NOT UNTIL the late nineteenth century was it common in the United States to think of “children” as a distinct class of the nation’s population, meriting and requiring special treatment. For most of modern history, the social and psychological meaning of childhood was vague; a child was, for all practical purposes, simply a small adult. The change in American thinking appeared only as “children” became a minority of the population.
As standards of health improved and longevity increased, the absolute number of Americans under twenty years of age rose from 17 million in 1860 to 47.6 million in 1930. At the same time the proportion of that youngest segment declined from 51 percent of the population in 1860 to 43 percent by 1900, and down to 38 percent by 1930, This decline in the proportion of “children” from over half to about one third of the population, as Robert Bremner has observed, made them “more visible and the particular needs of their condition were more easily recognized. So too youth became more self-conscious, more easily identified and more demanding of attention as a separate category in the total population.”
While children as a class were beginning to claim special attention simply by becoming a new minority, other forces helped give “children” a new reality. Humanitarian movements of all sorts–to reform prisons, to improve the lot of slaves, to rehabilitate convicts (the movement of which General James Oglethorpe and the founders of Georgia had been part)–gained momentum after the American Revolution. Along with the efforts of Dorothea Dix and others in the early nineteenth century to humanize the treatment of the insane, the blind, the deaf and dumb, came efforts to remove orphan children from almshouses into institutions specifically designed for their welfare and education. Special asylums for deaf children were set up in Philadelphia and New York. A “House of Refuge,” the first American institution especially for juvenile delinquents, was founded in New York in 1825 and was followed by others. By the 1840’s there were institutions for needy immigrant children, and in 1855 appeared the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, probably the first hospital in this country designed exclusively for children.
“Reform school,” an American expression which implied a special attitude toward young offenders, had come into the language by 1859; and there developed a new branch of criminology, new institutions, and a new literature of “juvenile delinquency.” In 1899 Illinois enacted the first “juvenile court” law (incidentally introducing another Americanism), and by 1912 twenty-two states had established juvenile courts.
In 1909 President Theodore Roosevelt convened the first White House Conference on the Care of Dependent and Neglected Children, followed in 1912 by the establishment in the Department of Commerce and Labor of a Children’s Bureau, to “investigate and report upon all matters pertaining to the welfare of children and child life.” Although federal legislation on child labor was declared unconstitutional (Hammer v. Dagenhart, 1918), state laws on the subject proliferated. More Americans came to see children as a special class with their own peculiar needs and interests.
WHILE THESE HUMANITARIAN MOVEMENTS focused on the children of the poor, on juvenile delinquents, and on criminals, another movement, rooted in the esoteric recesses of philosophy, bore fruit in thousands of schoolrooms and in millions of American households. The “Child Study Movement” in the United States was pioneered by G. Stanley Hall, a brilliant combination of priest, prophet, poet, and experimental scientist. Raised on a farm in western Massachusetts, he was the son of a sternly authoritarian Congregational father, who had determined to cast his son in his own image. To be prepared for the ministry, young Stanley was sent to Williams College. There he and his literary classmates formed a club for mutual uplift in which, as Stanley explained to his parents, “profanity, refreshments, smoking, drinking, impoliteness are contraband.” After graduation he spent a brief period at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where his course included mission work among “fallen” women to acquaint him with the evils of the metropolis. That missionary assignment, as Hall construed it, took him to see scandalous spectacles like “The Black Crook,” a “ballet” in which one hundred scantily clad female dancers appeared for the first time on an American stage. After Hall went to see the performance again, he conscientiously reported to his parents that he “sat very near and this time was disgusted.”
As Hall’s interests moved from theology and philosophy to psychology, he was introduced by Henry Ward Beecher to a wealthy New York merchant who gave him $500 to study for a year in Germany. When Hall arrived in Berlin in 1869, he found German philosophy swirling with neo-Hegelian currents, but his own interests shifted toward science; he witnessed surgical demonstrations, and actually dissected a human body. After returning to the United States, he taught briefly at Antioch College, then went to Harvard, where he met William James, who had just begun to teach his course in physiological psychology. During another stint of study in Germany he was converted to the enticing new science of experimental psychology.
In 1883 Hall was appointed Professor of Psychology at the new Johns Hopkins University. There he jealously refused to make a place for either John Dewey or Charles Sanders Peirce, and he even managed to incur the enmity of the warm and tolerant William James. When Hall left Hopkins to found Clark University at Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1889, the new institution had been especially designed to explore the new frontiers of science. He resolved to make Clark the leader in the new science of psychology and in discovering its uses for education. In this he showed that he had an uncanny prophetic vision of two of the strongest currents of the American future: Psychology (a New Democratic Science of Man) and Education (a New Religion of Democracy).
