Is you is, or is you ain’t a cuddler?

I imagine that it’s unnerving to hear that a parent should instruct their child with some distance, touching her very little, and as the American Behaviorist John Watson (1928) said, “If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say goodnight.” Chances are, this last bit of advice seems odd to you – perhaps appalling – who would refuse affection to a young child? But then, you are probably, like me, a product of a culture that has since been re-educated by John Bowlby, a British Psychoanalyst, and Harry Harlow, an American Experimentalist (though you may not know it J).

In the early 20th century, Behaviorism was on the rise in Europe and the U.S., as psychology attempted to make its image more “scientific.” John Watson was of the belief that he could make a child into anything by a series of paired associations, also known as classical conditioning. His legacy includes Little Albert, the baby who was trained to fear rats by a pairing of a rat with a loud, alarming sound. He also believed that affection was not necessary in a parent-child relationship, and indeed, it would spoil the child and produce negative effects.

Two researchers, working separately and continents apart, came to be particularly distressed by this approach to psychology and parenting. They developed two separate, yet eventually intersecting, lines of research to combat the approach. The first is John Bowlby, who observed many children in his psychoanalytic practice, including those orphaned after World War II, and began to develop his theory of attachment. He proposed that children who are separated from a primary caregiver (and in his view, the mother specifically) developed social and behavioral problems as a result of the separation. His work, steeped in ethology (the study of natural behavior, with reflection to evolutionary function), pointed strongly to the need for a child to attach to the mother – beginning with physical contact in infancy.

The second person was Harry Harlow, who trained as an experimentalist in animal behavior and performed all of his early research on rats. Once beginning a professorship at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he found himself short a rat-research lab and had to think quickly about another test subject. He ended up developing an extensive primate center (Harlow Primate Laboratory) to research rhesus macaques. While breeding a local population of these monkeys on whom he could perform his learning and motivation experiments, the monkeys were isolated from one another to avoid spread of infection. These monkeys, reared without a mother, were then noted as having major difficulties interacting socially with other monkeys when the opportunities arose. His ensuing research ultimately showed that monkeys reared without mothers have severe and lasting deficits to social behavior – indeed, his isolated monkeys could not be rehabilitated despite his efforts to do so.

Meanwhile, there’s Watson whose advice regarding the need to limit parental affection was far reaching – consider Lucille Ball’s character in I Love Lucy, happy to have a son, who was most often tucked away in a crib somewhere as she went about her day. We don’t see Lucy doting over little Ricky and being affectionate. This view was beginning to spread into homes; Watson is notorious for influencing popular American culture of his time.

Why the huge difference in opinion? The easiest answer seems to be bias. All three men produced research that is still influential today, but it also shows their own biases. Bowlby and Harlow were adamant that the prevailing views of the psychological world as influenced by Watson was wrong, and they came to the conclusion that infants (human and monkey) need to have an attachment figure to develop normally. Such advice echoes today with current research.

However, there are also some biases that are starting to be overturned from these scholars. Bowlby was so certain that the infant need attach to the mother, that the father (and extended relatives) was practically washed away with the bathwater. Such a perspective has far-reaching implications – such as a judicial bias to grant parental custody to the mother in case of a divorce, even if the mother is the less desirable parent. Research has since shown that children thrive with more – not fewer – attachment figures, something that is overlooked by biasing the mother as the main figure in the child’s life. Further, anthropological evidence indicates that in most cultures, children interact quite frequently with a plethora of relatives and develop an attachment relationship with each. The idea of “it takes a village to raise a child” is so fundamental, that we really must take notice of it and begin to raise children within this context.

