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Parents, partnerships and community: attachment theory and adult learning

Ted Fleming

NUI Maynooth, Ireland

Paper presented at the 37th Annual SCUTREA Conference, 3-5 July 2007, Queen's University Belfast, Northern Ireland


Adult education frames its discourses within a palatte of ideas and theories that include lifelong learning and more critical understandings. However, neo-liberal and functionalist educators have colonized the lifelong learning debate with a fixation on technique, the economy and vocationalism (Welton 1995). There are exceptions but even when the debate turns to more critical perspectives, as in Brookfield’s work on critical theory (2005), there is a missing dimension. Adult educators acknowledge the role of childhood in influencing adult learning but the dynamics of the parent-child relationship form a missing dimension.

This paper aims to address this missing dimension in an exploratory way and suggest that Bowlby’s Attachment Theory is of profound and neglected importance for a comprehensive understanding of the connection between childhood development and adult engagement with community and partnership. The paper will outline Bowlby’s concepts of secure and insecure attachments, internal working models, the strange situation and identify the implications for adult education. A brief critique of Attachment Theory will be noted.

John Bowlby

John Bowlby found that there was a connection between the behaviour of so-called ‘thieving children’ and their experiences in chaotic families without a consistent caregiver (Bowlby 1944). In post-war Britain at the Tavistock Clinic, in collaboration with James and Joyce Robertson, he studied the effects on children of going to hospital. Their film (Robertson & Robertson 1953) about the suffering, distress and disintegration of the child who experienced maternal deprivation still leaves an impact on the viewer. From then,

early separations are recognised as inherently dangerous for children;…But his greatest influence is where we would wish it to be, on the social arrangements that are made for children…in hospitals, in nursery schools, in care and…at home.

(Gomez 1997, p.53)

This social concern runs through his work and he saw the emotional deprivation of children as a social ill (Bowlby 1953). Without denying that the genesis of social disadvantage is systemic and social, Bowlby studied the ways in which the political was reproduced through interpersonal relations. He supported,

Training cadres of child-care workers and psychotherapists who are sensitive to the emotional needs of children and their parents; helping people to find security in their lives through the fostering of close emotional bonds…. In these ways the vicious circles of deprivation can be broken, this generation’s insecure young people no longer condemned to reproduce their own insecurities in the next.

These attitudes permeate almost every paragraph Bowlby wrote…

(Holmes 1993 p.201)

In trying to understand the causes of delinquency (Bowlby 1944), the nature of the child's ties to mother (Bowlby 1958), the meaning of separation anxiety (Bowlby 1960a) and the significance of grief and mourning for young children (Bowlby 1960b), he began to devise theories that were outlined in: Attachment and Loss (1969); Separation: Anxiety and Anger (1973) and Loss: Sadness and Depression (1980). Bowlby reached the conclusion that disadvantage and poverty have psychological implications.

Bowlby on Attachment Theory

Infants will not survive without the care of an adult and there are inbuilt biological and evolutionary based predispositions in both infants and adults that contribute to the survival and development of the child (Bowlby 1979, p.37). The protective and comforting behaviour of the carer provides a secure base for the infant and interactions involving play, making close eye contact, playing and the excitement of the engagements are the secure platform for venturing safely and confidently into the world. About one in three children grow up without this secure experience (Bowlby 1979, p.136). If a parent is not available through neglect, illness or inattention this may result in insecure attachments. Bowlby’s theory applies to and holds for any primary carer whether male or female, parent or carer.

a. Secure and Insecure Attachments

Generally, when children have introjected their experiences of being cared for they will have a model of themselves as valued and of key others as validating and responsive. Such children are securely attached (Bowlby 1969, p.339) and are happy to explore their environment. Even when the mother (or primary carer) leaves they continue to explore and when mother returns they greet her positively and are easily comforted. This is the ‘bedrock on which stable and self-reliant personality is built’ (Bowlby 1973, p.366).

The carer achieves this by being sensitive and appropriately responsive to the child’s needs for security, and by being able to construct for the child an experience of being cared for. Such a mother has been psychologically available to the child, emotionally expressive and flexible in dealing with babies. The secure individual is inclined to be optimistic about coping, more likely to relate better to others, have greater capacity for concentration and cooperation and be more confident and resilient. They can express emotions openly and appropriately and have better mental health and relationships. In later years the dividend may be a more secure involvement with others in community and partnerships.

Insecure attachments have been categorised as avoidant, anxious or disorganised. These are defensive strategies that attempt to maintain contact with rejecting or inconsistent carers.

The avoidant attached child is usually unconcerned with either the presence or the absence of the carer and does not express attachment needs so as to avoid the risk of rejection. They can be friendlier with strangers then with the carer. The primary carer may exhibit low levels of response to the child’s distress who in turn is encouraged to get on with life and not make too many demands. The carer may have been uncomfortable with close contact, or may be slow responding to distress or be minimally expressive of emotions.

