The Developmental Psychologist: How They Help Us Grow Into And Inhabit Our Identity

The History of the Developmental Child Psychologist

Developmental child psychology has been defined as a field of study that examines and attempt to explain how humans change over time. Those changes occur in a number of different areas, each of which include several aspects of the human experience. Physical change includes growth and the acquisition of motor skills. Mental change includes cognitive development and brain function. Social change includes language acquisition and identity formation as well as the acquisition of social skills valued by specific cultures.

The history of this field began with philosophy. Some of the earliest philosophers who contributed ideas upon which developmental psychology would later be based include Rene Descartes and John Locke. While the term “developmental child psychologist” hadn’t yet been invented in the mid-18th century, French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau was one of the first to describe three stages of human development. He separated those stages into infancy, childhood, and adolescence. Many of the ideas in his 1762 book Emile: Or, On Education were extremely controversial at the time, and the book was both banned and burned. However, after the French Revolution, those ideas were used to build the modern national education system.
The evolutionary theory of Charles Darwin also had a great influence on the field of child development psychology. G. Stanley Hall expanded upon it by likening individual development with the evolutionary development of civilization as a whole. James Mark Baldwin and John B. Watson were also among those considered to be the founders of modern developmental psychology. Watson was one of the first to utilize the study of animals to achieve a greater understanding of human behavior.

The Current Role of the Developmental Child Psychologist

The developmental child psychologist of today formulate practical applications of the many theories developed by their predecessors to assist parents and children in reaching their full human potential. They do this in a number of different ways. One way is through research and education. Many conduct studies using the latest scientific technology and methodology to measure the effects of social conditions on families. The results of those studies are often used by policy makers to implement programs designed to reduce negative social outcomes such as addiction and crime.

Today’s developmental child psychologist has a number of other roles in society as well. Those in private practice provide a number of services, including evaluating children for a variety of disorders and developmental delays. They provide a treatment plan that addresses any mental, emotional or behavioral issues that are discovered during the evaluation. Treatment often entails regular therapy sessions designed to help children overcome the effects of emotional trauma.
Most schools have a developmental child psychologist or school counselor on their staff. School counselors assist children in adapting to the social environment of the educational system. If a child is demonstrating disruptive behaviors in class, the counselor often works with the entire family to determine the cause of the behavior and to implement a healthy solution.

The developmental child psychologist also plays a number of roles in the legal system. One of those roles is offering expert testimony regarding the mental health of those charged with crimes. That testimony helps the court determine whether the accused has a mental illness that contributed to their behavior and whether they have achieved the level of moral development necessary to distinguish right and wrong. They also advise the court in child custody cases in which a judge must determine what is in the best interests of the child.

Increasingly, the child development psychologist now plays a large role in influencing local, state, and federal government in the development of public policies that take their research findings into consideration. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 173,900 psychologists employed in 2014, a number which is expected to increase by 19 percent over the next ten years.

The role of psychologists in creating public policy is gaining acceptance worldwide through a new field of psychology called international psychology. This new field attempts to overcome cultural differences and develop and implement social policies based on scientific knowledge about the human condition. One of the goals of this international organization is to increase mental health by reducing cultural bias. Since the advent of the internet and increased mobility of populations, cross-cultural psychology has become more important and has resulted in the development and recognition of a more inclusive and less ethno-centric indigenous psychology. It also advocates for more “feminization” within the field.

Just as human beings continue to learn and grow, becoming more fully human throughout their lives, developmental psychology does the same, reaching a new stage in its scientific evolution.

developmental child psychologist

The Dangers of Parenting as a Competitive Sport

The Dangers of Parenting as a Competitive Sport

“Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on their environment, and especially on their children, than the unlived lives of the parents. “

–Carl Jung

Competitive Moms Parental Styles

Kyoiku mama is a Japanese term used to describe the maternal parenting styles of mothers who drive their children to succeed academically, often at the expense of a their social and emotional development. Literally translated, it means “education mother”. These mothers compete with one another to get their children into the most prestigious pre-schools, grade schools, and universities. In Japanese culture, education was viewed as the most important factor in the ability to obtain a high-paying and prestigious position in society. Traditionally, Japanese society has placed a great deal of pressure on mothers to maintain a maternal parenting style that would result in academic success by holding them accountable for their children’s grades. Unfortunately, by conforming to this pressure, those mothers have also received a great deal of social criticism for often being feared by their children.

This phenomenon is not limited to Japanese culture. In American culture, two maternal parenting styles similar to that of the Kyoiku mama are the soccer mom and the stage mother. Socccer moms are characterized as mothers who schedule every moment of their children’s spare time with sports and other activities. In American society, sports are strongly associated with politics and being part of a team. Politics is considered as important as education in getting a high-paying job after college. Many social activities are designed to make valuable social connections with children of other families with enough disposable income to pay for these activities.

