Maternal Deprivation is a catch- phrase summarizing the work of psychiatrist John Bowlby on the effects of separating infants and young children from their mother (or mother substitute) John Bowlbys lifetime work was based around studying childhood through Developmental Psychology. Bowlby believed that there are enormous psychological consequences for a child who has experienced separation from its maternal figure, which he concluded in his “Thieves study” Bowlbys theory of monotropy led to the formulation of his maternal depravation hypothesis.
He claimed that mothering is almost useless if delayed until after two and a half to three years, and for most children, if delayed till after 12 months (critical period). If the attachment figure is broken or disrupted during the critical two year period the child will suffer irreversible long term consequences of maternal depravation which may include: delinquency, reduced intelligence, increased aggression, depression, affectionless psychopathy. This risk continues until the age of 5. Bowlby used the term maternal depravation to refer to the separation or loss of the mother as well as failure to develop an attachment.
Three landmark studies conducted in the 1950s supported his views. In 1946, Bowlby looked at the life histories of eighty eight children half of whom had a criminal record for theft. Fourteen of the “thieves” displayed a lack of normal affection, shame or sense of responsibility. Almost all of these affectionless children had suffered early and prolonged separation from their mothers. The remaining seventy four children who were not affectionless, only seven had been separated. This appears to be strong evidence in support of Bowlby hypothesis.
Another strong evidence in support of Bowlby hypothesis came from research conducted by Lorenz. Bowlby felt that there was critical period in the formation of attachment and Lorenz work confirmed this when he become a mother to a brood of goslings. The phenomenon is called imprinting. Bowlby suggested that attachment behavior is a kind of imprinting and is irreversible. A third line of evidence came from Harlow’s work with rhesus monkeys. A monkey was provided with two mothers one with wire cylinder with a monkey -like face and the feeding bottle attached the other with no feeding bottle but wrapped in the cloth.
Monkeys spent most of their time with the cloth mother, visiting the other one only for food. He showed that monkeys reared in isolation from their mother suffered emotional and social problems in older age. The monkeys never formed an attachment, grew up to be aggressive and had problems interacting with other monkeys. Schaffer and Emerson challenged some of Bowlbys claims. They found attachment to a specific person started to occur at around 7 months, multiple attachments were the norm.
These findings suggest that Bowlby was correct in identifying the importance of attachment, but incorrect in overemphasizing the single maternal role and the time factor for all the children. Another person looking at the effects of separation on children was Michael Rutter. He generally supported Bowlbys study but he felt that the main problem with the concept of maternal deprivation was that it muddled together a range of essentially different experiences. He felt that separation is not the crucial factor in emotional disturbance.
Instead it may be the general family discord underlies the emotional disturbances observed by Bowlby. Goldfarb showed that institutionalize children performed poorly on IQ tests compared with those that had been fostered. Spitz provided evidence that children raised in poor South American orphanages suffered from depression and apathy. Bowlby might claim that maternal deprivation was associated with a variety of adverse effects but he could not prove that it was the cause of these effects. Different circumstances such as; luck of stimulation and social interaction could be the crucial factors as far as development is concern.