The anxious/ambivalent attached child (Bowlby 1973, p.245) is usually preoccupied with getting attention. The carer, in this case, is more likely to be inconsistent, insensitive to signals from the child or inept at engaging in physical contact and show little spontaneous affection. The child is preoccupied with the mother and comforting responses are resisted, rejected or ignored. This child has a picture of themselves as not lovable, not worthy of care, and of their carers as having to be manipulated into caring.

The disorganised attachment child (Main and Solomon 1986) is likely to be associated with consistently inadequate care, maltreatment or depressed carer. The cause may be unresolved attachment loss or trauma in the early experience of the parent (Main & Hess 1990).

b. Strange situation

Mary Ainsworth (1978) studied what happens to an infant when their parent leaves the room or a stranger approaches. In this strange situation the child may experience separation anxiety. The reactions of the child to the return of the carer is used to assess attachment styles, the quality of early attachments or the nature of the carer-baby relationship.

c. Internal working models

Attachment operates by each child developing an internal representation of their experiences of the world of relationships that develops into what Bowlby called an internal working model of social relating (Bowlby 1969, p.80; 1973 p.237). The internal working model implies that it is just that, a model, like an architect’s model, of how the individual perceives the world of relationships. Models work in that they guide social interactions of children and adults.

A securely attached child (or adult) will have internal working models that allow one see the world as a safe place and themselves as responsive, caring, reliable and worthy of love and attention. However, an insecurely attached child (or adult) may view the world as a dangerous place in which other people are to be treated with caution and themselves as not worthy of attention and love (Holmes 1993, p.79). This has implications for how adults engage with community and partnerships.

Attachment and Community

The concepts of attachment style, internal working models and the strange situation have important implications for the engagements of adults with community (particularly learning communities) and partnership.

a. Attachment styles and internal working models

Bowlby envisaged the role of the therapist as providing a secure base from which a patient could explore their representational models of themselves and their attachment figures with a view to reappraising them in the light of the new understandings one may reach in therapy (Bowlby 1988, p.138). The therapist encourages the patient to explore how the working models one has of themselves and their relationships may or may not be appropriate to the present or future, or indeed may not be justified at all (Bowlby 1988, p.138). This is an appropriate agenda for many adult education courses and programmes in personal development that can be described as the reconstruction of internal working models. In this way ‘one may cease to be a slave to old and unconscious stereotypes and to feel, think and act in new ways’ (Bowlby 1988, p.139).

A tutor working with students will also think, feel, act and have expectations based on their (tutor’s) own internal working models that act as basic assumptions. These internal working models will influence the educator’s reactions to learners.

Adult internal working models affect cognitive, emotional and behavioural responses to others and the ways in which we involve ourselves in community and partnerships are profoundly affected by our internal working models. They affect how data is experienced, accepted, rejected or ignored, how communications are interpreted and responded to and how others are evaluated. Cognitive responses may lead to giving selective attention to others; to biases in memory; and impact on our inferences and explanations. In any activity that involves thinking, the question arises as to how one’s internal working models influence that thinking? The thoughts we have, what we remember, what we consider important, how we interpret and make sense of events, are influenced by these models. Internal working models also influence emotional response patterns and behaviours.

Attachment theory helps us elaborate on what are more traditionally called learning styles (Tennant 2006, p.86). Traditionally learning styles emphasise the ways in which one reflects on experience; contextualises it and acts on that understanding. The emphasis on the weight given to these different activities and the completeness of the process of the learning cycle is well established in psychology. Attachment theory allows us to further analyse the ways in which events may be experienced, reflected upon and how one may have a tendency to engage in any of the elements of the learning cycle that are a reflection of one’s own internal models.

b. Strange situation

Engaging in partnership or community can provide experiences analogous to the strange situation. For example, when someone joins a new group for the first time, or when new ideas or actions are suggested these are strange situations. In adult education we come across and precipitate strange situations or experiences that perplex, disorient, or make the learner curious. What happens, if we accept the insights of Bowlby, is most interesting. These situations induce a sense of loss. Meanings that were taken for granted as true become open for discussion, debate, examination and change. Students make meaning of the strange situations in ways that are consistent with their internal working models. Whether they are secure or insecure, this will impact on their feelings and attitudes, and how they interpret and act in these situations. Of course, one’s ability to do this may be in proportion to the tutor’s secure or insecure attachment styles and internal working models.

c. Transformation Theory

In Mezirow’s transformation theory (1996 p.7) internal working models are epistemic meaning schemes and in this theory it is such meaning schemes, these frames of reference that get transformed. One dimension of transformative learning involves the process of developing new internal working models. It is also consistent with attachment theory to see the creation of perplexity as a way of prompting transformative learning that calls this a disorienting dilemma. In addition, we can come to understand how a new working model may be an improvement on a previous one by applying the criteria (from transformation theory) of being ‘more inclusive, differentiating, more open to alternative perspectives and more integrative of experience’ (Mezirow 1996, p.7).

