Attachment and Howard Skeels

In the 1940s or thereabouts, Robert Emde told the audience at the Melbourne Freud conference, when eugenics was all the rage, a young psychologist by the name of Howard Skeels took a job in an orphanage somewhere in America. Eugenics was based on the belief that poor behaviour was based on inferior genes. To weed out the inferior genes, the children in the orphanage were assessed for IQ at an early age. If they were found to have a low IQ they were shipped off to a home for retarded children, where presumably they’d languish for the rest of their days. Otherwise they could stay in the ordinary orphanage and eventually be fostered out or adopted, melded back into society. When the young psychologist was working at the orphanage there were two little girls assesses and deemed to have sufficiently low IQs to be sent off to the home for the retarded. Two years later when these same little girls were about four, the young psychologist was promoted as superintendent of the home for retarded children. He came across the two young girls again and was surprised to find them apparently cheerful and bright and by no means intellectually retarded. When he looked into the situation, he saw that two of the retarded women in the home had taken the two small girls under their wing. Despite their own intellectual difficulties they had effectively mothered these two little girls such that the girls developed normally.
The girls were then assessed and found to have IQ’s greater than those children of the same age who had stayed back in the orphanage. Skeels used this experience to begin a more controlled experiment on 1049 children from the orphanage who had been deemed low IQ therefore retarded, therefore shipped off to the home for retarded. He followed this with a longitudinal study. The children all had good experiences of one to one care at the home and were able eventually to be fostered or adopted. All but one was able to marry, all reached their twelfth year pf high school compared to the children from the orphanage who did not fare so well. Skeels used this experiment to demonstrate the importance of one to one care and attachment in early childhood.

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