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Mental Development In Infancy

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

The child at birth has no conscious intelligence. He does have, as has been shown, well-marked reflex and instinctive tendencies which supply a mechanical intelligence that enables him to live. Hartshorne, in Childhood and Character, suggests that the baby's mind is in some-thing the condition of ours when we look at a bright jewel so hard that everything else fades out of consciousness. "Now," says Hartshorne, "if we can imagine this narrow field of consciousness to shift from one sensation to an-other, each sensation being for the moment the sum total of consciousness, we will approximate what the child's mind must be like." He has no knowledge. All that is most familiar to us is unknown to him. However, this condition swiftly changes as the months of the first year pass and the experiences of bathing, feeding, dressing, sleeping, riding and the like are repeated with their attendant sensations. Gradually the power unconsciously to observe, recall and compare aids the baby in classifying his various impressions and in getting meaning out of these experiences. His own activity in response to the variety of stimulation which he receives also furnishes him with further impressions, and in similar fashion these are interpreted. Thus he begins to know something about the world in which he lives, about the persons and the things with which he comes in contact. The way in which the parent may best help this development as we have already suggested is to supply the proper conditions for the child to use his senses and his body in a normal way without overstimulating him and thus attempting to force growth. His own home is the place for the baby, and fortunate the infant who has a family consisting of father and mother and one or more older children. The sights, the sounds, and the tactile contacts with the simple home activities are all the stimuli he needs at this period. The less he is carried about in the stores or on trains and street cars the better. Visits to the homes of relatives or friends are sometimes dangerous experiments. Parents can also supply for this child a well-ordered universe where the daily round of sleeping-bathing-playing experiences follow each other in the usual way at the usual time. Baby will then get his cues easily to situations and there will be little confusion to upset the regular course of habit-formation.


Power to discriminate grows as special knowledge and practice grows, and is consequently nil at birth, and less during this period of infancy than at any later period. "By the time of his first birthday," Miss Palmer says, "he can distinguish flat surfaces from solid objects, can tell from what direction a sound comes, knows his body as related to himself, can connect object as seen with that as heard or felt." Mrs. Hall states an instance where a child of nine months was surprised at the difference in sound between a cup and a saucer when struck by a spoon. During the second year the child begins to ac-quire language and this acquisition correlates with the development of the power of discrimination. The child should have the opportunity to make many contrasts in his environment. To quote again from Miss Palmer, "Familiar objects will teach him such opposites as hard and soft (chair and cushion), rough and smooth (carpet and paper), near and far (table and window), loud and soft (clock and watch), high and low (bureau and stool), hot and cold (potato and ice), dry and wet (towel and washcloth), sharp and dull (needle and play scissors), round and straight (button and match), strong and weak (rope and string), large and small (father's and baby's chairs). When the child's attention is attracted toward one of these qualities the adult should name it and let him try to find the opposite."


The reaction time of children is markedly greater and correspondingly greater the younger the child than for adults. This is due in large measure, Kirkpatrick thinks, to the lack of practice, to the newness of experience. There are few paths in the nervous system, and the nerve current always goes less quickly over a new path but moves more swiftly as resistance is broken down. The acquisition of any new skill by the adult illustrates the point here, and the less that new skill involves wholes or parts of certain old skills the longer the process of learning will take. The child, therefore, needs longer exposure to the stimulus, as for instance when a picture or other object is shown to him, he needs longer time in which to act and more opportunities for repetition, and he needs this consideration in greater measure the younger he is. The welcoming smile for the returning father for instance comes often from the baby after the father has ceased to expect it, or the command is obeyed when the impatient parent has just opened his mouth to repeat it. Of course, we would not encourage dilly-dallying on the part of small children, but the expression of the child's face tells whether he needs the time or is capriciously taking it.