As one’s attachment style informs ways of relating to others it is suggested here that a significant kind of adult learning involves the transformative and developmental task of moving toward more secure attachments and the new identity implied by this. This suggests an important aim for adult development that ranks with the pathways outlined by Erikson, Kohlberg and Gilligan.

In adult education, that so often engages in sharing experiences, telling stories and learning from each other, these ideas are particularly important. What we perceive, the stories we tell, the coherence with which we tell them and our reactions to our own and others’ stories are based on our own internal working models. Human development is being redefined here as the transformation of attachment styles and internal working models.

The recently developed concept of ‘mind-mindedness’ encourages and gives a developmental rationale for parents to focus on the feelings and thinking process of the child. There is a predictive link between maternal mind-mindedness and secure attachments (Mein, et al. 2002, p. 1717). Though this idea is not yet sufficiently researched, there is the tantalising possibility that the educator who is capable of understanding both the feelings and thinking process of the learner will have the developmental dividend of a secure environment for learning. The secure participant in community activities and partnerships will likely have an openness to new ideas, not be threatened by expressions of emotion, while not being preoccupied with them either and in addition be able to engage with the ideas and pay attention to what is happening in the thoughts and minds of others. On the other hand, insecure participants are like to be either avoidant of emotion altogether or anxious in their preoccupation with expressions of emotion and be inappropriate in their need to express emotions. There is also the possibility that the disorganised attached adult will be confused by the demands of the interpersonal challenges that are required by engagements with partnerships and other aspects of community work.

One’s attachment style or internal working models may be open to change or not. It is implied in the links with transformation theory that the movement to more secure attachments and internal working models is a transformative learning experience and implies that the ways of bringing about transformation are also useful for changing to more secure attachment styles. Insecure attachments give another way of understanding and of working with barriers to learning.

Critique and discussion

Neither the work of Bowlby nor Ainsworth was readily accepted by developmental psychologists. One of the main criticisms of attachment theory concerns the idea that infant experiences determine adult behaviour. Research confirms that there is considerable scope for later change in attachment style but also points to a strong link between child and adult attachment. The word ‘determine’ is not accurate but early experiences make a unique contribution to adulthood. Change is always possible but may be constrained by previous adaptations (Goldberg 2000, p.247).

Attachment theory could be seen as unfairly blaming the mother who continues to be in many cases the primary carer and how attachment styles are reproduced is a crucial factor in how a child develops. But discussion continues about the resources mothers bring to parenting and how this compromises the attachments they would like to forge. The dilemma for parents is how to balance the needs of the child for secure attachments with increasing social and economic demands for women to work. But it is the continuing absence of fathers from attachment creating processes that is the perennial problem.

Bowlby raises the human trauma of maternal deprivation above all other trauma. Fathers are rarely looked at and have no intrinsic value. The work of Bowlby was undertaken in the shadow of World War II where the experience of separation was the norm for men and women. However, he rarely explored these experiences where, in particular, women were left to rear children and earn a living in the absence of a husband and father for the children. The resulting distress caused to men and women is not explored at all.

One could also argue that the emphasis in Bowlby on maternal deprivation is a reflection of post-war England where many children were shocked by the separations of war. Bowlby was a reemphasis of the values of mothering, but in emphasising the role of mothers providing individual care for children, he may have let the state (which should have been doing more to provide child care) off the hook.

Feminists object that Bowlby is using biology to justify what is essentially a cultural product of our own ‘patriarchal but father-absent’ society (Holmes 1993, p.47). This division of labour fits modern society, leaving men free and women fettered. But more recent research has expanded our understanding and removes the focus from mothers as secure attachment can be provided by a wide range of carers, not necessarily the mother. The need of the child is for a secure attachment.

It can be argued that in Bowlby the nature and nurture debate is given an interpretation that emphasises the interaction between them – nature and nurture.

These critiques lead us to see that attachment theory, like all theory, is contested, partial and always in need of development.


There is a high correlation between the attachment behaviour of the carer and the resulting attachment characteristics of the child.

The experience of attachment is the first crucial link between sociological and psychological understanding: the experience of attachment, which so profoundly influences the growth of personality, is itself the product of a culture, and a determinant of how that culture will be reproduced in the next generation – not only the culture of attachment itself but all our ideas of order, authority, and control.

(Marris 1991, pp.79-80).

Bowlby’s Attachment Theory gives additional insights for understanding adult involvement in community and engagements with partnerships. It both suggests a rethinking of lifelong learning as well as an enhancement of the critical theory tradition of Adorno, Fromm and Habermas who saw how society and the individual were interconnected.


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This paper has been approved for inclusion in the proceedings through an anonymous peer refereeing process.

This document was added to the Education-Line database on 19 June 2007