The maternal parenting styles of both the Kyoiku mama and the soccer mom are almost exclusively related to the middle class. Strict monitoring of a child’s academic performance and social activities usually requires a mother who is able to stay at home, with child care being one of her primary responsibilities. As the economic situation in much of the world has resulted in a shrinking middle class, fewer mothers are able to stay at home with their children rather than having to work outside the home.

However, examples of a similar maternal parenting style, that of the stage mother, can be found in all classes of people. Stage mothers, like Kyoiku mamas and soccer moms, get their sense of social value through their children. The once-popular American television series Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo was often criticized as an example of adult exploitation of children for financial gain. Not only does the stage mother gain social recognition through her children, but often makes her own living from their success.

Effects of Narcissistic Maternal Parenting Styles

One article describes the psychology of maternal parenting styles of many stage mothers as narcissistic. Masha Godkin, an adult child of a stage mother and former child actress, contends that “the desire to act must come from the child. Otherwise, his main goal is pleasing his parents.” In this dynamic, rather than the parent attending to the needs of the child, it is the child which fulfills the needs of the parent. Women who themselves have longed for fame, but were frustrated in their own attempts to achieve it, are more at risk for becoming stage mothers.

According to psychologists, these three maternal parenting styles can undermine children’s psychological health. When children’s sense of acceptance is based on their performance, whether academic, athletic, or artistic, it can lead to a fragile sense of self-esteem. Being rewarded only when they are performing satisfactorily can result in children being unable to accept themselves unless they are performing. One of the most important roles of a parent is that of providing unconditional acceptance. Children of parents who are unable to provide that often spend their lives seeking that approval, sometimes in self-destructive ways.

Psychologists offer some suggestions for mothers who want to encourage their children to succeed, but not at the expense of their mental and emotional health. One of those suggestions is to try not to view children’s performances as personal investments. Another suggestion is to consider the effects of any parental action on the family as a whole. For example, the desire to elevate one child’s performance level may result in another child not receiving sufficient time and attention. Finally, they advise parents to measure their levels of parental pride by asking whether their own self-esteem depends on their children’s performance.

One feature that all these maternal parenting styles share is an over-emphasis on competition and public opinion. It is important for mothers to demonstrate that they value the unique characteristics of their children’s personalities such as kindness, generosity and a sense of humor. It is even more important in cultures in which corporate media stresses the value of performance for social acceptance. One of the best tools for survival a parent can give a child is a strong sense of self-esteem that is independent of the opinions of others.

moms parental styles

196.F Mother Jones Seattle

Motherhood: A Source of Inspiration

“As a woman leader, I thought I brought a different kind of leadership. I was interested in women’s issues, in bringing down the population growth rate… as a woman, I entered politics with an additional dimension – that of a mother.”

— Benazir Bhutto

Famous Motherhood Figures

There have been many famous mothers throughout history. Most have become famous not for being mothers, but for their own worldly accomplishments in politics and the arts and sciences. For example, Marie Curie was a famous mother, but her fame was achieved through her scientific research and discoveries. Her mothering skills are rarely discussed, but she is revered as a martyr for science, as her death was attributed to her research of the effects of radiation. One reason many famous women who are mothers aren’t elevated to the status of motherhood figures is that they often have to hire others to assist them with child care.
The list of women who are famous for no other reason than their being mothers is relatively short in comparison. Such motherhood figures have served as role models for other mothers. Sometimes women are elevated to the status of motherhood figures based on the accomplishments of their children. An example of this would be that of Rose Kennedy. She was one of America’s most revered motherhood figures because of the education and values she provided her children, two of whom grew up to be President John F. Kennedy and Senator Robert F. Kennedy. Barbara Bush, wife of former President George H.W. Bush and mother of President George W. Bush is another example. As the mother of six children, she established the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy.
Some women become motherhood figures due to their heroic actions on behalf of their children. Candy Lightner could be considered an example of this. After her 13-year-old daughter was killed by a drunk driver, founded the organization Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). She became a symbol of motherly concern for the welfare of children and was instrumental in creating legislation that resulted in more stringent laws against drinking and driving. She also served as president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. For her strength in transforming her personal tragedy into life-saving laws for other children, she was given the President’s Volunteer Action Award and an honorary doctorate in humanities and public service.
Sometimes, as in the case of Angelina Jolie, the heroic actions that elevate them to the status of motherhood figures are on behalf of disadvantaged children not biologically their own. In addition to her three biological children, Jolie has three adopted children. She has also been politically active in improving the lives of mothers and children around the world as an ambassador. Her work was instrumental in creating legislation that resulted in the “Unaccompanied Alien Child Protection Act of 2005”. In 2015, a global survey conducted in 23 countries found her to be the most admired woman in the world.
One of the most famous motherhood figures in the U.S. was Mary Harris Jones, also known as “Mother Jones”. Mother Jones, a union organizer at the turn of the 20th century, encouraged the wives of striking workers to organize in support of living wages that would allow them to feed their children. After being imprisoned several times, she was invited to speak before John D. Rockefeller Jr. on the deplorable working conditions of miners. He subsequently instituted reforms. She is still honored today by the popular magazine dedicated to social justice that bears her name.
In Britain, suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst was one of the motherhood figures at the turn of the century, and a contemporary of Mother Jones. Despite being the mother of five children, in 1903 Pankhurst founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). The organization began by using peaceful protests, but when frustrated by a lack of progress in women being granted the right to vote, resorted to smashing windows and even arson. In jail, she organized hunger strikes in protest of the conditions. Happily, she lived long enough to see women’s right to vote passed into law in 1928.
Whether in art, politics, or science, women’s actions have always been inspired and guided by their dual roles as mothers and guardians of the future.

