Suffer little children ...

November 18, 1994

Developmental psychologists have had a good press this century. Generally avoiding most Freudian excesses, they have established acceptable, clear guidelines covering the normal stages of physical, intellectual, social and emotional development during the early years of life. As a result, they have helped see off malpractices like swaddling or over-dressing, ultra strict potty training and horror at any manifestation of sexuality. When psychologists today encourage parents to talk to and play with their babies and to make sure that they are always provided with adequate care, nearly all parents agree that this is what should happen, whether it actually does or not.

But in this litany of success, we should remember the children who provided the evidence upon which these various findings were first based. Their helpless involvement in the pioneering days of developmental psychology did not always prove a benign experience. Suffering in the cause of science this century has not been that unusual; medical experiments carried out on prisoners, soldiers and others have on occasions been horrific. But causing distress to small children for the sake of research is particularly unpleasant. Some of the early psychological work done on infants now makes uncomfortable reading, even though it is still quoted in textbooks.

No psychologist to my knowledge has shown cruelty to infants for its own sake. But at a time when their discipline was new, psychologists could not always be expected to know if what they were doing was wrong. Some of the research that now seems ethically dubious was also instrumental in laying down more humane guidelines for the future. Yet some research on children must have seemed questionable at the time as well as today. These include studies performed by pioneers upon their own offspring. Melanie Klein psychoanalysed her three children, quoting them extensively in her work but never as members of her family. The idea of any therapist intruding so obsessively into their own children's minds has always been thought undesirable, judging by Klein's later evasions about what she actually did within her family. Freud also preferred to hide the fact that he once psychoanalysed his daughter Anna.

Jean Piaget, the king of all developmental psychology, was more open in his books, always referring to his children by name when recording the various close details of their development. It is not known what effect this early publicity had upon his family in later life. But some children who have unwittingly become famous through their parents' writings have lived to rue their unwanted fame as adults. No psychologist now would ever use their own children's names so freely in any published research.

More alarming were the experiments carried out by J. B. Watson, the father of American behaviourism, on his children. Once, in 1942, he pretended to abuse his wife in front of his three-year-old son Billy in order to determine whether there was an early instinct for jealousy. In Watson's own words, the terrified Billy "cried, kicked and tugged at his father's leg and struck with his hand''. Yet Watson went on until "the youngster was genuinely disturbed and the experiment had to be discontinued''.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Watson had a poor relationship with all his children up to his death. Many of the early conditioning experiments he tried out on them over matters like establishing regular toilet training or attempting to stop nail-biting simply did not work. This could not be guessed from his writings. The up-beat tone of his descriptions of family life among his happy "behaviouristic'' children never lets up for a moment. His example is a reminder that self-advertising psychologists are often more successful parents on paper than they ever manage to be in real life.

It was B. F. Skinner, another giant of American psychology, who perhaps went furthest within his own family. In 1944 he devised a thermostatically-controlled baby box, later called an air-crib, for his infant daughter, Deborah. Within this small, totally enclosed space, Deborah could look out of a safety-glass window and still be talked to, although in-coming noise was muted by the crib's sound-absorbing walls. The advantage here, as Skinner saw it, was the provision of an ideal temperature specially controlled for heat and humidity. Within her box, Deborah could therefore play freely without the encumbrance of the various clothes normally thought necessary to keep infants warm. Nor would she ever be woken up or distracted by extra intrusive household noises such as ringing telephones or loud adult chatter. A curtain could also be drawn in order to shut out the light when she was asleep.

This whole episode highlights the dangers that can arise when psychologists use children for radical experimentation before they know the full significance of what they are doing. This consideration did not bother Skinner, who from early on tended to believe he was right about most things psychological. But while it seemed self-evident to him that the free use of a baby's limbs was the most crucial factor of early infancy, modern psychologists believe quite differently. Sharing fully in the normal hubbub of family life from the first is now seen as far more important in a baby's overall development. Frequent opportunities for close physical contact and play with adults is also thought highly desirable.

Even so, Skinner's baby box still aroused much interest and went into limited production before finally fading away. He also invented a special toilet seat which played music once the child had performed. Despite her unusual infancy, Deborah still managed to grow into a sane and balanced young woman, remaining close to her father for the rest of his life.

Since most psychologists have been unwilling to turn towards their own family for research clearly involving any deprivation or pain, what was the way forward for those who still wanted to investigate the different effects of deprivation upon children? One obvious path was to conduct research on the children of parents who could not answer back. J. B. Watson's experiments upon the 11-month orphan "Little Albert'' are a case in point. Watson became famous when he proved that this child could be conditioned to fear a white rat he had previously found acceptable once its appearance was combined with a sudden loud noise. But this research came to a hasty end immediately Albert was adopted. His new parents had no intention of letting their child suffer from any more unexpected bangs.

