Educating the educators? How parent education works!

Gertrud Wolf

Parent education Photo: van dalay / photocase.deIn Germany parent education has a long tradition. In its beginnings it centered on conveying specific knowledge on primary maternal and parental tasks. Over the last years parent education has become more and more consolidated by scientific theories. Among these, the attachment theory by John Bowlby has gained a very prominent meaning for the development of new courses. But to propagate the impact of attachment and bonding for the success of education requires new skills. Therefore, these courses must be amended to incorporate the dimension of personality development.

The following article will discuss the need why maternal and parental courses have to incorporate this dimension and how even attachment can be taught in adult education.

The roots of parent education in Germany

So-called “Mother Schools” can be considered as the roots of modern parent education. The first of these schools was founded in Stuttgart, Germany, in 1917 with the idea of giving mothers a basic training to develop proper maternal skills. Since that time mother education has often changed and has ultimately led to different types of parent education. Now parent education is a part of medical and social family care and adult education.

Over the past 10 years questions about parent education have received new attention. There are different reasons for this development, such as the increasing number of single parent families as a result of higher divorce rates, the necessity to find suitable life-work balances in the face of the economic demands of everyday life, as well as state benefits fostering family education subject to the law of non-violent education since 2000.

Many new parent training courses came on the market through adult education. All these new courses seem to strive for the legitimatization of their ideas through scientific references. A popular and very significant reference in most of these courses is the attachment theory by John Bowlby.

Why humans are attachment freaks

In line with the theory of the British psychiatrist John Bowlby (1958), attachment basically is an inherent necessity which leads to the formation of very deep relationships between babies and their mothers or other close caregivers. Bowlby believed that these earliest bonds had a tremendous impact that continued throughout life. In his opinion attachment also serves to keep the infant close to his/her mother, thus improving the child’s chances of survival. The central aspect of the attachment theory is that primary caregivers – first of all the natural mothers – who are available and responsive to an infant’s needs allow the child to develop a sense of security. The infant knows that the caregiver is reliable which creates a secure base for the child to then explore the world. In addition, studies have shown the impact of breastfeeding for cerebral development (Schore 1994).

Thus, secure attachment is necessary for a child’s entire personal development during childhood and even beyond spanning a whole lifetime.

A colleague of Bowlby, the psychologist Mary Ainsworth (1978), explored types of attachment and its effects on behavior. By observing children aged between 12 and 18 months Ainsworth described three major styles of attachment: secure attachment, ambivalent-insecure attachment, and avoidant-insecure attachment. Later the researchers Main and Solomon (1986) added a fourth attachment style called disorganized-insecure attachment based upon the findings of their own research. A number of studies since that time have supported Ainsworth’s attachment styles and have indicated that attachment styles also have an impact on ways of behavior later in life. Thus, also romantic love follows the principles of our earliest experiences with attachment and bonding. And what’s more we transfer our own experiences into the relationships with our own babies and children. But even if a secure attachment style is deemed to be the most favorable precondition for a successful life, insecure attachment styles cannot automatically be considered as abnormal or pathological. Only the disorganized attachment style is associated with an extremely high vulnerability to causing severe social, mental and psychological problems.

From motherhood to management

According to his theory Bowlby elaborated the importance of parental care: “To be a successful parent means a lot of very hard work. Looking after a baby or toddler is a twenty-four-hour-a-day job seven days a week, and often a very worrying one at that. And even if the load lightens a little as children get older, if they are to flourish they still require a lot of time and attention. For many people today these are unpalatable truths. Giving time and attention to children means sacrificing other interests and other activities“. This quotation shows the actuality of Bowlby even today. The more so because in today’s life activities like nursing and raising children compete against the time that we must spend for our jobs. But according to Bowlby it is a fact that healthy, happy, and self-reliant adolescents and young adults are the products of stable homes in which both parents give a great deal of time and attention to their children. So what do parents need today to be able to handle this difficult situation?

The patterns of families have totally changed and the conditions to which families are subject have changed, too: Today families are smaller, often without aunts or grandmothers who help to shoulder the family tasks. In addition, modern society does not seem to appreciate the work of a mother. It seems that only jobs in the business world are able to give social status and respect. Furthermore, often both young parents are forced to seek employment for economic reasons. Generally, modern day parents are less confronted with problems of, say, hygiene, but rather with psychological challenges with regard to keeping calm when their baby is crying. Sometimes young parents are completely overburdened by ordinary situations like baby crying, problems at school or providing homework assistance. It appears that today parent education has to develop family management skills. But with regard to the attachment theory this has to go beyond mere management. Because the less time parents have to spend with their children the more emphasis must be placed on the quality of the relationships between their children and them. Thus, the challenge for modern parent education is how to impart those skills relevant to achieve secure attachments? Such skills may be acquired, but only by personal development.

From Education to Self-Development

As a matter of fact, new parent courses are explicitly dealing with the ideas of the attachment theory. In general, they encourage parents to give security and care to their children aiming at establishing secure attachment bonds. But if the attachment style to which parents were exposed to themselves determines their babies’ way of attachment, this approach doesn’t work if we not pay due respect to the wellbeing of the parents themselves. Due to the fact that our brains are plastic we are able to learn throughout our lifespan. Irrespective of the situation we were born into or whatever may have happened to us in our early development we, as adults, can actually make conscious choices and learn and change. Being in different relationships reveals different aspects of ourselves and new experiences change us. But often the problem arises that the encounters with our children trigger early childhood emotions bringing to life past experiences which in turn influence new situations. So in order to tackle this problem we must be able to self-reflect and to settle our emotional heritage by ourselves. It is not enough to merely spread knowledge of the attachment theory, but it is also necessary to teach skills which help us to handle our past feelings and emotions that emerge while being confronted with new experiences. For example, people subject to an unsecure attachment pattern tend to have feelings of anxiety by too much closeness. They first have to learn to be aware of this and to control their anxiety. Then the relationships with their children can become a real source for truly new experiences. The methods we use in parent education are partially similar to methods of behavior therapy: Self relieving by breath control and exercises on mindfulness are helping to regulate critical emotions. Change of perspectives brings forward appreciation. Another necessary aspect into the courses is given by different communication theories namely Transactional Analysis by Eric Berne or Nonviolent Communication by Marshall B. Rosenberg. So Parent education today is less knowledge-based and rather involves self-experience and self-development.


It may be concluded that parent education is moving forward from the stage of medical care and nursing to adult education because self-development traditionally is a part of professional adult education with adult educators having profound expertise to initiate processes of self-development and personal change. The view of adult educators shows that parent education is not restricted to medical or social aspects alone. So a new market for adult education is opening up making this profession more attractive to different target groups. In the future it would be profitable for adult educators to acquaint themselves with questions which are normally not within their focus: namely the proper development of babies, toddlers and children.


Ainsworth, M., Blehar, M., Waters, E., & Wall, S. (1978). Patterns of Attachment. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum

Bowlby, John (1958): The nature of the child’s tie to his mother. In: International Journal of Psychoanalysis. Band 39, 1958, S. 350–373

Main M, Solomon J (1986). “Discovery of an insecure disoriented attachment pattern: procedures, findings and implications for the classification of behavior”. In Brazelton T, Youngman M. Affective Development in Infancy. Norwood, NJ: Ablex

Schore, Allan (1994): Affect Regulation and the Origin of the Self . L. Erlbaum Associates

European InfoNet Adult Education, 21.10.2015