Bowlby, Harlow And Anna Freud: Changing The Way We Think About Childhood

The debate between learning theory and Bowlby’s theory has its origins 50 years or more ago. How did the work of Bowlby, Harlow and Anna Freud change the way we think about children? Have these changes been positive or negative?

Listen to this programme about Anna Freud

You can read more about Anna Freud here

Harlow’s research is dealt with here.

Both of these programmes refer to the influence of John Bowlby. There is plenty of information about his work on the web. Do a search to find out more.

Write a comment of no more than 200 words summing up how these researchers changed our thinking and whether these changes have been positive or negative.


  1. Bowlby, Anna Freud and Harlow have all challenged what we think about attachment in infants. These changes in our thinking have been both positive and negative, depending on the perspective you look at these changes with.

    Bowlby highlighted the importance of a primary caregiver in a child’s life to form a primary attachment with. The primary attachment is so important because it provides the child with the main foundation for emotional development and shows the child what to expect from other relationships. Bowlby also suggested how attachment is developed to maximise out chances of survival and is a biological process. This may have changed our thinking because attachment may have been previously thought to have been something we are taught or brought up with, not something that we a born to do. Bowlby also changed our thinking by showing how important the role of the primary caregiver is, and in my opinion this is a positive change because now it can be ensured that more children have primary caregivers who are more caring, because of the knowledge of how important this attachment and role is, thus having stronger primary attachments.

    Anna Freud also highlighted the importance of a primary attachment in children’s’ lives, but more specifically, mother and infant. She showed how early mother and infant relationships had an effect on the child’s later development, which is in support of Bowlby’s theory. Freud tried to build a theory about normal child development to be able to distinguish child behaviour that distinguishes from normality. Freud observed children in a toddler group she set up, through this, she also learnt the impact of separation on children through parent visits. Freud has changed our thinking because she highlights how important early experience our to our later development- something which may not have been previously known. Like Bowlby, she showed how important primary attachments are in a child’s life. I think this is a positive thing because now, early experiences of a child can be monitored to ensure healthy and normal development in later life.

    Harlow conducted experiments with monkeys to see if food or comfort was more important in the monkeys most vulnerable stage in their lifetime- as a baby. The baby monkeys were faced with two surrogate mother, one with wire and a hard surface, but it provided food, and one covered in soft cloth. Harlow discovered that the baby monkeys chose the soft surrogate mother, which suggested that they needed comfort more than food. This challenges the learning theory as it suggests that the drive to find affection is stronger than drives like hunger and thirst. This also changed our thinking about the current traditions at that time as they stated that mothers shouldn’t pick their infants up or it may ruin or spoil them. Harlow’s research says the complete opposite, and suggests infants need more care and attention than originally thought. Similarly to Freud and Bowlby, Harlow highlights the importance of early experiences. However, it is questionable whether Harlow’s research can accurately be applied to human babies, as his research was done on primates.

  2. From Ines …… Anna Freud discovered that the best way to find out about individual children was to watch them and note down anything interesting about their behaviour. Freud observed struggles with children’s separation from the mother and children’s interactions with different adults. These observations were made to help understand what is normal in the toddler period. From this research, Freud discovered that 2-3 years is the critical period in child development. Freud opened the Hampstead War Nurseries in 1941 to help around 100 children made homeless by bombing raids. Freud set up the residential nursery because she believed there was a need for a secure environment for the children, whose mothers were busy with the war effort. Anna Freud also saw the importance in men, and in these nurseries saw how the children related to them and how boys tended to follow them around. Freud’s work had revolutionised how we treat children in places such as in hospitals, and in the judicial system. However, Freud’s work has received some criticism. Psychoanalyst Ian Parker says observation can lead the analyst to think that what they see is important rather than what they hear during analysis, and this may lead to accidental misleading information.

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