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Nature Vs Nurture – A Sociological Approach to Feral, Isolated, and Institutionalized Children

A common question related to sociology deals with the nature of man versus how he is made. Does anyone know if they are a boy or a girl at birth or do they make that distinction based on the actions and words of those around them? How does prison affect a person’s functioning once released into the world? These questions are closely related to nature versus nurture—does a person enter the world with basic human functioning, or does he develop these functions as a result of those around him.

One topic that sociologists can study is feral children. These are children who were abandoned at a very young age, with death usually the intention of the parents, but rather they were raised and cared for by animals. Sociologists found that children raised by animals acquired the instincts and behaviors of the species that raised them. An example of this occurred in the 1700s, when a wild child known as “the wild boy of Aveyron” was discovered by scientists of the time. Found in France in 1798, it was observed walking on all fours, showing no pain associated with cold temperatures, and pouncing on small animals – devouring them raw in a voracious manner. Although most sociologists would dismiss the significance of feral children due to the rarity of cases, it still teaches us a lesson that children need to learn how to act at a young age. This essential period of youth is when children develop many basic social behaviors.

A slightly more common study is in isolated children. These are children raised by an individual or a small group of individuals in an isolated area with little or no contact with mainstream society. A girl, Isabelle, was raised by her deaf, mute mother in her grandfather’s attic. When she was discovered at the age of 6, she was found unable to speak and relied on gestures to communicate with her mother. He also had a disease called rickets as a result of a poor diet and lack of sunlight. This effectively rendered her legs useless. Her behavior towards strangers, especially men, was like a wild animal. He faced them with fear and hostility – and could only make noise in the face of the strange cries. She initially scored almost zero on an IQ test – but because Isabelle was discovered at such a young age, she was able to reach the level of learning expected for her age within two years. It is possible that the effects of seclusion will be reversed if the child is under twelve. The primary problem, however, was the lack of a language, which is fundamental to all human interaction. All other interactions can be divided into subcategories of voice communication.

These first two studies, isolated and feral children, can be viewed through one of Charles Horton Cooley’s theories of human interaction. Cooley, who lived in the late 1800s, created a theory that summarized how human development occurs, capturing the theory in the concept of the “glass self.” This theory had three main components: we imagine how we appear to those around us, we interpret the reactions of others, and we develop a self-concept. The basic gist of it is that we look at those around us and base our appearance and social interactions on what they are doing and what they expect. If a wild child is raised by animals, it is going to take on the characteristics of those animals. Similarly, an isolated child will base his actions on other isolated people or no one at all, and will develop little or no basic ability to interact.

Even more common than isolated or feral children are institutionalized children. Two or three centuries ago, orphanages were very different from what they are now. The children grew up with little or no care on a strict schedule. In addition, children were often beaten, stripped and denied food. As a result, children from orphanages tended to have difficulty forming close bonds with others and to have lower IQs. In one account of a good Iowa orphanage in the 1930s, the children were raised in the nursery until about six months. They were placed in cribs that had high sides, effectively limiting vision to the world around them. No toys hung from the cribs, nor did the mother hold them well. The interaction they had was limited to nurses changing diapers, bedding, and giving them medicine. Although everyone assumed that mental retardation was a matter of being “just born that way,” two sociologists researched and observed the lives of children raised in this Iowa orphanage. HM Skeels and HB Dye began to understand that a lack of intellectual stimulation was robbing these children of the basic human interaction skills they needed to be effective members of society. In one study, they took thirteen children who were visibly retarded and assigned a retarded woman to look after them. They also selected twelve children who would be raised in the orphanage in the usual way and tested both groups for IQ. The first group was observed to develop a strong relationship with their respective “mothers” and received much more

attention from their counterparts. While all the children studied were still retarded, it was noted that the IQ of the first group increased by an impressive average of 28 points. In an equally impressive statistic, it was found that the average of the other group dropped by an average of 30 IQ points. This study demonstrated the importance of human interaction at a young age.

A final lesson can be learned from deprived animals. These are animals that were taken from their mothers at a young age and raised in isolation. A famous study on this topic was conducted by Harry and Margaret Harlow, who raised a baby monkey in isolation. They made two “mothers” for their monkey, one that was a wire frame with a nipple over which the monkey could nurse, and one that was covered in soft fabric. They found that even though the first mother provided food, the baby clung to the soft mother when scared, showing that the monkey felt more comfortable through close physical contact – or cuddling.

When the monkey was introduced to a monkey community, it was rejected and had no idea how normal monkey culture was structured. He didn’t know how to play normally with the other monkeys, nor how to have sex, despite many feeble attempts.

After conducting this study with female monkeys, they found that those who became pregnant became vicious mothers – hitting their babies, kicking them, or smashing them on the floor. These were monkeys that had been raised in this isolated environment for years and had no chance of integration into society. Other monkeys were observed to overcome these disabilities with increasingly positive results: a corresponding relationship with time spent in isolation. Monkeys isolated for three to six months integrated relatively easily, while monkeys isolated for years suffered irreversible effects. When applied to humans, we understand that social interaction is the key to a socially effective product.

In short, society makes us human. Babies do not naturally develop into adults, and social ideas are not transmitted through DNA. Although the body can grow, the isolation makes them victim to being more than just animals. In fact, the lack of language skills results in the inability to understand relationships between people – such as father, mother, teacher and friend. To develop into adults, children need to be surrounded by people who care for them. This process called “socialization” shows that we are made by those around us.

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