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On The Nature Of The Child - Psychological Considerations

( Originally Published 1923 )

How the Child Learns.—The baby begins to "learn" as soon as he is born. In a very few days we may see hat he behaves very differently from a new-born child. He soon comes to "recognize" his mother or nurse. He acquires habits of regular feeding and sleeping, and soion. How do these changes and fixations in the child's conduct come about?

At first everything that the child does is automatic, or "instinctive." When he is tickled he squirms or withdraws his foot. When something touches the palm of his hand, his fingers close in firmly. When he is hungry he cries. When something comes into his mouth he stops crying and begins to suck. When something touches the skin near his mouth, he turns his head so that the mouth comes in contact with the object. When something touches his lips, he opens his mouth and begins to suck. And so on with many other reactions.

In a similar way, his emotions are aroused automatically. He hungers when the chemical state of his blood or other body juices reaches a certain condition. IA sudden loud noise arouses fear. Holding his head or his limbs so that he cannot move arouses anger. Sucking and swallowing food arouses pleasure. Gentle stroking of the skin arouses pleasure.

In a few days he is able to get impressions through his eyes, and soon he begins to follow a light, and later, other moving objects. And he derives pleasure not only from contact and the taste of food, but also from other sensations—sounds, light, moving objects that he can follow with his eyes.

All of these movements and feelings in response to the stimulations or changes of the surroundings are called "instinctive," and depend upon the nerve connections which the child has from birth. They are just as much a part of his constitution as the ability to empty the bladder when it is full or to suffer pain when he is burnt. But since the baby is not left altogether to him-self, he soon establishes what we call "associations" between the various events or experiences that come to him. If the sound of the mother's voice precedes the nursing a number of times, the sound of her voice will presently get him to open his mouth even before anything has touched his face. If he is always picked up for nursing without any sounds preceding the event, he will open his mouth when he is picked up. The lifting up, or the particular voice, comes to take the place of the natural signal, so to speak, for opening his mouth for food, and for beginning the sucking.

If, when the child is frightened by a loud, sudden noise, he at the same time sees a particular face, he may get a fright every time he sees that or a similar face thereafter. In the same way he may learn to be afraid of a dog that has frightened him by unexpected barking, and so fear other dogs, or other animals, or other furry things, like a muff or a velvet collar. That is, a new sensation produces an effect that is primarily due to another kind of sensation; and the new sensation is just as effective as the "natural" one. This substitution of one sensation for another, in producing a given effect, is typical of the whole process of learning.

In this way the child comes to connect pleasurable emotions with certain persons, figures, objects, sounds, Or even colors, tones, tastes ; and to connect unpleasant feelings with other persons, forms, objects, sounds, and so on. Or putting it the other way, certain sensations and experience come to arouse pleasure, while others come to arouse discomfort or even pain. The extent to which substitutions for natural sensations may be established, or to which the natural reactions may be "conditioned," is so great that we ordinarily overlook the process entirely. Thus, the fact that the sound of a factory whistle may make a person's mouth water, "reminding him of his dinner," as we say, or the fact that the sight of a certain word may arouse feelings of disgust and the contraction of certain muscles of the face resulting in a grimace, illustrate such substitutions.

As the child grows older and begins to move about and to talk we see the same processes going on. He learns to avoid fire or to shy at the cat, by being burned or Scratched. He learns to hug his mother and the dolt by getting satisfactions from such acts. More and more he will explore, try out things and places within reach, manipulate objects that come into his hands. And as these activities give him pleasure, he will repeat them again and again; and as they cause him pain, he will learn to avoid them. It is upon these general facts that we usually justify our practice of rewarding and punishing children, although we have probably come to reward and punish as a relief for our own feelings rather than as a thought-out scheme for helping children.



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