How the Nazi’s inhumane parenting guidelines may still be affecting German children

"The best is the child in a separate room, where it then remains alone," a bestselling Nazi-era parenting book advised.

  • In 1934, a German pulmonologist wrote a book that contained child-rearing advice that promoted extreme forms of neglect in order to encourage toughness in children.
  • The Nazis later incorporated these principles into a mothers' training program that millions of German women undertook.
  • Some German therapists suggest that the effects of these harsh parenting styles are still being felt by German adults and their children today.

In 1934, the German pulmonologist Johanna Haarer wrote a bestselling parenting book called The German Mother and Her First Child. The book, which sold about 1.2 million copies, encouraged mothers to raise strong and independent Germans capable of forging their own paths in life. It was advice that probably sounded cutting-edge at the time.

But now, it's easy to see how the guidelines in fact promoted a traumatizing parenting style that may still be affecting the German children of today.

Haarer wrote, for instance, that babies should be isolated for 24 hours immediately after birth, and that mothers should speak to babies in "reasonable German" instead of a "silly-banal childish language."

"The best is the child in a separate room, where it then remains alone," Haarer wrote. "Do not start taking the child out of bed, carrying it, weighing it, driving it or keeping it on your lap, even nursing it. Child understands incredibly quickly that it only needs to scream to summon a compassionate soul and become the subject of such care, and after a short while, it demands this occupation with him as a right, gives no rest until it is carried again, rocked or driven will – and the small but relentless pet bully is ready!"

As the Nazi party took hold of Germany, these teachings made their way into a Third Reich mothers' training program, which at least three million women undertook by 1943. Of course, not all women adhered to Haarer's harsh and unnatural parenting guidelines.

But a recent article from Scientific American notes that research conducted by psychotherapist Hartmut Radebold shows how Haarer's work appealed to two particular groups of women: those already aligned with the Nazi party, and those who'd undergone emotional trauma themselves.

Now, more than 80 years later, some German therapists report treating adult patients with severe emotional problems – an inability to love their children, insecure attachment styles, identity crises – that likely stem in part from these harsh parenting guidelines. One common theme among these patients? They remember a copy Haarer's The German Mother and Her First Child stored on the bookshelf in their childhood home.

The necessity of mother-child bonds

Needless to say, Haarer was severely misguided in her approach. Not only did she lack pediatric training, but she also didn't understand the evolutionary processes that have made mother-child bonds such an integral part of human development.

Both children and their mothers are hardwired to develop emotional bonds with each other early in a child's life. It's an evolutionary necessity: Unlike, say, baby lizards, which are self-sufficient from birth, human babies are completely dependent on their mother to survive for at least several years. (This, by the way, helps to explain why humans – and especially adult women – tend to think baby mammals are cute.)

In addition to survival, these early mother-child bonds are crucial to the development of the brain. According to research conducted by Martin Teicher, MD, PhD, director of the Developmental Biopsychiatry Research Program at McLean Hospital, children who suffered neglect in early years showed:

  • Reduced growth in the left hemisphere which may lead to associated increased depression risk.
  • Increased sensitivity in the limbic system which can lead to anxiety disorders.
  • Reduced growth in the hippocampus that could contribute to learning and memory impairments.

​Attachment theory

The ways in which children are cared for in their early years also affect their emotional well-being, particularly through how they respond to relationships later in life. This is perhaps best outlined by a psychological concept called attachment theory, which, developed by psychiatrist John Bowlby, describes how people respond in relationships when they perceive hurt, loss or threat.

Attachment theory includes four general types of attachment styles in children:

  • Secure attachment occurs when children feel they can rely on their caregivers to attend to their needs of proximity, emotional support and protection. It is considered to be the most advantageous attachment style.
  • Anxious-ambivalent attachment occurs when the infant feels separation anxiety when separated from the caregiver and does not feel reassured when the caregiver returns to the infant.
  • Anxious-avoidant attachment occurs when the infant avoids their parents.
  • Disorganized attachment occurs when there is a lack of attachment behavior.

