This need is met by the child experiencing from birth onwards a stable, continuous, dependable and loving relationship with his parents (or permanent parent-substitutes), who them selves enjoy a rewarding relationship with one another. Through this relationship – first with his mother, then his father and gradually an ever-widening circle of other people – the child comes to a realisation of personal identity and worthwhileness. It forms the basis of all later relationships, not only with the family, but with friends, colleagues and eventually his own family. On it depend the healthy development of the personality, the ability to respond to affection and, in time, to become a loving, caring parent.
The basic and all-pervasive feature of parental love is that the child is valued unconditionally and for his own sake, irrespective of his sex, appearance, abilities or personality; that this love is given without expectation of or demand for gratitude; and that the constraints imposed upon parental freedom of movement, upon time and upon finance are accepted without resentment or reproach. (Occasionally begrudging these constraints is, of course, different from a permanent sense of resentment.) Parents communicate this unconditional affection through all their relations with him: from physical care and handling to responding to his first smile and sounds from protecting him from, and then gradually initiating him into, the social world; and from restraining to eventually punishing him for going beyond the limits they have set for acceptable behaviour.
The greatest impact of such love is on the self. Approval and acceptance by others are essential for the development of self-approval and self-acceptance. Whether a child will develop a constructive or destructive attitude, first to himself and then to other people, depends in the first place on his parents’ attitude to him. During the earliest months of infancy and biological helplessness, the mother acts as insulator and filter, protecting the baby from the impact of his new environment. For example, a loud noise startles a baby far less, or a mild digestive upset will be endured more easily, when he is in his mother’s or father’s arms. Throughout the early years, close physical contact continues to be protectively reassuring, as well as an expression of parental affection. This is probably why, during the war, children who remained with their parents during bombing attacks coped better with anxiety than those who were evacuated to safer areas.
During this time, few demands are made on the infant and all his wants are met. It is he who at this early stage provides both the impetus and directive for maternal behaviour: she responds not only because of her concern for him but also for her own comfort, as his crying is painful to her. Following this period of total egocentricity the initiative passes to the mother: the baby is expected to begin to give up instant gratification, to accept postponement and to respond to the requirements of others; this sets him on the way – slowly and often painfully – to becoming integrated into a wider social world. From now on the relationship becomes and continues to he a reciprocal one.
Though able to respond to sights and sounds within the first forty-eight hours of life, the first truly social step is the infant’s smile responding to a smiling face. This happens in about the second month of life; only several months later does he become able to identify and differentiate his mother’s face from that of others. This is an important milestone: it marks the emergence of his awareness of his mother as a separate person, ‘outside himself’ as it were, and thus the beginning of his identity or self-concept; it also marks the growth of his first and vital emotional attachment or bond. To reach this stage, he has had to accomplish a vast amount of learning so as to be able to distinguish between a host of sensory impressions.
From this first reciprocal love relationship flow three further consequences of vital importance to development: first, the baby enjoys the mother’s presence, even if he can only hear her moving about, and he becomes concerned when she disappears. Secondly, the loving mother who watches and encourages each step forward is likely to accelerate progress by her anticipatory interest and delight in the earliest signs; these ‘reward’ the baby for his efforts and spur him on to continue making them. Hence he may learn to walk and talk earlier than a child whose mother has not the time or inclination for such close involvement in his progress. Conversely, she conveys disappointment and disapproval of behaviour which she wishes to discourage.
The third consequence is that the child is enabled through mutually rewarding relationships, first with his mother and then with others who become significant to him, to learn self-control and to acquire moral values. This he accomplishes by imitation or ‘modelling’. Mothering mediates between the child’s inner subjective and the outside ‘real’ world; it recognises and establishes his personal identity and individuality; and her loving care is unique in the sense that it is adapted to his very special, individual needs which are recognised as being different from those of any other child.
Such love is extremely difficult to replace and hence it makes the child vulnerable when it is lost to him, temporarily or permanently. In most cases
‘The best that community care can offer is impartiality – to be fair to every child in its care. But a developing personality needs more than that: it needs to know that to someone it matters more than other children; that someone will go unreasonable lengths … for its sake’ (Newson, 1972).
Newson, E. (1972). Towards an understanding of the parental role.The Parental Role, 28-35. National Children's Bureau.
Pringle, K.M. (1975) The needs of children and how they are met. The needs of children. London: Hutchinson & Co. pp 34-36