What’s in a name?

Harryharlow3I got dissed a few days ago over at my friend Made In Korea‘s blog. A commenter, in critiquing how we transracial adoptees speak out over what we see as problematic issues in our community, called me disrespectful to my parents for naming my blog, Harlow’s Monkey.

This isn’t the first time my blog name has sparked controversy. My brother-in-law, whom I’ve known for almost 20 years and who has witnessed my journey into adoption identity proclaimed it "harsh" towards my parents. Others who don’t know who Harlow was, or what the monkey experiments were, often make statements about how my subject/name is "depressing" upon learning about the monkey experiments.

So since this has become a recent hot-button item again, I thought it was time to discuss the subject of Harlow and his monkey experiements in a little more depth, and the reason why I chose this name for my blog. Keep in mind that I am not an expert on Harlow or his science; I just found that there are a lot of parallels between Harlow’s experiments and adoption and Harlow was attempting to learn about the nature of attachment and what happens when infant monkeys are removed from their mothers.

I am far from being creative or unique in choosing to name my blog, Harlow’s Monkey. Many others before me have made the connection to adoption. Harlow himself compared the baby monkeys in his experiments to human children and aimed to study how maternal deprivation and love and attachment influenced human beings.

Harlow’s famous monkey experiment hinged on the question of whether infant monkeys removed from their mothers would respond to substitute wire monkey "mothers" that provided food (physical needs) over terry-cloth covered wire "mothers" without food (comfort). Harlow’s results found that these infant monkeys would cling to and respond to the soft, fabric covered monkeys over the plain wire "mothers" with food, thus  showing that nurturing and the need for affection were greater than the need for food.

Harlowmonkeys5_1This is an important concept in terms of adoption, because often the philosophy around adoption was centered around "feed ’em, clothe ’em and put a roof over their heads" – in other words, the first two levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs; what I call shelter (food, clothing and shelter) and safety. This is why most people have a strong and negative reaction to institutions such as orphanages or group homes; it just isn’t possible to mimic or provide enough one on one attention and comforting to an infant or a child in these types of living situations. Even though they may be cared for, and even loved, by the caregivers in these institutions, there is just not enough to go around. So, most people would make the argument that a living situation that is more "home-like" or "family-centered" is better for attachment for children. Hence the reason some countries, such as Korea, have since tried to move to a foster care system of providing for abandoned or relinquished children instead of orphanages, like the ones I lived in in the early 1970s.

400pxmaslows_hierarchy_of_needsHowever, it isn’t just in adoption that we sometimes see this played out negatively. There are stories in the news all the time about infants and children who are fed , clothed and sheltered but remain underweight and underdeveloped. These kids are called "failure to thrive" and the reason for their subdevelopment is due to lack of attachment by caregivers. Additionally, the era of the Harlow monkey experiments came at a time when the social philosophy of child rearing was that of distance and emotional detatchment. The 1930s through the 1950s was the time of Dr. Spock, of doctors advising mothers to use formula and bottles versus breastfeeding and there was a strong philsophy of not overindulging babies and children and putting them on strict schedules for feeding and sleeping.The popular book "The Care and Feeding of Children" published between 1894 and 1935 advocated against "the ‘vicious practice’ of rocking a child in a cradle or picking her up when she cried" (Holt, 1841-1935).

Harlow studied this concept in a second phase of his experiment. He separated the baby monkeys into two groups; one with the terry cloth mother, one with the wire mother. Both groups of monkeys ate the same amount but the behaviors of the wire monkey babies were markedly different than the cloth monkey babies. Especially important to note is that those monkeys who had the cloth-covered "mothers" were able to calm themselves better when frightened with stimuli; they also had quicker resolutions after being frightened to base-level behavior. The wire-covered monkey babies, however, had great difficulty when frightened. They did not go to their mother; instead, they would screech, rock back and forth or throw themselves on the floor.

Harlow’s experiments showed us that attachment and bonding is more important to the infant monkey than just providing for physical needs. That is, we want to develop in our children the next few steps on the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs; what I’ve called socialization (family, friends, community – in other words, a sense of belonging); self esteem and self-actualization.

According to Harlow’s own words (Love in Infant Monkeys, Scientific American 200, June 1959):

Thus all the objective tests we have been able to devise agree in showing that the infant monkey’s relationship to its surrogate mother is a full one. Comparison with the behavior of infant monkeys raised by their real mothers confirms this view. Like our experimental      monkeys, these infants spend many hours a day clinging to their mothers, and run to them for comfort or reassurance when they are frightened. The deep and abiding bond between mother and child appears to be essentially the same, whether the mother is real or a cloth  surrogate. . . .

The depth and persistence of attachment to the mother depend not only on the kind of stimuli that the young animal receives but also on when it receives them. . . . Clinical experience with human beings indicates that people who have been deprived of affection in infancy may have difficulty forming affectional ties in later life. From preliminary experiments with our monkeys we have also found that their affectional responses develop, or fail to develop, according to a similar pattern.

In naming my blog Harlow’s Monkey, I was not aiming to "diss" my parents. Harlow’s Monkey was named to illustrate the broader issues that I see in adoption. Whether it’s "harsh" or not, the truth is that for those of us who were adopted, we are being raised by "substitute" parents. Just as we children are often substitute children for our parents, especially those of us who were adopted as a result of our parents’ infertility.

But as Harlow’s experiments clearly show, it is the quality of the comfort and the ability to meet our emotional needs that is important and not just the ability to feed, clothe and shelter us. Which is an important consideration when thinking about things such as homestudies. Homestudies and foster care licenses were once based more on the ability of the parents to provide the shelter and safety requirements for a child. We now know that it takes much more; the ability of the parent to provide emotional comfort and care.

This is especially important to me because when we think about transracial adoption and international adoption, we social workers look at the homestudy and see that yes, this parent or these parents can meet the physical and safety needs of a child; and they seem warm and caring too. But without an ability to provide for our emotional and psychological comfort around our racial and cultural needs, we are left alone like Harlow’s rhesus monkeys and their wire-only mothers.

Do I think that I am part of a large, social experiment? You bet. Just like Harlow’s rhesus monkeys, we transracially and internationally adopted persons have been poked and prodded and been the focus of many evaluations and studies in order to see whether it "works" – that is, are we psychologically all right after being removed from our families and communities of color into mostly white, middle- to upper-class families? How are we transracial and international adoptees faring, considering that the current federal legislation in the United States prohibits considering the cultural and racial needs of a child?

Harry Harlow didn’t walk into his lab, conduct his experiments on one baby monkey, then call it a day. He repeated his experiments, like good scientists do, in order to achieve some amount of reliability and validity in his results.

On a micro level, I am just my parents’ daughter, sister to my siblings, auntie to my nieces and nephew, grandchild and cousin.

But I am also part of a macro system of children who were born under circumstances that led to my being placed in a substitute home. Over 200,000 of us from Korea alone.

When people focus on individual cases, one (or two) parent(s) and one child, it’s easy to forget the larger societal patterns that happen as a result. We are talking about diasporas and migrations. We are talking about displacement and traumas. I am not "dissing" my parents, because they did what they were advised to do by their social workers and adoption agency. They raised me as as if I was a white child born to them, just like my siblings.

It is the larger, societal issues, such as the philosophy of the times that advised social workers 20 years ago to raise their children like "white, biological children" that trouble me. Harlow’s Monkey is my way of lifting the micro-level veil over our eyes and examining the macro- and global issues around the practice of adoption.

For more on Harry Harlow, check out  The Adoption History Project – Harry Harlow

Author: JaeRan

Assistant professor at UW Tacoma, writer, and researcher.

17 thoughts

  1. Huh, why did it never occur to me that you were dissing your parents? Maybe because I have read your entire blog and you rarely speak of them, and when you do, you are more respectul than a lot of people who were not adopted. In fact, it occurs to me that seldom see anyone nailed in comments or on mailing lists for disrespecting their parents, unless they are adopted.

  2. I just read the comments you reference at the beginning of this post, and am hanging my head in shame. There’s no amount of love for one’s child that excuses the outburst and entitled attitude in those comments. I am so sorry.
    The legislation you mention is a shocker – this has been in effect since 1994? I haven’t heard of it before, and am surprised that such a law exists at the Federal level. Would you be willing to write more about it?

  3. I suspect that commenter would not have done too well in a literature class… can we say “symbolism”? It truly takes a dense person to only see what’s available on the surface…
    You obviously did your research and it makes perfect sense – of course it’s not directed at your parents but a multi-faceted statement of the broader issues. Ugh. People who speak out of turn, ignorance, and limited knowledge to attack something they don’t fully understand must live in blissful simple lives.

  4. What troubles me is that I don’t think it’s up to anyone else to interpret your experience. I may have a hard time understanding why a person has chosen a certain blog name, but I also don’t walk in their shoes.

  5. I haven’t been reading for long, but I thought you were a psychology grad student and that is where Harlow’s Monkey comes from.
    I don’t want to quibble with the essay because I agree with the larger point, but I do have to admit that I am uncomfortable with this sentence, “Whether it’s “harsh” or not, the truth is that for those of us who were adopted, we are being raised by “substitute” parents.” I could be reading too much into it, but it seems like there is a undertone of biological determinism here.
    I guess as a sociologist I tend to focus a little more on the big issues–the whole political economy of OF TR/IR adoption at the expense of thinking about “emotional attachment.”
    I have been thinking about emotional attachment lately because I know someone has a very similar family situation as the one you grew up in, and I can see how signgificant the attachment issues become, especially as people get older. The parent I know is really racist and doesn’t know it or care to think about it. (He adopted a child from Korea; she’s now 20 years old.) I had a moment a few days ago where I even made a joking/serious commentary about the white adoptive parent to my husband. I had observed some behavior in this person, and I said, “You know he would never ever date an Asian woman, and that really bothers me.” My husband responded, “Yeah he can raise ’em but he can’t love ’em.” What is it like to go out there into the dating world at 20 years old, and never have your beauty, your cultural background, or your race reaffirmed?
    Anyways, subject has been on my mind lately. Unfortunately, I cant confront this person (it’s my boss).

  6. Excellent post, JR! Truly, the world is better with you in it.
    Also, what a dork to misinterpret and make off-the-cuff comments! Sorry I posted it. An educator and truth-sayer the core, I appreciate your response and research very much.

  7. what’s in a name anyway?
    i really like it.
    i personally hate coming up with stuff like that – you either try too hard to be symbolic, which just comes off cliche, or you try too hard to be nonchalant and it makes no sense.
    harlow’s monkey – has a nice ring – symbolic/meaningful – makes sense –
    offending/disrespectful my a$$.
    i’m tired – goodnight, great post btw.

  8. People can name their blogs whatever they pretty much want. However, as an adoptive parent I would be devasted if my daughter had the name of this blog. Hopefully, I would respect her feelings and we could move on… however, making such a public statement about being a “substitute parent” would be the difficult aspect to overcome.

  9. Just for the record, not that I should have to state this, but just because I say “substitute” doesn’t mean it’s a reflection of how I feel about my parents. It also isn’t a reflection of how they parented me, i.e. that by not being the parents to whom I was born to in any way means they did a better or worse job (in my opinon). My blog name is NOT an indictment on them in any way, shape or form.
    “Substitute” means I’m acknowledging that the people I was born to didn’t raise me.
    It’s other people who are putting a value statement on the word “substitue” as equaling “not as good as” or “less than.”
    And to be honest, I think it’s to my parent’s credit that I was raised to be a critical thinker and not just accept things as the status quo.

  10. “And to be honest, I think it’s to my parent’s credit that I was raised to be a critical thinker and not just accept things as the status quo.”
    Jae Ran, I completely agree with
    you and I hope the same for my
    children. And, I have no problem
    with recognizing that I am a
    “substitute” parent. To be honest, viewing myself in such
    a way is actually liberating; it
    helps me to parent my children
    in the way that I think benefits
    them most.
    Love your blog Jae Ran!

  11. Jae Ran – I realize you didn’t have to explain that, but I’m glad you did. As an aparent I understand Marla’s feelings. But, should my daughter say these things some day, I at least know what she *might* mean by it. I really couldn’t figure out what you meant, so I kept my mouth shut.

  12. Kathy, thanks for your comment. I guess because of my own baggage, and knowing how tenuous relationships can be, I don’t claim any ownership or biologically determined stake on parenting my OWN children.
    From the time they were born, I’ve felt as if I’ve been the lucky person to have the privilege of being able to assist them to adulthood. I don’t consider my kids to be any kind of reflection on me. I have always believed that my kids came to me “intact” and that my job was to keep them safe and help them flourish with the talents they innately have or could develop.
    Society calls me their parent, but I see my job as being their guardian and their teacher and the person who loves them unconditionally.
    I don’t take my daughter’s opposition and rebelliousness personally. I’ve tried to teach her to be a critical thinker and that means she sometimes is critical towards MY beliefs and my opinions. So I say, bring it on. On the plus side, she doesn’t give in to peer pressure either.

  13. “I guess because of my own baggage, and knowing how tenuous relationships can be, I don’t claim any ownership or biologically determined stake on parenting my OWN children.
    From the time they were born, I’ve felt as if I’ve been the lucky person to have the privilege of being able to assist them to adulthood.
    Society calls me their parent, but I see my job as being their guardian and their teacher and the person who loves them unconditionally.”
    Yes, this is why I read your blog. Perspective and insight NOT available on an APC board.
    I may be my daughter’s substitute mother, however, I’m trying to be the best darn substitute she could have been given.

  14. HM said, “Just for the record, not that I should have to state this, but just because I say “substitute” doesn’t mean it’s a reflection of how I feel about my parents.”
    If that was directed at my comment, I understood that.
    I’m just uncomfortable with the term substitute, from a political perspective, if it is used to refer to all non-biological parents. (I’m not saying that you were doing that, but I can just see someone twisting that to fit a biological determinist notion of race and/or family.)

  15. It wasn’t just directed to you, Rachel. 🙂
    I just thought I should clarify.
    And I respect your opinion tremendously. I love your blog and have learned a lot from your posts and discussions there!

  16. ive been reading your blogs and i find them very interesting! I’m taking an Asian American Sociology class at Post University with Dr. Sullivan,and i have to write a 10 page paper on a topic. I chose transracial adoptees. Im looking for information on the topic, i was wondering if you can give me any suggestions. Thanks

Share your thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s