Gorilla glue keeps the family bonded

Posted Feb. 14, 2011, at 7:09 p.m.

I’m worried. As members of the greater family of primates, I know how important it is for our young to bond with their mother or parents.

In the 1940s, a psychologist named Harry Harlow studied monkeys, and he found that the little ones who had time with their real mothers bonded well with them, and later learned appropriate social skills for getting along with their peers and for mating. Those with artificial surrogate parents were socially withdrawn, aggressive and abused their own babies (when they could find a mate).

More recently, the studies of the orphans born in former Soviet states who were placed in orphanages found that these babies frequently did not bond well with their adoptive parents. The same thing was found long ago in similar circumstances. The bonding of adopted babies, when they are adopted near the time of birth, is not problematic; but when they have lived in the group care settings where they are left to lie alone for hours and handled briefly and infrequently, it is much harder to develop those bonds.

We know from research that it is important for the baby to hear the mother’s heartbeat, that it soothes and helps the baby sleep and nurse, and stimulates intellectual development.

Things are different now. I remember the era (OK, I’m old) in which babies were held by their mothers, held close to the breast, bundled snugly against their bodies or simply carried around in arms. Perhaps they were passed from one adult or older child to another, like we see now only with grandmothers checking out the new baby in church.

What do I see around me now? I see infants in hard plastic containers that look like stock-room bins, carried around often at arm’s length like baskets of groceries, and allowed to lie in there while in homes, restaurants, stores, exercise rooms. I see the parent driving the car while the baby is in the back seat in her little cell.

I don’t see the parents picking up and cuddling the baby, holding him while he is being fed, or snuggling with her for comfort. At least not in public.

Those car safety seats are just so … convenient. Well, after all, it’s safer and it’s the law. Then, why bother to take the baby out of the carrier to carry her into the store? Or to let the child sit on a lap during a conversation or while giving a bottle? Is it too much trouble? Too distracting?

Well, perhaps it’s just that I don’t see these parents in private, in their homes. Maybe there they spend more time with the infant. Just like in the TV ads for diapers and baby ointment with aloe vera and infant formula and fabric softener.

Wanna bet? With the double-shift, two-working-parent households that are the norm? I picture the baby in that same carrier — or maybe a miniature-jail playpen or a multitasking high chair-stroller-entertainment center — while the parents dash around to make dinner, have a glass of wine, play videos, check their Facebook and Twitter accounts and watch TV.

Why does this matter? Let’s think of those infant-parent bonds as the glue that binds us together as a species and as a society. They teach us to trust, to love and to know love, which must be established at a critical period very early in life. If we don’t feel that emotional closeness or learn to trust another person, we have far less — or no — capacity for empathy, for imagining ourselves in another’s shoes and able to feel what they feel.

Then, as adults, we become so powerfully self-focused and egocentric that we lose our sense of any caring about anyone else. We see relationships in economic terms: What will it cost me? What will I gain?

This makes it easier to fight, reject or shun, bully, abuse, start a war, or steal another’s life savings without compunction. It becomes really easy to feel an unearned sense of entitlement and self-importance, so there is no hesitation in accepting what belongs to another. There is no concern for a neighbor, fellow worker or taxpayer. Just myself. And maybe what’s mine.

Is this familiar to anyone?

Well, a baby’s gotta do what a baby’s gotta do: Adapt. Survive. We primates are so good at that it’s downright scary. Really scary.

And that’s what worries me.

Anne L. Hess is a retired neuropsychologist in Stillwater.

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