The Origins of Attachment Parenting: A Field Study With the Great Apes of Rwanda

In the video exchange below, Robin Grille asks field researcher David Metler to imagine what the ape parents he studies in Rwanda would say to human parents. David’s answer is touching and insightful.  Read the full story by David below.  This interview was filmed at the Heart to Heart Parenting Conference  in Yorktown, VA, in December 2013, as part of the Parenting for a Peaceful World USA Tour.  Robin is an Australian psychologist and author of Parenting for a Peaceful World and Heart to Heart Parenting: Nurturing Your Child’s Emotional Intelligence from Conception to School Age.

In the Kindred Fireside Chat below, listen to Dave Metler share his story of discovering for himself and through his academic studies the connections between mindfulness, parenting and attachment theory. Metler is a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin who is studying the effect of mindfulness practices on the parent-child relationship and is the founder of the new nonprofit, the Allied Childhood Experience.   Below is the story of his summer trip to Rwanda where he explored some of the origins of attachment theory among the great apes.  All photos copyrighted by Dave Metler.


The Magic of the Mountain Gorilla: Exploring the Origins of Attachment Parenting in Rwanda

“Let us first understand what we mean by the word magic.  Magic is a mystery and we call a thing a mystery because we do not understand it… There are two kinds of magic. I say magics in order to simplify what I mean.  One kind is created by man, wherein he produces things which are magical or mysterious to everybody but himself because to him they are simple results due to natural causes which are manipulated by him.  Then there are nature’s magics – called magics because no man understands them…” – Loie Fuller

The smell of fresh bamboo entered my nostrils without hesitation, nettles and thistles crammed on either side of the path whacking against me and reaching for me as if I were a celebrity.  A volcano sliced through the sky above us looking stoic and most likely doubting that we would keep going. The arduous hiking adventure continued into its sixth hour as we climbed higher into the bamboo forest on the edge of Volcano National Park, my hopes to observe the endangered mountain gorilla growing in proportion to the sweat droplets that were cascading off of my face.

The murmur of the trackers across their radios sounded promising as we spotted the ground nests that the gorillas slept in last night.  We had found their path from the morning and we learned from the trackers to feel the heat of the gorilla excrement on the trail to get a sense of how close we were to them.  As the gorilla poop got exponentially hotter, a rush of emotion overcame me.  I felt so child-like, free to be in the present moment, and enthralled by the majesty of feeling a part of what surrounded me. I was reminded of the endless hours I spent as a child exploring in nature, where the past and the future did not matter. The spirit of adventure filled me with curiosity as I felt like I was seeing everything for the first time-even the ants looked mystifying- and I was in awe of the lush ecology of the mountain gorillas.

And then with a loud and low “mahhh-mmmm” our trackers pointed to the right and a massive gorilla’s head turned as we approached. It was the silverback and dominant male, Cantsby, who greeted us with a loud and exquisite fart while he chomped on a bamboo sprout.  His group was made up of 35-40 other gorillas including other silverbacks, many females, a couple of juveniles, and some very cute infants.  This group of gorillas is one of the largest groups that can be found in the Rwandan side of Volcanoes National Park.  The park stretches across three countries – Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Uganda – and is the only home of the last mountain gorillas in the world, all 880 of them[1].  (Below: Cantsby and I)


I felt so lucky to be selected to participate in the 2013 Primate Field School in Rwanda, a diverse group of students from six different universities, led by Dr. Dieter Steklis and Professor Netzin Steklis – two of the world’s most well-known primatologists.  The Steklis’ have been doing this work for over thirty years and leading this field school for only three years now, so to be one of the forty students who have ever had this experience felt like such a blessing.  As a part of the trip, there were four research teams – parenting, leadership, cognitive ecology, and commensalism.  With my background in parenting (and my thesis focus on how mindfulness practices affect the parent-child relationship), I enthusiastically decided to join the parenting team.