motherhood figures
Mother Jones Seattle
Multiple and Complex Meanings Associated With Having a Child

Multiple and Complex Meanings Associated With Having a Child

The Multiple Meanings of Family Life

Parenting styles and meaning associated with having children are as diverse as parents themselves. Often, there are multiple and complex meanings associated with having a child. Although it would be wonderful if every child were wanted, it would be even more wonderful if every child were wanted for the right reasons. While wanting to experience the joys of parenthood and nurture a child is natural for those who have experienced nurturing themselves as children. It seems a natural continuation of the cycle of life. Even so, the individual meanings of having children are as different as people are.

However, many children do not experience nurturing childhoods. In the past, the patriarchal structure of society was such that motherhood was one of the very few career options available to women. While women from wealthy families who could afford to provide them with higher education often became professionals, in most working class families, the cost of higher education was reserved for male children. It was assumed that female children would be provided for by their future husbands. Rather than a genuine desire to have a family, the meaning of having children was often tied to the need to be supported and protected.

Modern birth control methods were not available, consequently, many women became mothers for reasons other than a desire to care for and nurture a child. Birth control and increased economic opportunities have succeeded in reducing some of the negative reasons for having children by giving women more control over both when and why they become mothers. Yet even today, with birth control available and more career options open to women, many still feel social pressure to have children.

In the past, parenting styles and meaning of family life was influenced by economic considerations. For example, in agricultural societies, the level of economic prosperity often depended upon the number of children able to assist parents in planting and harvesting crops. The necessity for the assistance of children during the harvest is the reason that public schools in the U.S. were closed during the summer months.
In other societies, parenting styles and meaning in family life often reflected the desire of parents to have someone to care for them in their old age. Respect for one’s elders in such societies was one of the most important values instilled in children from a very early age. However, in modern times, urbanization, the high cost of raising a child, and social programs for the elderly have nearly eliminated those reasons for having children in most industrialized societies.

Factors That Negatively Affect Parenting Styles and Meaning of Family Life Today

Some women experience pressure to have children caused by their own biological clocks. The increasing cost of raising a child has resulted in many women postponing beginning a family until they are in their late thirties, an age after which it becomes increasingly difficult to conceive. Consequently, some women have children before they are completely ready for fear that if they don’t, they may never be able to have a family.

Other scenarios are also less than ideal. For example, some couples experiencing difficulties in their relationships, rather than having a desire to create their own parenting styles and meaning, believe that having a child together will help ensure that the relationships lasts. Current global divorce rates provide ample evidence that this is not the case. The divorce rate in the U.S. is at 53%, Spain and Portugal at 60% and in Belgium, 70% of marriages end in divorce.
There are a number of societal factors that can adversely affect parenting styles and meaning in family life. Some people, disappointed by life not affording them the opportunity to realize their own dreams, attempt to achieve those dreams vicariously through their children. For example, a mother who dreamed of being a concert pianist, but whose parents couldn’t afford piano lessons, may insist that her child take piano lessons even though the child has no interest in learning to play the piano.

The increasing level of social isolation caused by modern technology has also affected modern parenting styles and meaning. No matter how technologically advanced humans become, it is highly unlikely that we will evolve past the need for human physical touch and positive social interaction. Many people believe that having a child will alleviate feelings of loneliness and isolation.