Harlow is rightfully well-remembered for his groundbreaking work on attachment in monkeys, but he hardly referred to the concept as attachment. He was steadfast in his beliefs about love – a word that caused him the rebuke of other scholars at the time. Even today, some psychologists have a hard time with the four-letter-word, asking questions such as – How do we define love, scientifically? How could we possibly measure love? Harlow’s own biased views about love, and his sometimes failed pursuits at finding love in his own life, shaped his own research questions and interpretations. He believed that love first occurs between mother and infant, but barring the failure of that love, people may never learn to love at all. This approach is well supported by current work on adult attachment relationships, which borrow more from Bowlby’s concept of inner working models – that the style of attachment we form with a caregiver provides the style that we form as adults in intimate relationships. However, there is still argument from people studying adult romantic relationships about whether the “love” we experience as parents is the same as the “love” we experience as lovers.

I think it is a mistake of researchers to assume that their work is not biased by underlying assumptions. We all run the same risk of mistaking what we believe should be with what we research as it is. By admitting these biases and values we hold, we can more easily move beyond them to unbiased research. To that end, I freely admit that I don’t believe mothers should raise children alone. I think those that are forced to (or opt to) do so are doing a disservice to themselves and their children. Now, lets see how that has shaped and continues to shape my research…..

So, should a parent cuddle their child or not? Is it a matter of degree rather than absolutes – a little cuddling is good, but otherwise tough love? Before you turn to parenting literature for this, or any question, it is a good idea to consider from where the person offering advice is coming.

Some great resources:

Blum, D. (2002). Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the science of affection. New York: Basic Books.

Bowlby, J. (1958). The nature of the child’s tie to his mother. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 39, 350–373. Available online at:

Harlow, H. F. (1958). The nature of love. American Psychologist, 13, 673-685. Available online:

Hazan, C. & Shaver, P. (1987). Romantic love conceptualized as an attachment process. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52(3), 511-524.

van der Horst, F. C. P., LeRoy, H. A., & van der Veer, R. (2008). “When strangers meet”: John Bowlby and Harry Harlow on attachment behavior. Integrative Psychological and Behavioral Science, 42, 370-388.

Watson, J. B. (1928). Psychological care of infant and child. New York: W. W. Norton.

Rosemarie Sokol Chang

About Rosemarie Sokol Chang

Rosemarie Sokol Chang is an evolutionist trained as a psychological scientist. She is the editor of EvoS: The Journal of the Evolutionary Studies Consortium; the creator of the EvoS Consortium website and the EvoS Blogs; and co-founder of the Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology. She also has been involved in the NorthEastern Evolutionary Psychology Society since its inception. She recently edited and contributed to the book Relating to Environments: A New Look at Umwelt. Evolution Matters is a recurring blog focused on concepts and evidence of evolution by natural selection.
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3 Responses to Is you is, or is you ain’t a cuddler?

  1. Rose Chang Rose Chang says:

    Thanks for your comment Matt, and for the additional resource. The intent of this entry was not to weigh in on how we SHOULD raise children in terms of providing affection, but to rather lay out the background behind some opposing views on the matter. Certainly children show cognitive and social benefits from having more than one secure attachment (I blogged about this in an entry on daycare), and as you imply, in traditional groups babies are at the least held pretty continuously. Of course, attaching to a parent is not entirely dependent upon cuddling.

    There is, and probably has been over our evolutionary past, great individual differences in parenting styles which is often minimized by research (such as my own at times) that focuses on average behaviors. While setting an infant down rather than holding it would clearly have not been adaptive in our evolutionary past, the amount of indulgence a parent gives a child likely has shown variation, and certainly does in modern U.S. society.

  2. Avatar Rick Bogle says:

    I think you are somewhat mistaken about Harlow being “rightly well-remembered for his groundbreaking work.” There was nothing groundbreaking about it in spite of van der Horst et al.’s rewriting of history.

    See My September 18, 2008 post: Harry Harlow’s Dark Shadow

  3. Avatar Matt Metzgar says:

    “So, should a parent cuddle their child or not?” That’s a strange question based on the rest of this post. Why would a parent not cuddle? The idea of “tough love” is mostly absent from hunter-gatherer tribes.

    Here’s another source for your list:

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