Life Course: Growing Up in Hard Times tions about the nature of human beings—questions that would become central to the study of child development. Are the qualities, behavior, and ideas that define what it means to be human inborn or acquired, or both? How important is social contact during the formative years? Can its lack be overcome? A study of a child who had grown up in isolation might provide evidence of the relative impact of “nature” (inborn characteristics) and “nurture” (upbringing, schooling, and other societal influences).
After initial observation, the boy, who came to be called Victor, was sent to a school for deaf-mutes in Paris. There, he was turned over to Jean-Marc-Gaspard Itard, an ambitious 26-year-old practitioner of the emerging science of “mental medicine,” or psychiatry. Itard believed that Victor’s development had been limited by isolation and that he simply needed to be taught the skills that children in civilized society normally acquire. Itard took Victor into his home and, during the next five years, gradually “tamed” him.
Itard first awakened his pupil’s ability to discriminate sensory experience through hot *Sources of information about the wild boy of Aveyron were Frith (1989) and Lane (1976). baths and dry rubs. He then moved on to painstaking, step-by-step training of emotional responses and instruction in moral and social behavior, language, and thought. The methods Itard used—based on principles of imitation, conditioning, and behavioral modification, all of which we discuss in Chapter 2—were far ahead of their time, and he invented many teaching devices used today.
But the education of Victor (which was dramatized in Francois Truffaut’s film The Wild Child ) was not an unqualified success. The boy did make remarkable progress: he learned the names of many objects and could read and write simple sentences; he could express desires, obey commands, and exchange ideas. He showed affection, especially for Itard’s housekeeper, Madame Guerin, as well as such emotions as pride, shame, remorse, and the desire to please. However, aside from uttering some vowel and consonant sounds, he never learned to speak.
Furthermore, he remained totally focused on his own wants and needs and never seemed to lose his yearning “for the freedom of the open country and his indifference to most of the pleasures of social life” (Lane, 1976, p. 160). When the study ended, Victor—no longer able to fend for himself, as he had done in the wild—went to live with Madame Guerin until his death in his early forties in 1828. I I I I I Why did Victor fail to fulfill Itard’s hopes for him?
The boy may have been a victim of brain damage, autism (a brain disorder involving lack of social responsiveness), or severe early maltreatment. Itard’s instructional methods, advanced as they were, may have been inadequate. Itard himself came to believe that the effects of long isolation could not be fully overcome, and that Victor may have been too old, especially for language learning. Although Victor’s story does not yield definitive answers to the questions Itard set out to explore, it is important because it was one of the first systematic attempts to study child development.
Since Victor’s time we have learned much about how children develop, but developmental scientists are still investigating such fundamental questions as the relative importance of nature and nurture and how they work together. Victor’s story dramatizes the challenges and complexities of the scientific study of child development—the study on which you are about to embark. In this chapter, we describe how the field of child development has itself developed as scientists have learned more about infants, children, and adolescents. We present the goals and basic concepts of the field today.
We identify aspects of development and show how they interrelate. We summarize major developments during each period of a child’s life. We look at influences on development and the contexts in which it occurs. After you have read and studied this chapter, you should be able to answer each of the Guidepost questions on page 7. Look for them again in the margins, where they point to important concepts throughout the chapter. To check your understanding of these Guideposts, review the end-of-chapter summary. Checkpoints located at periodic spots throughout the chapter will help you verify your understanding of what you have read.