The socialisation process during a child’s early years is vitally important. During the first two years of his life an infant will gradually become a self-aware being who passively absorbs the influences in which he comes into contact with. So, with the socialisation process responsible for making us who we are and our parents being the main agents of primary socialisation during early infancy, what would happen if a child were to be deprived of this most important stage of socialisation and had little or no contact with Human Beings?
Two well documented cases of child deprivation are Genie and the ‘wild boy of Aveyron’. Genie provides us with a fairly recent case of deprivation. She was discovered in November, 1970 and had been locked alone in a room for over 10 years. During the day Genie was tied to a potty and at night she was placed in a sleeping bag restraining her arms and was made to sleep in a large cot that was covered with metal screening. When she was born Genie had a hip defect which stopped her from learning to walk properly and she was repeatedly beaten by her father.
When Genie was 20 months old her father decided that she was retarded and this is when he locked her away. The mother was going blind and the father kept her confined to the house. A connection with the outside world was maintained through the teenage son who went to school and did the family’s shopping. Despite the appalling conditions in which she lived, Genie endured years of her life locked away. She was not toilet trained, had very little opportunity to hear conversation and her father beat her if she made a noise.
The only way he would communicate to her was though animal sounding grunts and barking noises. It was in 1970 that the mother escaped the house and took Genie with her. A social worker noticed Genie and she was placed in the rehabilitation ward of a hospital. A psychiatrist described her as “unsocialised, primitive, and hardly human”. She could not stand erect and walked in a shuffling way. Genie did make fairly rapid progress and after 12 months could master over 100 words but her development seemed to stop at that of a normal 18-20 month old child.
Tests concluded that Genie wasn’t mentally retarded and although she could communicate well through non-verbal communication she never mastered language. The scientists wondered if speech must be mastered in the early years of life whilst the brain is growing and changing so much. Genie did have very limited contact with her parents until she was 20 months old and it seems that her development never went beyond the stage of normal development of a 20 month old. The ‘wild boy of Aveyron’ was a young boy who, in 1800 emerged naked from the woods near a village in France.
Although he could walk he looked more animal than human. He could not speak and made high pitched shrieking noises instead and urinated and defecated wherever he chose. He was identified as being 11 or 12 years old and scientists decided that he had been in the forest for at least 6 years, probably more. The boy refused to wear clothes and at first tried constantly to escape. At a time when France was intellectually enlightened the boy was taken to Paris where an attempt was made to socialise him.
He did become toilet trained and began to wear clothes and dress himself but again, he never managed to master language. Tests concluded that there didn’t appear to be any physical abnormalities of any kind and through reading details of his behaviour he doesn’t seem mentally retarded. Both of these cases demonstrate young infants who have been removed from society. Several people have different theories as to the main influences on a child’s development and the effect that deprivation has.
Here we will look at comparisons between Bowlby (1951) and Harlow (1959, 1962). Maternal Deprivation is the term used by Bowlby to describe the serious developmental impairment caused by an infant being separated specifically from the mother. Bowlby claimed that “mother-love in infancy and childhood is as important for mental health as are vitamins and proteins for physical health”. He developed his attachment theory to explain how early experiences in infancy can influence later development.
He believed that prolonged deprivation of maternal care would have grave effects on his character and specifically that children under the age of four would suffer permanent damage. In his 1944 study entitled “Forty-four Juvenile Thieves: their characters and home life”, Bowlby investigated the domestic circumstances of 44 thieving children. Almost all of the children showed abnormal home conditions such as physical and emotional abuse but one group in particular had been separated from their mothers for prolonged amounts of time after building emotional relationships with them.
These children showed behavioural problems that Bowlby called affectionless psychopathy. So, Bowlby’s theory centres specifically on maternal deprivation being a major negative influence on how a child develops socially, specifically an infant failing to develop any form of attachment with a maternal figure. Michael Rutter (1981) argued that if a child had no opportunity to develop a maternal relationship then this was privation, in that an infant could not be affected by a relationship it did not know could exist.
He believed instead that it was damage to any form of attachment figure that caused deprivation, the attachment figure being either parent or other primary carer but not specifically the mother. This type of damage could be caused by through divorce or death. Rutter also believed that the damage wasn’t caused by the act, such as divorce but more through the family discord running up to the divorce, such as arguing, stress, and lack of affection. He also thought that this wasn’t specific to early infancy and that any child could suffer the effect of deprivation through the loss or breakdown of an attachment.
His research showed no correlation between separation experiences and delinquency as claimed by Bowlby, yet there was a correlation between family discord and delinquency. Rutter and Bowlby had such varying ideas when it came to the effects of deprivation and even what deprivation is. Bowlby believed that it was not having specifically a maternal attachment that caused deprivation whilst Rutter argued that it was the breakdown of any attachment that caused deprivation. When we look at the case of Genie, it would seem that until the age of 20 months she was a regular member of a family.
She had an attachment to her mother for this time so Bowlby’s which was then disrupted when she was locked away by her father. However, it was obviously a dysfunctional relationship that Genie had with her attachments as the child of a loving, supportive father would not lock his infant child away for over 10 years. This seems to match Rutter’s theory that it is the family discord that affects the child. When we look at the case of the “wild boy of Aveyron” we do not know if the child had a maternal attachment as we know so little about his life prior to his being discovered.
If we assume that he did have a maternal attachment then yes, Bowlby’s theory is relevant because at some point that maternal relationship would have been severed. He was obviously deprived of primary socialisation but we do not know his family circumstances when he was born and the environment in which he was raised prior to him becoming feral. Therefore, we cannot commit to saying how Rutter’s theory affected the boy. When we compare the two competing ideas of Rutter and Bowlby there are certain aspects of each theory that make sense.
It is within our human nature for the mother to hold the primary attachment with the infant. Yet the environment in which a child is raised must also be vitally important, especially when we look at the primary socialisation that takes place in young infants. Sometimes it cannot be helped that an infant is deprived of a maternal attachment perhaps through death or adoption. In the absence of this maternal attachment the primary caregiver must ensure that the infant is raised within a functional, loving and supportive environment to ensure that the effects of the lack of maternal attachment are minimal.