Hall’s experience abroad had suggested to him that reform of education might be the key to a grand spiritual reform of the United States. He saw how after the travail of the Napoleonic Wars a reformed system of education had helped build a new Germany. Perhaps education would be the new American religion, and Hall would be one of the Church Fathers. If so, the theology of this new religion would be scientific. Psychology offered both a scientific faith and a religious science qualified to reshape American institutions and to redefine American morals. The burgeoning sectarian variety–experimental psychology, physiological psychology, behaviorist psychology, psychoanalysis, to mention only a few–would provide dogmas and to spare.
There was something appealingly democratic about Hall’s new scientific faith. Christianity had relied on a ministry of the gospel, on sacred authoritative texts, and had enlisted faith in the authority and benevolence of a Fatherly God. But psychology, in Hall’s vision, referred man to no Higher Authority (except perhaps the Psychologist). Its sacred text was experience and it made man a rule unto himself. Would you know what man ought to be? Discover, for the first time, what man is. In place of the “Thou shalt not’s” of the Decalogue, psychology would substitute open questions: “What is man?” “How does he behave?” Psychology, the science of uniting the “is” and the “ought,” was the supremely democratic science. For it referred all questions of human behavior not to any Higher Authority, nor to some traditional scripture, but to the normal behavior of men.
Psychologists, who were ministers of this new gospel, simply helped man discover what he really was, how he actually behaved. Just as Luther and the new Protestant ministry had striven to liberate men from a priesthood, from a Papal Authority on high, so the psychologists now strove to liberate men from the fears, the taboos, the inhibitions of an authoritarian Protestant morality. For moral rules and regulations, they would substitute norms. In this effort to democratize morality, G. Stanley Hall offered a foretaste of new opportunities and new problems to come.
“CHILD STUDY,” of which Hall was the prophet, at first seemed an innocent and obvious enough subject matter. In America, were not schools the most flexible of institutions? If morals were to be democratized, were not the schools a natural place to begin? In American education within a few decades (as the historian Lawrence Cremin has shown) Hall and his followers would accomplish a new Copernican Revolution. The center of the educational universe would shift from the “subject matter” and the teacher to the child. Until his time, Hall explained, education had been scholiocentric (centering around the school and its demands), but now it must become pedocentric (centering around the child, his needs and desires). Before this revolution could take place, psychologists had to discover what the child himself thought and felt and wanted.
Hall’s pioneer exploration, The Contents of Children’s Minds (1883), attempted to discover what children knew and, also for the first time, what they did notknow. Since the rise of cities, Hall observed, children were coming to school with an experience different and in many ways more limited than that of their farm-bred grandparents.
As novel as Hall’s subject matter was his technique. He used four trained kindergarten teachers to help him draw up and administer 200 questionnaires. By 1894 Hall had devised 15 additional questionnaires, each on a different subject, such as doll playing or children’s fears. At the end of that academic year he had collected 20,000 completed returns; the next year he used eight hundred workers to gather 60,000 more. The word “questionnaire” would come into the American language within the next fifteen years from child study and educational psychology, and largely as a result of Hall’s work. In place of introspecting, like the great philosophers from Plato to Kant, or debating like the professors and schoolmen, Americans, following Hall, characteristically would advance their knowledge of man by finding new ways of entering into the minds of living men and women, allowing them to speak for themselves. The questionnaire was a kind of ballot, an application of the democratic suffrage to the subject matter of psychology.
Such data provided the raw materials for Hall’s “child psychology,” or the science of children’s minds. The sheer quantity of these facts enticed him to an ever more quantitative and supposedly ever more “scientific” point of view. Hall set out to define “norms” for mental and physical growth. At Clark University he encouraged Franz Boas to gather statistics on the growth of Worcester schoolchildren, hoping in that way to set standards for “normal” growth against which subnormal or diseased children could be identified. These hopes were not quite fulfilled because Boas found such wide variation in rates of growth, but Hall’s quest for norms was unabated. He went on in search of standards of performance through tests of children’s sight and hearing and their ability to accomplish muscular tasks, and finally sought quantitative standards of “health” and normality. This led some of his opponents to charge that child study was a menace and was fundamentally antidemocratic because it encouraged the view that “certain children are peculiar or abnormal.”
