Articles

Now we’re finding out how children think

They’ll reach for a light twelve feet away. They’re afraid they’ll go down the drain with the bath water. They often can’t tell today from tomorrow — but they’ll baffle adults with their cunning

JANICE TYRWHITT May 25 1957
Articles

Now we’re finding out how children think

They’ll reach for a light twelve feet away. They’re afraid they’ll go down the drain with the bath water. They often can’t tell today from tomorrow — but they’ll baffle adults with their cunning

JANICE TYRWHITT May 25 1957

Now we’re finding out how children think

They’ll reach for a light twelve feet away. They’re afraid they’ll go down the drain with the bath water. They often can’t tell today from tomorrow — but they’ll baffle adults with their cunning

JANICE TYRWHITT

A newborn child is the most mysterious person in the world. Any adult, from tightlipped tycoon to cinema siren swaddled in mink and fable, has a life record that provides some clue to personality, but a baby is wholly enigmatic. Even his parents, peering into his blue unfocused eyes, can only speculate about his instincts anti anxiously wonder, “What’s going on inside his head?"

Long after he learns to talk, the child’s thought processes continue to bewilder his elders. At two, he may outwit his mother with masterly cunning, then fail to recognize his father in a new hat. At four he asks penetrating questions about life, death and the nature of God, but his hold on reality still fumbles; one four-year-old was overheard solemnly reminding himself, “Houses don’t have tails." At six he may treat his small sister with charming consideration, or a cruelty that shows he scarcely realizes that other people have feelings like his owm.

Baffled by these contradictions, parents sometimes dismiss their offspring as “childish" creatures who behave like incomplete and not-too-bright adults. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The way a child thinks is quite different from the way a grownup thinks. Anything but haphazard, his ideas follow an inner logic of their owm and make good sense w'ithin the framework of his experience. To understand his thinking, adults must transport themselves back into the strange small childhood world where everything that happens to them is something that has never happened before.

In his early years a child sees the world as a series of distinct pictures, whirling around him like the bright arbitrary patterns of a kaleidoscope. He has trouble connecting one idea with another, and abstract thought is beyond him entirely. Nothing is real unless it happens to him; he is so firmlyplanted at the centre of his universe that he thinks the sun and moon follow him about.

Apparently slow and carefree, his world is really as busy as a cram school. His exploration of its physical laws is the equivalent of all the scientific discoveries of the

centuries telescoped into the space of a few years. All his thoughts are part of an intense, accelerated process of continuous learning. At birth the billions of nerve cells that compose his brain are already beginning to set up connections with each other and with muscle fibres. In every waking moment eyes, ears and all the other parts of his body pick up impressions that are translated into electrical impulses and recorded in his brain.

Even ideas so apparently simple that we come to think them instinctive, such as our ability to tell the difference between a square and a triangle, really take months to learn. By repeating actions over and over, the child gradually gains control of his body and learns to walk. Jean Piaget, a Swiss psychologist who is regarded as a world authority on children, tells of watching his fifteenmonth-old daughter Jacqueline learning to free her leg from the bars of her play pen. After once disentangling it, she put it back through the bars and repeated the whole performance several times in order to fix the method in her mind.

Though it looks laborious, a baby's learning lays the groundwork for his adult thinking in the same way that the slow construction of a roadbed makes possible high-speed traffic later. Your mental capacity depends to a large extent on the kind anti number of things you learn in childhood. A group of West African natives, for instance, scored low on an intelligence test in which round and square blocks had to be fitted into holes, because this sort of exercise was new to them, but could spot trails in the bush invisible to their white examiners. Alfred Adler, the Austrian psychiatrist, once said, “A child has shaped his behavior pattern at the end of his third year."

Even at birth the way you will think is partly mapped out in advance by the disposition you inherit. Depending on personality, one child’s thoughts may follow rigid lines while his sister skims from one idea to another like a butterfly. One type of child, for instance, has a relatively inflexible mental pattern that precontinued on page 88

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“You can see years ahead how a child is going to turn out. For most parents it’s frightening”

vents him from readily shifting his viewpoint. When he’s frustrated he finds it hard to express his aggression and instead often works it out in nightmares about fierce animals. An opposite type is the child who responds spontaneously and rather shallowly to each fresh experience. Somewhat surprisingly, recent research indicates that these habits of thought aren’t necessarily related to intelligence. A child with an IQ verging on genius may take longer to react to new situations and solve problems than another who is less intelligent.

