Current attachment security is presumed to reflect both early experiences and current relationships with attachment figures. However, few researchers have examined the parenting behaviors that are linked with attachment during middle childhood. The overall purpose of the present study was to investigate the relations among maternal and paternal parenting behaviors (sensitivity, encouragement of autonomy) and girls’ and boys’ attachment security with respect to their mothers and fathers. 

It has been suggested that fathering becomes more important as children grow older and form relationships outside the family. In addition, the type of sensitivity that promotes attachment security with mother may differ from the type of sensitivity that promotes attachment security with father. A perspective on attachment that encompasses security in both attachment and exploration suggests that parents must both respond sensitively to child distress and support autonomy. It was hypothesized that mothers are more likely to act as a safe haven and respond to child distress, whereas fathers are more likely to act as a secure base for exploration.


Data from the NICHD Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development (NICHD SECCYD ) were analyzed. Participants were restricted to “traditional nuclear” families. Data relevant to the current study were collected at laboratory and home visits when children were in Grades 3, 4, and 5. Parental sensitivity and respect for autonomy were observed in child-parent interactions in Grades 3 and 5. Parent-reported encouragement of autonomy was assessed at Grades 3 and 4. Child-reported felt security with respect to each parent, observed dyadic felt security, and parent-reported child attachment behaviors were assessed in Grades 3 and 5. 

Structural equation modeling was used to test the study hypotheses. The model that emerged contained significant correlations between maternal and paternal sensitivity and between child-mother and child-father attachment at both Grades 3 and 5, stability of both sensitivity and attachment, and predictive relations only within Grade 5. Taken as a whole, the results point to the need to take a developmental pathways perspective and to examine the reciprocal relations between children and parents in middle childhood. 


There is strong evidence to suggest that differences in the home experience, particularly in the parent-child relationship, influence children’s feelings of self-worth, their competence with peers, and aspects of their friendship relationships (Harter, 1998; Rubin, Bukowski, & Parker, 1998; Schneider, Atkinson, & Tardif, 2001). Attachment theory and research suggest that children’s experiences with their caregivers during infancy influence the ways they come to think and feel about themselves and others (Bowlby, 1973; 1982). Yet, children and parents also continue to be part of ongoing, developing relationships with one another, and representations of relationships, although tending to be stable, remain flexible (Bowlby, 1973). Thus, to address differences in social competence or even self-worth at the level of the individual is to ignore a significant component of the child’s immediate environment and to miss an important opportunity for lasting change.

Attachment security, or confidence in the availability and responsiveness of a caregiver in times of distress, grows out of the particular relationship history between the child and caregiver (Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, & Wall, 1978; Bowlby, 1982). A securely attached infant has theoretically experienced consistently accessible and responsive caregiving from an attachment figure, whereas an insecurely attached infant has experienced non-responsive or inconsistently responsive caregiving (Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, & Wall, 1978). Variations in attachment security are evident by the second year of life and, according to attachment theory, become increasingly stable over time, as relationship patterns are repeated and attachment-related thoughts and feelings become automatic and subconscious (Bowlby, 1973). However, discontinuity is possible, and even expected, when there are major changes in the attachment relationship (Belsky & Cassidy, 1994; Bowlby, 1973). Although increasing attention has been given to attachment beyond infancy in recent years, few researchers have investigated the links between caregiving and attachment security in older children and young adolescents. Thus, the overall purpose of the present study was to investigate the relations between maternal and paternal caregiving and school-aged girls’ and boys’ attachment security.  Given the prominence of the hypothesis that responsive and available caregiving leads to secure attachment, it is not surprising that a great deal of research has been conducted to examine the links between maternal sensitivity and infant attachment, with results revealing a moderate link between the two (De Wolff & van IJzendoorn, 1997). Far less research has been conducted to examine the links between fathers’ sensitivity and infant-father attachment. Results of this research have revealed weaker links between paternal sensitivity and infant-father attachment than between maternal sensitivity and infant-mother attachment (van IJzendoorn & De Wolff, 1997). Suggested explanations for this difference include the following: First, it may not be appropriate to measure paternal sensitivity with measures developed to measure maternal sensitivity (Lewis & Lamb, 2003). Second, the link between paternal sensitivity and infant-father attachment may be more susceptible to the influence of contextual factors (not least of which is the quality of the mother-child relationship) than is the link between maternal sensitivity and infant-mother attachment (e.g., Lamb, 2002). Third, fathers may be more influential later in development, particularly as children form relationships outside the family (Lewis &

Lamb, 2003). Thus, it seems important to examine fathering and school-aged children’s attachment to their fathers, with consideration of the measurement of paternal sensitivity and in the context of mothering and children’s-attachment to their mothers.

            Initial research has revealed links between parenting behaviors and attitudes and school-aged children’s attachment security (Kerns, Klepac, & Cole, 1996; Kerns, Tomich, Aspelmeier, & Contreras, 2000). However, these studies have assessed sensitivity in an identical fashion across mothers and fathers, without consideration of the possibility that paternal sensitivity may differ qualitatively from maternal sensitivity (Lewis & Lamb, 2003). Thus, the first specific aim of the present study was to examine similarities and differences in maternal and paternal parenting and their relations to attachment in middle childhood. In addition, links between paternal behavior and childfather attachment have been examined separately from maternal behavior and childmother attachment. Thus, little is known about the direct vs. indirect and overlapping vs. unique effects of maternal and paternal behavior on children’s attachment to mothers and fathers (Parke, 2002). The second specific aim of the present study was to examine childmother and child-father attachment within the context of the family as a system (that is, to examine child-father attachment in the context of child-mother attachment, and vice versa). Finally, the initial research into the links between parenting and attachment in middle childhood has not examined the potential influence of characteristics of the child on these constructs and the manner in which these constructs are related. Therefore, the third specific aim of the present study was to examine (a) gender differences in attachment security with mothers and fathers, (b) levels of maternal and paternal responsiveness and encouragement of autonomy with respect to girls and boys, and (c) the manner in which these constructs are related for girls and boys.