Friday, December 14, 2012


My collection of what I call “teddy bear books” began about the time I graduated from college in 1961.  They were not about stuffed toys, but about the then-new “attachment theory,” the crucial importance of a secure, loving relationship with a caregiver in the first year or two of life.  The teddy bears were considered a version of a “blankie” or a binky -- a comforting extension of the caregiver.  Harry Harlow had finally broken the iron grip of the strict nanny who insisted on discipline and letting babies “cry themselves out” by setting up an experiment with baby monkeys.  Instead of their own mothers, the babies got two puppet mothers.  A wire monkey fed the milk.  The other was simply as cuddly as a teddy bear.  The babies stayed with the wire mom only enough to survive, then quickly leapt to the soft mom and clung for comfort.  The photos were vivid and distressing.

Pretty soon the pediatricians and psychologists were getting the point.  And by now the neurologists are able to tell us what is really happening.  Primates, including humans, “unfold,” following a pattern that is embedded in “timer” genes and basically going through the steps of previous evolution because each mutation is built on the previous one, even though the mutation may mean a subtraction from what is there.  So the body and its capacities are “sculpted” both by addition and subtraction, and continues to change after birth.  We know that a LOT of brain cells are there at first, that those that fit into patterns by experience are preserved, and then the unused ones “pop” -- they die, resorb, whatever.  But if something creates a new pattern and sufficient information keeps being fed into that pattern, then brain cells are resupplied as needed.  Not just that, but long filaments of connection grow among the cells in a web, or rather a set of webs.  You can see them in this video, which has an excellent explanation.     The experts say that in the beginning the key to full human development is JOY.  Think of that!  Not time-tables, exercises, equipment, prosperity -- simply JOY.

Human development seems to go in phases that can be identified by the tasks at hand.  These tasks are dictated by the need to survive.  During the period of helplessness after birth, the body/brain is just trying to figure itself out and get control.  Survival depends upon bonding with the caregiver.  Then there is a period when babies try to figure out the world around them -- why stuff falls, what stuff tastes like, the limits of what they can do with stuff.  That’s when the toys and Cheerios go flying, the block towers are built -- then crashed.  All innocent experiments, of course.

The next period is the one that intrigues me because I can remember it well:  “adrenarche” (5 or 6 to around 9) when the child creates identity.  It is a malleable, responsive time, but also a time of separation when the child can recognize what other people want but also know his or her separate wants.  There is testing of relationship, but also empathy for others.  This is the period that most of us think of when we think of pedophiles -- also the years when serious damage can to done to the formation of the person, because getting “stuck” at this age is very hard to remedy.  It’s not the sex, per se, even if it is physically brutal, but the resulting deep confusion about things like self-worth, boundaries, intimacy, blame, secrecy, trusting oneself to understand and cope.  Though the brain’s assumptions grow out of the dependency experience from earlier, these are the years when the terms of deep rational meaning are set.  One begins to think through propositions and to begin to use metaphor and memory as compasses and rudders. 

In the formation of a person, then, at first the inner “realm” is established within the cradle formed by grownups.  The second “pre-school” stage is more about the outside realm: the world to which we connect through our senses -- eyes, ears, mouths, noses and so on.  Our memories from that time are very intense and saturated with emotion. But during adrenarche there is a kind of interlacing pattern forming between the world outside the body -- which by now has a sense of reality and a fund of information -- versus the realm inside the body, information about emotions, bodily comfort and functions, and skills.  A person this age (I DO remember it) can think, maybe even testify in court, has a rudimentary sense of right and wrong, and is constantly busy because they are acting out the internal patterns they are forming.  They value stories and internalize them as vicarious experience.  This needs to get done before the sexual adolescence begins because they are the foundation of trusting sexual relationship, as well as the ability to provide effective caregiving for the babies produced by sex.

People will agree that children in adrenarche are too young for sex, but when adolescence is reached, people individually and as a culture are very confused.  Once we stopped living in tribes and went to legal pairs -- not even extended families living together -- the terms of survival became much more restrictive.  A twelve-year-old girl is technically able to get pregnant, but the price her body will pay is very high.  Many twelve-year-old boys are emotionally fragile, still dependent on parents.  The law sets rules, but the law varies.  People vary.  

There has been talk about “Tiger Mothering.”  Demanding, unyielding, high-standards and high-stakes.  That’s one thing to think about.  But there’s another:  children who are badly traumatized early in their lives can become tigers themselves.  Here’s a remarkable and chilling interview with a child who is a killer.   If you watch this all the way through, you’ll see that the people who treated this child are hopeful that their work has rebuilt a predator into a little girl again.  It took as much effort and strategy as coping with a Bengal Tiger on a small boat. 

This is not narcissism, or delinquency, or even some defiant  disorder.  This child’s father’s assaults made her a changeling.  In another era she might simply have been killed.  In our times, without treatment, on the streets -- she will also be killed, not simply and not without taking others with her.  This is not because she was “bad seed” or “brain damaged” by trauma, but simply because there was no joy, no relationship, neither mothering nor teddy bear.  Nothing to make her human.

No comments: