The Year Without Germs Changed Kids: Here’s Know Why!
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Families used to share toothbrushes and dinnerware, and travellers who needed a place to stay for the night would share a bed with a stranger of the same sex. It wasn’t unusual to find a public water fountain with a single tin cup for everyone to use.
The germs changed everything. Germ theory, the idea that microorganisms like bacteria and viruses cause disease, changed almost every aspect of human behaviour more than a hundred years ago. The new coronavirus could do the same when the current pandemic is over.
People were no longer allowed to share beds at home or in public places. It became illegal to spit in public, and waiters had to shave their beards and moustaches in restaurants. Long skirts and Victorian decor with lots of heavy drapes, where germs could hide, went out of style. There was a whole industry of cleaning products like Listerine and porcelain toilets that were easy to clean.
One of the most important things that happened because pathogens were found was how people raised their children. By the end of the 19th century, mothers and other primary caretakers were afraid of spreading deadly infections by cuddling or touching their children. Parents cared for their children in a cold and distant way because that’s what doctors and even the U.S. government told them to do.
The new approach to sanitation helped bring down the number of babies who died at an alarming rate. In 1870, 175 out of every 1,000 babies died in their first year. By 1930, that number had gone down to 75. But keeping children away from germs by not touching them went against their natural need for physical affection, which all primates, including humans, have. And the fact that it wasn’t there had its own bad effects.
Nancy Tomes, a history professor at Stony Brook University in New York and the author of “The Gospel of Germs: Men, Women, and the Microbe in American Life,” said, “I found these stories about mothers who were afraid to touch their children and show them physical affection to be heartbreaking.”
All of that would change again around the middle of the 20th century, when psychologists like John Bowlby and Harry Harlow showed how distant parenting could hurt a child’s growth.
Bowlby’s work with troubled children and Harlow’s work with baby monkeys showed that physical touch and affection are important for evolution. Their work also helped pave the way for new theories of parenting that put the child first, like those made popular by Benjamin Spock and T. Berry Brazelton and that rejected the sterile doctrines of the past.
Tomes said, “It breaks my heart to think that people from a certain generation were so afraid of touch.” “Only God knows what effect it had on their love lives.”
In the past, people thought that disease was caused by an imbalance of body fluids or a curse from the gods. Later, scientists thought that diseases might be spread by air or water, but they didn’t know how.
In the 1600s, when scientists made their first compound microscopes, they saw microorganisms for the first time. Around the middle of the 19th century, Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch showed that some diseases were caused by bacteria. Scientists had found viruses by the end of the century.
These discoveries changed medicine and public health. For example, they led to new ways to treat and prevent cholera, tuberculosis, and other infectious diseases.
Germs also made people live differently.
Wicker, which was thought to be germ-proof, became the most popular material for seats. Refrigerators and vacuum cleaners were sold not just as ways to save time but also as ways to keep clean. In the 1920s, when the DuPont Cellophane Co. made plastic wrap, it was praised as a clean way to keep food and other personal items. (“Germs don’t get in,” an ad says.)
Before the end of World War I, there was no toilet paper. Even the sheets got longer, so that the end of a clean sheet could be folded over the blanket, which was often used more than once.
Germs changed more than just furniture and household items. In 1888, the “Wife’s Handbook” told mothers that even a single touch could spread germs that could hurt their babies, and public campaigns told people to be careful when cooking for their families.
Tomes said in an interview, “If you were a mother who didn’t keep the kitchen clean and your child got sick, it was your fault.” “I’m sure that a lot of the reason why American food is so boiled and cooked to death is because they had to kill the germs.”
The fear of a dirty kitchen spread to the baby’s room. In her book “Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection,” Deborah Blum writes that doctors started to warn mothers and other caretakers about the dangers of any kind of physical affection.
In the early 20th century, John B. Watson was a famous psychologist and the president of the American Psychological Association. He went so far as to warn parents that showing physical affection to a child could hurt the child’s mind.
“Remember that mother love is a dangerous tool when you want to pet your child,” Blum says he told her. Watson said, “Serious rocks lie ahead for the child who has been kissed too much.”
Watson’s behaviorist ideas were based on Pavlov’s idea that a lot of human and animal behaviour is reflexively conditioned by stimulus and reward. At the time, many people thought that the only thing that brought a mother and child together was the need for food. So the thinking went, a child needed a sterilized bottle of milk from his caretaker and a little bit more.
“All of it—the lingering fears of infection, the saving graces of hygiene, the fears of spoiling a child with love, the selling of science, and the parents’ desire to learn from the experts—came together to make one of the chilliest times in child-rearing,” Blum writes.
All of this would change around World War II, when Bowlby, who came up with the attachment theory, saw how separating British children from their parents and sending them to safer places hurt them. His work fits with what other people have learned about how abandonment and isolation affect the minds of children in foundling homes.
Before World War II, Bowlby worked as a psychiatrist at a centre in London for troubled children. He was struck by how often the kids showed signs of anger, desperation, and despair. He said that this was because they couldn’t form close bonds with their primary caretakers, either because they were too far away or because of other things like parental depression.
Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, an anthropologist and the author of “Mother Nature: A History of Mothers, Infants, and Natural Selection,” says in her book that Bowlby’s interest in evolutionary theory led him to believe that attachment between parent and child was one of the most important factors in a child’s mental and physical health.
People are like all primates in that they like to be with other people. Their brains take a long time to develop, and their young are more vulnerable than those of other species for a longer time. Humans need a lot of care and nurturing from other people in order to stay alive.
Bowlby thought that every child is born knowing that a strong emotional bond with a caretaker can mean the difference between life and death. He also thought that anything that hurt the child’s ability to form an attachment would have a long-term effect on his or her mental health.
Harlow’s groundbreaking research with baby monkeys in a University of Wisconsin lab also backed up these ideas.
Harlow was a psychologist who wanted to know if primates had a natural need to be touched and loved. He made different kinds of fake monkey mothers to test his theory. One was soft and made of rubber foam and terry cloth. The other was hard and made of wire mesh, but it had a feeding bottle on it.
Harlow found that the monkeys only hung out with the metal mother as long as it took for them to eat. The rest of their time was spent holding on to the terry cloth mothers.
Further tests showed that baby monkeys had such a strong need to be close to their mothers that they would even cling to a “monster mother” that was made to be cruelly unfriendly when the monkeys tried to cuddle it. Harlow also found that monkeys who didn’t get to touch each other started acting very strangely, or pathologically.
Harlow and Bowlby’s ideas led to a change in parenting that is still popular today: putting the child at the centre and being emotionally close to them. But it came too late for people who grew up with a strong fear of germs, like the person who talked to Tomes about her book after she gave a talk about it.
“After that, a woman came up to me and said, ‘I never understood why my mother wouldn’t touch me. But I get it now: she was afraid of making me sick “Tomes said. “”Now that we’re in the middle of a pandemic, you see the trade-offs.”
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