Some babies react quickly to all kinds of sensation while others are more lethargic, and these differences last throughout their lives. Some show marked sensitivity to sound, pain, cold or wetness so early that they can’t possibly have had time to learn their exaggerated response. Others take special pleasure in touching things and some are so conscious of texture that they take a long time to overcome their dislike of lumpy foods.

“Children are not infinitely plastic,” says Dr. B. J. Quarrington, associate in the department of psychology at the University of Toronto. “You can see years ahead how they’re going to turn out. For a parent it’s frightening; you’re often powerless in major things and have to roll with the punches. Our eldest boy. for instance, has never stopped drawing since he could lift a pencil. After three years of trying to break him of doodling, his teachers finally compromised and let him draw in school if he used a separate pad instead of his work book. You have to find the most acceptable outlet for the tendencies that are already there.”

A newborn baby is such a baffling bundle of hidden traits that every mother watches eagerly for signs of mental activity. From his cries and gestures she soon learns to interpret her child’s feelings about food, warmth, comfort and the other basic needs that occupy bis consciousness. Although he can’t tell her what goes on in his mind, we know enough about the physiological development of his nervous system to estimate the dimensions of his earliest world. At

first he is unaware of distance, depth, past and future, and reacts only to sharp startling sensations such as loud noise, pain, falling, a sudden movement or flash of light. Gradually he begins to see close objects as blurred patches of color and to distinguish vague sounds from a background of continuous undertone.

For months all faces, including his mother’s, appear to him as unrecognizable blobs without shape or expression. Though his vacant stare gives strangers the uncanny feeling that he can read their minds, he’s scarcely aware of their presence. The saying, “Children and animals always know,” hasn’t much foundation in fact, though babies, like dogs, are often remarkably perceptive of atmosphere. Alert to physical cues, an infant can sense his mother’s tension when another adult might not notice it.

Although a baby’s own moods are at first too formless and fleeting to be called thoughts, he expresses them urgently. Because his memory doesn’t carry him from one minute to the next, each feeding seems to him a life-and-death matter and he can't be blamed for howling uncontrollably. Soon he begins to tie together familiar routines and stops crying when he sees his bottle or even when his mother approaches. After a few months of this sort of conditioning he learns to use his experience as a springboard for original thoughts of his own. He can’t communicate these thoughts until he starts to speak, but psychologists believe that thinking doesn’t always involve language. A chimpanzee, for instance, quickly grabs out-of-reaeh bananas by combining two sticks or by piling up boxes, solving his problem not by slow trial and error but by a flash of insight that lights up his face with a real smile.

Children show the same kind of insight when they're less than a year old. A baby is thinking if he searches for a lost toy instead of accepting its disappearance into limbo; waves bye-bye of his own accord when someone leaves; sees a ring tied to a string and pulls it to him by the string instead of grabbing for the ring; or grasps a toy behind a sheet of

glass by reaching around the glass instead of trying to put his hand through it. Psychologist Jean Piaget describes the way his younger daughter Lucienne solved a puzzle by sudden invention. Given a watch chain and a small box. she first put one end of the chain into the box and tried to make the rest follow. By the time the last section was in the box the first end had fallen out again. After two or three unsuccessful tries she paused for a moment, then rolled the chain into a ball and dropped it in the box.

By putting one thing into another Lucienne also showed that she understood space. A baby sees the world as a succession of flat screens and reaches for the light on the ceiling because it looks as dose as the rattle on his crib. He becomes conscious of depth only after months of exploring the third dimension with his hands and feet. At three his grasp of the proportions of things is still so shaky that he may be terrified of disappearing down the drain when his mother palls out the plug in his bath.

His idea of space begins with his own bod\ and gradually expands to include his surroundings, which he regards as a kind of extension of himself. Between tw'o and three he realizes that he is separate from the rest of the world. A twoyear-old. enchanted with this discovery, meditated aloud. "I'm not John. I'm not Timmy, I'm not Barby—I'm Susan!"

