Imagine you’re walking through the mall and see a mom with her son. As you get closer to them, you notice that the little boy is upset and crying. How would you expect the mom to respond to her crying child? Should she ignore his crying, walk off, and expect the child to hush up and follow? Or should she pick him up and try to soothe his cries? Many of us have clear expectations for how we think the mom should respond and may be surprised if the mom doesn’t respond the way we expected her to. But where do these expectations come from?
Our expectations for how parents’ relationships with their children should work are believed to partly develop out of our relationships with our own parents (Bowlby, 1969). Within our first year of life, we develop an emotional connection, referred to as an attachment relationship, with our parents. Differences in the quality of this connection vary based on how our parents responded to our emotions. For example, if when you were upset, your mother acknowledged your emotions and helped calm you down, you are likely to have developed a secure attachment relationship with her. Conversely, if when you were upset, your mother rejected, ignored, or inconsistently responded to your crying, you are likely to have developed an insecure attachment relationship with her (Ainsworth et al., 1978).
The quality of the attachment relationship a child develops with her mother is characterized by the expectations the child develops concerning how her relationship with her mother works. For example, children who develop a secure attachment feel comfortable expressing their emotions because they expect their mother to respond to their emotions and effectively help them calm down. Conversely, children who develop an insecure attachment question whether they can express their emotions because they expect their mother to either respond harshly or inconsistently to their negative emotions (Ainsworth et al., 1978).
Although evidence has consistently shown that children’s attachment relationships inform their expectations about how their relationship with their own parent should work, only recently has evidence suggested that our expectations more broadly generalize to all children’s relationships with their parents.
To test how generalizable children’s expectations are, 1-year-olds’ were shown a video involving two circles. One circle was large and represented the parent circle and the other circle was small and represented the baby circle. Infants watched the parent circle go half way up a hill and leave the baby circle behind. The baby circle began to cry. Then, infants observed a “sensitive” parent, depicted by the parent circle returning to the infant or the “insensitive” parent, depicted by the parent circle continuing up the mountain without the infant. Researchers measured how long infants looked at video of the “sensitive” and the “insensitive” parent because looking time in this experiment indicates whether infants found the video expected or unexpected. Like adults, if infants find something unexpected, they will look longer, as if they are surprised or puzzled by what they see. Also like adults, if infants find something expected, they won’t look long at the video because they find it boring.
Which video infants looked at longer depended on the type of attachment relationship the infants developed with their own parents. Secure children, those who expect to be able to seek comfort and be soothed by their parents, looked longer at the “insensitive” parent. It’s as if the video of the parent circle leaving their child behind was completely unexpected to these infants because they rarely experienced something like that in their own relationship with their sensitive parents. However, insecure children, those who expect that they cannot rely on their parents to help soothe them, looked longer at the “sensitive” parent. In this case, these infants who have rarely experienced sensitive caregiving look longer at the sensitive parent because this type of caregiving does not fit in with the type of caregiving that they have received from their insensitive parents (Johnson et al., 2007; 2010).
Thus, infants develop expectations not only about how their own relationships with their parents should work, but also how all children’s relationships with their parents should work. Moreover, these expectations are believed stay with us overtime and even influence our intuitions about how our relationships with our own children should work. So, the next time you see a mom responding to her upset child in the mall, stop and think about whether your expectation for how the mom should respond is partly due to your relationship history with your own mom.
LIPSITT, L., & LIPTSITT, L. (1980). xviii + 391 pp., $24.95M.D.S. Ainsworth, M.C. Blehar, E. Waters and S. Wall, Patterns of attachment: A psychological study of the strange situation, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Maryland (1978). Infant Behavior and Development, 3, 409-409 DOI: 10.1016/S0163-6383(80)80048-8
Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and loss: Vol. 1. Attachment. New York: Basic Books
Johnson SC, Dweck CS, & Chen FS (2007). Evidence for infants’ internal working models of attachment. Psychological science : a journal of the American Psychological Society / APS, 18 (6), 501-2 PMID: 17576262
Johnson, S., Dweck, C., Chen, F., Stern, H., Ok, S., & Barth, M. (2010). At the Intersection of Social and Cognitive Development: Internal Working Models of Attachment in Infancy Cognitive Science, 34 (5), 807-825 DOI: 10.1111/j.1551-6709.2010.01112.x