Tribal Child Development

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Stimulation, contact and play; all things essential to ordinary child development. Or are they?

 In western culture it has gradually become imprinted on us that children need constant love and care in order to develop. This was origionally sparked off by the developments of Harlow and Bowlby, who found that deprivation of these key factors could lead to detrimental and permanent effects on children. Their works have been further developed, by many a parenting programme and pop psychology book, to tell us exactly what children are programmed to recquire. Up until now I had always assumed that, because they seem so logical, these needs would be universal. However, after reading a psychology article in Psychology Review (a magazine recommended on my course) this view has been challenged.

Kagan and Klein (1973) studied children from the island of San Marcos in Guatemala. Here children in their first year of life were often kept in small dark huts, rarely being taken outside as it was thought to be far to dangerous. Even whilst in the hut the mothers were recorded as rarely playing, or talking to their children. The toddlers were found to display similar behaviour to that found in institutionalised children in the West. Dramatically though, by the time they were aged 5-12 years there was no reported lasting mental damage; the children were able to perform at the same level as ordinary children in the West. Remarkably they were also found to be happy, bright children!

Schieffelin and Ochs (1983) challenged the common thought that children need to be “bathed in language” in order to learn to speak. They observed The Kaluli of Papua New Guinea where mothers were recorded as rarely talking to their babies; out of the belief that they could not understand what was being said. If Western ideas are to be believed the children should have developed at a much later rate, or even become linguistically retarded. However, the children were found to be completely fluent in their native language well within the normal range expected.

These studies don’t suggest all babies should be kept in dark huts, under total silence; just that perhaps our ideas of what babies need is not as universal as it may seem. Perhaps they even provide an argument for nurture over nature? 

The Nature of Love… and some messed up monkeys

I have been reading a lot about Harry Harlow recently, the man who believed he found the nature of love. If he did I’m pretty sure he never personally found it for himself, here is a summary of his studies:

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The earlier Harlow experiments were relatively ethical, at least compared to his later ones! He took baby monkey’s away from their mothers and placed them in a room with a.) a wire mother, who had spiky nipples but lots of milk and b.) a wire mother covered in soft fur, but without milk. He found that the baby monkey’s spent the majority of the day cuddled up to their fur mothers, forming a strong bond; occasionally they hopped over to the wire mother for some food, but never stayed for too long. This was revolutionary for the time, the early 1960s, when most behaviorists believed that the bond formed between mother and child developed purely because the baby associated their mother with the pleasurable experience of being fed. He showed that the nature of love was in intimate contact, not food.

However, it first became obvious that intimate contact was not all that was needed in childhood when the young rhesus monkey’s began to grow up. Their behaviour began to resemble that of autistic humans; they would rock themselves in repetitive motions, and were incredibly hostile to other monkeys, refusing to mate. In a separate study Harlow found that if these monkeys were given half an hour a day to play with other monkey’s their social development was normal. He had shown that not only was intimate contact needed but that this contact needed to be interactive as well, but did not necessarily need to come from the mother.

I think his studies took a serious turn for the darker side, when upon realising these isolated monkey’s would not mate, he designed the “rape rack”. This forced the monkeys to mate against their will. Among the monkey’s who became pregnant, they were all completely incapable of looking after their babies; many of the mother’s even killed their children.

Not realising his studies had gone to far, or perhaps noticing and just craving publicity, Harlow went on to carry out even darker experiments. The pit of despair was another contraption he invented, which he left baby monkey’s trapped inside of, with only food and water, no light. He left some in for 30 days, others for 6 months and others for one year. The results were that many of the monkeys stopped eating and starved to death, others starting to self harm; all monkeys were completely unable to regain normal social behaviour ever again after being in isolation for over a year.

Some say that Harry Harlow’s studies had great implications for how we do things today, for example, revolutionising the care that is provided in children’s homes, and suggestions to new mothers that their child is placed on their chest immediately after birth. His findings also lead to more loving ways of rearing children developed during the 70s. However, personally I feel that these findings, that children need contact and play to develop normally, are quite self explanatory and there was no need to create so many messed up monkeys!