With his enthusiasm for statistics, Hall combined an extravagant romanticism. “Childhood as it comes fresh from the hand of God,” he preached, “is not corrupt, but illustrates the survival of the most consummate thing in the world.” The “guardians of the young,” then, “should strive first of all to keep out of nature’s way.” In his “genetic” psychology, adapted from notions of evolution, Hall described the development of each child as a recapitulation of the development of the human race. From the Darwinian precept that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, Hall moved to the practical precept that psychology recapitulates history. The behavior of a “normal” child at any age had a certain sacred appropriateness. Each expression of a child’s development was only a step to a higher stage, and so was neither “good” nor “bad.”
In his “Children’s Lies” (1890), for example, Hall objected to the traditional schoolmaster attitude toward truth telling. Lying, according to Hall, was not simply a vice but a complicated form of behavior, and its significance varied with the stage of the child’s development. Most “lying” in children required not punishment but understanding. It commonly expressed the child’s undervalued “mythopoetic” faculty, his quest for “easement from a rather tedious sense of the obligation of undiscriminating, universal and rigorously literal veracity.” In children, lying was closely related to play, and the child’s attitudes embodied the delightful naïveté of earlier stages of man’s evolution. As Hall studied the child’s fears and his ways of venting anger, he again concluded that they called for respect and understanding. Anger “has its place in normal development.”
Hall’s “stages” of child development were plainly transforming traditional morality. Parents and teachers were being prepared for a new way of thinking about “naughtiness.”
Child study, as Hall prophesied, would also revise the subject matter in schools. “We must overcome the fetishism of the alphabet, of the multiplication table, of grammars, of scales, and of bibliolatry,” he preached, “and must reflect that but a few generations ago the ancestors of us all were illiterate … that Cornelia, Ophelia, Beatrice, and even the blessed mother of our Lord knew nothing of letters.” Foreshadowing the decline of grammar and the rule of the colloquial in twentieth-century America, he predicted, too, that grammar, rhetoric, and syntax would be displaced by the more democratic “language arts” and by public speaking. Language, according to Hall, should never have been taught as a formal discipline. The child should be encouraged to speak, and to speak his true feelings whatever they were, preferably in his own fresh idiom of slang. He must “live in a world of sonorous speech.” He should be allowed to fight when he was attacked, as that was only natural. In a word, the child must not be confined in a strait jacket of adult morality.
BY 1902, WHEN the free public high school had begun to become a flourishing new American institution, G. Stanley Hall had gone on from child study to the study of adolescence, and he was ready with a new psychology to describe development during the high school years. In “The High School as the People’s College” Hall pled for less attention to drill, discipline, skill, or accuracy, and more attention to “freedom and interest.” For, he said, “the fundamentals of the soul, which are instinct and intuition, and not pure intellect, are now in season.” He founded his view on a newly defined stage in human development which he called “adolescence.” This notion, which was to become commonplace by the mid-twentieth century, was essentially (as the historian F. Musgrove has pointed out) a recent American development. The period of physiological change, from the onset of puberty to full maturity as man or woman, was the subject in 1904 of Hall’s ponderous two-volume treatise: Adolescence: Its Psychology and Its Relations to physiology, Anthropology, Sociology, Sex, Crime, Religion and Education.
This, like Hall’s earlier works, was an intoxicating concoction of statistics and poetry. Using graphs and charts, drawing on countless questionnaires, measurements, and experiments, Hall defined the varying rates of growth of different parts of the mind and of different faculties at each age up to eighteen or twenty, when growth appeared to stop. “Adolescence begins with the new wave of vitality seen in growth,” he rhapsodized, “… it is a physiological second birth. The floodgates of heredity seem opened and we hear from our remoter forebears, and receive our life dower of energy.” The statistical community of adolescents, then, had to be given the respect and autonomy, the powers of self-development and self-government proper for any other community within the larger republic. “The most plastic, vernal age for seed-sowing, budding, and transplanting from the nursery to the open field … this requires an ever longer time during which youth is neither child nor man…. To prescribe for these years as if they were simply a continuation of childhood, or as if they were like the college age, minus a few years of rectilinear progress, is the fundamental mistake to which many of the great evils from which we are now suffering are due.” The high school, therefore, “should primarily fit for nothing, but should exploit and develop to the uttermost all the powers, for this alone is a liberal education.” It had to be a distinct entity, not dominated by the “needs” of college, but instead “the defender of this age against aggression,” making its mission “how best to serve one unique age of life, and thereby do the greatest good to the community and to their pupils.” Through the high school, the United States could become not merely politically but also psychologically a federal republic: each age and stage (including the neglected states of childhood and adolescence) would be properly respected and allowed to fulfill its peculiar desires.