Studies have demonstrated a link between depression and modernization. One aspect of modernization has been an increase in income inequality and the number of people living in poverty. Poverty has also been linked to depression, as well as addiction and a sense of not having control over one’s life. For many people, having a child is a way to gain a sense of control over at least one aspect of their lives.

Whatever the time, the best reason to have a child is, and will always be, to celebrate life and the happy condition of having sufficient resources and an abundance of love to share. When social policies reflect that reality, children too will celebrate.

parenting styles and meaning
A New Family by Ray Dumas, Fickr CC2.0
On Gender Equality in Parenting, Fatherhood and Human Paternal Behavior

On Gender Equality in Parenting, Fatherhood and Human Paternal Behavior

“In the nineteenth century, the central moral challenge was slavery. In the twentieth century, it was the battle against totalitarianism. We believe that in this century the paramount moral challenge will be the struggle for gender equality around the world.”

―Nicholas D. Kristof

In comparison to the amount of research, the number of studies, and the number of books written about motherhood, relatively little has been written about fatherhood. To help remedy that disparity, have made some social observations of their own and present their findings in their 2012 book “Fatherhood: Evolution and Human Paternal Behavior“.

Gray, who earned his PhD in Biological Anthropology at Harvard, is currently a faculty member of the University of Nevada. Mr. Anderson, with a Ph.D. from the University of New Mexico is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Oklahoma. He is also a contributor to The Evolving Father, a popular blog associated with Psychology Today online magazine. Perhaps equally important, both are fathers themselves.

Cultural Influences

In addition to their personal experiences as fathers, their research included studying fatherhood in hunter-gatherer societies as well in several different modern industrialized societies. In the U.S. they conducted studies of fathers in Boston and Albuquerque. These findings were compared to studies conducted in Capetown, South Africa and Jamaica. The results were interpreted using a combination of tools from various social sciences including biology, neural physiology, anthropology and psychology.

One of the most unique aspects of the book is that it studies fatherhood in all of its many forms. The perspectives of fathers who parent long distance, gay fathers, stepfathers, unmarried and married fathers are all represented. A review of the book says that its authors make a sound scientific case that males, rather than merely being providers, have also been shaped by evolution to care for their offspring. The book presents evidence from a number of sources that unlike other species, the human male possesses the emotional and physiological capability to effectively nurture and parent their young.


Several chapters are devoted to the topics of paternity certainty and the behavioral and motivational differences between biological fathers and stepfathers. One chapter is devoted to male fertility, about which little is known compared to the amount of information widely available about female fertility. Another chapter discusses the long-term effects of marriage and parenthood on male health.

Biology reveals that fatherhood affects male hormones in much the same way that motherhood affects female hormones. Those hormonal changes result in changes in the neural pathways in the parts of the brain that control sexuality, reducing desires that may interfere with child care. One of those changes is the production of prolactin. Evidence shows that fathers have higher levels of this hormone, which is known to stimulate nurturing behaviors.

These biological facts support the authors’ assertion that these evolutionary developments suggest that fatherhood is more important to human survival as a species than is reflected by the current social structures of many societies. Many existing social structures minimize the importance of the role of fathers in children’s lives. Through the use of cross-cultural studies, the authors are able to successfully illustrate the extent to which cultural institutions influence both the biology and behaviors of fathers and shape social ideals of fatherhood.

The Future of Parenting And Fatherhood

In an interview, Mr. Gray points out that the lower testosterone levels are an example of a measurable way in which male biology is changed by fatherhood. He asserts that the reason for the biological change is that child care requires less aggressive behavior than competing with other males during the courtship process. Regarding the division of labor in which men went to work and women stayed home and raised the children, he said that such a social model

“does not apply well to an evolutionary backdrop. Among hunter-gatherers, women and men are both working but in ways compatible with having young kids.”

Women have long struggled with the difficulties of becoming all they can be while bearing the majority of responsibility for child care. This book points out that in a very real sense, the artificial construct of the division of labor has also kept men from being all that they can be. Both men and women would benefit from a more equal role in raising children, but according to all the latest scientific data, it is children who would benefit most.

Editorial cartoon depicting Charles Darwin as an ape (1871)
parental investment

How Evolutionary Biologists Define Care in Terms of the Parental Investment Theory

Parental Investment Theory

Parental investment was defined by evolutionary biologists as a form of sexual selection in which parents expend resources such as time and energy in their offspring at a cost to themselves. English biologist Ronald Fisher introduced parental investment theory for the first time in 1930. According to the theory, parents are naturally selected to maximise the difference between the benefits and the costs, and parental care will tend to exist when the benefits are substantially greater than the costs. The theory was expounded upon by Robert L.Trivers in 1972, and further by evolutionary biologist David Barash in his 1981 book Whisperings Within .