The child's mental grasp is small. He holds little in the mind at once. His first expression in communicating is the single gesture or syllable, and later, as has been cited before, he speaks one word at a time, letting the inflection convey his meaning. The one word "go" may be used to express a command, an entreaty, a statement, a question. Verbs and nouns are then combined, gradually a few adjectives and adverbs are added, while, under three, conjunctions are rarely used. As the child accumulates ideas so that he has a stock of old material, his mental grasp widens. The application to education is apparent. Our first sentences should be very short and simple, referring to familiar objects and activities with which the child has had sense contact. Parents should keep a little in advance of the child in sentence length and structure, sufficiently so that he can follow but will not be discouraged. The first stories for the two-year-old are very short and contain only one or two characters and the simplest plot imaginable as : "Little Boy John pats the doggie. The doggie says, `Bow Wow, I'm glad to see you, Little Boy John.' " If the picture is at hand, this story may be repeated while the interest continues. Songs also should be very short, as the repetition with a slight melodic variation of a single sound like the "Choo-Choo" of the train or the "Mew-Mew" of the pussy. When the child's grasp of this material is evident, then the length of story or song may be increased somewhat. Success will attend early education to the degree in which the gradualness of the process is preserved and no abrupt transitions are made,—every step in the child's progress giving to the parent the cue for the next leading.


"Perception depends upon three things: (1) the sensations experienced at the moment; (2) power of discrimination, and (3) the results of past experiences that are reproduced more or less perfectly at the moment of perceiving." The younger child has less power of discrimination than the older child or the adult, because he has had less practice and he has fewer experiences to be re-produced. Perception will grow upon the basis of the variety and richness of the sensations which the child receives and upon the use of discrimination for the purpose of achieving an end since "the purpose of perception is to identify objects and make the proper reaction to them." The responsibility of the parent here is to see that the child has the opportunity to react to stimulus in accomplishing things that are satisfying to him. It is as he utilizes objects, materials, and people for his play purposes that he will make clear percepts. The baby who gazes at the rattle, listens to it, grasps it, shakes it, pounds it, bites on it, drops it and throws it, has had a rich experience with a rattle.


When an object not present to the senses is recalled we have a true image. As soon as the child misses an object from its place or a person from the group he is gaining the power to form mental images. Language is a great aid in recalling images. The mother can assist the child by saying to him as soon as he understands, "Where is daddy ?" "Where is sister ?" "Where is Kitty?" "Where is the ball ?" At first when the child listens to a short story he is really interested chiefly in forming the images suggested by the story, as such remarks as the following show, "I have a bunny," "This is my dress," "Take me to the train," all irrelevant to the plot of the story but quite understandable on the basis suggested. At three, however, the child's mental grasp has increased and his power to image is developed so that he follows the story plot through if it is not too long. Then comes the period so interesting in his development when he discovers that he may play with images and relate them as he sees fit. When he tells impossible tales, therefore, he is not a moral derelict but only an artist learning to use his tools. "A lie," says Earl Barnes, "is to be expected at three." The vividness of his imagery now and in later life depends upon the richness of the sense-perception that has gone before. When the mother sees that the image is hazy she may repeat the experience with the original object, she may show a picture or enter into the activity with the child. A few descriptive words add color to the telling of the story. The child of three who tells his fanciful little tales should never be punished or ridiculed, for if he develops normally he will come gradually to distinguish between the world of fact and fiction and to order his accounts accordingly. The question of truth-telling in childhood will be discussed fully in later chapters. The wealth of imagery which can be acquired during these early years is of the utmost importance for understanding literature later, for the use of every form of artistic and creative expression as well as for the development of the concepts used in thinking.


The mental grasp of the child to three years of age is very limited, and retentiveness is as a rule weak at this time. It is not the period, therefore, for the teaching of any kind of rote material with a view to memorization. However, the child forms habits on the basis of sensory-motor experience which are very important and which constitute a type of habit memory or memory of the simplest associations. Regularity in feeding, sleeping, playing, means the formation of desirable habits, and so gradually every function of the little child's life tends to be ordered. Proper habits of walking, talking, responding to the other children in the family, the pets and the household furniture and utensils, can be built up easily now if the laws of habit-formation are obeyed.

