Genie Wiley’s Struggle for Successful Socialization

Most modern humans are raised in a society where they are taught to talk, interact, and develop different skills according to the norms of the people around them. Children are expected to walk upright, learn the language, and communicate with others by a certain age. It is possible because of numerous factors, such as genetics, family upbringing, and social contacts. Genie Wiley was a girl raised in almost complete isolation, which led her to significant physical and mental development delays.

Nature and Nurture

Anthropologists and psychologists have been studying human behavior for many years. However, they still cannot state clearly whether people’s abilities are defined mainly by nature or nurture factors. The former focuses on genetic inheritance, while the latter considers social communication to be more critical for the child’s development (Nilsen, 2017). Both factors influence human behavior, but the absence of socialization may have significant negative consequences.

Early years in isolation deprive a human of normal development and prevent them from becoming a full-fledged member of society. Children like Oksana, Victor, and Genie from TLC’s documentary about the feral children did not interact much with other people for several years of their lives. Once put back in the community, they could not speak, did not like to be touched, and experienced other forms of discomfort (Nilsen, 2017). Nature taught them to search for food and warmth, but not human language or empathy. Nurture and care are the only instruments that allow people to grow in a healthy environment.

When feral children are returned to society, some of the negative effects from their early ages could be reversed. The longer they stayed isolated, the smaller were the chances of partial recovery. For example, after Edik spent two years among the stray dogs, the empathy and communication skills were restored enough for him to be slightly disoriented but close to the average child. Oksana lived in a dog kennel for six years, and despite her eagerness to learn, could only speak in simple sentences at the age of nineteen. As for Genie Wiley, neglected and malnourished for over a decade, her progress was so rapid that scientists were hoping for a case of complete recovery. Unfortunately, foster families’ abuse led to a quick regression of many of the skills she had learned (Nilsen, 2017). Careful nurture can help recover or obtain some of the skills undeveloped due to isolation, but not to the full extent.

Language Development

Children do not learn languages based on their genetic legacy. They copy the sounds from their surroundings while analyzing the environment. When a child grows in a family where relatives speak a particular language, they start mimicking the sounds and connecting them to the meaning accordingly. Having close contact with a chimpanzee or a dog in childhood may lead to copying ape sounds or barking instead of human speech development (Nilsen, 2017). Human language is a product of nurturing, although learning abilities may be partially genetic.

People’s brains are biologically designed to develop grammar comprehension before the teenage years. Some separate words may be taught later in life if the person is intelligent enough, as it happened to Genie. However, connecting complicated sentences is nearly impossible to learn after the age of ten. The brain structures responsible for developing the language communication system deteriorate over the years of non-usage (Nilsen, 2017). Feral children can develop empathy, basic conversation skills, and even ethical behavior, but their ability to speak is likely to reach a plateau at a small child’s level.

Learning Theories

One of the concepts used in educating Genie was Bandura’s social-cognitive learning theory. According to it, a person develops new skills by observing others around them (Horsburgh & Ippolito, 2018). Genie watched the doctors and scientists and progressed rapidly as she was mimicking their behavior. Exposure to vocabulary resources and a supportive atmosphere stimulated the feral child’s brain to learn new skills. Genie also confirmed Lenneberg’s theory of a “critical period,” which supports the difficulty of language skills development after puberty age (Goodluck, 2020). Although the girl had progressed significantly until foster care abuse started, she still experienced more difficulties than a small child would. Besides, Genie could not master grammar concepts or complex linguistic structures.

Stages of Development

Genie did not have an opportunity to develop similar to regular children, and the numerous tests showed her retardation. According to Piaget’s development theory, she had reached either Preoperational or Concrete Operational stage. The former occurs typically between the ages of two and seven, focusing on the child’s desires and physical observations, while the latter is usual for primary school students. The Concrete Operational stage allows showing initiative and creativity in actions and shifts the attention to other people’s needs (Marcin, 2018). Genie showed some empathy and initiative but was mainly focused on studying the world and society around her.

The child has reached the level at which she could try new behavioral strategies and “play” with her surroundings. According to Erikson, that corresponds to the Initiative vs. Guilt psychosocial crisis (Sutton, 2020). Genie started to explore her possibilities of finding new solutions around the age of fourteen, which is about nine years later than a typical child would. Her fear of being punished for talking, induced by the father years before, was fading.

Genie became genuinely open to people who showed her care and support. Following Kohlberg’s theory of moral reasoning, she had likely surpassed the Self-Interest stage of aiming for rewards and reached the Conformity and Interpersonal Accord level, typical for pre-school children (Sprouts, 2019). Genie wanted to be a “good girl” and searched for approval while fulfilling the linguistic tasks and performing daily activities. The moral development level allowed her to empathize with the mentors and be upset when she could no longer see them.

Ethical Guidelines

Several of the aspects of Genie’s treatment would not be considered ethical today. For instance, according to the American Psychological Association (APA, 2017), the professional cannot be in multiple relationships with the client (section 3). In Genie’s case, Susan Curtiss was both her linguistic coach and personal mentor (Nilsen, 2017). The professional became emotionally attached to her client, which would not be allowed by the ethics code today. Another violation was allowing the conflict of interests as the desire to protect the girl could prevent Curtiss from following the recommended procedure guidelines (APA, 2017, Section 3). Mixing motherly instincts, career goals, and professional research could lead to inaccurate results.

Another issue with Genie’s treatment would be her rights to privacy and confidentiality. APA (2017) does not allow making the research case public and revealing the identities of the patient and their family (section 4). Genie was a teenager with development problems and a history of physical and psychological abuse. Making her case public and allowing open discussions with real names would not be considered ethical today.


Genie’s case is unique and resourceful for the researchers to learn more about early childhood development and social adaptation. The specialists studied the effects of many years of isolation on a child’s cognitive and linguistic abilities, as well as the possibility of reversing the negative effects. However, Genie’s case is also a personal tragedy, and it would be unethical by modern standards to invade the teenager’s privacy for scientific reasons.


American Psychological Association. (2017). Ethical principles of psychologists and code of conduct

Goodluck, H. (2020). Language acquisition by children: A linguistic introduction. Edinburgh University Press.

Horsburgh, J., & Ippolito, K. (2018). A skill to be worked at: Using social learning theory to explore the process of learning from role models in clinical settings. BMC Medical Education, 18, 156.

Marcin, A. (2018). What are Piaget’s stages of development and how are they used? Healthline.

Nilsen, K. (2017). Genie Wiley – TLC documentary (2003) [Video]. YouTube. Web.

Sprouts. (2019). Kohlberg’s 6 stages of moral development. [Video]. YouTube.

Sutton, J. (2020). Erik Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development explained. Positive Psychology.