Since a child still sees himself at the centre of his universe, he thinks all activity is staged for his benefit. When taken for a drive he may remark expansively, “Those are my houses.” He talks a great deal about himself and to himself: small children apparently conversing in a group are often absorbed in their own monologues. This self-centred habit of thought lasts until he's seven or eight, and sometimes returns for brief periods in adolescence.

Before he is seven, parents sometimes feel that the doors of his private w'orld arc locked against them. Communication with him is a one-way affair. Though he absorbs information like a sponge, the messages he sends back are a haunting blend of logic and lunacy: “It's not new. it's yellow." “Yesterday I went home if it rains.” But his most mysterious utterances and actions make sense once they've been decoded.

“Yellow” and “old” may be linked in his mind because his yellow sweater is Older than his blue one. Still vague about tunes and tenses, he sometimes fuses recollections, such as his mother's remark, ‘ We'll go home if it rains,” and the actual trip home.

What is the difference between our adult thought processes and those of a child? Our thinking is a complicated business, crammed with memories and associations and cross references of all kinds. We can reason through a chain of cause and effect, compare several conflicting notions or form a purely abstract idea such as hope or the square root of minus one. The child's thoughts, on the other hand, are connected in a much more loose and haphazard way. The areas of his brain that associate complex ideas aren't fully developed and he hasn't yet learned to organize a number of separate experiences under one general heading. His inability to relate one thought logically with another means that his reasoning is rudimentary and full of contradictions, when judged by adult standards.

Two opposite opinions often exist side by side in his mind without ever being measured against each other. A boy of seven, for instance, was asked, “Why does your toy boat float?” “Because it’s light." "And why does daddy’s boat float?” "Because it’s heavy.” Equating weight with

strength, he thought of the little boat as w'eak and supported by the water, whereas the big boat was strong and could support itself.

Because he can accept each new idea as it comes along, without worrying about whether it’s consistent with his other ideas, a small child sees the world as an orderly place where each thing fits in and has a purpose of its own. Saturated with adult rules, he believes everything has been planned and created by men or by a God who resembles men.

At first he thinks even inanimate ob-

jects are alive. A three-year-old complains. “The wall hit me!" and hits back because the wall can feel his blows. Later he limits consciousness to things that move, such as animals, plants, sun. moon, clouds, wind, and sometimes cars and trains. When it rains, the sun goes away because it doesn't want to get wet. Material objects are aware of the rules of the universe and punish children who break them. The Swiss psychologist Piaget told a group of six-year-olds about a disobedient little boy who played with his mother's scissors but didn't get caught.

Next day the boy was trying to cross a stream by a rotten bridge when it broke, and he fell in the water. Would he have fallen in if he hadn't touched the scissors? No. said eighty-six percent of the children. The bridge broke because it knew he had been bad.

A world where everything is alive and arranged according to a plan is naturally full of magic. In this respect the child's view of life resembles that of primitive man. Between two and four, most children develop strict rituals for the big events of their day. Bedtime becomes an

elaborate occasion marked by special ways of turning down the blanket, repeating prayers and making sure the Teddy bear is on guard. Bad luck is avoided by counting to ten, chanting names or skipping cracks in the sidewalk. Normally the idea that objects have magic powers disappears as the child grows up, hut mentally ill patients sometimes fall back into these animistic beliefs. An urge to arrange one’s belongings in a certain meticulous order is sometimes a sign of oncoming sell i/ophrenia.

Children have a primitive, cockeyed sense of humor because they’re so conscious of the way things should he done. The zany humor of wild exaggeration is beyond their comprehension; they don’t know what's being spoofed and take it all literally. But any gross incongruity in clothes, speech or behavior strikes them as either hilarious or frightening. The sight of mother in the throes of a home permanent and facial may plunge them into lits of laughter or send them screaming from the room.

In general, however, children accept each experience with a calm that’s sometimes eerie. A Toronto four-year-old, accustomed to seeing her actor father on television and welcoming him home after a live show, was sitting on his knee one night when the CBC screened a film in which he appeared. Pointing at daddy-onI V, she turned to daddy-in-person and asked. “Is he coming home for supper?”

Small children are often puzzled by photographs of themselves because they think of pictures as quite real. One twoyear-old was distressed when a photo fell down because "the ladies will he hurt,” and another remarked that a picture book was heavy because “there’s a little girl in it." Some mentally retarded children try to pick pictures of food off the page and eat them.

