Roots and Wings: How Attachment and Temperament Shape Development

How Attachment and Temperament Shape Development

By Christopher A. Thurber, Ph.D.

Oliver cried lustily. If he could have known that he was an orphan, left
to the tender mercies of churchwardens and overseers, perhaps he would have
cried the louder.

— from Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

Big Questions

Little Oliver's crying is an example of the instinctive ability children
have to draw caregivers near. If a caregiver does approach, then a gradual
bonding process — called attachment — begins. How reliably and
lovingly caregivers behave determines how securely attached children become.
Childhood attachments may even affect our relationship style as adults.

Children, of course, also have a hand in their own development. Not only
is their behavior shaped by their caregivers' treatment, but they also shape
their caregivers' behavior. Consider how differently you treat children
based on their activity level, attention span, mood, intensity, and reaction
to novel stimuli. These and other aspects of children's dispositions —
collectively called temperament — are thought by some researchers
to remain constant across the lifespan.

Both attachment style and temperament affect children's behavior and, of
course, the way others treat them. Few subjects could be of greater interest
to camp professionals.

It's Not About the Food

In 1939, Sigmund Freud wrote, "Love has its origin in attachment to
the satisfied need for nourishment." In other words, bonding between
a child and her primary caregiver is based on that adult's ability to satisfy
the child's biological drive of hunger. Like many of Freud's ideas, this
"drive reduction" theory of attachment (also dubbed the "cupboard
theory") was controversial and based solely on clinical intuition,
not research. About twenty years later came the revolutionary research that
proved attachment was not about nourishment. Instead, it was about touch.

Orphaned Monkeys Lead Revolution

In the 1950s and 60s, University of Wisconsin psychologists Harry and Margaret
Harlow conducted a series of groundbreaking studies with rhesus monkeys.
Among the most enlightening (and rather heartbreaking) was one with eight
baby monkeys who were separated from their mothers hours after birth. Each
was placed in a cage with two inanimate surrogate mothers — one made
of wire, the other of terry cloth. Four of the monkeys got milk from their
terry-cloth mothers; four from their wire mothers.

Over the next 165 days, all eight monkeys drank milk and gained the same
amount of weight, whether their nourishment came from their wire mother
or their terry-cloth mother. However, all the monkeys spent much more time
clinging to the cloth mothers than the wire mothers, no matter which provided
milk. Freud would have been surprised! The researchers also found that when
frightened, the baby monkeys would cling to the cloth mothers, not the wire
mothers. In 1965, the Harlows wrote:

Although the attainment of primary satisfaction from nursing and physical
contact characterizes the stage of comfort and attachment, we do not believe
that these contribute equally . . . We strongly believe that intimate
physical contact is the variable of primary importance . . . [to] establish
a bond of maternal trust . . . (p. 292)

The most startling and disturbing finding from the primate labs was the
disorganized social behavior of some infant monkeys reared in social isolation.
When these monkeys were brought together, they did not know how to play
with one another. And when they were grown, these animals lashed out violently
at new infant monkeys placed in their cages. The Harlows reasoned that childhood
interaction with real monkeys was critical to primate social development.

Orphaned Children Prove Hugs Matter

In the wake of World War II, the World Health Organization asked British
psychiatrist John Bowlby to investigate the effects on children being separated
or orphaned from their parents. This assignment led him to propose a new
attachment theory, based on evolutionary and ecological data, including
the Harlows' stunning research. Bowlby's visits to orphanages, hospitals,
and nurseries convinced him that reliable, loving, social interaction was
critical to children's emotional health. He observed that when first separated
from their parents, children cried and showed other signs of fear and distress.
After some time, they would despair and act depressed. If left without a
loving, reliable caregiver long enough, these orphaned children would become
indifferent to human contact altogether.

If human infants need an adult for survival (for protection and food),
then evolution had likely favored those babies who exhibited behaviors that
promoted closeness between themselves and their caregivers. Crying, for
example, usually brings caregivers closer. Bowlby called this "attachment
behavior." Looking, smiling, reaching, and eventually talking can also
function as attachment behaviors.

Bowlby also believed that attachment was essential for learning. Secure
attachment gave children the courage to explore, and exploration allowed
for new experiences. In turn, new experiences promoted learning. (Is this
sounding relevant to camp yet?)

