Attachment and loss

I dropped in on my old friend Denise for a cup of coffee. What I saw was a marvellous example of human nature. She was looking after her grandniece, a child under two. I simply watched. In between our conversation Denise, almost without a conscious thought, was constantly aware of the child. She was tempting her into new experiences and new initiatives, accompanied by new words – related to the child’s curious exploration. I remembered the importance of those early years. And this was confirmed by a study this year which charted the effects of family environment on adult self-esteem.

Good parents have always behaved like Denise, but now we have a much better understanding of how the young child’s experience affects the infant brain. The human brain – infant to adult — has approaching 100 billion neurons, but what matters here is not the number but the connections between them. A baby has, of course, been born with some vital connections, enabling it to survive, but it is over the first two years that a great mass of the connections are established. After that, the brain, guided by experience, starts to prune this superfluity of possibilities down to a more useful number. The quality of that experience is vital to the future of that child.

Sadly, we have the evidence from the orphaned Romanian children discovered after the collapse of its communist government in 1989. Following a state-sponsored baby boom, the crowded orphanages were filled with some 170,000 children kept in the most cruel conditions. There was no opportunity for personal relationships, discipline was maintained by punishment regimes and the level of general care was appalling. The children were denied the opportunity to edit their neural connections in the ways we take for granted. The result was underdeveloped brains, low IQs, reduced neural activity, language difficulties and, of course, attachment problems. While some of these outcomes have improved to a degree over time, the relics of such experiences remain in adulthood. The separation of children from their parents – as we have seen in the issue of Mexican immigrants in the US – may well lead to some degree of long-term damage.

But, prior to such evidence, the importance of the first few years of life was generally accepted. This was associated initially with the writings of the British psychoanalyst John Bowlby on the subject of attachment and loss. He had noted, as result of his research, the importance of a continued and secure relationship – normally with the mother. Later studies have extended and confirmed the general importance of relationships in the early years.

It would seem that the way we are treated by others, and the ability to relate to others, gives us at this volatile stage an internal picture. We see ourselves as acceptable and worthwhile persons – or indeed the opposite, with gradations in between. And it is this picture that we take into life. A single example proves nothing, but I put my inbuilt sense of happiness down to the richness of my childhood in a large family. And I believe I detect the same pattern in the three generations which now follow me.

This raises an important social question. We are aware that our society is uneven: stretching from the poor and often under-educated to the relatively wealthy and well-schooled. While some will surmount social barriers, we know which group is most likely to succeed. And this is another form of inheritance since the condition, positive or negative, of each generation tends to be passed on to the next generation. Half our measurable intelligence level is genetic, and this is then strongly influenced by the home environment. Britain broadly stands well on social equality in comparison with many other countries but it is by no means the best.

While we can to some degree reduce inequality through social changes such as quality nursery education, it is not going to disappear. Fortunately the remedy, respectable a hundred years ago, of preventing the poor from breeding through sterilisation has been abandoned. But our changing social mores are not promising. The Marriage Foundation (well worth Googling) summed up one change: “There’s a growing Marriage Gap: 87 per cent of high earners (over £43,000) marry; only 24 per cent of low earners (under £16,000) marry. The rich get married (and stay together); the poor dont.”

To this we may add the understandable wish of mothers to get back to work – perhaps for economic reasons, perhaps for career development. I have three millennial granddaughters facing exactly this issue. While we might like to think that both genders are equally able to care for children in the early years, evolution would suggest that, over the millennia, women would have developed the higher inborn skills. As James Fordyce said in his 18th-century Sermons to Young Women, mothers “can diffuse virtue and happiness throughout the human race”

About Quentin

Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Catholic Herald columns, evolution, Neuroscience. Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Attachment and loss

  1. Barrie Machin says:

    Quentin as usual has put his finger on the fundamental area to which all of us as human beings are party. It cannot be stressed enough what a fundamentally important role we as guardians of our children inherit and too often we only know the ropes from what we as guardians ourselves experienced as children..
    As Quentin has succinctly outlined we are all shaped for good or ill by our immediate guardians as children – be they our natural parents, parents by adoption or by whatever hand we have been dealt by birth. It has long been known that the height of the family guardian socially speaking in no way guarantees a happy outcome – in fact some of the more terrible results have been achieved by parents whi should have known better and awho were in no way fit to be entrusted with such a vitally important role.
    I seem to remember that it was a Greek philosopher who said that the task was so important that the state should take over the role rather than the child’s parents to achieve the best outcome for the good of the self same state as well as the children.
    I am afraid that our experience of state run organisations does not encourage the view but at the same time there are so many children who do not turn out as we would wish for their own sakes that the answer is sadly nowhere nearer to being solved today than it was in the days of the Greeks.