Even normal youngsters have a very vague idea of the boundaries of the real world. Since they take years to understand that their dreams originate in their minds, it’s small wonder that they find nightmares terrifying. Often their daytime fancies take such vivid shape that they can’t sort out fact from fantasy. At about six. as their grasp of reality grows stronger, they begin consciously to invent fairy stories and imaginary playmates.

Some investigators think television may help to speed up a child’s mental development by showing him things that would otherwise be only names to him. Once he has a clear picture of such things as elephants, airplanes and faraway cities, he’s ready to launch into ambitious makebelieve. A research project by childhood management students at Ryerson Institute in Toronto indicated that, in general, children with TV sets at home seem to show more imagination in their play than children who don't watch television, though their games don't contain ideas drawn directly from the programs they’ve seen.

The ability to play co-operatively is a sign of growing mental maturity because it shows children are beginning to realize they’re not the centre of the universe. Until six or seven their actions sometimes seem appallingly callous, but a small child who pounds a playmate on the head or jeers, "You can’t come to my party.” isn't being intentionally cruel because he really has little idea that other people have feelings that can be hurt.

Ethical values are not inborn but slowly learned as the child discovers that badness gets punished and goodness pays off. “Morality is taught by the parent," says Mrs. Lyman Flint, a psychologist and researcher at the Institute of Child Study. "A baby is a biological being, and unless his desires are curbed he continues to follow his inner urges without restraint.”

Until about seven, when he begins to reason in a sympathetic and objective way. he can’t think in terms of right and wrong or fairness for its own sake. Though an infant soon learns a trust in his mother that could be called a kind of love, mature love isn't possible until about twelve, when he completely recognizes the individuality of others and can consider their wishes as he would his own.

Psychologist Piaget has miidc studies that reveal that children under seven generally think of moral questions in terms of consequences rather than intentions. He begins with stories: “A little boy meets a big dog who frightens him very much, so he runs home and tells his mother he has seen a dog as big as a cow. Another boy comes home from school and tells his mother that the teacher gave him good marks, but this wasn't true; she hadn't given him any marks at all that day. His mother was pleased and rewarded him. Which child was the naughtiest?”

Children of seven said the first boy told the biggest lie because his story was impossible, a dog is never as big as a cow. The second boy’s story was only a little lie because it was more plausible, and because he wasn't punished for it. When asked, “Why shouldn’t you tell lies?” small children answer, “Because you get punished. If you didn’t get punished it would be all right to tell lies.” Nine-yearolds realize that lies are naughty whether they are discovered or not.

Let children face problems

Judgments about stealing and accidental damage follow the same pattern. Children of seven think Alfred, who steals bread for a hungry friend, is naughtier than Henriette who steals a ribbon for her dress, because the bread is bigger than the ribbon. John, who comes running to dinner when he’s called and accidentally shatters a trayful of cups that someone else has left behind the diningroom door, rates more punishment than Henry who breaks one cup while stealing jam from the kitchen cupboard. Children of nine, on the other hand, give Alfred and John credit for their good intentions. Piaget’s findings suggest that we can help children to develop mature judgment by following a reasonable pattern of discipline. A child is hopelessly at sea if minor accidents bring punishment and real mischief is overlooked as long as it doesn’t bother daddy.

Psychologists agree that encouraging children to think for themselves is the best way to stimulate their mental growth. Instead of solving their problems, set the stage for success by putting them in situations that will challenge but not defeat them. Ciive them time to think and help them to plan ahead in their work and play. Above till, treat them to a rich variety of experience. The more you learn in childhood the better you can work out adult problems fitter on. Rats raised as pets, for example, score higher on intelligence tests than rats reared in the restricted environment of a laboratory cage.

While giving him opportunity to learn, parents should guard against pushing a child into adult reasoning too early. “Functioning in an advanced way logically can place an emotional strain on him,” says Mrs. Pearl Karel, a psychologist at the Institute of Child Study. “Sometimes, too, it’s a sign of insecurity. He feels he can’t trust his environment and so he tries to keep one jump ahead of it.” There's no point in forcing the pace. Children should have a chance to enjoy their springtime world where miracles are taken for granted and small familiar things are an endless source of wonder. ★