The neglectful parenting tactics that Haarer encouraged likely led children to develop various types of problematic attachment styles, as Klaus Grossmann, a leading researcher in mother-child attachment, told Scientific American. "In Johanna Haarer's view, it is important to deny caring when a child asks for it. But each refusal means rejection," Grossmann said, adding that babies learn that their attempts to communicate with their mother don't matter if she fails to provide feedback or comfort. This can lead children to develop insecure attachment styles that make it difficult to form relationships later in life.

What's more, research suggests that parents can transfer their attachment styles to their children, which lends credence to the idea that Haarer's teachings are still affecting the German youth of today.

​Modern American parenting styles

In many ways, Haarer's teachings represent something like the polar opposite of popular parenting styles in the U.S. That's mostly a good thing. After all, given that the importance of parent-child contact in early human development has been well demonstrated, we don't want parents isolating their newborns in a room for 24 hours after they get home from the hospital.

Still, the opposite end of the Haarer spectrum is arguably all about coddling, or being a "helicopter parent". In recent decades, American parents have increasingly turned to parenting styles that emphasize the importance of never subjecting children to negative feelings or experiences. Although these methods aim to protect children from the world's dangers and life's inevitable disappointments, they've been shown to be counterproductive when it comes to raising children to become self-sufficient adults.

"It's so sad," Michael Ungar, who heads the Resilience Research Centre at Dalhousie University, told Psychology Today. "The point of parenting should be to grow a child who is capable of taking on adult tasks. I can fully understand coaching a child on how to fill in applications and how to deal with admissions officers. But doing that for the child is misguided and short-sighted. This is not a strategy for long-term well-being."

In 2018, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt spoke to Big Think about the pitfalls of helicopter parenting, and how it could be setting up a large part of the young generation for failure. Check out his full interview below.

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Freud is renowned, but his ideas are ill-substantiated

The Oedipal complex, repressed memories, penis envy? Sigmund Freud's ideas are far-reaching, but few have withstood the onslaught of empirical evidence.

Mind & Brain
  • Sigmund Freud stands alongside Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein as one of history's best-known scientists.
  • Despite his claim of creating a new science, Freud's psychoanalysis is unfalsifiable and based on scant empirical evidence.
  • Studies continue to show that Freud's ideas are unfounded, and Freud has come under scrutiny for fabricating his most famous case studies.

Few thinkers are as celebrated as Sigmund Freud, a figure as well-known as Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein. Neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, Freud's ideas didn't simply shift the paradigms in academia and psychotherapy. They indelibly disseminated into our cultural consciousness. Ideas like transference, repression, the unconscious iceberg, and the superego are ubiquitous in today's popular discourse.

Despite this renown, Freud's ideas have proven to be ill-substantiated. Worse, it is now believed that Freud himself may have fabricated many of his results, opportunistically disregarding evidence with the conscious aim of promoting preferred beliefs.

"[Freud] really didn't test his ideas," Harold Takooshian, professor of psychology at Fordham University, told ATI. "He was just very persuasive. He said things no one said before, and said them in such a way that people actually moved from their homes to Vienna and study with him."

Unlike Darwin and Einstein, Freud's brand of psychology presents the impression of a scientific endeavor but ultimately lack two of vital scientific components: falsification and empirical evidence.

Psychoanalysis

Freud's therapeutic approach may be unfounded, but at least it was more humane than other therapies of the day. In 1903, this patient is being treated in "auto-conduction cage" as a part of his electrotherapy. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The discipline of psychotherapy is arguably Freud's greatest contribution to psychology. In the post-World War II era, psychoanalysis spread through Western academia, influencing not only psychotherapy but even fields such as literary criticism in profound ways.

