Early Childhood Education

Bowlby, John (1907-1990)


John Bowlby is widely considered to be the “father” of attachment theory. In a lifetime devoted to understanding the importance of the relationship between the child and his or her primary caregiver, Bowlby developed a theory that has generated more research and writing than any other topic in the socioemotional realm. An important later development to the theory of relevance to early childhood educators was the recognition that children also develop attachments to adults other than the parent, particularly to day-care providers, early childhood teachers, and others with whom they spend time.

John Mostyn Bowlby was born in London in1907, the fourth of six children. He was raised by a beloved nanny, which was the custom in upper-middle-class England at the time, but she left the family just before young John turned four. As was also typical, he was sent to boarding school at age 7, and it was very difficult for him. Undoubtedly these two experiences affected him deeply and influenced his interest in separation and loss.

Bowlby attended the University of Cambridge in 1928 where he studied what we now call developmental psychology. Just after graduating, he volunteered at a school for “maladjusted” children, and he began to watch them closely and with great interest. It is likely as a result of these experiences that Bowlby set about to become a child psychiatrist. In addition to studying medicine and psychiatry, he was trained as a child psychoanalyst by Melanie Klein at the British Psychoanalytic Institute. While Klein’s training greatly influenced Bowlby, he parted ways with her theory in its interpretation of family interactions as not particularly important to understanding the child. Instead, Bowlby began to recognize the primary relationship between the child and caregiver, namely the mother. In 1938, Bowlby married Ursula Longstaff, and over the course of the next decade he fathered four children. In 1945, following World War II, he became head of the Children’s Department at the Tavistock Clinic, where children with serious emotional problems were treated. There, he began to focus on the parent-child relationship in both healthy and pathological circumstances. At Tavistock, Bowlby was greatly influencedby James Robertson, who helped him closely observe and film the behavior of children who had been separated from their parents due to hospitalization.

In 1950, Bowlby was asked by the World Health Organization (WHO) to examine the mental health of children who had been orphaned by World War II. This gave him a chance to gather all information available and, importantly, to talk with other experts on this topic. He was influenced by the work of Konrad Lorenz, Robert Hinde, and their field of ethology, which emphasized the existence of critical periods in development. By bringing together information about child development, psychoanalysis, and ethology, Bowlby’s report to the WHO set forth the primary thesis of attachment theory. The report was so influential that it was eventually translated into 14 languages and sold 400,000 copies in its initial edition. While the language of the report was still very psychoanalytic in origin, Bowlby’s main conclusion set the course of attachment theory: “What is believed to be essential for mental health is that the infant and young child should experience a warm, intimate, and continuous relationship with his mother (or permanent mother-substitute) in which both find satisfaction and enjoyment” (Bowlby, 1969, p. xi). Later, Bowlby was joined by other influential colleagues, notably Mary (Salter) Ainsworth, who traveled to Uganda to observe children’s separations and reunions from caregivers in naturalistic settings. Her Uganda research led to the development of reliable ways to measure the attachment relationship, an essential step to conducting empirical research. Bowlby’s ability to learn from others and to collaborate with them, particularly others from a wide array of professional disciplines, was notable and gave him the broad perspective that led to a remarkably generative theory.

Bowlby presented his first work on attachment theory in the late 1950s and early 1960s to the British Psychoanalytic Society in London in three papers that have become classics in the field: “The nature of the child’s tie to his mother,” “Separation anxiety,” and “Grief and mourning in infancy and early childhood.” These were followed by significant research by Bowlby and colleagues and resulted in Bowlby’s enormously influential three-volume series: Attachment (Bowlby, 1969), Separation (Bowlby, 1973), and Loss (Bowlby, 1980).

Further Readings: Ainsworth, M. D. A. (1967). Infancy in Uganda: Infant care and the growth of love. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press; Bowlby, J. (1958). The nature of the child’s tie to his mother. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis 39, 350373; Bowlby, J. (1959). Separation anxiety. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis 41, 89-113; Bowlby, J. (1960). Grief and mourning in infancy and early childhood. The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child 15, 9-52; Bowlby, J. (1969/1982). Attachment and loss, Vol. I: Attachment. London: Hogarth Press; Bowlby, J. (1973/1980). Attachment and loss, Vol. II, Separation: Anxiety and anger. London: Hogarth Press; Bowlby, J. (1980). Attachment and loss, Vol. III, Loss: Sadness and depression. London: Hogarth Press; Bretherton, Inge (1992). The origins of attachment theory: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. Developmental Psychology 28, 759-775.

Martha Pott