One example of the theory in action in the animal world can be found in the results of a study of King penguins which showed that the number of breeding experiences affected the length of time a male penguin was able to remain with an egg. He asserted that experienced parents are better at replenishing their own reserves. Male penguins have been known to sacrifice their own potential survival to ensure the survival of their young.

Parental Investment in the Human World

Biologically speaking, in the human world, reproductive costs are higher for women than for men. Women produce very few eggs in comparison to the number of sperm males are able to produce. Also, while females can only give birth once for each nine-month pregnancy, men can inseminate many women who may be pregnant simultaneously. Females are also biologically equipped to feed newborn infants after they are born. Globally, the number of women who are the sole caretakers of their children throughout their lifetimes is steadily increasing. It is estimated that between one fourth and one third of all families in the world are headed by single mothers.

Humans are an altricial, rather than a precocial, species, which means that human offspring require parental assistance for a longer period of time. The higher parental investment of humans evolved as the result of the development of the larger human brain. In other artricial species, males spend more time caring for offspring than those of precocial species, which mature more quickly. Rather than pregnancy, gestation, childbirth and breastfeeding, male paternal investment has historically been demonstrated in the form of financial support, teaching, and protection.

However, the increasing financial costs associated with parenthood, coupled with a lack of social support that reflect that reality, is one of the major reasons for the decrease in male parental investment. Another reason lies in the legal systems in place in many countries that continue to devalue fatherhood by preventing divorced fathers from participating fully in their children’s lives. Current research indicates that the lack of parental investment by fathers has a number of negative effects on children’s healthy development.

The Rising Cost of Parenthood

The amount of financial parental investment has grown steadily over the years as the cost of living has increased. In 2014, it was estimated that the cost of raising a child in the U.S. had risen to $245,000. Factors such as housing, food, transportation, clothing, health care, elementary through high school education, child care and various other expenses are included in this estimate. However, it doesn’t include the cost of college, an expense which continues to rise in many countries.

In the U.K., the cost of raising a child for 21 years is estimated at £229,251, which is a 63% increase since 2003. Childcare and education costs represent the majority of the expense. In Australia, as of 2015, the cost of raising a single child is a little over $400,000, an increase of 50% since 2007. While the costs of raising children have risen 50%, household incomes have risen only 25% within the same period of time. In China, the cost was estimated at 499,200 yuan, which is the equivalent of 76,028.61 U.S. dollars, 52,359.50 British Pounds or 69,613.72 Euros. However, the cost of housing in China has increased by 20% during the last four years.

Partially due to the increased cost of raising a child, in some countries such as Russia, Estonia, Hungary and the Ukraine, population growth rates are now negative. In developed European countries and North America as well as Japan, Australia and New Zealand, population growth is at less than 1%. Population growth in less developed countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America remain higher in comparison.

Despite the rising costs of raising children, people all over the world continue to be willing to make whatever personal sacrifices are necessary to be able to experience the joys of parenthood and family life.

parental investment

maternal sensitivity

Maternal Sensitivity and The Healing Power of Empathy

Tests To Measure Maternal Sensitivity

Maternal sensitivity is defined as a mother’s ability to perceive, successfully translate, and appropriately respond to her infant’s behavioral cues. Psychologists believe that children of mothers with a high level of maternal sensitivity tend to be healthier and display higher levels of social and cognitive ability than children of mothers with low levels of maternal sensitivity. Psychologists have developed a number of tests to determine maternal sensitivity levels.

One of those tests, the Ainsworth Maternal Sesitivity Scale the was developed by developmental psychologist Mary D. Salter Ainsworth., a developmental psychologist and contemporary of John Bowlby. In Ainsworth’s view, the ability to correctly interpret an infants non-verbal communication depends upon three factors: 1. Awareness 2.Freedom from distortion and 3.Empathy.

Awareness in terms of maternal sensitivity includes a level of physical and emotional accessibility that enables the mother to respond promptly to the baby’s signals. Distortions can be caused by defense mechanisms such as projection or denial, as in the case of a mother who puts her child down for a nap because she herself is tired. Empathy allows the mother to imagine herself in the infant’s helpless position and quickly alleviate fear and discomfort when necessary. This scale rates a mother’s maternity sensitivity level on a scale of 1 through 9, with 9 being the highest level, and 1 being the lowest.

