Redefining the Role of Mother in Child Development

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Redefining Reality: The Intellectual Implications of Modern Science

By Steven Gimbel, Ph.D., Gettysburg College

Although the crucial role of the mother in child development is a known fact nowadays, psychology ignored the effects of mothering for a long time. Different schools of psychology dismissed the role of mothers as something secondary or even detrimental to the mental health of human beings.

The picture shows a woman holding a baby in her arms.
Before Harry Harlow’s studies, mother and child relationship was biological at best and harmful at worst. (Image: Trendsetter Images/Shutterstock)

The Role of the Mother in Freudian Psychology

For Freudian psychology, the most significant role a mother can have in her child’s life is to be a source of mental illness for her/him. If she has proper feminine properties, her son becomes obsessed with her and develops an oedipal complex. If she has a daughter, she becomes a role model for her to instill passivity, which leads to penis envy.

Dominant masculine characteristics in the mother, including assertiveness, aggression, and control, lead to neuroses. So, Sigmund Freud sees mothers as inevitable sources of psychological damage that plagues the person for the rest of their life if not treated later on.

Learn more about Jung and the behaviorists.

Behaviorist View of the Mother

In the behavioristic view of psychology, mothers are just a source of nutrition that nurture and condition the children. Behaviorism sees the mother merely as a source of positive enforcement because there is no mind to worry about. They dispense food and good feelings like the bar in the rats’ cage that they push and get a food pellet. But things changed with the work of Harry Harlow.

Harlow Redefined the Reality

Harry Harlow investigated learning and development at the University of Wisconsin. At that time, animal models were standard tools of investigation because behaviorists had established that there was no mind. So, if there is only the brain and no mind, and if animals are the simplified versions of humans, we could study the human brain by learning about animal brains.

So Harlow started studying rhesus monkeys in the 1950s. He was trying to research learning and the effect of particular stimuli on learning skills. But the presence of mother monkeys was an impediment because they taught their children the skills.

This is a transcript from the video series Redefining Reality: The Intellectual Implications of Modern Science. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Harlow’s Monkey Love Experiment

Harlow decided to separate the newborn monkeys from their mothers and raise them in a nursery. At first, it did not seem to be a problem because the same thing happened with newborn human babies. After babies are born, we take them to nurseries to keep them sterile and away from their germ-ridden mothers. We take care of their nutrition by having nurses bottle-feed them regularly. So, the monkeys could be treated like our own children.

Monkey clinging to the cloth mother surrogate in fear.
Harry Harlow raised monkeys with surrogates. (Image: Harry Harlow/CC0/Public domain)

But Harlow witnessed a change in the way the monkeys behaved. They became emotionally sensitive, shaky, and aggressive. Other monkeys alienated them because they were not social and had strange reactions to other monkeys. Those observations led Harlow to conduct one of the most famous psychological studies in history.

He separated the newborn babies from their mothers and raised them in pens. With them were surrogates, some made of wire with a milk bottle inside and others made of wood with a bottle. The wooden surrogates were wrapped in foam and terrycloth to be soft and snuggly. The results showed that the monkeys that were raised with wire surrogates turned into abnormal adults and were more psychologically distressed.

Learn more about the birth of psychology.

The Next Phase of Harlow’s Experiment

In the next phase of the study, Harlow put both surrogates with the monkeys. An overwhelming majority of the monkeys spent time with the cushy fake mummy. He thought it could be because they were warmer. So, he added heat lamps to make both of them warm. But they didn’t change their preference. Finally, he put milk only in the wire surrogates. The monkeys did go to the wired ones to feed but would return to the soft one for cuddling. So, it turned out what monkeys wanted was not warmth or food. Instead, it was something that the behaviorists were not willing to admit exists: emotional comfort.

Harlow continued his experiment to check how their behaviors changed in the absence vs. the presence of the cloth monkey. When the cloth mommy was present, and new objects were placed, first, the babies would go to the mother, and then became curious to see what was around them.

On the other hand, when the soft mommy was absent, the young monkeys became agitated, wild, and aggressive. Some of them became extraordinarily passive and sucked their thumbs.

Harlow’s finding changed the way mothers were viewed by psychology. They were now more than sources of natural nourishment. They were a vital figure in emotional development. To quote Harlow, “Man Cannot Live by milk alone.”

Common Questions about Redefining the Role of Mother in Child Development

Q: What is Sigmund Freud’s theory about the mother-child relationship?

Sigmund Freud believed that the role of a mother in her child’s life is a damaging one. If she has proper feminine properties, her son becomes infatuated with her and develops an oedipal struggle. If she has a daughter, she becomes a role model for passivity, which leads to penis envy.

Q: How do behaviorists see the mother-child relationship?

Behavioral psychology posits that there is no mind, and there is just the brain. So, the mother is only the source of positive reinforcement and feeding. Her role is reduced to a food dispenser.

Q: What is Harry Harlow’s theory?

Harry Harlow found out that the mother is not just a source of biological nourishment. Children need to form an emotional bond with their mothers to avoid developing aggressive or stressed personalities.

Q: Why did Harlow use rhesus monkeys instead of humans?

Before Harlow’s discovery, the dominant behavioristic view of psychology held that there is no mind to study. So, if there is only the brain, the animal brain can be studied instead of the human brain because animals are simplified versions of humans.

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