For want of love

By Tara Winkler

“This monkey is an orphan, separated from his mother from the day of his birth. He has been adequately nourished, and well cared for. But, literally, his life hangs by a thread. A soft cheese-cloth pad that is his only companion. His only comfort. Once a day the pad is removed for cleaning. Until it is replaced the monkey is troubled, distressed. Permanently deprived of it, he may die. Die of loneliness. He may die for want of love.”

Harry Harlow, documentary Conquest CBS, 1960

This week I met with a colleague over lunch who recounted the challenges she was having in getting her donors on board with supporting families instead of orphanages. This group of donors had visited a family in Sihanoukville, Cambodia. The family were living in a tiny shack with holes in the roof, without lockable doors, electricity or running water.

“How could this be safe for these children?” her donors anguished. “Surely they’re better off if we can take them to an orphanage where they’ll have decent shelter.”

My colleague lamented. She was finding it very hard to shift the deeply entrenched beliefs that food, water and shelter are all children need to grow up well. 

It’s a belief that harks back to the1950s, a time in which the emerging field of psychology believed that children only needed their mother for sustenance and other physical needs. The most prominent behavioural experts thought that love and affection simply didn’t matter and had no bearing on a child’s development.

The interesting and controversial figure who eventually overturned these ideas was a psychologist named Harry Harlow. Harlow devised a set of experiments that set out to prove that love is important and critical to healthy development in children. Harlow’s experiments involved separating infant monkeys from their mothers. They were put in a cage with two kinds of surrogate mothers – one made of wire that was equipped to dispense milk and the other covered with soft terry-cloth.

At birth, Rhesus monkeys have the brain and nervous system of a five-month-old human baby. So based on psychological theories of the time, the baby monkeys should have bonded to the wire mother who was feeding them. That’s not what Harlow found. The baby monkeys spent almost their entire time attached to the terry-cloth mother

In subsequent experiments, Harlow found that baby monkeys learned to self-sooth and regulate their emotions through bodily contact with their terry-cloth mother, what Harlow called ‘contact comfort’. He found that baby monkeys who were raised solely with the wire mothers, would scream, hold themselves and rock back and forth in terror when scared, unable to self-sooth. They demonstrated behaviours that looked a lot like the ones observed in children raised in orphanages.

He concluded that the impact of early maternal deprivation was irreversible, that no amount of exposure to a mother-figure could make up for the emotional damage that had already occurred.

Harry Harlow proved that the relationship between mother and child is about more than the provision of sustenance. Obviously, children need to be fed to fuel their physical growth. But love is actually more important in determining whether a child grows up to be a sane, well-adjusted individual.

Harlow’s experiments became the foundations for the science of love, adding scientific legitimacy to the powerful argument against raising children in orphanages. 

It’s hard to watch the experiments on YouTube because of how distressing the animal cruelty is. But it’s important to remember that this is the psychological damage being inflicted upon children when they are senselessly separated from their families and institutionalised in orphanages.

At best, orphanages leave children without connection to family or community and set them up for a life of disconnection as they struggle to develop trusting relationships and find their place in the world. And at worst, children in orphanages, who are never picked up or shown any affection, can literally die for want of love.

This doesn’t mean that we should leave children living in abject poverty. There is, after all, a straightforward solution for that family living in Sihanoukville. Take the funds needed to raise the children in an orphanage, and instead use it to strengthen the family. Repairing the home, connecting the electricity and water, assisting with training in financial literacy and income generation would also be a far more cost-effective solution.

When provided with the right assistance, families are more than capable of making their own plans to pave their way out of poverty. Support from international donors goes such a long way to strengthening vulnerable families so they can raise their own children. And so their children will know how to raise their own families one day. 

It is the only way to break the intergenerational cycle of poverty.

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