After some initial observations of baboons, vervet monkeys, and galago’s in Akagera National Park on the eastern Rwandan border with Tanzania, my team finalized our research question.  We all felt fascinated to understand the scope of attachment theory across primates.  Our objective: Do securely attached non-human primates have greater fitness benefits than those insecurely attached?  This led to two hypotheses: (1) Securely attached non-human primates will have greater fitness, and (2) Variation in habitat is correlated with time spent away from mother.   Our research team, appropriately named Parenteam, felt that this would be an intriguing pilot study of attachment theory across primate species. It was especially appealing since attachment theory started with primates through Harlow’s Nature of Love study[2], gained validity as a theory of human development through the theoretical work of John Bowlby[3] and then was validated empirically through the work of Mary Ainsworth in Uganda[4].  Our pilot study would bring the study of attachment full circle.

We used mixed methods including instantaneous point samples and focal all occurrence samples over 15 minute periods.  We noted all proximal individuals within two meters of the infant, as possible social encounters, and then noted all affiliative and agonistic behaviors between the infant and others, and the infant and the mother, to measure social competence.  Also, we recorded the percentage of the 15 minute observation that the infant spent away from the mother within each interval as a measure of the infant attachment style.

We were able to gather usable data on five species including the olive baboon, black and white colobus monkey, vervet monkey, blue monkey, and the mountain gorilla. One of our first observations in Akagera National Park of the olive baboon was of a mother named Lefty and her older male juvenile.  The juvenile had the longest suckle we had ever witnessed-for over thirty minutes- and seemed to be making a statement towards the May 2012 TIME magazine article entitled “Are You Mom Enough” which explored the debate over how old is too old for breastfeeding. (Read the Kindred interview with TIME cover mom,  Jame Grumet, here.)

It was with some observations of baboons that our team was able to finalize our methodology.  We then observed Black and White Colobus monkeys in Nyungwe National Park, which is located near the southwest corner of Rwanda that borders Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo.  These observations led our thinking on how the different ecological habitats lend themselves to diverse ecological challenges and threats.  This was very important to keep in mind as a covariate of attachment style, as we noticed a Colobus mother’s restrictiveness and initially judged her as an insecure mother. Yet, that attachment style may have been due to the height of the habitat in the top of the canopy which increases the danger of an infant falling out of the tree, and there are also the perilous hawks to watch out for. Our observations continued of Vervet monkeys and Blue monkeys, and finally to the mountain gorillas.  The gorillas have very low predation risks (their only predator being the poachers) and the mothers were generally calm and relaxed with their infants spending most of their time playing with the mother, the silverback males, and other juveniles and infants.

After analyzing our data we found some results to our hypotheses (1) Securely attached non-human primates will have greater fitness and (2) Variation in habitat is correlated to duration of time spent away from the mother.  We found a moderately strong positive correlation (r=0.67) between attachment style and social competency. We used social competency as a proxy for fitness because we argue that greater social competency would correlate with greater fitness, since primates are social creatures like humans.  We also found a moderate positive correlation (r=0.31) between the variation in habitat and duration of time spent away from the mother.    This seemed to support the Melvin Kohn hypothesis that posits that variation in mothering styles correlates with the variable of socio-economic status, in which low SES mothers tend to be more restrictive and anxious (as this is adaptive to their environment) as compared to high SES mothers who are more relaxed and secure.  Highlighting the parallel between this hypothesis and the differences in the attachment in arboreal and terrestrial primates, points to the importance of understanding the ecology as a determinant of mother attachment style.

558517_10102887341740823_1543079261_nSome of our limitations in this pilot study were a very small sample size, and the environmental factors that restricted our view of a mother with their infant.  We would also like to improve our measures, especially for the arboreal species, and also explore more longitudinal possibilities for further research of attachment across primate species.  Yet, even with these directions for future research, our initial results from this pilot study led to some significant questions and possibilities for dialogue.

There are virtually no universally applicable theories in Human Development and Family Studies, as the explaining power of each theory is dependent on culture and context.  However, there is something very special about attachment theory; with a substantial amount of noteworthy empirical studies across many diverse cultures and contexts; the theory seems universal for humans.  The significance of the first social relationship of an infant in setting the blueprint for all of their future relationships seems to be an evolutionary adaptation.  The advantages of a secure attachment relationship for an infant extend across the lifespan as their well-being and protection is tied to their ability to form secure and meaningful relationships.