Out of Africa

Bowlby's "secure base" theory of attachment has stood the test
of time and inspired mountains of research. But what about individual differences
in attachment style? We have all seen variations in how children separate
from their parents at camp. Has anyone come up with a way to categorize
these different behaviors? Yes. In fact, it was Bowlby's prize student,
Mary Ainsworth, who first began categorizing attachment styles during her
work with the Ganda tribe in Uganda. Inspired by both Bowlby and the earlier
work of William Blatz, Ainsworth set out to observe how Ganda infants and
their mothers interacted. Of particular interest was how the infants behaved
when their mothers left the room. Her findings confirmed other cross-cultural
research. Most babies develop what we call "separation anxiety"
between six and nine months.

Ainsworth's subsequent research in Baltimore was with 106, white, middle-class
mothers and their one-year-olds. In a controlled laboratory situation —
called "The Strange Situation" — Ainsworth observed how
infants behaved with and without their mothers, with their mothers and a
stranger, all alone, alone with a stranger, and then reunited with their
mothers. She found that the majority of one-year-olds explored the toys
in the room when their mother was present, got upset when she left, were
not consoled by the stranger, and greeted their mothers with joy when she
returned. Ainsworth called these infants "securely attached."

The other infants were "insecurely attached" in some way. About
a fifth of the infants seemed indifferent to their mothers' location in
the room, sometimes cried when she left, were sometimes consoled by the
stranger, and usually turned away from their mother when she returned. Ainsworth
called these infants "anxious/avoidant."

The remaining infants showed an "anxious/resistant" style of
attachment. They were clingy and anxious even with their mother near, became
very upset when she left, and had mixed feelings when she returned. They
might cry angrily to be picked up with their arms outstretched, but then
struggle to climb down once in their mothers' arms.

Ainsworth's revolutionary research demonstrated that separation and reunion
behaviors reveal much about the nature of a child's relationship with his
or her primary caregivers.

Some Like it Hot

Attachment happens between children and caregivers, but what exists within
children? How can two children, raised by the same parents, in the same
house, have completely different personalities? How can one be so mellow
and the other so high-strung? The answer may be found in the revolutionary
work of doctors Alexander Thomas and Stella Chess.

In 1956, Thomas and Chess began a longitudinal study of 136, mostly white,
middle- or upper-middle-class Jewish families from New York City. The research
team collected data on the children's activity levels, biological rhythms,
responses to new objects, adaptability, reaction intensity, distractibility,
attention span, and mood.

Among Thomas and Chess's most interesting findings was a distinction among
three groups of infants. They called these one-year-olds "easy,"
"difficult," and "slow-to-warm-up." Easy babies were
playful, regular in their biological functions, and adapted readily to new
circumstances. Difficult babies were irregular in their biological functions,
irritable, and often responded intensely and negatively to new situations,
or they would try to withdraw from them. Slow-to-warm-up babies had low
activity levels and their responses were typically mild. They tended to
withdraw from new situations, but in a mild way, and required more time
than the easy babies to adapt to change.

Thomas and Chess also found they could use some of these temperamental
qualities at age one to predict severe behavior problems at age five. Babies
who were highly active, intense, grouchy, and easily frustrated were most
likely to develop behavior problems as toddlers. The researchers also observed
that some of these difficult children provoked negative reactions in their
parents, and a cycle of problematic behavior ensued. (More about parenting
in article five.) Clearly, some behavior problems are best understood in
the context of a child's temperament and the style of parenting that temperament

What to Pack for Camp

The four studies summarized in this article have revolutionized child psychology
by teaching us the following:

  1. children's attachment to their caregivers depends more on physical comfort
    than on satisfying hunger;
  2. secure attachment to loving, reliable caregivers provides a base from
    which children explore and learn;
  3. children's behavior during separation and reunion can reveal the nature
    of their attachment relationship; and
  4. children are born with some stable traits that shape not what they
    do, but how they do it . . . and how others respond.

Now, what are the practical implications you can pack for camp?

Basic Needs

  • Hot dogs and bug juice may be necessary to sustain life, but physical
    comforts are an essential ingredient to sustain emotional health. Campers
    may be comforted by appropriate touch, such as handshakes, hugs, high-fives,
    and pats on the back.
  • Social development requires plenty of healthy peer interaction. Ensure
    that staff are around to encourage energetic, interactive play and healthy
    risk-taking. Think of camp as a social garden where children are the flowers
    and the fertilizer.
  • First-year campers, only-children, and home-schooled children may be
    less prepared for the intense social interactions at camp. Give them time
    and space to warm up to large group activities. Make an extra effort to
    introduce them to others and nurture their social skills by setting a
    good example.
  • Interpersonal warmth, reliability, and patience come with practice.
    Hire only staff with prior experience working with children.

