The evolution of childrearing

April 2, 2010 at 7:12 am | Posted in Musings | 1 Comment
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I am doing research for my book on the unconscious and in considering the work of John Bowlby on attachment theory, I stumbled across a perspective that has horrified me.

The research about Bowlby indicated what a breakthrough his thinking provided. He emphasised the idea that children form an important bond or attachment to their mother or primary caregiver and that a disruption of this bond, in terms of sudden and/or prolonged separation, is detrimental to the child. He also talked about the idea that the effects of disruption in this important relationship transmit themselves over generations. These are ideas that I now take for granted. One of the personal facts about Bowlby is that he grew up in an upper class British home, where he only saw his mother for an hour a day. It was apparently felt that any more time with the mother could spoil the child. So Bowlby’s history explains his work. But, somehow it woke me up to the idea that my current perceptions and assumptions about children and childrearing are very different to those which have prevailed over the ages in many cultures.

The idea that children are precious and should be protected and nurtured is a fairly new one in many cultures. In many instances, what is now seen as child abuse was standard and accepted practice. I left Bowlby behind temporarily to investigate the history of childrearing. Google it. The information is terrifying. I will spare you the details. Suffice to say that it disturbed me greatly. But also, when seen in context, extremely hopeful.

Yes, we still neglect and abuse our fellow humans, particularly our children, in a multitude of ways all over the world today. However, gradually, over the ages, parents have tried to do less harm than their own parents, and have in many instances, succeeded. Many parents who suffered abuse and neglect at the hands of their own parents, have, like Bowlby, tried to and have done better, and even more, tried to teach the world about the destructive effects of the beliefs that prevailed at the time. As a result of Bowlby’s work, hospitals reconsidered their policies regarding the access of parents to their sick children. And as a result of all the other work done by parents and practitioners over the ages, my children and I live in a far more humane society than my ancestors did.  


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  1. I found Alfie Kohn’s book entitled Unconditional Parenting particularly enlightening in this regard.

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