  2. G.D says:

    There is something about this post that disturbs me greatly. First, the assumption that the general populace of the ‘poor’ are less intelligent due to lack of ‘schooling’. Yes, society now expects the ‘academically advantaged’ to be more ‘intelligent’. (Where exactly did that criteria come from?). More ‘clever’ maybe, but that’s as far as it goes; and that ability is used in all levels of society, in varying degrees by individuals, for good or ill. In both the underprivileged (from criminal masterminds & goodly manual labourers) to the privileged (caring professional & self-seeking politician).

    Academic criteria being made the standard for ‘intelligence’, as it is, does a great disservice to society. Credence for intelligent learning outside of ‘intellectual ability’ is being eroded. Which is excluding artistic and artisan abilities in those who don’t have ‘qualifications’, gives less recognition to compassion and empathy and a host of other ‘humane’ traits; all which can be ‘measured’ but not ‘qualified’.

    I surmise it’s because it suits the egos of the more ‘cerebral’ ones amongst us, unbeknown to them.

    That, it seems to me, is a major reason for the lack of equal advantages, biased evaluation of worth, wealth distribution; and for the maintenance of the status quo of ‘inequality’. Which has ever been rife everywhere, throughout & within, all levels of society in the world.
    And it is an insidious unacknowledged prejudice most of us carry unconsciously.

    It’s that hidden ‘attitude’ not the symptoms that create the divide, and needs to be brought into the light before the ‘soul’ of the world is utterly destroyed.
    (But it seems to me it’s obvious that the present ‘leaders’ are well aware of it and use it to their own ends!).

    Low self esteem in some individuals causes less harm than a (too) high self esteem in others. Again, both of which, are throughout & within all levels of society.

    Stunted development is not only a trait of the poor, even if more prevalent (or should that be obvious?) for them. Extreme cases are abundant in all levels of society for differing reasons; and have differing affects, often unseen. Or, in the least, is the accepted norm.

  3. galerimo says:


    I think you are being deliberately provocative Quentin!

    It won’t work.

    I am not going to fall for your trickery. You think I can’t see through your mischievous musings?

    I would have told that little blighter your “old” friend was looking after to buzz off somewhere else with those “100 billion neutrons” whizzing around in their little skull while I could have a decent conversation over a cup of coffee with my friend without constant infantile interruptions.

    Adults need play time – it helps them sort out all that choking self-esteem showered on them in early childhood by grow-ups trying to be children.

    Tolstoy said “All happy families are alike”: he makes me think of all the unhappiness experienced in happy families. Romanian orphans and separated Mexican children, like the rest of us, can grow up to be what they want if their childhood is terminal. Like it is supposed to be.

    We are not doomed by the parenting of our childhood days to become the educated failures we mostly are; we just choose these alternatives to growing up and then wallow in victimhood until life moves us on -usually through grief.

    But thank you for the comic relief with your “Britain broadly stands well on social equality…” my day is a lot brighter after that laugh. And may God rest poor Maggie.

    “that understandable wish of mothers to get back to work” – is indeed very understandable after having all that time off.

    Who wouldn’t want to get back to doing something you can get paid for, after all that time tempting their toddlers into new experiences and new initiatives, accompanied by new words – related to their never ending curious exploration?

    All that leisure and daytime television is bound to make anyone want a career – even in child minding or cleaning or nursing or teaching or catering or rocket science, anything.

    But you got me with good old James Fordyce – I couldn’t resist his amazing insights into the maternal soul – all that “diffusing of virtue and happiness throughout the human race”, certainly kept mothers in their place. At least until those pesky Kiwis came along with their right to vote for women in 1893.

    And now Jacinda Arden has just had a baby and the woman not even married.

    Mr Fordyce would can be turning in his patriarchal grave but in the mean time Jacinda continues in her job to be the Prime Minister of New Zealand.

    • Quentin says:

      Your reply, and G.D’s reply, does suggest that I should say a word about my general approach (depending of course on the nature of the column.) On scientific, theological and philosophical matters several hours of research are often needed. Since the CH is not a learned journal I do not publish references, although they are available to anyone who needs them.
      A simple example is the meaning of the word ‘intelligence’. I suspect that all of us would vary to some extent in our definition. That is why I use the generally agreed scientific measurement. That form of intelligence relates closely to scholarly success; scholarly success leads to well paid jobs. I notice your own remark “But thank you for the comic relief with your “Britain broadly stands well on social equality…” It would only have taken you five minutes to check the facts.
      I do also have the opportunity to discuss issues with my children. One of them is helpful with history; he is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Antiquaries and a major historical writer. Another is an expert on the communication of children, and has written several professional textbooks. A third works with children with special needs; she has over a hundred classroom textbooks for children to her name. So I am not short of opportunities to discuss my ideas with reliable experts.