The Maternal Behaviour Q-Sort to measure maternal sensitivity was developed by David Pederson, Greg Moran and Sandi Bento to measure the quality of interactions between mothers and children. The standard test includes a 90 item card set that helps define the mother’s interactions relative to a sensitivity prototype for each type of interaction, prototypes which the test itself was instrumental in developing. The Pederson and Moran Sensitivity Q-Sort also uses a set of descriptive cards that observers use to isolate and accurately describe specific maternal behaviors, or lack of behaviors, exhibited during an observation period. These behaviors can be as minute as a fleeting smile, and for that reason, observations of these recorded sessions are called “micro-analyzation”.

The use of these tests that associate maternal responsiveness with maternal sensitivity has resulted in gaining many insights into parenting practices. For example, it was discovered that in Western cultures, mothers responded to only 30–50% of their infants’ babbling and 50–75% of their expressions of distress. This raises the question of what amount of parental responsiveness is optimal. Research has shown that evidence of maternal unresponsiveness at ages 3 and 9 months is a predictor of insecure attachment by 12 months, aggressive behavior displayed by age 3 and acting out or externalization of internal difficulties by age 10.

A potential consequence of over-responsiveness is interference with the development of self-sufficiency. Another important factor is consistency in response. Whatever the type of consistent response, the child may be adversely affected by frequent unpredictable deviations from it. However, a study judged mothers who were either more or less contingent than average to be less sensitive. The reason for that was that all human interactions are imperfect, and no one is capable of responding consistently in the same manner to the same stimulus in every situation.

Part of a child’s healthy development is learning to adapt to slight changes. In fact, researchers hypothesize that the infant’s ability to detect such imperfect differences establishes the basis for distinguishing itself as a separate identity. Rather than mothers remaining in a fixed state of sensitivity, their communication with infants is a series of interactive “matches” and “mismatches” and the relationship in an almost constant state of small ruptures and repairs. It is the inability to repair these small ruptures over time that results in negative effects rather than a sense of mastery and self-autonomy. These tests have provided valuable information that have helped psychologists develop effective intervention strategies for parents and children at risk.

The effectiveness of these intervention strategies was demonstrated by a study in the Netherlands in which 100 6-month-old infants who displayed high levels of irritability shortly after birth were deemed to be at risk of developing insecure attachment. Fifty of the mothers participated in 3 separate 2- hour intervention sessions in which they were encouraged to further develop their maternal sensitivity by imitating infant behaviors and responsively soothing infant crying. Mother-infant interaction, and levels of both infant exploration and attachment security were re-assessed at three months. Those mothers were found to be more responsive and their infants more sociable. Another follow-up three months later determined that 62% of the infants whose mothers had received the intervention were more securely attached, compared to only 28% of the control group that had not received intervention.

Perhaps one day it will be possible to administer similar maternal sensitivity, and paternal sensitivity, tests to prospective parents and provide similar interventions before the birth of their child. However, it might be necessary to first administer a dose of oxytocin to simulate the chemical assistance that the human body provides for new parents about to embark on the often difficult but always rewarding journey of learning that is parenthood.

maternal sensitivity
Mother Roulin with Her Baby, 1888, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
maternal deprivation

On True Love and the Perillous Errors on Maternal Deprivation

Beyond Maternal Deprivation Towards Parental Attachment

Maternal deprivation is a term used to describe a situation in which a child does not receive an adequate amount of consistent care as an infant and is believed to be one of the causes of failure to thrive, which is characterized by failure to gain weight and to achieve developmental milestones. The term “maternal deprivation” was coined by John Bowlby, who theorized that infants form one attachment that serves as a secure base from which they explore the world and serves as a model upon which they build all their future relationships.

Contributing Factors

One of the most common factors in cases of maternal deprivation is the age of the parents. Teenagers often lack the knowledge, experience, and emotional maturity required to provide a consistent level of care for infants. Unwanted pregnancies also frequently result in the lack of emotional bonding between parent and child. The absence of one parent places additional stress on the caretaking parent. Other common contributing factors are social and economic. Poverty, low levels of education, mental illness, and the lack of an adequate social support system are all factors that increase the likelihood of maternal deprivation.


The symptoms of maternal deprivation include lack of appropriate hygiene and insufficient weight gain. Physical growth is delayed and sometimes stops altogether. Physical developmental delays are often accompanied by the lack of age-appropriate responses to social interactions, such as smiling and vocal sounds expressing emotions. Children diagnosed with failure to thrive are also easily fatigued and exhibit excessive sleepiness and irritability. Later in childhood, they often have learning disabilities and behavioral problems.


