Healthy Attachment: Don’t Send Your Kids To School Without It

Family Field Guide has been on vacation the past few weeks. I’ve been relaxing, making a photo album and kicking back with our left-coast daughter in Santa Monica. (See my vacation pics at  And to top off the summer, our granddaughter learned to walk and (drumroll!)  we received a much anticipated “save the date” announcement from our oldest son and his fiancee. So, we’re back. And I’m glad you’re here.

My little girl disappeared down the dirt trail and into the mass of first-graders on a field trip. Putting one sturdy brown oxford in front of the other and school dress swaying at the hem, she seemed solid and confident, aware and in the moment.

“How lucky she is,” I thought, to be able to confront a world of unknowns so relaxed and unafraid. Though hard to pinpoint, I noticed a difference between her and some of her classmates. And as I watched from a distance, I understood that this quality would somehow define her future.

It isn’t on anyone’s list of back-to-school “must haves,” like neon tennis shoes, ripped jeans, Abercrombie tees, or whatever kids are buying to impress their friends these days. But I recognized it in my daughter that day and it’s something money can’t buy. It’s called self-confidence.

I thought a lot about self-confidence throughout the recent Olympics, as young athletes reached for their dreams—whether or not they wound up on the podium. How did they come by such drive and determination? Is it something they were born with? Is it nurture? Or both?

Self-confidence—the feeling of being self-assured—may be related to a mother’s “attachment style.” In other words, a mother’s behaviors succeed in imparting a sense of security and safety in her baby.

In her 2004 article, The Science of Attachment: The Biological Roots of Love, Lauren Lindsey Porter writes, “Attachment can be defined in both behavioral and emotional terms. From a behavioral perspective, attachment is represented by a cluster of instinctive child behaviors that serve to create the attachment bond, protect the child from fear and harm, and assist in the safe exploration of the world.   These behaviors include reaching, clinging, sucking, and locomotion, and all facilitate maximum physical and emotional development.”

It makes sense then that young people capable of stepping out and taking healthy risks have been nurtured and supported in their emerging independence.  To these children, the world was made safe through secure attachment to a loving parent or caregiver, and they have no reason to view the world as a frightening or threatening place.

Porter continues, “From an emotional perspective, attachment is the creation of a mutual bond in which the mother shapes infant development through her interactions and relationship with her child. Babies, who are not born with the ability to decode and decipher meanings and emotions, rely on the mother to help them navigate the world, both internal and external.”

What does this mean for today’s parents? Simply this: Children need a secure base from which to move forward in life. But the reality is actually much more complicated. Separation from primary caregivers even for short periods of time, or caregivers who are unresponsive to a baby’s physical and/or emotional needs, cause a bodily reaction in children involving the production of stress hormones. These stress hormones, such as cortisol, can potentially impact long term brain development. Babies must have a caring adult to help them regulate their emotions, get back in sync hormonally, and return to a normal state of well-being. This is the very beginning of security, the ability to handle “healthy stress,” and the precursor of self-confidence.

But sometimes kids have too much self-confidence. Instead of reflecting a realistic self-image, they’re arrogant and out-of sync. During the time I spent teaching remedial reading I occasionally worked as a substitute in the classroom. One day I had a group of four or five fifth graders in reading group; and these kids, all tough customers, defied my efforts to help them understand what they had just read. After I surveyed their comprehension on a few passages, they let it be known that not only didn’t they understand, they weren’t interested.

“Let’s reread it,” I said, and since I usually worked with kids who have reading disabilities, I had plenty of strategies up my sleeve.  I instructed them to “track” the words with their index fingers while one student read aloud.

They scrunched their faces in indignation. “Our teacher never makes us do this,” the lone girl seethed.

Their teacher had apparently never taken the time to make sure they understood. I tried to inspire them. “Don’t you want to make it to the top reading group?”

The girl’s expression changed from angry to incredulous. “Uh, we are the top reading group!” she huffed, obviously proud of their status.

They had resented rereading a few paragraphs because they could not take reproof. Reproof requires tolerance for healthy stress, something these kids weren’t accustomed to.

In contrast to kids who make it to the Olympics, or who become good at anything, these students were not eager for reproof.

When my younger daughter attended ballet intensives, she always approached her instructor at the end of class. “What do you think I should be working on?” she would ask.  And more often than not, she received a thoughtful response. She knew these professionals had years of experience from which she might benefit. How could she not seek their advice if she wanted to improve?

Kids don’t have to be on track for the Olympics to shoot for their dreams. But before they are able to step out and advocate for themselves, their parents need to let them know they’re worth it.

Studies show that when mothers spend more time talking to and playing with their babies and toddlers, the children have earlier language acquisition, larger vocabularies and higher later reading scores.

Kids who start life with a sense of self, a sense of being loved and cared for, start school with a huge advantage: Secure attachment during infancy and early childhood that helps create confidence and a positive world view. You won’t find these items on any back-to-school supply list, but they ought to be right at the top. FFG 

For more information on building secure attachments with your baby or young child visit the following websites:

Attachment Parenting International –

La Leche League International –

Infant Massage USA –

©2012 FamilyFieldGuide

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