A is for Attachment

Postcard from the Early Years Conference 2016

"Sp'e'qum." This word was the theme for the Early Years Conference 2016 held in Vancouver earlier this year. This word from the Salish people on the Cowichan Coast actually translates into two English sentences: "Children are regarded as a flower that needs nourishment, love and care. Think of our children as a garden, they need a place to show their beauty and pride. [sic]"

The conference showcased the best and brightest in the arenas of child development, child welfare, and family support, which are critical areas for many reasons. How we care for our children matters and is a continual source of policy discussion and parental angst.

It was good news that attachment played a big role at the conference. Attachment, to paraphrase Canadian developmental psychologist Gordon Neufeld, is not what parents do with their children, but who they are to their children. It is an important relationship theory that stresses closeness and proximity and speaks to physical, behavioural, emotional, and psychological connection. Good attachment leads to enduring trust, an ability to learn, and good behaviour, among other things.

Yet the bad news receiving little attention at the conference is that attachment erodes with the growth of non-family care and the corresponding reduction in time that children spend with parents. As a result, care providers in the early years are almost always compensating both for the lack of parental attachment and the lack of a larger culture of attachment. With little to no reflection on this basic fact, a lot of the important discussions occurring at the conference about attachment, emotions, and love fell flat. Conferences such as this one ought to meaningfully reflect on how to nurture good attachment under difficult circumstances.

Social Emotional Learning

Consider how the conference addressed the rapidly growing trend called Social Emotional Learning (SEL). Kimberly Schonert-Reichl, an applied developmental psychologist and Director of the University of British Columbia's Human Early Learning Partnership (HELP) gave a feature presentation entitled "A New Kind of Fitness: Strengthening Social and Emotional Competence and Well-being in Early Childhood."

Dr. Schonert-Reichl spoke powerfully here about the importance of consistent close relationship, telling the moving story of her work with a deeply troubled 12-year-old boy at a live-in job in the United States.

Rick had been abused. He lacked self-regulation and was disliked by peers and staff. Advised to "find something you like about every child," Dr. Schonert-Reichl noticed that Rick would snuggle with an old teddy bear. So she got him a new bear, but instead of appreciating it, he lashed out and hit the bear. Because of Dr. Schonert-Reichl's relationship with Rick, he was able to tell her his vulnerability: That he still wet the bed because of nightmares and he was upset that he might ruin the new bear. Together, they decided he could wake her at three o'clock every morning to change his sheets, which reduced his aggression throughout the day.

This sad and touching story speaks to the power of attachment—and at the same time, how difficult it is to replicate this kind of loving relationship in institutional settings when families fail. It took Dr. Schonert-Reichl a great deal to get to this place, but she succeeded where other loving caregivers had tried and failed.

She also stressed the need for touch, because touch produces oxytocin—the "love chemical"—a hormone known to reduce anxiety.

Yet anyone working with children today will likely have been prepped in how not to touch them. And there is a real concern about inappropriate touching in an increasingly sexualized culture.

Close, consistent child-adult relationships that include touch are indeed essential to optimal child development, but this is exactly what is not easily reproduced in institutional child care settings. The conference failed to acknowledge this inherent contradiction between the irreducible reality of children's needs and the policy-made reality of institutional settings. This, along with the vigorous promotion of policies to increase preferential public funding for institutional settings, meant attendees were prevented from engaging in a much-needed, honest, well-informed discussion.

Research Ignored

There is a body of research that finds lasting negative impacts on behaviour that correlates to longer times spent in non-parental settings. For example, Dr. Clyde Hertzman, the founding director of the Human Early Learning Partnership (HELP—a co-sponsor of the conference) wrote in a paper for Statistics Canada: "Pro-social behaviour scores were lowest for children in licensed day care and highest for children in unregulated home care and relative care."1

Similarly unmentioned was the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) longitudinal, rigorous child-care study found that more time in daycare centres was directly related to increased problematic behaviour which continues, manifesting in higher levels of risk-taking at age 15.2

Additionally, the Purvis prize-winning study of Quebec's daycare system published in the Journal of Political Economy by UBC economist Kevin Milligan, found correlations between poorer parent-child relationships and increased illness.3

The 2015 sequel, currently in a draft form, finds poorer non-cognitive skills and higher levels of criminality in young adults in Quebec resulting from the low-cost daycare system there.

By cherry picking evidence, conference attendees get the impression that SEL programs are proven to be both necessary and effective in the long term. Yet the vital question of exactly what increases or decreases the development of pro-social behaviour remained unanswered.

Detaching Attachment

"In order to develop normally, a child requires progressively more complex joint activity with one or more adults who have an emotional relationship with the child. Somebody's got to be crazy about that kid. That's number one. First, last, and always."—Urie Bronfenbrenner

This oft-repeated quote highlights a fundamental cognitive dissonance. Despite the frequent mention of attachment, I never heard mention of how to facilitate adult-child attachment in a non-family setting, which was the focus of the conference. Yet leading child development thinkers, including developmental psychologists like Urie Bronfenbrenner and Gordon Neufeld, say inadequate child-adult attachment is a leading cause of challenges like bullying, aggression, self-harm, and attention issues facing children today.

Often the term "care provider" or "adult" or "attachment figure" is used instead of or in addition to "parent." This makes sense: After all, children can be attached to people other than their parents. And in some situations this is a necessity due to the death, abandonment, or incapacity of the parent. But to ignore parents as a matter of routine does a disservice, or worse.

In fact, the conference brochure reads: "Children are regarded as a flower that needs nourishment, love and care. Think of our children as a garden, they need a place to show their beauty and pride." This leaves unstated the obvious question, especially given the (ongoing) history of paid staff and institutions displacing the role of family and home in the lives of indigenous children: Who provides the love, and where is the child's "place to show their beauty and pride"? Parents, family, and friends are not mentioned, nor is home.

Funding Families Instead

Conference attendees were overwhelmingly women employed in family and child services. In short, in attendance was the female-staffed "helping" sector, especially those involved with young children. Most are employed by publicly-funded programs. For some, these women—generally a very caring group of people—are the frontline "nannies" of the so-called nanny state.

Even so, in the conversations with other attendees I was pleasantly surprised at the immediate support for the idea of funding families themselves and their desire to empower parents.

After all, most of these women are painfully aware of children's deep need for loving family attachments and the inability of programs and staff to make up for these. Again, these women are on the front lines, doing their best in an institutional environment where the deck is often stacked against them.

In the name of children's optimal environments and increasing the flowering of children's potential, billions of dollars are being spent annually on policies that are not merely unsupported by empirical, peer-reviewed evidence but in fact run contrary to them. Based on this research, allocating this funding to families could reverse the worsening outcomes for our children.

1. National Data Sets: Sources of Information for Canadian Child Care Data by Dafna Kohen, Barry Forer and Clyde Hertzman. Statistics Canada (2006). Health Analysis and Measurement Group Division Analytical Studies Branch Research Paper Series, No. 284, p. 14. Retrieved from Go back
2. Vandell, D. L., Belsky, J., Burchinal, M., Steinberg, L., Vandergrift, N. and NICHD Early Child Care Research Network. (2010). "Do effects of early child care extend to age 15 years? Results from the NICHD study of early child care and youth development." Child Development, 81:737—756. Go back
3. Milligan, K., Baker, M. and Gruber, J. (2008, August). Universal Childcare, Maternal Labor Supply, and Family Wellbeing. Journal of Political Economy, Vol. 116, No. 4, pp. 709-745. Go back