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Home > Research Articles > The man who proved a baby needs mom's hugs

The Plain Dealer

Sunday, November 24, 2002

Donna Marchetti

Special to The Plain Dealer

Sixteen years ago, I had the most demanding boss I could imagine: my toddler son. I cooked for him, cleaned for him, fed him, changed him, rocked him to sleep. And when the world overwhelmed him - as it often did - I swooped him up, dried his tears and settled him into a long and tender hug.

"You'll spoil him," warned my mother. "Babies shouldn't get so much atten tion. He'll just demand more of you."

Thirty years earlier, my mother, along with other parents of that era, had taken heed of the stern warning issued by psychologists: Too much affection resulted in needy children.

But in my heart, I knew my son needed those hugs as much as he needed food. I suspected that a well-hugged baby was better prepared for life.

About the time my mother was being told to ration her affection, psychologist Harry Harlow at the University of Wisconsin began a series of experiments with rhesus monkeys designed to debunk the widely held notion that love and affection were peripheral to a baby's well-being. His conclusion: A baby's love for its mother is the fiercest in the world. If it is not reciprocated, the result is physically and emotionally devastating. Conversely, regular physical affection is the first link in a chain of love that extends to all the important relationships developed over a lifetime.

In her engrossing book "Love at Goon Park," Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Deborah Blum traces Harlow's life and the evolution in parent/child psychology that resulted from his work.

It was not without controversy. Harlow enraged the members of the emerging feminist movement who, just at the moment they were making headway beyond traditional roles, were being told that what they wanted was dangerous and unnatural. In his characteristic inflammatory style, he added fuel to the fire by making comments such as, "God created women to be mothers and essentially nothing else."

Today, Harlow is reviled by animal-rights advocates, who deplore the methods he used in his research. His experiments, concedes Blum, were so horrific that they should never be repeated: monkeys left alone in a box for so long that they became neurotic, quivering masses of despair; baby monkeys abused by mechanical surrogate mothers; infant monkeys so scarred by isolation that they later mutilated or killed their own offspring. One animal-rights organization calls Harlow insane, accusing him of torture and murder.

Blum meets these accusations head-on in her remarkably even-handed narrative. We don't have to like what Harlow did, or how he did it, she says. But it's impossible to deny that today there is a fundamental difference in the way scientists - and parents - think about love.

For that, she argues, millions of babies have Harlow to thank.

Marchetti is a critic in Cleveland Heights.