Aurelia was always fascinated by the differences among her little toddler group in how they played. Ethan was calm and played well alone or with others, as long as she checked in periodically. Meredith was clingy but also resisted being comforted. Alicia seemed to play very independently, rarely looking at Aurelia—but she was distraught if Aurelia ever moved out of her line of sight. What was so interesting to Aurelia was that when these children greeted their parents in the evening, she saw echoes of this behavior. 

Aurelia is seeing the three classic forms of behavior described in attachment theory.  (Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, & Wall, 1978; Bowlby, 1983). Her three children demonstrate how they use her presence to feel safe enough to play and explore. At the same time, they are showing her that they have had very different experiences with being kept safe by the adults in their lives. 

John Bowlby described crying and smiling, eye contact, cooing, responding to the mother, following, and clinging as attachment behaviors meant to keep a parent close enough for the child to be safe. Bowlby believed that these behaviors were instinctive and were triggered by events in the environment. Seeing a human face, for example, makes an infant smile. The toddler’s ability to wander away and explore, sometimes causing the child to feel in danger, leads to the toddler’s responsive behavior of clinging and following for safety. These attachment behaviors of smiling and clinging are not intended to develop a loving relationship so much as to keep the helpless young child safe to promote the likelihood of survival (Bowlby, 1982, 1988). Bowlby was influenced by ethologists’ theories that the behavior of animals had meaning and that the purpose of the behavior was ultimately to serve the survival of the species (Darwin, 1859; Lorenz, 1966; Tinbergen, 1951).

Aurelia, as a toddler teacher, sees Ethan, Meredith, and Alicia each using different actions—touching base, clinging, or visual awareness—for the same purpose: They want to stay close enough to her to feel safe. When they are safe, they are able to play and explore freely.

Bowlby proposed that the earliest emotional experiences have a lifelong effect. The baby is an active participant in trying to get her needs met through her early relationships. Through these interactions, the child develops a mental image of herself and of her expectations of relationships. She uses this mental image in all later relationships.

When you look at the picture of the baby and her mother, it is easy to imagine that this little girl has a long history of counting on her mother to keep her safe and to encourage her explorations in the world. Showing a healthy hesitance toward a stranger, she also offers an inviting smile, as if to say, “Most people I know are pretty nice. I’m thinking you might be, too. But until I’m sure, I’m staying close to Mom.”

Mary Ainsworth, observing mothers and infants in their own homes over the course of a year, documented the wide array of attachment behaviors and found that she recognized a predictable pattern regarding the order in which they would emerge. More importantly, she documented the behavior of the mothers and tentatively concluded that the securely attached babies, who felt free to explore as toddlers, had warm, responsive mothers. Fretful, worried, clingy children were more likely to have mothers who were highly anxious and distracted. Overly independent children had mothers who were unable to respond to their children’s need for assurance and comfort. Aurelia, like so many other teachers, sees all of these attachment behaviors in the children.