01/04/2013 10:43 am ET Updated Mar 05, 2013

'Too Much Mother Love': Proving the Necessity of Nurture

"All that rot they teach to children about the little raindrop fairies with their buckets washing down the window panes must go. We need less sentimentality and more spanking." Or so said Granville Stanley Hall, founder of child psychology, in 1899. Hall was one of many child experts of the 1800s who believed that children needed little emotional connection with their parents.

Luther Emmett Holt, who pioneered the science of pediatrics, wrote a child-rearing advice book in which he called infant screaming "the baby's exercise." "Babies under six months old should never be played with," he wrote, "and the less of it at any time the better for the infant."

Holt and Granville's contemporary, John B. Watson, wrote a child advice book that sold into the second half of the 1900s. In a chapter titled "Too Much Mother Love," he wrote:

Never hug and kiss them, never let them sit in your lap. If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say goodnight. Shake hands with them in the morning.

When you are tempted to pet your child, remember that mother love is a dangerous instrument. An instrument which may inflict a never-healing wound, a wound which may make infancy unhappy, adolescence a nightmare, an instrument which may wreck your adult son or daughter's vocational future and their chances for marital happiness.

With these quotes in mind, it seems less surprising that we put adolescents to work in factories and coal mines.

In any case, it was in this context -- one in which loving one's child was viewed suspiciously, at best, and nurturing care both psychologically and physically dangerous -- that psychologist Harry Harlow did some of his most famous experiments.  In the 1960s, using Rhesus monkeys, he set about to prove that babies needed more than just food, water and shelter. They needed comfort and even love. While this may seem stunningly obvious today, Harlow was up against widespread beliefs in psychology.

A video shows one of the more basic experiments (warning, these videos can be hard to watch). In it, he shows that baby monkeys desire comfort from mothers, even fake ones, and even when food comes from elsewhere.

The need for these experiments reveals just how dramatically conventional wisdom can change. The psychologists of the time needed experimental proof that physical contact between a baby and its parent mattered. Harlow's experiments were part of a revolution in thinking about child development. It's quite fascinating to realize that such a revolution was ever needed.

Special thanks to Shayna Asher-Shapiro for finding Holt, Hall and Watson for me.

Originally posted at Sociological Images.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the principle writer for Sociological Images. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.