The results of our pilot study nudge the possibility of this universality of attachment theory even further as the theory could hold true across primate species.  Given the similarities at a genetic level with our closest ancestors, and our parallel need for social competency and relationship, the importance of attachment across primate species holds great promise for future research.  Also, exploring the idea of attachment across primates ignites new questions with regards to the role of culture in parenting.  Many of the greatest disputes about parenting fall across cultural divides.  There are endless debates on parenting that have no right answer; parents who believe that being a “Tiger Mom” is best for their children, or that Unschooling honors the authenticity of a child better than traditional schooling does.  Although, with one look from an infant gorilla that is snuggled against its mother, I am left wondering what we can learn about parenting from gorillas and other primates who do not need to read up on the latest trend in parenting or engage in debate on their parenting beliefs with those from other cultures and belief systems.  The influence of culture on parenting is absent for monkeys and gorillas and it is fascinating to see what parenting is like in its most raw form from our closest ancestors.  Humans seem to have the most variation in parenting styles due to our different cultures and beliefs which have developed as humans have spread out across the world and have learned to parent in ways that are adaptive to their specific environments.  There was probably very little variation in parenting in early human civilizations, and the variation increased as we spread out, developed new cultures, and adapted.  Deleting the aspect of cultural norms and customs from the picture of what good parenting is may allow humans to better understand the evolutionary origin of best parenting practices. So, the monkeys and gorillas may have something to teach us about parenting.

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The implications of the initial findings of this 2013 pilot study point towards a clearer evolutionary understanding of the role of attachment in facilitating evolutionary fitness.  Further study could continue to clarify how attachment style is adaptive to the ecology of the primate.  In humans, this could facilitate breakthroughs in our ability to understand the ecological factors that shape the attachment of an infant and support more effective intervention strategies in low-SES, high stress, and disrupted childhood situations.  In primates, this could provide a greater understanding of attachment that is not culturally influenced, and could be useful in interventions with orphaned or captive primates in efforts to successfully re-integrate them into their ecological niche.

601990_10102887350563143_2074395662_nBeing able to spend six weeks alongside the thirteen species of primates in Rwanda was magical. The research I did on parenting furthered my feeling that the parent-child relationship is the most beautiful, special, and magical relationship. In the movie The Prestige, it is explained that every magic trick has three parts; the pledge, the turn, and the prestige.  The “pledge” presents something ordinary to the audience; parenting… most adults in history have become a parent at some point in their life.  This is a given and tons of books have been written about parenting. Then, the “turn” takes something ordinary and makes it extraordinary; allowing yourself to be in complete awe that you get to be a parent to a child and re-defining parenting as a revolutionary act.  I believe that all parents have an innate desire to raise happy and healthy children, and I hope to be a catalyst in the efforts towards adjusting the conditions of our society to allow all parents to fulfill this desire and to make visible the awe and utter beauty of parenting. To make the invisible, visible, is magic.

The last part of the magic trick is the “prestige”.  I think of this as a magician turning a gorilla (the pledge) into a vervet monkey (the turn), and then back into a gorilla (the prestige).  This part is critical because for those parents reading and engaging in the challenging work of conscious parenting they must continue to become the best version of themselves beginning precisely at where they are right now in the process. The prestige brings it back, and the prestige is usually when the magician tells you the secret of the trick. Yet, the mountain gorillas indirectly taught me that each parent has their own secret.  Each parent is a magician of some sorts because parenting in its most organic form is nature’s magic.



[1] This information is from a presentation by the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International

[2] Harlow, H. F. (1958). The nature of love. American Psychologist, 13, 673-685

[3] Bowlby, J. (1958). The nature of the child’s tie to his mother. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, XXXIX, 1-23

[4] Ainsworth, M. D. S. (1963). The Development of infant-mother interaction among the Ganda. In B. M. Foss (Ed), Determinants of Infant Behavior (pp. 67-104). New York: Wiley

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