Open Thinkering


Into the Wild world of Hitler and Attachment Theory.

Christopher McCandless devant son Image via Wikipedia

Adolf Hitler’s father whipped him as a boy. His parents died (separately) when he was in his teens. He spent some years drifting, fought in WWI, and eventually became the monster we have all learned about.

Chris McCandless’ parents argued and fought when he was a child. Their lies about how they met, about the circumstances of Chris’ and his sister’s birth drove him, after university, to leave his savings to charity and eventually end up in Alaska. Trying to live apart from society in the wilderness, he died and his story was made into the film Into the Wild (which I watched this evening).

Both Adolf Hitler and Chris McCandless could be said to suffering from a lack of emotional attachment to parental figures. This led to tragic consequences in both cases. As an educator, I see pupils who show tendencies, perhaps not on the same scale, but certainly on the spectrum certainly as McCandless. This is why I was fascinated to come across Don Ledingham’s recent blog post on Attachment Theory.

It was a real eye-opener. I know I’m only four years into my teaching career, but there tends to be ‘nothing new under the sun’ after a while. The same-old, same-old keeps getting churned out and repackaged. What I read about Attachment Theory, however, really made me think. Schools can be discriminatory places, sometimes indirectly. Take, for example, the wildly different parenting experiences two pupils in the same class could have. Believing that we, as teachers, can modify a pupil’s behaviour simply through rewards and sanctions seems somewhat misguided in this light. Here’s Don’s gloss on it:

However, Attachment Theory suggests that such a model cannot influence a child who has not experienced secure parenting, nor formed a secure relationship in their early years. If we reflect upon what adults are doing with children under 3 we can characterise good parenting as being caring and empathetic. Recent brain research shows that the brain does not develop the same in an environment where the child has not experienced a secure parenting environment. So such things as neglect and abuse; overt family conflict; hostile and rejecting relationships; or death and loss can all disrupt the normal secure attachment that a child requires to properly develop.

By the time such children come to school they are not in a position to understand or control their behavour so the dominant behavioural models which most schools and classrooms depend upon are doomed to failure, as they assume that all children are the same and that they have had the same parenting and don’t make allowances for those that haven’t.

We need to educate the whole child. We need to teach young people with reference to their norms and the context in which they have been brought up and operate. I’m going to be looking for more on Attachment Theory. I think it’s got a lot to say to educators.

What do you think?

5 thoughts on “Into the Wild world of Hitler and Attachment Theory.

  1. It’s an interesting theory. It seems that children are very resilient and there is even hope for adults. I recently finished reading “Influencer”. There are many references to a program in San Franciso ran by a Dr. Silber that rehabilitate drug addicts and criminals into actual functioning professionals. I don’t think the damage is ever necessarily final.

  2. There is much being done at schools and centres in South Africa (and presumably other places), among children who have been subjected to violence and abuse all their lives. Trying to teach them that punching is not the only form of physical contact available to them is a starting point. It’s tough work and it goes wa-ay beyond classroom teaching of the curriculum.

    There is also a barrier in the form of the moritorium on physical contact between teachers and pupils in the UK. Sometimes children with attachment issues desperately need to be hugged, or even simply to be on the receiving end of what I call “incidental contact” to see evidence that they are not repugnant.

  3. This is a fascinating topic to raise.

    The good news about this is that the evidence we have suggests that young people's brains whose development has been held back by stress and anxiety will catch up given more nurturing conditions –

    There is always hope!

    I wonder what the implications of this kind of theory are for schools. Some challenging ideas arise about the role of a school. Should we see a greater blurring of the boundaries between the school and the community, for example? Should schools be focussing more actively on the creation of nurturing informal spaces in school and community, or even getting involved in relationships within the family?

    As we learn more, it could be an important debate in the coming years.

  4. I’m actually doing a research paper for my Psych 101 class and my subject is the attachment theory and how it applies to Criminals. Mainly the serial killers and I have found lately that most criminals did lose their parents or were beaten by them when they were young. Or their parents were home but just never cared for them ,this topic is very controversial, my prof. and I argued over it for a good length of time since there is no scientifical proof that the criminals kill because they want to belong and make their parents notice them.

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