Multiple attachments and the role of the father.

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Multiple Attachments and the Role of the Father (AO1, Description):

One of the most important questions attachment research has to answer concerns over who infants become attached to.

Parent-Infant Attachment: Traditionally researchers have thought in terms of mother-infant attachment. Schaffer and Emerson (1964) found that the majority of babies did become attached to their mothers’ first – primary attachment (around 7 months) and within a few weeks or months formed secondary attachments to other family members including the father. In 75% of the infants studied an attachment was formed with the father by the age of 18 months. This was determined by the fact that the infants protested when their fathers walked away – a sign of attachment.

The Role of the Father: Grossman (2002) carried out a longitudinal study looking at both the parents’ behaviour and its relationship to the quality of the children’s attachment into their teens. Quality of infant attachment with mothers but not fathers was related to children’s attachment in adolescents suggesting that father attachment was less important. However, the quality of the fathers’ play with infants have a different role in attachment – one that is more to do with play and stimulation, and less to do with nurturing.

Fathers and Primary Caregivers: There is some evidence to suggest that when fathers do take on the role of being the main caregiver they adopt behaviours more typical of mothers. Field (1978) filmed 4 month old babies in face to face interaction with primary caregiver mothers, secondary caregiver fathers and primary caregiver fathers. Primary caregiver fathers, like mothers, spent more time smiling, imitating and holding infants than the secondary caregiver fathers. This behaviour appears to be important in building an attachment with the infant. It seems that fathers can be the more nurturing attachment figure. The key to the attachment relationship is the level of the responsiveness not the gender of the parent.

Evaluation of the Research into Multiple Attachments and the Role of the Father (AO3, Evaluation):

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(1) POINT: The role of fathers as secondary attachment figures can be explained through biological processes and gender stereotyping. EXAMPLE/EVIDENCE: For example, the fact that fathers tend not to become the primary attachment figure could simply be down to the result of traditional gender roles, in which women are expected to be more caring and nurturing than men. On the other hand, it could be that females hormones (oestrogen) create higher levels of nurturing and therefore women are biologically pre-disposed to be the primary attachment figure. EVALUATION: This is a strength as it confirms that such difference between mothers and fathers in the role of rearing children can be down to an individual’s nature but also their experiences of nurture.


(1) POINT: A weakness of research into attachment figures is that there are inconsistent findings as to the role of the father in attachments. EVIDENCE/EXAMPLE: For example, research into the role of the father in attachment is confusing because different researchers are interested in different research questions. Some researchers are interested in understanding the role fathers have as secondary attachment figures, whereas others are more concerned with the father’s role as a primary attachment figure. The former have tended to see fathers behaving differently from mothers and having a distinct role. The latter have tended to find that fathers can take on a ‘maternal’ role. EVALUATION: This is a problem because it means psychologists cannot easily answer the questions ‘what is the role of the father?’ The findings from research being inconsistent means that firm conclusions cannot be drawn.

(2) POINT: A further criticism is that research has left unanswered questions such as if fathers have a distinct role then why aren’t children without fathers different EVIDENCE/EXAMPLE: For example, as mentioned previously, Grossman’s study found that fathers as a secondary attachment figure have an important role in their children’s upbringing. However other studies such as MacCallum and Golombok (2004) have found that children growing up in single or same-sex parent families do not develop any differently from those in two parent heterosexual families. EVALUATION: This is a weakness because it suggests that the father’s role as a secondary attachment figure is not important.