Hard to believe that a man who wrote a book about social contracts would abandon his four children to the life of uncertainty in an orphanage. More puzzling is that Jean Jacques Rousseau also wrote Emile, a fictitious book that was lauded for its insights into child development and education. One way to reconcile this is to accept that he was a man of many contradictions.
I came across this information about Rousseau while conducting some re-search for a blog on the professional side about Romania’s Abandoned Children. In it the authors write: “According to one report, in the eighteenth century 10 to 40 percent of children in European cities were abandoned. Among the abandoned were four children fathered by Jean Jacques Rousseau. Historians debated exactly why Rousseau did this (his mental instability, his belief that he would make a bad father), but it is ironic that the philosopher who wrote one of the more influential books on the nature of the child and education would abandon his children in this way.”
The book containing this information is exquisitely done, and lays out the fascinating continuum of brain development that uncovers deep psychosocial implications of early deprivation. The impoverishment in this case is the lack of interaction with caregivers. The Romanian orphanages cited in the Bucharest Early Intervention Program represent the extreme end of the continuum of social impoverishment. Lest one think that these conditions no longer exist, take a look at this video (the images are somber enough, but there are English subtitles to follow along).
Thankfully these children can thrive when rescued from these orphanages early enough, and when placed in a foster home in which the parents are adequately counseled about what to expect. I have seem the gamut of these children in our professional practice that deals with visual development issues, and even under the best of circumstances these children and their families tend to struggle.
While orphanages represent an extreme example of caregiver detachment, the contemporary addiction of caregivers to technology interaction competes with the nature of a parent’s social bond to her child. The following video is over three years old and it is safe to say the circumstances competing for a parent’s attention have not improved in 2014.
Put me high on the curmudgeon scale if you will, but I see hints of this in the behavior of children at Starbucks each morning. There is much good that comes of mommy time at Starbucks, but it seems there is also risk in parents’ lack of eye contact with their child and immersion in conversation with other adults or engagement with their technologies more than with their child. It may even lend a small element of truth to Bruno Bettelheim’s refrigerator mother theories, as children crave some acknowledgement of their presence.
All this is not to proffer any definitive opinion about why Rousseau abandoned his children, but to put the challenge of parenting and how it evolves with the times into some historical perspective.