There has in fact been a long tradition of experimenting on orphans in developmental psychology. In 1799 the early French psychologist, Jean Itard, first rescued and then experimented upon Victor, the so-called "Wild Orphan boy of Aveyron". Although Itard was an enlightened and humane man, this did not stop him from testing for the presence of a "moral sense'' in the silent Victor by once shutting him up in a dark room for no reason at all and then observing his reaction. Victor duly flew into a passion, biting his master long and hard on his hand, but also delighting him by proving that he understood the difference between just and unjust treatment.

In Britain at roughly the same time, Thomas Day, an early follower of Rousseau, conducted some bizarre experiments on a pretty 12-year-old orphan called Sabrina. She was chosen by Day from a local foundling hospital to be his perfect wife. Her special preparation for this role included the discharge of a pistol close to her ear and the setting fire to her petticoats as part of a long-term policy to make her immune to fear. Sabrina merely screamed. Nor did the dropping of melted sealing-wax on to her neck and arms prove any more effective in rendering her insensible to bodily pain. When Day died after falling from his horse, Sabrina -- later married to someone more normal -- must have been delighted.

By the start of the 20th century such outlandish experiments on older children were generally a thing of the past. But it was still some time before psychologists finally understood that babies also have important emotional needs beyond the everyday business of eating, sleeping and evacuating. When training in London as a Norland Nanny in the 1920s, my own mother along with other trainees used to take home a different baby every weekend as part of her student practice. These babies came from East End mothers who crowded into the college every Friday to secure a short rest from their infants. What the babies made of these sudden separations is not recorded because no one was thinking in that direction. It took the work of John Bowlby 40 years later to spread the idea that an infant's primary attachments should not be casually ruptured simply because this might be quite convenient for the parents.

This widespread indifference to babies' emotions is found in one of the strangest cases in infant abuse in 20th-century psychology. This occurred in America during the 1930s at the hands of Wayne Dennis, aided throughout by his wife. A respected member of the department of psychology at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Dr Dennis published a series of influential reports on aspects of early infant behaviour. His aim was to discover how much of an infant's development was innate and how much is learned from adult example, a long-running concern in developmental psychology.

He outlined his methodology in 1941: "Some years ago we recorded the behavioural development of two infants who were reared from the beginning of the second to the end of the 14th month of life . . . The two experimenters (Mrs Dennis and the writer) exercised the sole care of the subjects. The subjects saw no other children and saw very few adults aside from the experimenters. We refrained from performing any infant responses in the subjects' presence. We did not reward or punish the subjects for any response nor instruct them in any way. Furthermore, the environment of the children was such that in respect to many responses there was little or no opportunity to engage in practice''.

The twin girls, named Del and Rey, were of north European ancestry. "The father was a former taxi driver, whose whereabouts at the time of the birth of the twins was unknown. We were able to obtain the twins as subjects because the mother was unable to provide for them. They came to us when they were 36 days old. The mother understood that we offered temporary care of the twins in return for the privilege of studying them. She understood the general nature of our research and was cooperative at all times''.

Quite how much the mother knew about the type of care offered by Dr and Mrs Dennis is open to question. The room the twins were kept in was little better than a prison cell. "Throughout the experiment the twins lived in our home but they were confined to the nursery. This was a second-floor room, so situated that from the infants' position only sky and tree tops were visible through the windows. The room itself contained only the subjects' cribs, a bureau, a table, two chairs, and a screen near the door. No picture or decoration of any sort was permitted in the nursery. The door of the room was kept closed, and we entered the room only to care for the subjects, to observe them, and to experiment with them. The twins were never taken from the nursery except for a few occasions and for trips to the university hospital for anthropometric and paediatric examination. On these trips the infants' faces were covered''.

Nor could the twins derive much comfort from each other. "The cribs were placed side by side with a screen equal in height to the cribs between the two, so that the twins could see each other only when taken from their beds. During the first nine months the subjects were taken from the cribs only for feeding and bathing or when removal from the cribs was demanded for the purposes of experimentation''. No toilet training was ever attempted. The maximum time spent with the twins by both adults never amounted to more than two hours each day."