The aim of psychoanalysis is to treat mental disorders housed in the patient's psyche. Proponents believe that such conflicts arise between conscious thoughts and unconscious drives and manifest as dreams, blunders, anxiety, depression, or neurosis. To help, therapists attempt to unearth unconscious desires that have been blocked by the mind's defense mechanisms. By raising repressed emotions and memories to the conscious fore, the therapist can liberate and help the patient heal.

That's the idea at least, but the psychoanalytic technique stands on shaky empirical ground. Data leans heavily on a therapist's arbitrary interpretations, offering no safe guards against presuppositions and implicit biases. And the free association method offers not buttress to the idea of unconscious motivation.

Don't get us wrong. Patients have improved and even claimed to be cured thanks to psychoanalytic therapy. However, the lack of methodological rigor means the division between effective treatment and placebo effect is ill-defined.

Repressed memories

Sigmund Freud, circa 1921. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Nor has Freud's concept of repressed memories held up. Many papers and articles have been written to dispel the confusion surrounding repressed (aka dissociated) memories. Their arguments center on two facts of the mind neurologists have become better acquainted with since Freud's day.

First, our memories are malleable, not perfect recordings of events stored on a biological hard drive. People forget things. Childhood memories fade or are revised to suit a preferred narrative. We recall blurry gists rather than clean, sharp images. Physical changes to the brain can result in loss of memory. These realities of our mental slipperiness can easily be misinterpreted under Freud's model as repression of trauma.

Second, people who face trauma and abuse often remember it. The release of stress hormones imprints the experience, strengthening neural connections and rendering it difficult to forget. It's one of the reasons victims continue to suffer long after. As the American Psychological Association points out, there is "little or no empirical support" for dissociated memory theory, and potential occurrences are a rarity, not the norm.

More worryingly, there is evidence that people are vulnerable to constructing false memories (aka pseudomemories). A 1996 study found it could use suggestion to make one-fifth of participants believe in a fictitious childhood memory in which they were lost in a mall. And a 2007 study found that a therapy-based recollection of childhood abuse "was less likely to be corroborated by other evidence than when the memories came without help."

This has led many to wonder if the expectations of psychoanalytic therapy may inadvertently become a self-fulfilling prophecy with some patients.

"The use of various dubious techniques by therapists and counselors aimed at recovering allegedly repressed memories of [trauma] can often produce detailed and horrific false memories," writes Chris French, a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. "In fact, there is a consensus among scientists studying memory that traumatic events are more likely to be remembered than forgotten, often leading to post-traumatic stress disorder."

The Oedipal complex

The Blind Oedipus Commending His Children to the Gods by Benigne Gagneraux. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

During the phallic stage, children develop fierce erotic feelings for their opposite-sex parent. This desire, in turn, leads them to hate their same-sex parent. Boys wish to replace their father and possess their mother; girls become jealous of their mothers and desire their fathers. Since they can do neither, they repress those feelings for fear of reprisal. If unresolved, the complex can result in neurosis later in life.

That's the Oedipal complex in a nutshell. You'd think such a counterintuitive theory would require strong evidence to back it up, but that isn't the case.

Studies claiming to prove the Oedipal complex look to positive sexual imprinting — that is, the phenomenon in which people choose partners with physical characteristics matching their same-sex parent. For example, a man's wife and mother have the same eye color, or woman's husband and father sport a similar nose.

But such studies don't often show strong correlation. One study reporting "a correction of 92.8 percent between the relative jaw width of a man's mother and that of [his] mates" had to be retracted for factual errors and incorrect analysis. Studies showing causation seem absent from the literature, and as we'll see, the veracity of Freud's own case studies supporting the complex is openly questioned today.

Better supported, yet still hypothetical, is the Westermarck effect. Also called reverse sexual imprinting, the effect predicts that people develop a sexual aversion to those they grow up in close proximity with, as a mean to avoid inbreeding. The effect isn't just shown in parents and siblings; even step-siblings will grow sexual averse to each other if they grow up from early childhood.

An analysis published in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology evaluated the literature on human mate choice. The analysis found little evidence for positive imprinting, citing study design flaws and an unwillingness of researchers to seek alternative explanations. In contrast, it found better support for negative sexual imprinting, though it did note the need for further research.

