Ira Glass: Harry Harlow, was trying to prove-- and I know this is going to sound crazy. He was trying to prove that love is an important thing that happens between parents and children.
And the reason why he felt the need to prove this point was at the time-- and again, I know this is going to sound kind of out there. The psychological establishment, pediatricians, even the federal government were all saying exactly the opposite of that to parents.
Deborah Blum: It's actually one of those things that you say, how could they have thought that? But psychology just didn't believe in love. And if you go back and you pull any of the psychology textbooks, really almost pre-1950, you don't even find it in the index because it was not a word that was used.
Ira Glass: This is Deborah Blum, the biographer of this renegade researcher, Harry Harlow. She writes about how psychologists at the time actually saw loving behavior towards children as a problem, a menace. At one point, the head of the American Psychological Association declared, "when you're tempted to pet your child, remember that mother love is a dangerous instrument."
Deborah Blum: Yeah, that was John Watson, and he actually said there are serious rocks ahead for the over-kissed child. And then defined over-kissing as kissing your child more than once a year. That was the message of almost everything.
Ira Glass: At some point there are government pamphlets you write, that are warning parents not to touch their children. And you quote some. One says, "never kiss a baby. Especially on the mouth. Don't rock or play with children."
Deborah Blum: Yeah. Not to say that everyone follows what so-called experts do. But certainly, you had an enormous effect of this affection is wrong, love isn't real, trust us, we're scientists, that greatly shaped those kind of perceptions.
Ira Glass: How was this possible? Well, first of all, psychology was still pretty young. Psychologists hadn't figured out how to measure love, how to quantify it, and talk about it in the scientific way. So the thinking about love's role was incredibly crude. And at the same time, this is all at the beginning of the early 20th century, medicine was still figuring out how bacteria spread infections. And pediatricians had noticed that in hospitals, the kids who were picked up a lot by nurses seemed to get more infections.
Deborah Blum: So doctors were saying, don't pick up your child, don't pick up your child, don't pick up your child. So you had a kind of confluence going there. You had pediatricians saying, we're telling you for health reasons that you should never cuddle your child or indulge them. And guess what? Psychology says if you follow those rules, if you show your child no affection, you will make them a better human being. So back off.
Ira Glass: And this is the way it was for decades, until about the 1940s. Health care workers started to notice that some children in hospitals and orphanages who were treated this way never picked up, never loved, would wither and die. Literally, die. But even this did not change the opinion of the psychological establishment.
So enter Harry Harlow. He sets out to prove that love is important. In fact, love is a key to normal development in children. And that what bonds babies and mothers is more than just the baby's need for food.
We want certainty, and that leaves us open to fraud. Mothers used to lie awake listening to their babies scream because the experts said not to pick the baby up or to feed "off schedule." They might well have felt that bloodletting would have been preferable.
One benefit of knowing the science is a kind of protective skepticism. It should make us deeply suspicious of any enterprise that offers a formula for making babies smarter or teaching them more, from flash cards to Mozart tapes to Better Baby Institutes. Everything we know about babies suggests that these artificial interventions are at best useless and at worst distractions from the normal interaction between grown-ups and babies. Babies are already as smart as they can be, they know what they need to know, and they are very effective and selective in getting the kinds of information they need. They are designed to learn about the real world that surrounds them, and they learn by playing with the things in that world, most of all by playing with the people who love them. Not the least advantage of knowing about science is that it immunizes us from pseudoscience.
;ct. What parents want even influences the very ways they label children. Sara Harkness and Charles Super found that when parents in three cultures were asked about intelligence, their views of what constitutes a smart child differed.^^ In America, an "intelligent" child is one who is aggressive and competitive; in Holland, die intelligent child is one who is persistent, strong-willed, and demonstrates a clarity of purpose; for the Kipsigis Africans, the most intelligent child is the responsible one who does his or her chores.^^ Each household tries to provide a setting that is believed to foster the culture's particular brand of intelligence. Americans use all kinds of visual and verbal stimuli to catch the baby's attention and encourage it to interact. We line the crib with black-and-white signs to stimulate vision; we converse for hours in one-on-one lessons, convinced that this verbal interaction will improve cognitive abilities. Americans try to instill self-esteem in their children; self-esteem is a word not easily translated into other languages because the trait is not part of the cultural milieu of other groups—it is of import only in a competitive self-achieving society. The Dutch, in contrast, believe that regularity, rest, and cleanliness promote intelligent development, so much so that when children throw tantrums, as they do all over the world, parents assume there has been a break in the child's routine that has caused the episode. And Kipsigis parents load their children with chores. Beginning at two years old, an age at which Americans would call them toddlers, Kipsigis children are given household tasks. By the time they are six years old, these kids typically spend half of their time working for the family. People from each culture would be incapable of raising their children any other way. Imagine an American child doing househohold chores at two, with little playtime. We would mourn die loss of "childhood," that carefree time of exploration and development. In the same way, a Kipsigis mother would be horrified to see irresponsible, lazy American children with nothing to do but play games. How could that at child, she might comment, grow up with any brains at all? The point is t that we all agree in a general sense on what intelligence is, and we all agree that to be intelligent is better than being stupid, but each culture emphasizes and appreciates different aspects of intelligence.
s any new mother or father knows, nothing so invites advice as a new baby in the house. Other parents. Grandma, the lady next door, a stranger on the street, the family physician, and stacks and stacks of child-care books are happy to give directions about the "correct" way to care for an infant. What most parents do not know is that these various tidbits of advice, and even the consensus "rules" of parenting that have such an aura of credibility, are, for the most part, based on a mix of tradition, fad, and folk wisdom with a modicum of science. In fact, few have ever studied whether or not the rules of one society work better than the traditions of another society in producing functional, happy adults. If a parent talks to his baby, will it learn to speak earlier? No one knows. If you sleep with your baby, will it become emotionally dependent? Who knows. Yet societies establish these "rules" about various parenting techniques that imply there is a right and a wrong way to go about parenting. And the advice is usually offered in such ominous tones—^make a mistake and your child may turn out socially inept, not very bright, maladjusted, or worse—that parents often follow these rules, or accept die advice, without considering that there might be alternative ways that also make sense. In addition, even the hard-and-fast parenting rules slip and slide, evolve and change, as societies change.