A Family Affair

Parents, Children and Society

When Hitler Is Your (Grand?)Father

The Austrian Nightmare

In London where I have worked for the past 9 years (after spending 21 years at Penn State University), the newspapers are (still) awash with stories about the monstrous Austrian man, Josef Fritzl, who imprisoned his daughter for more than two decades in a tiny, window-less and soundproof basement apartment, fathering seven children with her, while keeping three of them locked up for their entire lives. When discovered, two were almost 20 years of age; one was just 5. How horrific.

When I received a call from the BBC to comment on this matter in terms of how this experience of imprisonment would affect the children, I pointed out that it was rather difficult to be certain (see below). Within a few hours of selected excerpts of the interview appearing on a BBC news website (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/7370889.stm), I received the two most vitriolic emails I have ever encountered. Indeed, my oldest son told me that if these had been received by an American academic, university security services would want to be alerted!

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What had I said to evoke such ire? Most importantly, I had pointed out that research evidence has repeatedly shown that children sometimes emerge from the most horrendous conditions seemingly unscathed--or certainly nowhere near as adversely affected as many, including the BBC journalist interviewing me--would assume would routinely be the case. Most notably, studies of children growing up in Romanian orphanages before the fall of the Iron Curtain who lived in circumstances that would enrage the ASPCA were animals found in such conditions have proven remarkably resilient--once adopted into reasonably functioning families. This is not to say that there was never any lasting damage, only that it has surprised many students of child development, myself included, that the legacy of this experience has not proven more devastating and pervasive.

Returning to the Austrian madman and his (grand?)children, I pointed out to the BBC journalist that IF the mother were able to maintain her own mental health, avoiding depression--admittedly a BIG IF--the young child in particular MIGHT prove to be in tolerably decent condition, as her emotional support, as well perhaps as the stimulation provided by older siblings, could have been enough to prevent severe psychological malnutrition. The same COULD perhaps pertain to the older siblings, I noted, though it would be difficult to imagine how teenage sons with their sexual desires could have coped with the circumstances; thus I was less optimistic about them, given their developmental status and much longer period of privation--of sunlight, of friends, of females other than their mother and, of course, of the world!

Even more importantly, I noted, there is ever increasing evidence that children vary in their susceptibility to developmental experiences, a theme that will no doubt recur in this blog. Like many fellow developmentalists, I have long made the mistake of more or less assuming that developing nourishing experiences benefit most children more or less equally, whereas developmental deprivation yields the opposite consequences, again more or less equally. But appreciation of an evolutionary perspective-which developed in my case some 15 years ago-along with evidence I have been assembling over the past decade have led me, in my middle age, to understand that it just doesn't make sense for all children to be equally susceptible to how they are parented, how other children treat them, to the quality of schooling they receive...and so on and so forth. Exactly why this should be the case will be the subject of my next blog.

 

Jay Belsky is Director of the Institute for the Study of Children, Families and Social Issues and Professor of Psychology at Birkbeck University of London. more...

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