I think Tolstoy hit the nail on the head with this statement that opens his novel Anna Karenina. Happy families, where parents and children all feel happy, respected and loved, all communicate love, happiness, respect and sensitivity. These are the main things that your child will need to thrive throughout their lives.
Beyond that, parents are as unique as their children and we all come to parenting with our own histories, philosophies and hopes. This means that a child’s experience of their parents has big implications for the type of child and adult they become. This can feel like a huge responsibility as a parent but the good news is that some simple and effective changes in your parenting style can really promote the happy and positive development of your child.
The bond between you and your child is perhaps the most profound way that your parenting style affects their ‘personality.’ I was fortunate enough to complete my PhD in Parenting and Child Development at the Sub-Department of Animal Behaviour at the University of Cambridge. The director of the Sub-Department was Professor Robert Hinde, who worked with John Bowlby who was the father of Attachment Theory based on his observations of children needing long-term care in hospitals. After the war, the belief of the time was that parents should drop off the children at the hospital, and only see them when they were discharged even if the hospital stay was several months. The flawed thinking was that it spared the child from the sadness of saying goodbye each day. Bowlby challenged this belief and today parents frequently stay overnight on paediatric wards.
Attachment theory believes that as human babies are so helpless at birth, they need to bond with caregivers who are warm, consistent and loving. These caregivers (usually parents, though in Bowlby’s case it was his beloved nanny) provide their children with a secure base from which to explore the world.
In the years of childhood, this idea of a secure base comes to the fore as children want to explore and learn about the outside world but need a touchstone to keep them safe and reassure them.
Mary Ainsworth went on to assess and categorise the different attachment relationships that children had with their parents. She developed a now famous laboratory test called the ‘Strange Situation Test’ which allowed her to watch how mothers and children said goodbye and reunited during a short visit to the lab. The table below shows how differently attached toddlers (12-18 months) behaved during the Strange Situation.
The concept of attachment has been taken on board by the ‘attachment parenting’ movement. Attachment parenting has a child-centred philosophy and looks to traditional parenting practices, such as extended breastfeeding, baby wearing and co-sleeping.
Donald Winnicott was a paediatrician and psychologist and peer of John Bowlby. He published his concept of the ‘good enough parent’ after the Second World War. He challenged the idea that parents are supposed to be completely perfect and endlessly patient sentient beings that prevent their children from encountering any conflict or strife in their life. Winnicott claimed that the fact that mothers were real people with real emotions actually facilitated their children’s development. I think this idea is reassuring to all loving parents: that you don’t have to be perfect, you have to be loving and consistent; that although flawed if you try your best for your children this will be good enough and they will thrive.
Bowlby (1980) ‘Attachment and loss’ Basic books
Attachment, exploration, and separation: Illustrated by the behavior of one-year-olds in a strange situation. MDS Ainsworth, SM Bell – Child development, 1970 – JSTOR
(1953). International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 34: 89-97 Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena—A Study of the First Not-Me Possession 1