One of the most common criticisms of Bowlby’s theory was that it fails to distinguish between the effects of being separated from an attachment figure and the effects of never having formed a successful attachment. Critics also point out that Bowlby’s own research samples focused on children of a specific background, such as those being raised in institutions, and that his findings were generalized to include all children. In addition, his work was funded by a post-war government concerned with employment for returning veterans whose jobs had been performed by women during the war. Others, including feminists, point out that Bowlby’s theory did not acknowledge the role of the father in the child’s development at all.

Controversies Surrounding Maternal Deprivation Theory

Harry Harlow, whose research with monkeys was instrumental in the formulation of Bowlby’s maternal deprivation theory, was harshly criticized for the cruelty of his methodology. Such experiments are being resumed by a Wisconsin University. Dr. Ned Kalen, the chairman of the Psychiatry Department, has sparked a similar debate about whether the potential benefits to humanity justifies the suffering inflicted upon animals in the name of research.

In a video, Michael Rutter , the first professor of child psychiatry in the U.K., expresses disagreement with Bowlby’s assertion that separation from the mother is the primary cause of maternal deprivation syndrome. He, and other experts have argued that while attachments formed in infancy are extremely important to a child’s development, Bowlby’s theories placed unrealistic expectations and responsibility upon mothers. Rather than forming a single all-important attachment to the mother, infants in fact are capable of forming multiple attachments.

Current Research

Despite criticism and controversy surrounding the theory, modern experts agree upon the importance of forming successful attachments in the healthy development of children. However, in light of changing social realities in which mothers play an increasingly larger role in providing financially for their children, more research is being done on the role of fathers in attachment theory. This will perhaps one day result in a the development of a “paternal deprivation theory”. While this field of research is relatively new, there is already some scientific evidence that children who experience paternal deprivation suffer many of the same physical and developmental symptoms.

Current research suggests that just as with mothers, fathers should begin developing attachments with their children as shortly after birth as possible. In one study, it was found that fathers sometimes expressed that mothers exhibited competitive behavior in the parenting arena, which adversely affected their ability to create successful attachments with their children. This phenomenon can be considered an undesirable side effect of centuries of insistence that the mother’s parenting role is far more important than the father’s.

Gender politics has always played, and will continue to play, a role in influencing research agendas as well as in the interpretation of research findings and the social implementation of those findings. As society begins to place a greater value on the importance of the father’s role in healthy child development, research will reflect those changing societal priorities. The more caring adults children are able to form secure, loving attachments with, the more likely they are to become caring, loving adults themselves.

maternal deprivation
Sister Irene at her New York Foundling Hospital in the 1890s
parental duties

Parents: Above the Law

“There is ample empirical evidence that a lack of love can harm a child’s psychological, cognitive, social, and physical development. Given this, parents are obligated to seek to foster the development of the capacities for engaging in close and loving personal relationships in their children.”

–Michael W. Austin

Laws To Enforce Parental Duties

In loco parentis is legal Latin term meaning “in the place of a parent”. It is used in cases in which a parent or parents are unable or unwilling to adequately perform their parental duties, making it necessary for someone else to assume those rights and responsibilities. Most developed countries have laws in place that define parental duties.

In the U.K. parental duties include providing a home and protecting and maintaining the child. Other parental duties are providing discipline, education, and necessary medical treatment. In Australia, parental duties include financial support, education, and medical care. Parental rights include the right to choose the form of a child’s education and the right to discipline them.

In the U.S., in addition to legal provisions regarding the health, safety, and education of children, additional parental responsibility laws outlining the extent to which parents are held financially responsible for the actions of their children have been enacted in each of the 50 states. States have also established criminal sanctions to be imposed against parents who abuse, neglect, abandon, or fail to financially support their children. In China, in addition to having laws that specify the rights of children, a law was recently passed that requires adult children to care for their elderly parents.

In most societies, parents are also expected to model behaviors that reflect at least the minimum standard of social behavior expected by their citizens. In 1903, Colorado became the first state to establish laws that imposed legal sanctions on behavior by parents that could be considered contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Such laws have now been adopted by 42 other states.

The difficulty of controlling the behavior of parents without violating their rights to parent according to their personal beliefs has resulted in a number of Supreme Court cases in which the states have been forbidden to restrict parental authority. However, an increasing number of laws have been passed to increase parental accountability. For example, a community passed an ordinance which allowed parents to be charged with the crime of “failing to supervise a minor”. The mayor of the community reported a 44.5% decrease in juvenile crime and increased parental involvement as a result.

Most people would agree that ideally, parental duties should exceed the minimum level of care required by law, and that some parental duties are moral rather than legal. In addition to physical safety, parents also provide emotional safety in the form of unconditional love and acceptance. Many parents believe that they have a responsibility to provide their children with a religious or spiritual and moral education as well as an academic one.