Security and Exploration

  • Your staff are your campers' surrogate caregivers, and they should take
    their jobs as seriously as any parent. Let the fact that they are protecting
    somebody's most cherished possession guide their judgment and leadership-by-example.
  • Each camper's cabin, group, or unit has the potential to become a new
    secure base, similar to home. Train your staff to create a warm, reliable
    home-away-from-home. This will maximize the likelihood that children will
    participate in activities, make friends, and take healthy risks.
  • Rhythms and novelty form a satisfying equilibrium. Balance the newness,
    excitement, and intensity of each camp day with a predictable schedule,
    daily routines, quiet rest time, and meaningful rituals.
  • Understand that homesickness is a normal reaction to separation. Attachment
    behaviors such as crying, letter-writing, and talking are developmentally
    appropriate ways that children have of seeking support and keeping in
    touch. Encourage campers to express their thoughts and needs.
  • Coach parents to respond to homesickness by expressing positive thoughts
    about camp and confidence in their child's abilities.

Attachment and Separation

  • Separation from home, whether for eight hours or eight weeks, activates
    attachment behaviors that give you insight into campers' relationships
    with their parents. If you detect anxiety, sadness, or homesickness, talk
    more with the parents and the camper in question to find out how you can
  • Some families need guidance on how to separate. Educate parents and
    campers about what emotions they might feel when they say good-bye on
    opening day.
  • As Mary Ainsworth put it: "If the attachment system has been activated
    at a high level of intensity, close contact may be required for the termination
    of attachment behavior" (p. 8). Translation: If a kid has missed
    her parents, she may need a hug from them on closing day in order to feel
    better. Design a closing day that is both relaxing and festive.
  • Some campers will be aloof or even angry when they reunite with their
    parents. This is a normal response to feeling abandoned, even if the child
    loved camp and was never actually abandoned.
  • Train your staff to help campers cope with homesickness, while at the
    same time nurturing their independence. Coping with negative emotions
    is a lifelong skill.
  • Much more information on preparing for camp, preventing homesickness,
    coaching parents, and helping kids cope is available in The Summer Camp
    Handbook (Perspective Publishing, 2000). Visit the ACA Bookstore


  • Campers' temperaments vary, from easy to difficult, persistent to inattentive,
    outgoing to withdrawn. All types of children can benefit from camp. Train
    your staff to respond sensitively to individual children in the context
    of consistent behavior standards.
  • Slow-to-warm-up children need time to acclimate to a new environment
    and time to watch others do activities first. Hire staff who have patience
    and insight.
  • Difficult or strong-willed children dig their heels in when pushed.
    Train staff to disengage from meaningless power struggles. Insisting on
    compliance with every single detail can be counter-productive. Offer children
    reasonable choices.
  • Easy children adapt well to new environments, but they are also the
    most easily swayed by their peers. Train staff to set a positive example
    and propagate a healthy camp culture. Discourage cliques, curb unhealthy
    trends, and eliminate hazing.
  • Educate parents about your camp, its philosophy, and the type of child
    you think most benefits from what you offer. Help parents find a camp
    — even if it's not yours — that matches their child's interests,
    abilities, and temperament.
  • Learn about incoming campers by talking with parents and having them
    write about their child. Share this information discreetly with key staff
    to ensure that children are placed with other campers and staff who complement
    their levels of activity, adaptability, and distractibility.

Piece of Cake

Attending camp for the first time is a bold risk for children and parents.
Everything that is comforting about being together and at home must be voluntarily
set aside in the interest of a new experience. Once families have taken
that leap, all you need to do is provide a safe, loving, consistent, entertaining,
educational environment that is sensitive to children's individual temperaments
and responsive to the activation of attachment behaviors, such as homesickness.
Piece of cake, right? So, what do you really do in the off-season?


Ainsworth, M.D.S., Blehar, M.C., Waters, E., & Wall, S. (1978). Patterns
of attachment. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and loss, Vol. 1. New York: Basic Books.

Harlow, H., & Harlow, M. (1965). The affectional systems. In A. Schrier,
H. Harlow, & F. Stollnitz (Eds.), Behavior of non-human primates. New
York: Academic Press.

Thomas, A., Chess, S., & Birch, H.G. (1968). Temperament and behavior
disorders in childhood. New York: New York University Press.

Originally published in the 2003 March/April issue
of Camping Magazine.

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