Like Itard before him, Dennis also attempted, "to determine the first reaction of the subjects to scolding and to a light slap on the thigh''. But for the most part he and his wife trained themselves to behave towards the twins with total indifference -- a state of mind he describes as, "most difficult to achieve, not in respect to avoiding such overt acts as praising and fondling but in respect of the amount of attention which is given to the infant''. Nevertheless, "we carefully refrained from baby talk and from babbling, as we wanted to know whether such vocalisations would occur without example. Likewise, we never performed for the twins such acts as patting their heads or playing with their toes''.

But even with these devoted researchers the strain was beginning to tell. "Withholding of demonstrations of affection was not an easy task to impose upon ourselves, particularly as the subjects themselves were very expressive. From the 15th week onward they almost invariably greeted us with a smile and a vocalisation. After this fact was thoroughly established, we decided in Week to return their smile of greeting, and to speak to them as we approached''. Even so, "our speech to the twins was limited to casual everyday remarks''.

After a year Dr and Mrs Dennis also began to allow themselves limited play with the twins. But they still carried on with some potentially upsetting experiments. Film records were made to "enable us to examine the general bodily expression of the twins when they were crying from hunger, from being restrained, from being picked up and put down without receiving further attention, when they were crying because of loud sounds, and from a variety of other causes. The room was brightly illuminated by flood-lights.''

Forgiving as ever, the twins persisted in beaming at their strange custodians even when these were attempting to stimulate negative reactions. "When we restrained the subject by holding the infant's head or arms or legs motionless by means of the firm pressure of our hands, the child gazed into our faces and smiled. Sometimes the smiling persisted throughout five minutes of forceful restraint. Eventually, fretting would begin, although the experimenter was often fatigued before the subject began to cry . . . We did, however, succeed in obtaining pictures of some cries. One stimulus which was effective in eliciting loud and prolonged crying despite the presence of the experimenters was a loud noise, made by sounding an automobile horn in the room. Del, in particular, was strongly affected by this stimulation.''

By the 15th month, Dennis decided to return the twins to their mother. No comment is made on why she could now take the children, and whether she might have been able to look after them earlier. This is important, since by this time Del was far behind the motor norms for children of her age. For Dennis, this was due to "a partial hemiplegia which had not been noticed at an earlier period. This disability was probably referable to a cranial injury at birth, and could in no way be attributed to the experiment.''

Be that as it may, this conviction that his research had done no harm was held by Dennis for more than ordinary personal reasons. He was also defending his belief that maturation as opposed to actual experience was always the most crucial factor in early child development. But perhaps he may have felt some residual guilt about the two babies he had so systematically neglected. During her last month, he and his wife gave Del "a considerable amount of special attention''. These efforts were without effect, and Del left still unable to crawl or to pull herself into a standing position.

By this time the twins had been allowed to play together. Speech was still non-existent, given that "there was no attempt on our part to train the subjects to use words''. During all this period, Dr and Mrs Dennis were also bringing up their own daughter in the same house but in a very different way. Sometimes Del would sob when she heard the daughter crying through the wall. The daughter, in her turn, heard the various "vocalisations'' issuing from the twins as they lay unattended in their bleak room. Other than that there was no contact between these children separated by the chasm of scientific objectivity.

Dennis and his wife stayed in contact with the twins afterwards, but were distressed to find that their later progress was considerably less than they expected. Although Del and Rey had begun by progressing at a normal rate with actions like finding their hands, smiling and babbling, they were later increasingly held back in their development. Del in particular appears to have suffered most. Whatever the effects of her "partial hemiplegia'', there seems little doubt that her year long stay away from home also did her harm. Even in the last month of the experiment, "the larger part of the twins' day was spent in the crib''. No toys were provided until the 49th week.

Dennis later totally reversed his ideas about the primacy of pre-determined behavioural development in infants. This was after studying neglected infants in Iranian orphanages, and observing the close correlation between their developmental retardation and their poor environmental conditions. He lived to condemn the type of neglect he had visited upon a helpless pair of twins 20 years earlier. He died in 1976, a respected professor in psychology whose work on the "self-generated'' nature of much infant behaviour is quoted in textbooks to this day. Most university departments now have an ethics committee vetting all proposed research for its acceptability. Children in the past had no such protection, and occasionally suffered for it. Professor Dennis and his wife were not unusual for their time; nor were the ethics of their work questioned by their contemporaries.

Passing judgement now on the behaviour of Dennis and his wife is easy, knowing as much as we do about the needs of small infants. What might psychologists in the next 50 years have to say about the attitudes revealed in some of the psychological research conducted upon children today?

Nicholas Tucker is a lecturer in developmental psychology at the University of Sussex.

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