This “invention of adolescence” in the early twentieth century was the product of American circumstances. Compulsory public education was extended up to age sixteen, for many reasons, including the fact that industry was finding child labor less profitable. Then special institutions for “juvenile delinquency” appeared. Perhaps the nation would never recover from its idealization of adolescence, its new tendency to treat “youth” as a separate right-entitled entity, a new American estate within the Union. In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s some adolescents themselves, encouraged by their teachers and parents, organized against the very notion of a school. They treated any institutionalized education, in fact any institution, as oppressive. Students themselves in unamiable hyperbole called all American schools prisons, and they wrote of “The Student as Nigger.” By 1970 there appeared in Washington a bizarre new youth lobby opposing schools, publishing a biweekly newsletter, FPS (the letters don’t stand for anything). And at least a few solemn scholars were suggesting that such movements might be a logical expression of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
THE NEW STATISTICAL COMMUNITIES of the young reached beyond the school into the home and elsewhere. Child study, which was reshaping American schools, began to reshape the American family. Before the mid-twentieth century, new democratic notions of the autonomy of the child were intervening in the traditional relations of parents and children.
Arnold L. Gesell, who had become a disciple of Hall at Clark University, was the pioneer. Reaching down to the “preschool years,” Gesell would transform the attitudes of parents much as Hall and others had changed the attitudes of teachers. After experience as an elementary school teacher and settlement-house worker, Gesell became interested in the problems of backward children and made a mental-test survey of New Haven elementary schools. (His title of this study, Exceptional Children and Public School Policy, was an early American usage of the democratic euphemism “exceptional” to describe the mentally deficient.) In 1911, he founded a psychoclinic for children, the Yale Clinic of Child Development, which he directed until 1948
Gesell focused his attention on the years when the infant could be neither tested by questionnaire nor interviewed. For the psychologists those years had been a no man’s land for which there was little reliable clinical information. But Gesell developed ingenious photographic techniques, using a two-way-mirror arrangement. He and his helpers then devised a novel observation dome; shaped like an astronomical observatory, it was made of finely perforated material painted white on the inside, and it could be rotated while a narrow slot permitted lateral and vertical positions for a Pathe 35-millimeter movie camera. The child inside the dome, under the cool illumination of newly devised Cooper-Hewitt lamps, could not see that he was being observed. In this way each child’s behavior could be recorded for close comparison with the behavior of other children of the same age.
Gesell’s aim was to record and to analyze the “normative” progress of the infant’s development. To supplement the observation dome, Gesell arranged a homelike studio for a more naturalistic photographic survey of the infant’s day while the mother was present and caring for the child. Gesell now noted the infant’s every move, his sleeping, waking, feeding, bathing, his play, his social behavior and all his other bodily activities. Two years’ observation produced his Atlas of Infant Behavior (1934), with 3,200 action photographs offering for the first time norms on infant behavior at every hour and every age.
The meaning of all this for the American family began to reach the general public in 1943 when Gesell, with his assistant Frances Ilg, published The Infant and Child in the Culture of Today: The Guidance of Development in Home and Nursery School. The phrase “in the Culture of Today” was by no means superfluous. Written during World War II, the book was repetitiously explicit on the relation between democracy and the study of child development. The infant, like all other American citizens, should be preserved from “totalitarian” government and, at long last, should be given his autonomy. “The concept of democracy …,” his opening chapter on “The Family in a Democratic Culture” explained, “has far-reaching consequences in the rearing of children. Even in early life the child must be given an opportunity to develop purposes and responsibilities which will strengthen his own personality. Considerate regard for his individual characteristics is the first essential…. Only in a democratic climate of opinion is it possible to give full respect to the psychology of child development. Indeed the further evolution of democracy demands a much more refined understanding of infants and preschool children than our civilization has yet attained.” The bulk of the book, then, was “a factual statement of the mental growth characteristics of the first five years of life.” Facts collected around “age norms” and “nodal ages” (the periods of “relative equilibrium in the progressions toward maturity”) from four weeks to five years provided a “Behavior Profile” and a description of a typical “Behavior Day.”
Before Gesell, the American parent had no authoritative way of knowing what to expect of his infant. Of course there were rules of thumb about when the infant might be expected to crawl, to walk, to talk. There were grandparents, and there were neighbors’ children to compare yours to. But now Gesell gave the parent a catalogue and a calendar of norms: all the kinds of behavior that might be expected, including the hours of waking and sleeping, patterns of crying and eating, and even the moving of fingers and toes.