If each time the same situation receives the same response and if the repetition continues long enough, automatically habit will result. If in addition to unvarying repetition the desired response can be attended by pleasure or satisfaction the connection will tend to be a more permanent one. Thorndike says to parents and teachers, "Put together what you would have go together and keep apart what you would have stay apart." It is just as simple and infinitely more pleasing to have a little child who goes to bed without question, wakens laughing, eats what is put before him, never teases, cries seldom, trusts strangers, plays nicely with other children, as one who does the reverse of all these things. A little child's morality in the early years is habit and attitude, and if these are right they form the firm foundation for conscious morality later.


Before the child can use words he forms crude concepts or classifications on the basis of his experiences with people and things. Kirkpatrick gives the illustration of the child under one who when shown a real bird turned and looked at a stuffed bird in the room, and of the child a little over one who showed surprise and fear when an envelope seemed to move itself because contrary to what she expected that class of objects to do. Language is a decided aid to concept making. At first the child may use the word horsie or doggie to cover all four-footed beasts, for only gradually does discrimination note the finer differences and vocabulary develop to include the proper names. The first concepts are gained through direct con-tact with people and things, and not until later does he acquire concepts through stories or by means of questions. He can tell horses and cows apart or dogs and cats, but he is unable to give the distinguishing characteristics in words or anything approximating a dictionary definition. At this age the only question that applies is "Show me the horse," "Show me the dog," to which the child joyfully responds by pointing if he has the concept.


The infant or young child tends to repeat whatever brings satisfaction or is beneficial to life. He does this of course instinctively. Later on he becomes conscious that reaching, grasping, crying or cooing brings him the things that he wants. Still later, perhaps in the second year, he purposely uses means to gain ends. If he is confronted with an obstacle in his way, for instance if his ball rolls under a chair, he will purposefully use crying, reaching with the hand, pushing the chair away to recover his ball. The steps in the thinking process for him are doubt, perplexity, the association of a previous experience, the immediate application. As he has only a limited experience and as he acts almost at once, the problems that he can solve himself are limited, and "trial and error" is the way by which he learns. However, the parent should give him the chance to meet obstacles in his play and cope with them. Even though he bumps himself and tumbles around considerably, he will grow in resourcefulness and in confidence,—not to mention mental alertness. By experimenting the child learns practically many things about natural law and physical processes which years later may form a basis for generalization. He as a rule does not consciously generalize until over three, although there are many instances of precocious youngsters under that age who have made surprising generalizations. Little Lucy, aged two years and nine months, had been playing with her nurse before bedtime when the nurse was called out of the room. The mother came to put the child to bed. Lucy objected and screamed for her nurse. Her mother told her that God punished little girls who did not obey. Lucy paid no attention but was put to bed. The following evening she started to climb on the foot of the bed and jump down. The nurse remonstrated but the child persisted. She did hurt her chin. Whereupon she said, "Now, God did punish me for being a naughty girl, didn't he ?" Little Harold, aged two years and eight months, had been playing on the lawn. Suddenly he came into the house and asked his mother for a string. He hung it high on a bush and then ran back to the porch. After a little while a bird came to the bush, examined the string and flew away with it to a near-by tree. "He got it," shouted Harold, clapping his hands. The mother learned later that a story had been told to the child about a little boy and girl who helped a bird build a nest by putting strings, wool and threads where the bird could secure them.


The emotions of the child at this period are intense but transitory. Before three he has given evidence of feeling fear, love, anger, jealousy, dislike, sympathy, happiness. It is desirable that he should be protected as far as possible from intense negative emotion such as fear, jealousy and anger, and that the right emotional atmosphere of happiness, confidence and love be provided. However, there are occasions when the child's growing will cannot brook opposition without the outburst of anger, or intense jealousy occurs when the two or three-year-old is presented with the new little brother or sister. If the child has a naturally high temper, the parents cannot begin too soon to teach self-control. It is well to avoid when possible the cause of irritation or to divert the child's attention to some other interest if his anger has been provoked. If the outburst cannot be prevented, it is some-times necessary to startle the child who holds his breath or strikes his head on the floor by a dash of water in the face or a loud noise. If the offending person will quietly withdraw and leave the small tempest to quiet down, anger may and will quickly subside with most children. It is very wrong to permit older children to tease the baby and thus irritate him or for the mother or father to do so. It is indeed despicable for grown people to get amusement from an exhibit of temper which is poisoning the child's blood and interfering with the functions of the body and with the stability of the nervous system. Fear has already been discussed at length; jealousy must also be reckoned with. If jealousy is occasioned by the appearance in the family of another child, a pet or an older person who uses some of the possessions of the child or shares the attention and affections of the mother and father, the mother and father must remember the unreasonableness of jealousy at any age and especially the inability of this small child to be appealed to by reason. They can and should be careful not to be obtrusively demonstrative in the child's presence toward the new object of their affection, and to be very considerate toward the little one who must share their affection with another. Some parents make it very hard indeed for the older child when the new baby arrives so that it suffers acutely from loneliness as well as from jealousy. If the child can be prepared for the new member of the family by happy anticipations of his coming, if the arrival can be greeted as one that will bring pleasure to the child, then a response of love and happiness may from the beginning forestall all possibility of jealousy. A friend once prepared two little children of four and two for the advent of a new baby by letting them dramatize the coming in the care of a doll. Clothes were made for the doll, it was bathed every day, fed and dressed ; and it was dearly loved. As a result when the new baby came, it was radiantly greeted as the greatest of blessings from God, the Heavenly Father.


The child has a growing will but weak powers of inhibition. Swift, in his Mind in the Making, says, "The weak point in the nervous system of the child is that inhibitory centers mature slowly. Action is a first requisite ; so motor centers develop early and energy uncontrolled is diffused aimlessly through the nervous channels." In the little child then we have a spontaneity of response which consists in reflex or instinctive uninhibited action. This gives us the basis for later coordination, but for the growth of nervous connections and associations a long period of training is required. The discipline or control of the child during these early years should consist in selecting desirable stimuli and subjecting the child to these until suitable paths of discharge or desirable habits have been established and in protecting him from undesirable stimuli. To forbid a child to play with the sand or to sweep the floor and to offer no substitute in allowed activity is to invite disobedience or to develop nervous affections. The continued prohibitions of some parents are epitomized in the answer of the small boy who when asked his name replied "Bobby Don't." Many people in dealing with little children try to use the strong instinct of fear in order to inhibit motor activity. A mother in a car attempted to make her little boy sit placidly on the seat but he persisted in getting away from her and in running up and down the aisle. Finally she pointed to the conductor and said, "See that man ; he cuts off the legs of little boys who don't sit still." Pale with fright, the child subsided. The injury to his nervous system is not easily reckoned, whereas a piece of newspaper to tear or an envelope and a pencil might have served as counteracting stimuli. Of course, there are times when baby with plenty of wholesome employment at his command insists on doing the impossible thing. Then that re-action must be made so unpleasant for him that he will eliminate it, and before he can understand any reasoning on the subject it may be necessary to inflict a little physical pain, although other measures should be exhausted first. A baby of thirteen months opened the door of the ice-box repeatedly. At first the mother shut the door quickly and spoke reprovingly to the child, later she carried him abruptly away from the vicinity of the ice-box, finally she spatted his hands when caught in the act. After this last experience he would walk up to the box, put out his hand, then quickly withdraw it and scuttle away, making a wry face. A little older child whose hands had been spatted for pulling up plants, one day pulled one unobserved. She soon appeared before her mother, held out her hands with a tearful face, and said, "Spat baby's hands, Mama." As soon as the child understands what is said to him, the cause for obedience when there is a difference of opinion should be explained to him very simply and his desire to do the right thing created through the example of others and wise approval. The parent should be sure that the child has the physical and mental ability to do what is asked of him. One mother whom the writer knew expected a second child at three to commit to memory the A, B, C's because a precocious first child had done so; and she blamed the poor little sister as naughty because she could not remember. If right habits are established early they will automatically take care of a large number of the ordinary disputes between parents and children, for instance the usual one as to when the child shall go to bed.


The predominant characteristic of mental states at this period of child life is their transitoriness. The attention of the child is fleeting and is primarily of the sensory type. It is rooted in his developing instincts and capacities. Norsworthy and Whitley contrast as follows the child and the adult, "The child is alive to seemingly every sense stimulus ; seeing, hearing, the feeling of different movements, smelling, tasting (if allowed), handling,—while the adult is conscious of something in his surroundings, but much more absorbed in connections, images, associations, and memories which each sense impression calls up." It is evident that no direct instruction can be successfully given at this time, for the child lacks the control and the sustained attention for group instruction, and as an individual his interest can be held for only brief periods in story, picture or song material. Indirectly, however, and to a large extent unconsciously, development in every mental characteristic and capacity has begun and the foundations have been laid for future power or weakness.

Frank Crane says : "Babies mean that this blundering human race has a chance to try again. Through babies is our only hope of reform. Adults become set in their ways. Babies are plastic. We could attain any Utopia and correct every evil of society and clean up politics and cure all the ills of industry and abolish all disease and altogether hasten the golden age and hurry the millennium if we would only begin with the babies."


1. To the average child there comes a period of contrariness between the ages of three and four. How can this be accounted for psychologically? Collect instances of this sort and suggest the most helpful ways of meeting the situation.

2. Make a list of the objects, animals and persons imitated by some one child. What does this suggest concerning the child's environment?

3. Preyer (p. 22) speaks of "the school of astonishment" which every one must attend. Relate this to the constant questions of a little child sometimes expressed in word and sometimes by gesture or facial expression.

4. Ruth (2 years, 11 months) had a doll whose closed eyes remained closed to the little girl's dismay. The mother struck the doll's head vigorously and the eyes flew open. Turning quickly to an aunt whose legs were paralyzed, Ruth Complete the sentence and explain the mental process.

5. Mrs. Fisher, in Mothers and Children, speaks of the necessity of moral thermometers. Why do adults vary from day to day in their relationship to their children? Why is John's imaginative tale laughed at one day as amusing and rebuked next day as a lie? Collect or recall instances of your observation where a "moral thermometer" would have proved of value.

6. Edward (21/2 years old) has a happy time in the morning, when dressed in rompers, he digs contentedly in the dirt. In the late afternoon, dressed in a dainty white suit, Edward is unhappy because his mother objects to his digging in the dirt. Suggest possible remedies for this situation.

BOLTON, Principles of Education, 322-397; 584-613; 464-519; 646-663; 728-731.

CABOT, Seven Ages of Childhood, 53-89.

FISHER, Mothers and Children, 62-81.

FORBUSH, Guide Book to Childhood, 119-121; 133-134.

FREEMAN, How Children Learn, 212-239; 157-211.

GROOS, The Play of Man, 169-172.

HARRISON, Study of Child Nature, Chapters III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX.

HARTSHORNE, Childhood and Character, 61-65; 155-190.

JOHNSON, Education by Plays and Games, 65-67; 83-85. KING, The Psychology of Child Development, 110-131.

KIRKPATRICK, Genetic Psychology, 141-168; Chapters VI, VII, VIII, IX.

KIRKPATRICK, Fundamentals of Child Study, Chapter XVI. LEE, Play in Education, 107-131.

MAJOR, First Steps in Mental Growth, 202-255.

MUMFORD, Dawn of Character, 24-149.

NORSWORTHY & WHITLEY, Psychology of Childhood, Chapters VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, XI.

PALMER, Play Life in the First Eight Years, 7-11; 77-81.

PREYER, The Mind of the Child, 22-23.

READ, Mother Craft Manual, 209-219.

STRAYER & NORSWORTHY, How to Teach, 73-124; 171-189.

SULLY, Studies of Childhood, 25-91; 228-298.

TANNER, The Child, 108-110; 135-335.

THORNDIKE, Educational Psychology, Volume I; 57-122; 150-194.

WADDLE, Introduction to Child Psychology, 279-296.

WASHBURN, Study of Child Life, 35-37; 42-46: 79.

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