“… Are we a product of our genes or are we a product of our experiences?…” (Perry, Wild Child: The Story of Feral Children, 2002). For years researchers debated whether or not nature or nurture contributes the most to the development of a child. This can continue to be debated in the case of feral children. Feral children can be defined as children who have been neglected. These children have limited or no contact with humans. Feral children or wild children are deprived of the love and care from family. Feral children lack social and emotional skills. That is to say that a feral child is unable to feel empathy. It has been reported that some wild children survive in the wilderness, raised by animals or raised in isolated confinement. How does this condition affect the behaviour and development of these children? Professor James Law, an expert in Language and Communication Science, said that part of being human is being raised by humans. Children absorb information rather quickly and emulate behaviour that has been displayed. One example of this behaviour is in the case of Oxana Malaya. Oxana Malaya was found at age eight in Ukraine. Her parents were alcoholics and were unable to take care of her.
At a tender age of three, Oxana started living in a shed which was inhabited by dogs. Oxana learned their mannerisms and started imitating their behaviour. According to records, she growled, barked and walked on all fours. Anna Chalaya, an institute director, stated that Oxana had the ability to speak. However, Oxana thought that speaking was not necessary. Social and emotional skills were difficult to acquire. Due to her lack of human exposure, Oxana lacked verbal skills and was unable to properly develop these verbal skills. On the other hand, not many cases of feral children being raised by animals are reported. One example is in the case of Genie. Genie lived with her parent in California and was locked in a bedroom for thirteen years. She was tied to a toilet in diapers during the day. However, during the night, “Genie was bounded in a sleeping bag and placed in an enclosed crib with a cover of metal screening” (Genie [feral child], n.d). Genie was beaten by her father if she spoke.
When she was discovered, Genie was practically mute. Since Genie was punished if she spoke, she expressed herself through signs. Genie was thirteen when she was rescued but she had the mentality of a four year old. Similarly to Oxana, Genie had problems developing her verbal skills. Due to the constant punishment given to her by her father if she spoke, Genie was terrified to speak. She feared that she may be punished if she spoke. This case shows the importance of nurture. Nurture is very important in the development of a child. Parents tend to shower a new born baby with love and affection. Children who are deprived from this love tend to become “wild”. These children are neglected or sometimes placed on the streets. Babies’ brains grow and develop as they interact with their environment and learn how to function within it. When babies’ cries bring food or comfort, they are strengthening the neuronal pathways that help them learn how to get their needs met, both physically and emotionally. But babies who do not get responses to their cries, and babies whose cries are met with abuse, learn different lessons. The neuronal pathways that are developed and strengthened under negative conditions prepare children to cope in that negative environment, and their ability to respond to nurturing and kindness may be impaired. (Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000) This is the case with feral children.
Feral children have adapted in an environment that is not conducive for proper physical, emotional and mental development. These children are socially unacceptable since they lack the knowledge of how to behave socially. On the contrary, the things that we experience have an effect on us also. Kasper Hauser is a model example. In the end he accepted a meal of plain black bread and water, and ate as if starved, though he didn’t seem to know how to use his fingers properly. The boy appeared to be in extreme pain and wept continually, pointing to his feet. Weickmann and the servants tried to talk to him, but the only answers they got were ‘I don’t know’, and ‘I would like to be a rider the way my father was.’ Finally, thinking him some sort of wild man, they put him in the stable, where he immediately fell asleep. When Captain Wessenig arrived home, he was told the news of the strange visitor and demanded to see him at once. There was some difficulty in waking the boy from his deep sleep, and, when he finally awoke, he was spellbound at the captain’s uniform. But like everyone else the captain could get no sense from the boy, and, thinking there was nothing he could do, sent him to the police station.
At the station the police questioned the young stranger again, but all they got was the same ‘don’t know’ or ‘take me home!’ He showed practically no reaction to anything, behaving as if in a trance, and was perfectly happy when a policeman gave him a coin to play with, saying ‘Horse! Horse!’ One of the policemen then had the idea of giving him a pen, ink and paper and telling him to write. To everyone’s surprise he wrote the name Kaspar Hauser, ‘in firm, legible letters.’ (The Unsolved Mystery of Kasper Hauser, n.d) Kasper Hauser was traumatized after being trapped in a dungeon for years. Kasper had been given plain black bread and water for years while held prisoner in the dungeon. Initially, the servant offered him beer and sausage which he spat out. He was so adapted to black bread and water that real food tasted disgusting to him. Feral children function differently from normal children. Children who are considered to be feral are unable to use a toilet, walk upright, and eat using utensils. Additionally, they disregard all human activities. Since most children were abandoned at such a young age, they display the behavior that they see around them.
These children have difficulty learning the human language. Children who have been raised by humans have little difficulty grasping the language. This is because children learn from what is being done or said. Childhood development is a continuous process. Children gradually develop more complex skills on the simpler ones. Childhood development empowers children for effective independent survival as adults. As the age progresses, physical and neurological maturation pushes children to attain motor skills and speech development. The growing capability initiates in them the desire for independence and autonomy. This is easily noticeable as behavior changes and development of new relationships at different stages of childhood. The challenges of the outside world lay the foundation of psychosocial development in children. Children are active learners. They continuously perceive information and store it in their memory. Memories are retrieved and then used to solve problems; the basis of cognitive development. (Childhood Development, n.d)
This is true in the case of all children. However, since feral children have no or little human contact, they perceive and store information based on their surroundings. As previously mentioned, Oxana Malaya learned the mannerisms of the dogs that she stayed with. As a result, she developed a keen sense of smell and hearing. Moreover, she learnt to bark, growl and walk on all fours. Researchers have been studying feral children for years. In these rare and unique cases, the debate of nature and nurture continues. Nature and nurture are both vital in order for children to develop properly. In the case of feral children, the lack or have little of both. Feral children are abandoned by their parents and are forced to obtain shelter elsewhere. Some feral children lived with animals. Those who were not abandoned by their parents were neglected. As a society we should not be arguing or using these cases as experiments. Instead, we should find better solutions to assist these children into becoming healthy and happy. In the words of Kenny Guinn: “I believe the best service to the child is the service closest to the child, and children who are victims of neglect, abuse, or abandonment must not also be victims of bureaucracy. They deserve our devoted attention, not our divided attention.”