and forth until his mother reaches down to steady him.
Bowlby's model was derived in many ways (as have been so many) from his assumptions about what bad (or insecure or insensitive) mothering looked like. This makes a great deal of theoretical sense: It is easier to distinguish children who turn out "badly" (in whatever sense that that society defines "badly") then to identify those who turn out well, or at least well enough. Bowlby put aside the then-extremely prevalent theory that Freud had developed about maternal love and developed his own, creating a model on what he conceived to be the latest scientific knowledge, which included models and ideas from ethology as well as from cognitive studies.
Konrad Lorenz was one of the researchers whose work most influenced Bowlby. Lorenz created models of attachment by examining the behavior of other species, especially birds. Lorenz and his colleagues argued that attachment -- when a young individual becomes bonded with a parent or other related adult -- is an essential adaptation needed for survival (Lorenz, 1952, pp. 27-29). If young animals do not do everything that they can to connect with an adult and to make that adult connect with them then the young may not survive. Bowlby translated this idea into human terms, arguing that survival for humans (social creatures that we are) is based in attachment between parent and offspring.
Harlow's work with monkeys deprived of love and physical affection (Harlow & Zimmerman, 1959) also influenced Bowlby because his work so clearly demonstrated that attachment between a primate caregiver and child was essential for "normal" development. Harlow's work (which now seems almost horrifying) demonstrated convincingly that attachment (which is equivalent to what humans call love) is as essential as food.
Bowlby argued that the energy models espoused by Freud (in which infants some how became attached to their mothers because of extra energy in the system) ignored the fact that children, even infants, took an active role in the process of parenting, with infants responding to their mothers even as their mothers responded to them.
In a secure mother-child relationship, Bowlby argued, an infant can only develop fully (that is, normally) if that infant can be sure that s/he has someone who will respond to her obvious distress (usually expressed in the form of crying). In other words, the good/sensitive mother assures the infant that she or he will be taken care of by the caretaker no matter how frightening an event occurs (Matthew, 2006). Mary Ainsworth, a colleague of Bowlby's built upon his model to create a similar one, or rather one that she elaborated from Bowlby's. She added the feature that a well-attached child will react with less fear to strangers than does an insecurely attached child since the securely attached child knows that there is a mother/caregiver upon whom the child can count on to protect the child from any danger (Van der Horst, 2011, p. 49).
Bowlby argued that secure parenting, which we can also call sensitive parenting because it relies on a caregiver who is sensitive to the needs and moods of the young child, leads to the development of what he calls an "internal working model." This model is based on the social interactions that the young child has with his or her mother.
An aside: Bowlby phrases his model of the relationship between child and caretaker as that between child and mother, reflecting the cultural and social conventions of his time in which most of the childcare was provided by mothers. While that is still true in terms of the percentage of caretaking that occurs, this paper uses the term "caregiver" to acknowledge the fact that many different types of individuals provide care to young children. The attachment models here apply equally to all primary caregivers, although different types of caregivers provide that care in different ways. The fact that only mothers can nurse does not mean that other caregivers cannot also provide intimate care to young children.
This internal working model is based almost entirely on the concept that infants provide clues to their internal states and their internal needs and that well-adjusted children are created when a parent is sensitive to the cues that the child is giving off. So, to take an obvious example, if a child cries and a parent comes quickly to pick up the child and see why she is crying and to offer solutions (a hug, a story read aloud, food, a clean diaper, a reassurance that the monsters under the bed are still asleep) then the caregiver is being sensitive to the child's needs.
It is important to note here that the caregiver is not simply being sensitive (that is, aware of the ways in which a child communicates wants and needs) but also is attentive to the fact that these needs are important, a point that is taken up by Ainsworth, who was more interested in how mothers and children relate to each other in natural-setting interactions than in laboratory ones. Ainsworth was responsible for some of the most important research on this and her models remain very much in use. She argued that while both the quantity and the quality of time that mothers/caregivers spend with infants is important, there is also the quality of the time that is being spent.
Sensitive mothers (the term is one that Ainsworth uses directly and that is fundamental to models of attachment theory) stresses that the highest quality of parenting (i.e. that which is the most sensitive) comes from those caregivers who have the greatest sensitivity to infant signals, who focus on cooperative behavior rather than interfering with the behavior with the infant and who provide both emotional and physical proximity. (This last speaks primarily to 'quantity' of time spent with the young child.)
Ainsworth's emphasis on the importance of a mother's cooperating with her child rather than interfering with her connect to Erik Erikson's models in that Erikson was deeply concerned with the ways in which a greater sense of autonomy and independence are the marks of an appropriate developmental process.
Erikson's influence on Ainsworth is clear in her emphasis on the importance of respect for the autonomy of the individual and the need for the primary caretaker to allow the child to have a greater and greater sense of control over the world. Parenting young children requires that parents sometimes interfere for safety reasons: Young children will persist in walking in front of cars, putting fingers into hot food, and pulling the tails of cats. To the extent possible, both Erikson and Ainsworth argue that children's independence must be encouraged (Erikson, 1956, pp. 58-9).
However, Ainsworth argues, the best, most sensitive parenting is that which allows parent and child to cooperate as much as possible, giving even the young child a sense that she is gaining greater mastery of her universe. Cooperation with a young child (as any caregiver can tell you) can be immensely tedious in the moment and requires that the caregiver be sensitive not only to the needs of the moment but to the child's future needs as well.
Ainsworth provides examples of how a caregiver can create a cooperative alliance between her/himself and a child: