Feral Children: Definition, Stories & Cases

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  • 0:01 Feral Children
  • 0:42 Developmental Problems
  • 3:23 Notable Cases
  • 5:32 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Robin Harley

Robin has a PhD in health psychology. She has taught undergraduate and graduate psychology, health science, and health education.

Feral children are children who have lived in isolation from human contact, leading to a variety of social, mental, and physical impairments. In this lesson, we'll define this phenomenon, discuss its impacts, and look at some notable cases.

Feral Children

Feral children are children who have lived with limited or no human contact due to abandonment or confinement by their parents and have suffered developmental problems as a result. They have often been represented in folklore and children's stories as living in the wild and being raised by animals. Tarzan from Tarzan of the Apes and Mowgli from The Jungle Book are two well-known examples of fictional feral children who grew up in the wild. However, these stories don't portray the circumstances of abuse and neglect nor the serious effects this kind of upbringing can have. Let's examine these developmental impacts in more detail, and look at some notable cases of feral children.

Developmental Problems

When one imagines a feral child, also sometimes referred to as a wild child, one might imagine a healthy-looking child dressed in a loincloth, swinging from tree branches, and communing with jungle creatures. Typically, folklore has portrayed these children as strong and well-adjusted. In most fictional stories, it's implied that these children have a basic sense of humanity and are able to reintegrate into human society without too much difficulty. However, this is a gross misrepresentation of reality for most of these children. Due to the lack of human connection, most feral children suffer mental impairments, diminished language ability, a lack of social skills, and physical problems.

During our formative years, we learn how to behave in accordance with our culture through a process called enculturation. We learn how to speak the language of our society through example and formal education. Through interaction with our parents, other adults, and peers, we acquire the social skills required to relate to other humans, and we develop an understanding of our culture's values and rules. Feral children are deprived of this important socialization process.

Depending on their age and number of years in isolation, feral children have difficulty learning language skills. The reason for this has been hotly debated among psychologists, sociologists, and linguists. One theory, known as the critical period hypothesis, claims that there is a critical window of time in a child's early years during which he or she can learn language, and a lack of exposure to language during this time can lead to brain abnormalities.

Indeed, feral children who are discovered at an older age have demonstrated more language-learning impairment than their younger counterparts. However, many scientists have found fault with this view, stating that this impaired learning is caused by exposure to an abusive environment rather than the lack of language exposure. There are many theories, but researchers generally agree that age and exposure to language play important roles in communication skills.

In addition to language problems, many case studies have described feral children who appeared to have impairments in sensory processing, interest in human activity, and emotional control. Some children exhibited animalistic behaviors, including walking on all fours, barking, and sleeping on the floor. Musculoskeletal abnormalities and motor impairments have also been observed.

Of course, the developmental problems a child may experience varies based on his or her exact circumstances. There have even been some cases where the child managed to overcome some of these problems. In order to illustrate the unique impact of a feral child's situation, we'll now explore some notable cases of feral children.

Notable Cases

There have been so many legends and stories of feral children throughout history that it's difficult to accurately determine when this phenomenon was first noted. To discuss every documented case would be a huge task, so we'll focus on three examples.

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