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Selected Readarounds in Child and Youth Care

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Caring interaction

Anita Weiner

The beginnings of our scientific concern for caring interactions with children occurred in the 1940s when Ribble (1943) claimed that infants have a right to mothering, which "includes the whole gamut of small acts by which an emotionally healthy mother may consistently show her love for her child, thus intuitively stimulating emotional responses in him." By the 1980s, the concept of caring had replaced mothering, but many of the original components are still valid and appropriate.

In a flurry of studies on the nature of mother-child relationships during the 1950s and 1960s (e.g., Bowlby 1958; Mahler and LaPerriere 1965; Spitz 1965; Winnicott 1960), most researchers confirmed the importance of attachment, in the context of warm, stimulating, long-term relationships, for the normal development of children. As we are now learning, attachment is both a process of child-caregiver interaction and a result of the interaction. Some kinds of interactions are more likely to promote attachment and to enhance development, and some are less likely to do so.

In a step toward defining the quality of mother-infant interaction, Ainsworth (1974) developed a sensitivity-insensitivity scale that tests a mother's ability to observe her baby's signals, to interpret them correctly, and then to respond to them promptly and adequately. She found a relationship between a mother's ability to "see things from her baby's point of view" and the child's sense of security and growing exploratory capacities. Seeing things from the child's point of view requires that the mother focus her attention on the child, observe the child's thinking, feeling, and behaving, and then interpret these observations appropriately. To accomplish this task, the mother must be sufficiently separated from the child to see the child as a separate entity, yet sufficiently involved to interpret correctly what she has observed.

It is the mother's sensitivity to her child's signals that stimulates attachment in the child, and this attachment is essential for normal development. When it is not the mother but another caregiver who shows such sensitivity, the child develops an attachment to that person. According to Schaeffer (1971), attachments probably develop most readily to those caregivers who are able to interpret a child's behavior appropriately and to adapt their own behavior to the specific needs of that child, caregivers who see "care giving and care receiving as a symphony of human interactions" (Maier 1987). Maier also claims that the "give-and-take process for tuning in and locating a joint rhythm occurs in attachment formation in all ages of life. This process of tuning in and finding common strands of attachments is one of the essential features of child care work" because it is a fundamental component of caring interactions.

Thus, when a child's needs are sensitively observed and interpreted, in addition to the feeling of well-being that results, the child learns to observe and interpret his or her own needs more clearly and to define them in ways that potentially lead to more gratifying empathic interaction with others. Gratification in interaction with others can lead to warmer and more stimulating relationships that, in turn, may create deeper attachments. The direct care worker who has skills in observing and interpreting the behavior of children may well be on the way toward providing those children with the foundation for a lifetime of caring, satisfying interactions.


Ainsworth, M.D.S. (1974). The development of infant-mother attachment. In Caldwell, B.M., and Ricciuti, H.N. (eds.), Review of Child Development Research, 3. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Bowlby, J. (1958). The nature of the child's tie to the mother. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 39. pp. 350-373.

Mahler, M.S., and LaPerriere, K. (1965). Mother-child interaction during separation-individuation. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 34. pp. 483-498.

Maier, H. W. (1987). Developmental Group Care of Children and Youth: Concepts and Practice. New York: Haworth. pp. 40, 42; also in Ainsworth F. and Fulcher, L.C. (Eds.). (1981). Group Care for Children: Concept and Issues. London and New York: Tavistock. pp. 23,25.

Ribble, M. (1943). The Rights of Infants. New York: Columbia University Press.

Schaeffer, R. (1971). Mothering. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Spitz, R.A. (1965). The First Year of Life: A Psychoanalytic Study of Normal-Deviant Development of Object Relations. New York: International Universities Press.

Winnicott, D.W. (1960). The theory of parent-infant relationships. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 41. pp 585-595.

Weiner, A. (1991). Providing a development-enhancing environment: The Child and Youth Care worker as observer and interpreter of behavior. In Beker, J. and Eisikovits, Z. (Eds.) Knowledge Uitilization in Residential Child and Youth Care Practice. Washington D.C. Child Welfare League of America. pp. 87-88.

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