      • galerimo says:

        I thought you were being provocative to deliberately stimulate some lively contributions.

        See if “my facts” and sources are bigger than yours – after the recommended five minute check.

        Inequality costs the UK more than £39 billion through its impact on health, wellbeing and crime. (Source: Equality Trust).

        In the 1980s the income of the wealthiest 10 per cent of people in the UK was eight times that of the poorest 10 per cent. (Source: OECD).

        By 2011, the incomes of the wealthiest 10 per cent had grown to earn 12 times that of the poorest 10 per cent. (Source: OECD).

        The 100 wealthiest people in the UK today have as much money as the poorest 18 million. (Source: Equality Trust).

        In 2013/14, before taxes and benefits, the richest fifth of households had an average income of £80,800, 15 times greater than the poorest fifth who had an average income of £5,500 (Source: Office of National Statistics).

      • Quentin says:

        Galerimo, your points about extreme examples of wealth are of course interesting. But my comment was “Britain broadly stands well on social equality in comparison with many other countries but it is by no means the best.” To question that requires consulting appropriate comparison data. I, in fact, consulted several sources to be confident that my brief reference was correct. Perhaps I am a little touchy about implications that I haven’t done my homework. But, in general, I am very happy to have my conclusions criticised.

    • John Candido says:

      There is no doubt in my mind that this issue is absolutely fundamental to the development of children and the progress of our society.

      Although parents face work, time pressures, and duties around the house and garden, all of which can at times leave you physically and mentally drained. When all of this has been attended to children want their parents’ attention.

      At these moments the very last thing that you want to do is to give your children ‘time’!

      As was mentioned previously, spending time playing with children, attending to their world by listening to them non-judgementally, interacting with them with whatever they are doing, making them laugh by deliberately making yourself an object of ridicule by playing stupid, looking silly, pulling funny faces, and being in effect the best possible ‘children’s clown’, is an absolutely fundamental responsibility that parents have to all of their children, for all of the previously mentioned reasons in Quentin’s opening post.

      While you may have momentarily lost your dignity to any adult who may have stolen a passing glance at the both of you.

      From one generation to another, and another, and another after that; this is of the utmost importance.

      For what may initially appear as a ‘waste of time’ for any exhausted parent, grandparent, care-taker, auntie, uncle, nieighboor or friend, is a child’s entire world and future development.

      Jack Perry and Doug MacKenzie are two men’s names that you most likely have never heard of.

      Both of them have sadly passed away.

      They were two Australian men who were very popular television clowns called ‘Zig and Zag’ during the 60s and 70s, back when television was broadcast in glorious black & white.

      A generation of children idolised them because they were outrageously funny.

      Whatever Zig (Jack Perry) or Zag (Doug MacKenzie) planned to do anything they would jointly and happily say loudly to the entire world, ‘No Trouble’!

      The odd thing was that despite their perfunctory proclamation of ‘No Trouble’, everything they touched became a complete disaster!

      Yesterday on Facebook I leaned that they both lived with their families in my own suburb of Brunswick where I lived as a child between 1962 & 1969.

      Knowing this completely blew me away!

      If parents could spend time regularly being ‘clowns’ to their children, paying close attention to their world as children, the joy and happiness of that child would be lifelong and very influential in most of what they do later on in life.

  4. G.D says:

    ” I use the generally agreed scientific measurement. That form of intelligence relates closely to scholarly success ” ……. That was one of my major points … ‘That form of intelligence’ is becoming the ‘norm’ for people being classed as ‘intelligent’. If you ain’t got the qualifications you ain’t clever enough for … whatever. Other ‘forms’ are being shut out. And it is a major factor for the ‘ills’ in society. The attitude breeds prejudice and contempt. Causes ‘low self esteem’ division and antagonism. (Not the sole reason of course).
    I’m not trying to denigrate the value of ‘academic’ intelligence (or get at your post from a personal perspective) just point out it’s ONLY one trait of intelligence, only a part of intelligence. To make it more than it is is detrimental to individual & social well being.
    But i do agree with galerimo about the hidden and accepted evil of rampant inequality. Britain is just as bad as the rest of the world.

