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It has long been known in psychological circles that children raised in orphanages are typically and significantly less sociable and intelligent than children raised in natural family environments. They all too often end up in dead-end lives or in prisons. What has been lacking until recently is a scientifically sound study of a cohort of sufficient size to allow valid conclusions to be drawn. To correct that deficiency, Charles Nelson of Harvard, Nathan Fox of University of Maryland, and Charles Zeanah of Tulane with the help of SERA, a Rumanian NGO and in cooperation with the Rumanian government, began a study in 2000 that is still ongoing, but that has already provided scientific answers for some of the questions. See the April 2013 edition of Scientific American, p64 for more.

In the late 19th Century, Ivan Petrovich Pavlov, a brilliant Russian researcher studied the reflex systems of animals. His contributions to science were many and have stood the test of time. In fact he founded a new sub-branch of inquiry in human psychology. He is best known for his singular work on dogs that he conditioned to salivate at the ring of a bell. What is less well-known is that a bell was not the only stimuli that worked. Virtually anything that entered the senses of the dog would work equally well in stimulating dog to salivate. The dog was trained like this: Ring the bell and show him food while measuring his salivation response. After some number of repetitions of the stimuli, the dog would salivate whether or not food followed. Pavlov also studied children and showed that they too can be trained to exhibit involuntary reflex activity. We all can, and so can all dog breeds.

So what does this have to do with violence in humanity?

It is yet another road to peace, that’s what.

It is all in the parenting. The study alluded to above, puts the issue beyond doubt. That this study came so recently had to do with its ethics. To do a study of this type properly, one must have a cohort (the subjects) and a control group (not subjected to the experimental conditions). But it is unethical to submit humans to environments that might harm them seriously.

As it happened, Nicolae Ceaușescu, General Secretary of Romania, ruled for 34 years before being overthrown by a popular revolt. During his tenure he banned contraception and abortion to increase the population of his country. Beyond that, he imposed a “celibacy tax” on families with less than five children and required working women to submit to gynecological exams to see if they were having enough children. Together, this drove the poorer class to abandon children they simply could not care for. These children ended up in orphanages for the most part.

Orphan creation continued at a high rate long after Ceaucescu’s demise. Some responsible people in the later government of Romania began to question this grievous wrong. Societal elements believed that when government does the raising, the children will be the better for it. Many such people remained in power and the orphanages were government funded. But the Secretary of State in charge of child protection saw the folly. He agreed to fund a scientific study of the question of whether the government was better in fact at raising children than the parents were. In 1999 some 170,000 children were still in orphanages. They provided resources for the experimental group that came from six orphanages. By controlling for genetic defects and time of abandonment, an experimental group of 136 children averaging 22 months in age was formed. 68 of these children were placed with 53 families. These 68 were divided into two sub-groups, comprised of the age of placement--before or after the age of two. IQ and brain function differences were evaluated at various times later. The results were striking, and are summarized in the following table.

Group IQ (100 is normal) Brain Function
Still in orphanage ~78 One side lobe active
Put in foster care after age 2 ~81 Two side lobes active
In foster care before age 2 ~92 Front & mid-lobes active
Those raised by their parents. ~104 As above, but sharper

These combined results are dramatic indeed. Language development followed a similar pattern.

The institutional children were raised by caregivers, paid to do it. And the child to caregiver ratio was 15:1 Interactions with the children were necessarily down. Housing was bleak and plain, even prison-like. Individualized attention was necessarily minimal. These conditions differ markedly from those surrounding the children in foster care, which was certainly near, or approximately, normal.

There is a great deal more to this study. Again see the Scientific American referenced above for more details. The study is continuing to see if there are any “sleeper” effects on the ongoing IQ and brain function differences.

The authors provide a great deal of insight that we all need to pay attention to, not to mention government and social institutions world-wide.

Proper parenting from loving and caring parents is most critical during the first few years of life. It is not just an institutional problem; families are too-often imperfect when it comes to raising children. Dysfunctional families produce dysfunctional and unstable kids. Therein lies a huge problem as modernization moves along. Societies that solve this problem will be the winners of the 21st Century.

So where does Pavlov fit? As parents we are well advised to realize that a lot of our learning about and responses to the real world come at the unconscious level. Not only was Pavlov prescient in this regard, Malsow was too. Harry Maslow showed vividly how monkeys deprived of a normal mother become decidedly abnormal in behavior. It is not just people with language, animals can be affected too, for better or worse. There are many examples of traits that are similar or identical across any number of species, as Edward O Wilson shows so admiringly with his concept of Consilience across species in nature


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