A group of child psychiatrists in training were learning about various theories of child development that have emerged over time. A film portrayed the influence of research into animal behavior, monkeys in particular. A famous study showed striking differences in development and behavior of monkeys raised in different ways.

Some monkeys taken from their mothers at birth were placed with padded cloth surrogate “mothers,” while others were placed with plain wired dummies. Both groups were fed appropriately. As time passed, the monkeys in the padded dummy group developed in ways closer to expected, while the other group became increasingly withdrawn, avoided social contact, and engaged in atypical behavior.

Other aspects of this research sought to identify those elements that were essential to normal development. One such appeared to be the need for mobility and appropriate sensory stimulation. Monkey who were raised in an environment where they were able to climb and move about freely, developed in more typical ways. Those restricted, appeared withdrawn and depressed, showing little interest in their environment.

The doctor leading the group suggested that if researchers looked in antique shops they would discover what earlier generations believed was important for child development. He was referring to the prevalence of rocking chairs, cradles and all manner of items providing opportunities for movement. Of course, these in turn were replacements for an era in which babies were carried on their mothers’ backs.

One might ask what researchers will find in the antiques stores of tomorrow that would tell them what today’s parents have come to believe is essential for child development? Of course, parents of different cultures have found their own ways of raising children they deem successful and those ways are passed from one generation to the next. At the same time research in child development has led to new theories which give rise to new ideas about the best ways to provide what children need as they grow.

The problem that grows out of this process is the idea that there is one right way to do things and the fear that any deviation from that way will lead to an undesirable outcome. The research referred to above promoted attachment theory.

The significant idea that emerged from this as well as other research was the importance of attachment to a caregiver in the developmental process. The caregiver in most research was the mother — in the instance of the monkeys the group raised by their mothers did best.

We are now in an age where the old model of maternal child-rearing which served as the basis for earlier research, does not apply. Many mothers are no longer the primary caregivers of their children. Yet years of research have put the emphasis on the importance of maternal care rather than on identifying what the important characteristics are of such care that can be provided in other ways.

The result is that mothers who do not provide full-time care struggle with the fear that they are not adequately meeting the needs of their children, while at the same time that same belief is a force in the failure of our society to provide alternative ways of meeting those needs. Maternal attachment does not require full-time maternal care. Nurturing of children does require human interaction that can be provided in a variety of ways.

The antique shops of tomorrow will be hard put to find samples of the many ways today’s parents are trying to find ways to meet the needs of their children without the support they themselves need. An unfortunate legacy of a side of research.

— Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: The Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: The Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at goodenoughmothering.com.