    • Quentin says:

      G.D., of course you are right. My late wife was. for incidental reasons, never able to complete a normal education. But her emotional intelligence was remarkable. Even now, faced by a quandary, I first try to work out what she would have said.
      Unfortunately such broader definitions are difficult to use in formal psychology since the criteria are too broad and variable.

  5. Geordie says:

    Intelligence Tests should include bell ringing and knitting. Both of these activities were developed by highly intelligent, mathematically minded people of the lower orders who could neither read nor write. They had to give vent to their gifts in some way.
    Knitting is particularly interesting because it is mathematically based and it is mainly carried out by women. Yet many (too many) women say they are not mathematical.
    They also say that they are not mechanically minded. It used to annoy me at work to hear women say this, as they stripped a typewriter down, cleaned it and then put it back together again. This was all done as they continued with their conversations.

  6. G.D says:

    Jungian approaches to psychology are very broad and take into consideration the hard to define variables; even to the extent of being labled as ‘mystical rubbish’ by them in need of more ‘clear cut’ approaches. But it has stood the test of time. Would it not be an advantage to bring this more to bear on ‘intelligence’? (Amongst other things).
    Might it be (i only surmise!) that those who are more formal (‘intellectually’ minded?) have a need to defend their ‘status’ rather than being open to true ‘scientific experimentation/hypothesis’ of phenomena beyond that presented by the more ‘physical’ criteria?

  7. Alasdair says:

    In his opening, Quentin ran-together two very different concepts as if they were inextricably linked, or even as if they were nearly one and the same -” poor and often under-educated”. Although, statistically, there is a correlation between the two ie between “poor” and “under-educated”, the link is tenuous. In this country, Scotland (and for all I know, in the rest of the UK as well) since the Reformation, right up to the present day, the-powers-that-be have devoted huge amounts of their wit and resources to break the link between the two, and with considerable success.

  8. Alasdair says:

    “Britain broadly stands well on social equality in comparison with many other countries but it is by no means the best”. One could add “but is becoming less so” if events like the shocking third-world-esque Grenfell tower national humiliation can be used as a yardstick.
    The level of social equality in the UK has not occurred by chance, or by a plucky British sense of fair play. It has been achieved in large measure by highly motivated and intelligent individuals active within our institutions. We all know that absolute social-equality is a pipe dream (and may not even be desirable) – but equality of opportunity is not. Without equality of opportunity, other inequalities within society will increase by positive feedback (ie a “vicious circle” for the non-mathematicians).
    The result would damage the economy due to the proportional lack of healthy, educated and skilled individuals at our disposal compared to our competitors, and due to the resources having to be ploughed in to repair the damage resulting from increasing failure.

  9. John Nolan says:

    Since ‘opportunity’ is defined as ‘an occasion offering a possibility’ it is difficult to see how it can be equalized. All our lives are filled with missed opportunities.

    George Stephenson was an unlettered genius. In the days before universal education it was quite possible to be both. Even now, academic success does not necessarily guarantee material prosperity. A skilled tradesman probably earns as much as, if not more than, a university lecturer.

    As for social mobility, there was arguably more in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries than there is today. The welfare-dependent underclass would appear to be a permanent and self-perpetuating burden on the state.

  10. Alasdair says:

    John, I would change your definition of opportunity to “a SITUATION offering possibilities”. The “situation” that we find ourselves and our children in is our UK nationality. We must ensure that this situation increasingly presents possibilities that are not closed off to sections of the population due to barriers which need not exist.
    Regarding “The welfare-dependent underclass would appear to be a permanent and self-perpetuating burden on the state”. Can I point out that companies are now adapting workplaces to employ a “disabled” but skilled, previously welfare-dependent, workforce. So, needless barriers are being removed, self-perpetuation is a myth, and I’m pleased to report that you are in the process of gradually being unburdened through this and other commendable social changes.
    Regarding skilled tradesmen. They earn more than university lecturers because in most cases they have superior entrepreneurial skills and have identified the economic needs that they are equipped to meet. This is simple economics. University lecturers have often remained within their comfort zones and followed the route of least resistance through the academic process. Many simply don’t possess the skills or drive to compete financially with successful artisans and technicians.
    I have attended some conferences recently with students, where the speakers were company founders, senior executives, and CEO’s. All of these had left school with decent grades, not gone to university although some could have, and embarked on technician grade apprenticeships (skilled tradesmen and women in effect). One of them, who even bought me a coffee, is the now-retired founder of a FTSE 250 company.

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