The Freudian slip

Mark notices Deborah enter the office whistling an upbeat tune. He turns to his coworker to say, "Deborah's pretty cheery this morning," but accidentally blunders, "Deborah's pretty cherry this morning." Simple slip up? Not according to Freud, who would label this a parapraxis. Today, it's colloquially known as a "Freudian slip."

"Almost invariably I discover a disturbing influence from something outside of the intended speech," Freud wrote in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. "The disturbing element is a single unconscious thought, which comes to light through the special blunder."

In the Freudian view, Mark's mistaken word choice resulted from his unconscious desire for Deborah, as evident by the sexually-charged meanings of the word "cherry." But Rob Hartsuiker, a psycholinguist from Ghent University, says that such inferences miss the mark by ignoring how our brains process language.

According to Hartsuiker, our brains organize words by similarity and meaning. First, we must select the word in that network and then process the word's sounds. In this interplay, all sorts of conditions can prevent us from grasping the proper phonemes: inattention, sleepiness, recent activation, and even age. In a study co-authored by Hartsuiker, brain scans showed our minds can recognize and correct for taboo utterances internally.

"This is very typical, and it's also something Freud rather ignored," Hartsuiker told BBC. He added that evidence for true Freudian slips is scant.

Freud's case studies

Sergej Pankejeff, known as the "Wolf Man" in Freud's case study, claimed that Freud's analysis of his condition was "propaganda."

It's worth noting that there is much debate as to the extent that Freud falsified his own case studies. One famous example is the case of the "Wolf Man," real name Sergej Pankejeff. During their sessions, Pankejeff told Freud about a dream in which he was lying in bed and saw white wolves through an open window. Freud interpreted the dream as the manifestation of a repressed trauma. Specifically, he claimed that Pankejeff must have witnessed his parents in coitus.

For Freud this was case closed. He claimed Pankejeff successfully cured and his case as evidence for psychoanalysis's merit. Pankejeff disagreed. He found Freud's interpretation implausible and said that Freud's handling of his story was "propaganda." He remained in therapy on and off for over 60 years.

Many of Freud's other case studies, such "Dora" and "the Rat Man" cases, have come under similar scrutiny.

Sigmund Freud and his legacy

Freud's ideas may not live up to scientific inquiry, but their long shelf-life in film, literature, and criticism has created some fun readings of popular stories. Sometimes a face is just a face, but that face is a murderous phallic symbol. (Photo: Flickr)

Of course, there are many ideas we've left out. Homosexuality originating from arrested sexual development in anal phase? No way. Freudian psychosexual development theory? Unfalsifiable. Women's penis envy? Unfounded and insulting. Men's castration anxiety? Not in the way Freud meant it.

If Freud's legacy is so ill-informed, so unfounded, how did he and his cigars cast such a long shadow over the 20th century? Because there was nothing better to offer at the time.

When Freud came onto the scene, neurology was engaged in a giddy free-for-all. As New Yorker writer Louis Menand points out, the era's treatments included hypnosis, cocaine, hydrotherapy, female castration, and institutionalization. By contemporary standards, it was a horror show (as evident by these "treatments" featuring so prominently in our horror movies).

Psychoanalysis offered a comparably clement and humane alternative. "Freud's theories were like a flashlight in a candle factory," anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann told Menand.

But Freud and his advocates triumph his techniques as a science, and this is wrong. The empirical evidence for his ideas is limited and arbitrary, and his conclusions are unfalsifiable. The theory that explains every possible outcome explains none of them.

With that said, one might consider Freud's ideas to be a proto-science. As astrology heralded astronomy, and alchemy preceded chemistry, so to did Freud's psychoanalysis popularize psychology, paving the way for its more rapid development as a scientific discipline. But like astrology and alchemy, we should recognize Freud's ideas as the historic artifacts they are.

Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash
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