The Theory of Monotropy and the Law

Bowlby (1951) argued that infants form a special relationship with their mother, which is qualitatively different from the relationship which they form with any other kind of person. Bowlby described this as the process of monotropy. By a mechanism which he saw as very similar to imprinting, Bowlby considered that the young infant developed a firm attachment to its mother within the first six months of life, and that if this attachment or bond was then broken, the infant would suffer serious consequences.

Part of Bowlby's evidence came from his study of forty-four juvenile delinquents. These were adolescents who had been caught stealing, and who had come to a child guidance clinic for treatment. As a psychoanalyst, Bowlby believed it possible that the roots of anti-social behaviour might lie in an early disruption of the bond between mother and infant, and his investigations showed that seventeen out of the forty-four delinquents had been separated from their mothers for some period before the age of 5.

Comparisons which he made with similar children who were emotionally disturbed (he was seeing them through a child guidance clinic) but did not steal showed that they were less likely to have been separated from their mothers. Bowlby concluded that ma-ternal deprivation – being deprived of one's mother during the first five years of life – could seriously affect the child's social development, producing juvenile delinquency. Among his sample, there were two children who were particularly delinquent, and who appeared to have very little in the way of social conscience.

This syndrome was described by Bowlby as 'affectionless psychopathy', and he argued that this was the extreme consequence of maternal deprivation. If the child lacked a special relationship with the mother, it would grow up unable to form relationships with other people. Without relationships with other people, the child would be unlikely to conform to social norms in the usual way. Therefore, it would fail to develop a social conscience and would become a psychopath, acting out of self-interest without thought for others.

Bowlby's work rapidly assumed a political dimension, as his arguments were seized by the post-war pressure groups, which argued that women should stay at home and look after children full-time. The reason why this had become a sensitive political issue was because at this time there were a large number of returning servicemen, and it was considered necessary that jobs should be freed for them. Since a large number of women had worked during the war and carried on working afterwards, some people argued that they should return to full-time child-care in the home, and free their jobs for the returning servicemen.

The political nature of this debate meant that Bowlby's work received a large amount of publicity, which was inevitably sensationalised. However, Bowlby himself had included in his book Child Care and the Growth of Love (Bowlby, 1951) a table of the kinds of circumstances which were likely to damage children. These were mostly extreme circumstances, like 'war', 'famine', 'death', and so on, but he did include in this list 'mother working full-time', and it was this phrase which fuelled the debate, until the term 'maternal deprivation' became a catch-phrase in society.

Early evidence cited by Bowlby did indeed seem to suggest that such harm could result, and moreover that it could last until adult life. Bowlby cited a study by Spitz (1945), who described how the depression a child felt at losing a parent could last until childhood; and a study by Goldfarb (1943), showing how children who had lived in institutions for their first three years of life were less rule-abiding, less sociable and less intelligent (as measured by IQ tests) than a comparable group who had been fostered.

Bowlby himself reported how, of forty-four juvenile delinquents attending a child guidance clinic, seventeen had been separated from their mothers for a significant period before the age of 5, which was not the case for a control group of forty-four disturbed adolescents who had not broken the law. Other evidence for 'maternal deprivation' accrued rapidly.

Patton and Gardner (1963) introduced the concept of depri-vation dwarfism, showing that deprived and neglected children were often under-sized by comparison with others. And a further study by Bowlby (1956), of sixty children who had spent a period in a sanatorium before the age of 4, showed lower school achievement in later child-hood and a tendency to over-excitability and daydreaming.