As each generation evolves in America’s society, society itself changes because of how we treat and teach our children to live in society. What people need to understand is that socialization is very important for human beings. People need socialization to develop, learn, and experience what they need to know in life. This process starts from the moment we are born, so how does keeping children isolated, away from society, affect the way they develop physically and emotionally? It is very important that children have interaction with people from the moment they are born. This is how their brains develop naturally.
The way children learn to walk and talk is through socialization. Socialization is the process of learning to participate in group life through the acquisition of culture (Shepard, 2010). Through socialization is how people learn and experience different cultures. The nature of being isolated is very different from being lonely. Keeping a child isolated in a room, basement, or even a cage, without human contact causes intense physiological and psychological damage to that child. Children do not learn to walk properly or even talk. Some of the cases regarding socially isolated children are horrible to read, but it is also a topic that needs to be recognized more to better understand these children that are kept isolated.
For both social and intellectual growth to happen, nurturing emotional relationships are necessary to create the most crucial foundation of learning (Brazelton & Greenspan, 2000). Children can pick up on relationships given to them by their parents or guardians. Children will tend to feel uneasy if their parents are not affectionate with them. All children need affection whether it is from their parents or not. That is how children also learn how to be affectionate themselves for future relationships they will experience.
After infants are born, if they are not immediately placed in the care of their mother, the infants may develop a form of atrophy also known as marasmus, or “wasting away.” The infants will refuse to eat, and their physical progress will start decreasing. Doctors discovered that if the nurses would fondle the infants while they fed, bathed, and clothed them, then the infants chances of developing marasmus subsided. This was due to the fact that something as simple as the human touch would allow the infants to not feel as isolated (Killinger, 1980).
Studies have shown that supportive, warm, and nurturing emotional interactions with infants and young children help the nervous system to develop properly. For example, listening to the human voice helps babies distinguish certain sounds. Children also develop language by listening to people talk (Brazelton & Greenspan, 2000). This is why it is very important for children to have human contact every day, because it helps them learn and develop in a way that is needed.
Author E. Schulthesis (1999) did research on Harry Harlow, an American psychologist, who did an experiment on monkeys involving an infant monkey, a cloth monkey, and a wire monkey (the cloth and wire monkeys were not real). This experiment was meant to mirror and portray the natural instincts of primates, including human infants, to be used for future research regarding human infant nurturing habits. In Harlow’s experiment, the wire monkey had food, which is essential for an infant’s development and survival. The cloth monkey did not have food, but was softer than the wire monkey, giving it a nurturing feel. The infant monkey would venture back and forth between the cloth and wire monkeys. The infant monkey received nourishment from the wire monkey. Though the cloth monkey did not give the infant monkey food, the infant monkey still went to the cloth monkey for warmth and support. The experiment was done to prove that an infant’s need for warmth and nurture is more important than people may think. Before Harlow performed his experiment with the monkeys, other psychologists did not believe in the importance of nurturing care from an infant’s mother. This role of nurturing is very intrinsic to a child’s development, and a lack of nurture may have drastic affects. Children who are not nurtured, and who are socially isolated, may become physiologically and psychologically deformed.
I found three severe cases of children who were socially isolated. Their names are Isabelle, Anna, and Genie. Isabelle’s mother was a deaf-mute, and she feared her daughter would suffer from social disapproval. Isabelle’s mother stayed with Isabelle in a dark room with no other human contact. The girl was found at the age of six. Isabelle was physically ill from the lack of an inadequate diet and sunshine. She was unable to talk, except for a croaking noise. Isabelle communicated with her mother through gestures. Once she was found, professionals did everything they could to re-integrate her into society. By the age of fourteen Isabelle was successfully participating in school activities that the other children her age could do as well.
Anna was born to an unmarried mother, and the pair was forced to live with Anna’s grandfather. The grandfather had strict moral values, and Anna’s mother locked her in an attic-like room because she feared her father would get angry every time he would see the child. Anna’s mother only fed her on occasion, and when she did it was milk, and only milk. Anna was discovered at the age of five. She was barely alive, severely emaciated, and malnourished. When she was found, the child had no signs of intelligence. She died by the age of ten (Shepard, 2010).
Then there is the horrifying case of Genie. Cherry (n.d.) wrote an article about Genie, who was a young girl kept isolated in a room with little-to-no contact with people. She was not found until the age of thirteen, and she had been strapped to a potty chair for most of her life. Since she was strapped to a potty chair, she was very bow legged. Most of the time when she did have human contact, it was with her father and he would abuse her. Genie could not speak, and the only noise she would make was a croaking sound. It was found out that every time Genie made any noises her father would beat her. Genie’s mother finally sought out help when Genie was thirteen. Social services tried everything to re-integrate Genie into society, but there were not successful. Although Genie’s mentality is severely damaged by her experience, she still lived through it. Others have not been so lucky (paras. 1, 4).
