Published on Psychology Today
On the very first back-to-school night for my son’s pre-k class, I had no idea what to expect. All the parents sat awkwardly around child-sized tables sitting on child-sized seats and made small talk while trying not to look uncomfortable. After a few minutes, the teachers introduced themselves, provided an overview of our children’s typical day at school, and then invited questions. I was a rookie, so I had no idea what to ask, and kept quiet while concentrating carefully on keeping my body on the tiny chair. Despite my silence, when I looked around the room, all the other moms had their hands up. Some asked mundane detail-oriented questions about when our kids had snack time, whether the school was nut-free, and where the bathroom was located (which I learned was also only outfitted with child-sized seats). But what parents were most interested in was asking questions about their own child’s classroom behavior. They were all astounded by how the teachers were able to keep a class of 12 toddlers organized throughout the day. “How on earth do you get my son to nap?” “How do you get my daughter to use the potty so consistently?” “My son sits and colors quietly?” “Are you sure you’re talking about my kid?”
Surprisingly, everyone (including me) seemed to have toddlers who behaved much better at school than they did at home for us. Why is it that our children can behave like angels for strangers but turn into little devils when they get home?
If you’ve ever asked yourself this question, you are not alone. A lot of parents have a son or a daughter who throws themselves on the floor screaming for a variety of tiny (and sometimes unknown) reasons, but politely says “please” and “thank you” to their friends’ parents and cleans up their toys without complaint for the babysitter. It turns out that the reason isn’t that your kids like other people better than they like you—it’s actually quite the opposite. In fact, this pattern of behavior could be a good sign that your child is securely attached to you.
A psychologist named Mary Ainsworth from Johns Hopkins University and the University of Virginia became famous for studying infants’ attachments to their moms in an experiment she called the “strange situation.” In the study, mothers brought their babies to a lab space to play, and after a few minutes, a stranger entered the room and sat down near the baby. At some point, the baby’s mom left the room, leaving the baby alone with the stranger. Finally, the mom returned. The big question was, what did the babies do when the stranger came in, what did they do when their moms left the room, and most importantly, how did they react when their moms came back?
Ainsworth found that most babies were “securely attached,” and in this situation, are happy to play in a new place when their mothers are around, they are upset (at least mildly) when she leaves, and they feel better when she comes back. But not all babies show secure attachments. “Insecure/avoidant” babies are often indifferent to their mothers’ presence; they don’t notice when she leaves, and they don’t seem to care when she returns. “Anxious/resistant” babies cling to their moms the entire time she’s in the room, they are really upset when she leaves, but they can’t be comforted when she comes back, and may even be angry with her for leaving in the first place. A last group of babies, called “disorganized/disoriented”, show a mix of responses and don’t tend to behave consistently throughout the study (Ainsworth, 1979; Karen, 1990).
How does a child become securely attached? Infants who have moms who respond to their needs—who comfort their babies when they cry, who laugh when their babies laugh—are most likely to be securely attached. These babies learn that when they are upset, their mothers will be there to comfort them. This makes the baby “secure” enough to explore new environments when their moms are there, since they know that they have a dependable caregiver nearby to help if something goes wrong. These babies feel confident in their mothers’ presence to explore new situations; they feel less confident when she isn’t around, but they immediately have their confidence restored when she comes back.
So why do our babies behave so badly for us and not for other people? The answer seems to be because they are comfortable with us. They know they can have a total meltdown and we will be there to comfort and support then. They know we will still love them when they throw their toys across the room and refuse to pick them up. They know they can show us their true colors and we will always think those colors are bright. We make them feel secure in ways that strangers can’t. So, while we get their real love and affection, we get their other real emotions too—even the not so pleasant ones. With strangers, our kids feel less secure, especially when we aren’t around, so they are more restrained, and as a result, they are often on their best behavior.
If you think about it, not much changes as we become adults. We are often on our best behavior when we meet strangers too, or when we are at work with our colleagues. You’d be embarrassed if everyone read that snarky text you sent to your best friend during a boring meeting, and you certainly wouldn’t feel comfortable having a meltdown in front of just anyone. With strangers, or people we don’t know that well, we are on our best behavior too, because we too feel most secure with the people who are closest to us. As a result, our partners, friends, and parents get to see our most raw emotion too, and strangers get to see a more restrained version of us—likely the most well-behaved version.
So there isn’t anything amiss if you have a child who’s a demon at home and an angel outside the house. It doesn’t mean you’re doing something wrong; in fact, it likely means that you’re probably doing something right. It means that our kids are secure enough to be their total selves for us, for better and for worse.
Photo by jarmoluk/Pixabay
Ainsworth, M. S. (1979). Infant–mother attachment. American psychologist, 34, 932-937.
Karen, R. (1990). Becoming attached. The Atlantic Monthly, 265, 35-70.