ISSN 0439-755X
CN 11-1911/B

Acta Psychologica Sinica ›› 2018, Vol. 50 ›› Issue (7): 750-760.doi: 10.3724/SP.J.1041.2018.00750

• Reports of Empirical Studies • Previous Articles     Next Articles

The influence of maternal encouragement of autonomy on toddler’s exploration: Moderating effect of attachment

Qun JIANG1,2,Shan LU1,Qian ZHANG1,Zhengyan WANG1()   

  1. 1 College of Psychology, Center for Child Development, Learning and Cognitive Key Laboratory, Capital Normal University, Beijing 100048, China
    2 The High School Affiliated to Renmin University of China Shenzhen School, Shenzhen 518119, China
  • Received:2017-07-07 Published:2018-07-15 Online:2018-05-29


Exploratory behavior, derived from one’s motor development, is an important way for infants to obtain information from external environment. Exploration is generally associated with adaptive developmental outcomes, especially cognitive abilities. Although there have been a great number of studies on exploration, most of which focused on the informational value afforded by novel objects, individual differences and different stages of exploration. The environmental factors, more specifically, the maternal behaviors have been obtained little attention. However, two distinctive theories posit mother’s behavior plays a significant role in infant’s exploration, attachment theory and self-determination theory. According to attachment theory, the attachment system and the exploratory system are two distinct yet inseparably linked behavioral systems, and the attachment system contributes to the quality of infant exploration by providing the infant a secure base from which to explore. Self-determination theory argues that infant’s exploration is driven by his/her intrinsic motivation. Individuals will be most intrinsically motivated when the environment supports their need for autonomy, rather than controlling their behavior. Therefore, the aim of the present study was to examine influence of maternal encouragement of autonomy on 14-month toddler’s exploration and the moderating role of attachment in the relationship between maternal encouragement of autonomy and toddler’s exploratory behavior.

Sixty-six toddlers (M = 14.77 months, SD = 0.99) and their mothers participated in the study. Toddlers’ attachment status was assessed by the Strange Situation procedure in the laboratory. A semi-structure family observation was conducted in the next 2 to 4 weeks. Each toddler was shown three novel objects placing on the floor and requested to explore them for 6 minutes. The toddler’s exploration as well as maternal encouragement of autonomy was videotaped and coded.

Results were as follows: after controlling for children’s temperament and family socioeconomic status, (1) maternal encouragement of autonomy positively predicted toddler’s total frequencies of exploratory operations, types of exploratory operations and exploratory persistence; (2) mother-infant attachment negatively predicted toddler’s total frequencies of exploratory operations, and positively predicted toddler’s average duration of exploratory operations; (3) the influence of maternal encouragement of autonomy on toddler’s exploratory competence was significantly moderated by the pattern of attachment. Specifically, the prediction of maternal encouragement of autonomy on toddler’s exploratory competence was significant when the child established a security attachment, while for the insecure infants, this prediction was nonsignificant.

These results indicated that maternal encouragement of autonomy could significantly promote toddler’s exploratory behavior. Toddler’s secure attachment played a significant role in the relationship between maternal encouragement and toddler’s exploration. It highlighted the importance of establishing a secure attachment relationship, which was directly linked to the effectiveness of mother’s positive parenting behaviors.

Key words: toddler, exploratory behavior, maternal encouragement of autonomy, attachment

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