In recent years, the demand that ‘something must be done about parents’ has grown consistently louder from politicians and policy advocates. Last week, the Sutton Trust, a charity which claims to be concerned with educational inequality, became the latest organisation to add to this culture of parent-blaming. The publication of the trust’s Baby Bonds report achieved dramatic headlines, with the statement that ‘40 per cent of children lack secure bonds’ to their parents.
This problem of ‘insecure attachments’ was identified as a key causal factor in a range of social problems, including educational underachievement, the UK’s lack of social mobility, as well as the rate of obesity and mental-health problems. This was because, the report claims, a child’s attachment to its parents underpins all other aspects of emotional and cognitive development. Therefore, the report concluded, parental attachment determined a child’s ‘later wellbeing and attainment’ more than ‘family income, parental education or the school environment’.
The idea that bonding between mother and baby can be the root cause of social problems has been around for centuries. However, this idea was given legitimacy by ‘attachment theory’, which was developed in the 1950s and 1960s by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. Although attachment theory has been criticised in the past for its faulty diagnostic methods and its naturalisation of ‘maternal instincts’, it has come back into fashion recently. Now, it is applied to fathers as well as mothers and is supposedly reinforced by neuroscientific research. In the past, concerns that some mothers failed to act on their ‘maternal instincts’ tended to be identified as a particular problem only in a small minority of mothers. What is extraordinary about the Baby Bonds report is the claimed magnitude of the problem, and the use of bonding as the prime explanation for social inequalities. If 40 per cent of children lack functional attachment, it is very hard to hold on to any idea of normal parental love occurring ‘naturally’, whether through ‘maternal instinct’, a romanticised unconditional love for cute babies, or just a sense of shared humanity expressed in caring for society’s most vulnerable new members.
The report states that one in four children have ‘avoidant attachment’, meaning that they ‘avoid their parents when they are upset, because they ignore their needs’, and a further ‘15 per cent of children’ (rising to 25 per cent in disadvantaged cohorts) display disorganised or resistant attachment ‘because the parent often amplifies their distress or responds unpredictably’. Parents who are either poor or young, the report claims, are very likely to ‘fail’ to nurture secure attachments with their babies, thus condemning their offspring to a life of stunted emotional development, educational underachievement and ultimately failed lives. Charming.
Although this seems a very obvious a case of blaming people at the bottom for getting themselves stuck in a ‘cycle of disadvantage’, in the week prior to the publication of the report, The Sunday Times reported that the authors of Baby Bonds had proposed that middle-class mothers also require professional instruction to love their babies. The authors suggested that a pre-emptive approach to parenting would solve this issue, whereby parents-to-be are targeted for professional training from pregnancy onwards – something that would require a universal screening approach to identify those ‘at risk’ of failing to bond with their babies.