Babies pass through similar stages of growth, but not on the same time table. Variations are particularly common in postural behavior. For example, we observed five healthy babies, all of whom are now intelligent school children in their teens. At 40 weeks of age, one of these babies was backward in locomotion; one was advanced. The other three were near average. Baby ONE “swam” on his stomach without making headway. Baby TWO crawled. Baby THREE creep-crawled. Baby four crept on hands and knees. Baby FIVE went on all fours. There were special reasons why Baby ONE was behind schedule in this particular item. Her general development in language, adaptive and personal-social behavior was quite satisfactory. It would have been regrettable if the mother of Baby ONE had worried unduly over this bit of retardation. Likewise the mother of Baby FIVE had no reason to be unduly elated, since the total behavior picture was near average expectation.
From this example it is clear that age norms and normative character sketches always need critical interpretation. They are useful not only in determining whether a child’s behavior is near ordinary expectations, but also whether the behavior is well-balanced in the four major fields (motor, adaptive, language, and personal-social). It is especially desirable that there be no deviations in the field of personal-social behavior. If there are extreme defects or deviations in any field of behavior, the advice of the family physician may be sought and a specialist consulted.
The thrust of Gesell’s work was to provide the parent a new kind of standard, distilled from thousands of hours of scientific observation by experts, and from countless precise statistics.
THIS STANDARD IMPLIED a new attitude not only toward behavior, but also toward “misbehavior.” What was proper in a child’s behavior had, of course, traditionally been governed by moral rules and “Thou shalt not’s.” “Conceived as a growth mechanism,” Gesell warned, “disequilibrium (so often associated with ‘naughty’ behavior) takes on a less moralistic aspect. This form of disequilibrium is a transitional phase, during which the organism is creating a new ability or achieving a reorientation of some kind. It is a phase of innovation.” The child whom the grandparent might have called “naughty,” the mid-twentieth-century American reader of Gesell would now say was simply showing “behavior deviations.” For, Gesell explained, “In a sense all children are problem children, because none can escape the universal problem of development which always presents some difficulties. On the other hand, there are few forms of malbehavior which are not in history and essence a variation or deflection of normal mechanisms.”
Gesell was full of good common sense, reminding the parent, as all parents needed reminding, that his baby was not the first infant on earth. Much of what he offered in the solemn jargon of psychology was only the historian’s reminder: the world had been going on for some time, and parents had always faced similar problems. But Gesell gave this banal message a new character. He set a different direction for the way parents thought of their relations with their children. Instead of looking to rules of thumb, the old saws and moral exhortations, the parent was now urged to look to scientifically established statistical norms.
Some of the problems of this new world of norms were suggested by Gesell:
Then there is the story about the very modern boy, not much higher than a table, who wore a pair of horn-rimmed spectacles. A kindly lady leaned over and asked him tactfully, “How old are you, my little boy?” He removed his horn-rimmed spectacles, and reflectively wiped them. “My psychological age, madam, is 12 years; my social age is 8 years; my moral age is 10 years; my anatomical and physiological ages are respectively 6 and 7; but I have not been apprised of my chronological age. It is a matter of relative unimportance.” Thereupon he restored his horn-rimmed spectacles.
Gesell’s book was not meant for every parent. But it had a remarkable popular success, going through twelve printings in a single year. And these new ways of thinking about child rearing were soon brilliantly translated into everyday language reaching millions. In 1946 Dr. Benjamin Spock, a New Haven-born pediatrician-psychiatrist with a wide practical experience, produced the Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care. In its inexpensive paperback editions it went through some thirty reprintings in ten years, and became Everybody’s Guide to Raising a Family. Spock warned against old wives’ remedies and urged parents to be guided by their own child’s development. Generally following Gesell’s notion of a “self-demand” feeding schedule, Spock urged the mother to “be flexible and adjust to the baby’s needs and happiness.” While the book was by no means revolutionary, reviewers agreed that it “interprets the best in modern thinking.” Now every parent had an easy path into the new world of norms.
This world brought its own problems for twentieth-century American parents. Who could forget the Ten Commandments and all that one had been taught about “right” and “wrong”? But once enlightened with “norms” describing how infants or adolescents usually behaved, parents could no longer think by old-fashioned rules. A democratic society was committed to take account of what every person, from Gesell’s “quasi-dormant neonate” on up, naturally and spontaneously wanted.