Since Isabelle, Anna, and Genie and were kept isolated during the most vital years of their lives, they did not develop the way that children are supposed to. Without human contact, these children were severely malnourished, could not walk (bowlegged), and they did not have an IQ. These three girls are the major cases mentioned on social isolation, but as I dug deeper into this subject, I have found other cases that share common characteristics, but are slightly different.
Sager (2012) wrote an article about a Georgian teenager named Mitch Comer, whose mother and stepfather kept him locked in the basement for four years. At the age of eighteen his parents gave him two-hundred dollars for a bus ticket and a list of homeless shelters, and proceeded to kick him out of the house. A security guard at a bus station in California found Mitch and thought he looked malnourished. The security guard called the cops, and they found out that Mitch was eighteen years old, five feet 3 inches tall, and only ninety-seven pounds! The article did not mention Mitch’s social standing, but it mentioned his severe malnourishment. Mitch’s parents are currently facing child abuse charges, and professionals are doing what they can to help Mitch get back to normal.
What would have happened to Mitch if that security guard had not taken an interest in him? Where would he be now? He would probably be either dead or homeless, going from state to state trying to get by. The security guard did the right thing by reporting him, and authorities found him all the way in California after traveling from Georgia! It is impossible to know where he was headed next. Mitch’s mother and stepfather are facing severe child abuse charges for neglecting and not caring for their son. A healthy eighteen year old boy should weigh more than ninety-seven pounds. Mitch’s social intellect may still be intact, since he was not being held captive during the early, vital years of his life. He was fourteen when he was forced to move into the basement. Mitch’s social development had already been intact by the time he was held captive, but it is still upsetting to hear that a mother could do that to her child.
There is a movie, called Flowers in the Attic, based on the V.C. Andrews novel (Fries & Levin 1987). This movie is about four children who just lost their dad in a car accident, and their mother, Corrine, has taken them to live with their grandparents. Corrine’s sole purpose was to wait until her father died, so she could inherit his fortune. The grandfather is not supposed to find out that his daughter had children, or he would disown her completely. So to prevent the grandfather from finding out about the children, the grandmother kept them locked in the attic. The children were rarely fed, and never saw sunlight. The children were growing unhealthier day by day, and they were getting sicker and weaker. The youngest boy wound up getting pneumonia, and his body was so weak from being isolated that he could not fight it. He passed away before anybody could try to get him to the hospital. The remaining three children wound up escaping, and they went on to live as normal a life as possible. Corrine reminds me of the mothers and fathers of the other isolated children, Anna, Genie, and Mitch: cold and heartless. Actually the mother from this movie and Anna’s mother are almost exactly the same. Anna’s mother feared her father’s disapproval if he was to see Anna, and Corrine kept her children locked up, so that her father would not see them. The only difference between these two women was that Anna’s grandfather knew about her existence, and the children’s grandfather in the movie did not know about their existence (Fries & Levin 1987).
Isolating children is a form of child abuse. Severe maltreatment, physical neglect, verbal abuse, and emotional abuse is all classified as child abuse. Emotional abuse can interfere with the child’s ability to integrate into society, which is why isolation is dangerous to children. Parents who are socially isolated themselves have a bigger chance at abusing their child (“Child abuse: What,” 2012). An example of this can be found in the case of Isabelle. Her mother was socially isolated because of fear of disapproval, and she kept Isabelle isolated with her. Parents need to understand that child neglect is child abuse. It is good and important to listen to the child’s wants and needs, and fulfill these natural desires to socialize and be curious about the world. This does not necessarily mean giving the child everything that he or she wants, but catering to everyday needs will lead to a healthier child.
Children can adjust to many different situations, but having babies or young children adapt to being isolated in a room by themselves is evil and inhumane. Babies spend the first nine months of their lives in their mother’s womb where it is warm and comforting. Then, in the cases of these isolated children, they are popped out into the world only to be thrown in a dark room, basement, or attic without food and warmth. Killinger (1980) mentions that an infant feels isolated from the day it is born. He states:
You are being pushed, shoved, pummeled on your way through some strange elastic chute. Your whole world is in upheaval, as though an earthquake, a hurricane, and a nuclear explosion were all occurring simultaneously. There is a binding light, and you feel alien creatures pulling at you, upending you, poking gleaming instruments at you. (p. 2)
Killinger mentions how it is appropriate and important for the nurses to fondle the infants. This is done so that the infants do not feel as isolated and alone. Just like Harlow’s experiment with the monkeys. The infant monkey was seeking attention from the cloth monkey because infants need to be nurtured. Infants tend to feel isolated after they are born, and until they are constantly around their mother.