The number of articles and books that have been written by child “experts” which outline parental duties are almost as numerous as the number of suggestions offered for how best to carry them out. Most parents want the best for their children, yet there is a wide range of definitions as to what constitutes the best. One parent may believe that helping their child with homework is both their parental duty and the right thing to do, while another may believe that their duty is to teach their child the value of independent study.

As human beings, parents and children alike have their own unique personalities and interests. They also have their own strengths to develop and weaknesses to overcome with the help of one another and the larger community. Philosophers have long pondered the question of what constitutes the full range of parental rights and responsibilities, both in terms of what is best for children and what is best for the future of humanity as a whole. Ironically, one of the most important parental duties, that of loving a child, cannot be legislated.

parental duties
Yia Yia and parents 1920, CC2.0
matrifocal family life

Matrifocality and Women’s Power: The Peril of Fixed Opinions

“Obviously, you would give your life for your children, or give them the last biscuit on the plate. But to me, the trick in life is to take that sense of generosity between kin, make it apply to the extended family and to your neighbor, your village, and beyond.”

–Tom Stoppard

Meaning of Matrifocal Family Life

“Matrifocal” is a term first coined in 1956. In matrifocal family life, the woman and children are the primary focus, with the father playing a secondary role. The woman controls the family’s finances as well as the domestic and cultural education of the children. According to the society and the length of time, this may or may not earn her greater status within the society as a whole. Whether temporarily or long-term, the father’s role is intermittent.

Matrifocal family life was defined by anthropologist Paul J. Smith as

“the creation of short-term family structures dominated by women”.

However, many feminists in the field of anthropology believe that many more permanently matrifocal societies existed before the introduction and widespread adoption of patriarchy.

One example of this temporary type of matrifocal society is that of the Miskitu people of Kuri. In her article Matrifocality and Women’s Power on the Miskito Coast, anthropologist and professor at the University of Kansas Laura Hobson Herlihy describes a matrifocal society on the coast of Honduras. She later wrote a book “The Mermaid and the Lobster Diver” on the subject.

Matrifocal family life began in this village as a response to the frequent long-term absences of men participating in the global economy as lobster divers. The women live in matrifocal groups in which many of the social activities are female-centered. As a result, their society has also become more matrilineal, in which inheritance of property is determine by the mother’s lineage, rather than the father’s. It is the women who preserve the linguistic and cultural identity of their society.

According to respected French anthropologist Maurice Godelier, matrifocal family life arose in some cultures as the result of slavery. Female slaves in some cultures were forbidden to marry and their children were often the property as well as progeny of their owners. While the lives of children born in a racist society may have improved as a result of lighter skin, the authoritative role of black fathers in children’s lives was usurped by slavemasters. This usurpation, combined with the practice of selling individual family members, resulted in a more matrifocal slave society.

Other forms of matrifocal family life, such as those in Western Europe, were dependent upon a combination of women being allowed to enter the work force and government assistance. For research on his book, “The Metamorphosis of Kinship“, Golelier analyzed 160 societies and offered his observations of 30 of them.
In his view, instances of matrifocal family life are increasing, and will continue to increase in the future. While relatively little has been written about it historically, current global conditions suggest that matrifocal family life is becoming the norm.

Godelier believes that three major social transformations are responsible for this major cultural shift towards matrifocal family life.

  1. The first transformation was that of society recognizing the concept of childhood in the 18th century which ultimately led to the Declaration of the Rights of Children in 1959.
  2. The second transformation was the result of scientific studies that revealed that homosexuality was a normal behavior, rather than a mental illness.
  3. The third transformation was political, in which political societies began to grant the demands of homosexuals for equal rights, including the right to marry and form families that are not based on biological kinship.

In an interview, he attributes the changing composition of the family in part to capitalism, saying that

“Our economic system relies on a de facto inequality in access to capital, and engenders differences in the accumulation of wealth and means of subsistence that the state attempts to reduce. It also affects kinship links, in that it promotes each person’s self-centred individualism and marginalises practices of solidarity.”

Whatever the reasons for the societal shift to increasingly more permanent forms of matrifocal family life, Godelier’s extensive anthropological research during his long and distinguished career has convinced him that a single man and woman alone are not sufficient to raise a child. New organizations of lines of descent and family traditions will likely create new expansive forms of social kinship that will provide children with a greater number of adults to care for them than the nuclear family can provide.

The world’s power structures will surely benefit from the multiple skills that women have acquired in single-handedly managing family affairs. As their numbers continue to multiply, matrifocal groups will begin to wield greater political influence. There is no power quite as respected as that of a mother advocating for her children.

matrifocal family life