Psychology Thought Love Was Bad for Children

Ira Glass: Harry Harlow, was trying to prove-- and I know this is going to sound crazy. He was trying to prove that love is an important thing that happens between parents and children.

And the reason why he felt the need to prove this point was at the time-- and again, I know this is going to sound kind of out there. The psychological establishment, pediatricians, even the federal government were all saying exactly the opposite of that to parents.

Deborah Blum: It's actually one of those things that you say, how could they have thought that? But psychology just didn't believe in love. And if you go back and you pull any of the psychology textbooks, really almost pre-1950, you don't even find it in the index because it was not a word that was used.

Ira Glass: This is Deborah Blum, the biographer of this renegade researcher, Harry Harlow. She writes about how psychologists at the time actually saw loving behavior towards children as a problem, a menace. At one point, the head of the American Psychological Association declared, "when you're tempted to pet your child, remember that mother love is a dangerous instrument."

Deborah Blum: Yeah, that was John Watson, and he actually said there are serious rocks ahead for the over-kissed child. And then defined over-kissing as kissing your child more than once a year. That was the message of almost everything.

Ira Glass: At some point there are government pamphlets you write, that are warning parents not to touch their children. And you quote some. One says, "never kiss a baby. Especially on the mouth. Don't rock or play with children."

Deborah Blum: Yeah. Not to say that everyone follows what so-called experts do. But certainly, you had an enormous effect of this affection is wrong, love isn't real, trust us, we're scientists, that greatly shaped those kind of perceptions.

Ira Glass: How was this possible? Well, first of all, psychology was still pretty young. Psychologists hadn't figured out how to measure love, how to quantify it, and talk about it in the scientific way. So the thinking about love's role was incredibly crude. And at the same time, this is all at the beginning of the early 20th century, medicine was still figuring out how bacteria spread infections. And pediatricians had noticed that in hospitals, the kids who were picked up a lot by nurses seemed to get more infections.

Deborah Blum: So doctors were saying, don't pick up your child, don't pick up your child, don't pick up your child. So you had a kind of confluence going there. You had pediatricians saying, we're telling you for health reasons that you should never cuddle your child or indulge them. And guess what? Psychology says if you follow those rules, if you show your child no affection, you will make them a better human being. So back off.

Ira Glass: And this is the way it was for decades, until about the 1940s. Health care workers started to notice that some children in hospitals and orphanages who were treated this way never picked up, never loved, would wither and die. Literally, die. But even this did not change the opinion of the psychological establishment.

So enter Harry Harlow. He sets out to prove that love is important. In fact, love is a key to normal development in children. And that what bonds babies and mothers is more than just the baby's need for food.


Deborah Blum, biographer of the researcher Harry Harlow who worked to prove the importance of love in raising children, on the history of psychology ignoring love as something to be given to children.

Folksonomies: parenting psychology child-rearing love

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 Unconditional Love
Audiovisual Media>Audio Recording:  Glass, Ira (09.15.2006), Unconditional Love, This American Life, 317, Retrieved on 2011-10-01
  • Source Material []
  • Folksonomies: love