There are also instances of a certain type of child that tends to isolate himself or herself. These children would rather play alone, and they show no desire to associate with their peers. Children who isolate themselves tend to be rejected at school, and they report to their parents, or guardians, that they are well-liked in order to avoid confrontation. These children respond with aggression, and they tend to act out. They are the ones that are most in need of adult intervention to enhance social relationships (Trawick-Smith, 2010).
My brother, Trey, tends to isolate himself from everything. The only time he leaves his room is to go to school and eat. Trey has Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, also known as ADHD. When Trey does not have the medicine that treats his ADHD, he is all over the place, and is not so isolated. However, when Trey is on his medication, it calms him way down. He just wants to do his own thing, and be left alone. My parents have tried to wean Trey off of the medication, so he can be his own person and not be so dependent on it, but he is too wild without it. Trey can also be a little aggressive when he is bothered to do anything such as cleaning his room, doing his laundry, etc. He gets agitated very easily because he wants to isolate himself from everything. Trey also hates any type of social setting. My parents had to transfer him to a smaller school because he did not want to be around a bunch of people. He is seventeen years old and has never stayed at a friend’s house, or even gone on a date. He wants to be isolated from any type of social setting. In this case this is self-inflicted isolation because Trey is not being forced into isolation.
Teachers, babysitters, alternative caregivers, and counselors can tell, by observing certain signs, whether a child has been a victim of isolation. The signs of isolation are: the child is withdrawn from social activities; the child is depressed; the child may do whatever they can to seek attention since they do not get it at home; the child may look ill due to lack of nutrients and sunlight; and they may appear to be slow. Psychologists and counselors are trained to notice whether a child is acting normal, or acting out due to isolation. It is their job to get the child out of danger if in an unhealthy situation. Like the security guard who found Mitch Comer, he may not have been trained to tell whether a child had been abused physically or emotionally, but he could see signs that Mitch had been abused and had come from an unhealthy environment.
The brain is an amazing and complex organ, and it determines who we are as people. Environmental influences have a lot to do with how the human brain develops because of the plasticity in the brain. For the first several years of life, the plasticity of the brain is at its highest, which aids children in socializing with others, and assimilating into their culture (Feldman, 2011). I cannot stress enough how important socialization is to children. Children learn by seeing and doing, which may seem like common sense, but in reality this is a complex mental form of enculturation. If children are kept isolated in an attic-like room for the first ten years of their lives, then the learning aspects of their brain do not function properly. We may live in a scary world these days, but that is no reason to keep children locked away from society. Without people constantly talking and playing with children, they are not able develop properly, and it just may make them worse off in their adulthood. A child’s brain is like a sponge, it absorbs everything around it. If a child is not exposed to societal behaviors, then their brain has no chance to expand. Children are meant to play and mess-up, and get dirty: that is how they learn.
Brazelton, T. B., & Greenspan, S. I. (2000). The Irreducible Needs of Children: What Every Child Must Have to Grow, Learn, and Flourish. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing
Cherry, K. (n.d.). Genie: The Story of the Wild Child. About.com. Retrieved October 25, 2012 from http://psychology.about.com/od/historyofpsychology/a/genie.htm.
Feldman, R. (2011). Development Across the Life Span. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Fries, T. & Levin, S (Producer), & Bloom, J. (Director). (1987). Flowers in the Attic [Motion picture]. United States: New World Pictures.
Killinger, J. (1980). The Loneliness of Children. New York, NY: The Vangaurd Press
Sager, J., (2012). Starving Teen Found in Bus Station Says Parents Kept Him Locked in Basement for Years. Retrieved from: http://thestir.cafemom.com/in_the_news/143842/starving_teen_found_in_bus
Schulthesis, E., (1999). Harry Harlow. Retrieved from: http://muskingum.edu/~psych/psycweb/history/harlow.htm
Shepard, J. (2010). Sociology. Belmont, CA: Cengage Advantage Books.
Trawick-Smith, J. (2010). Early Childhood Development: A multicultural Perspective. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.
Tara Millero originally wrote this essay for Palabras's official Website back in April 2013.