The Widening World of Childhood
reviewed by Katharine Cobb - 1964
Katherine Maurer Cobb, a specialist in child development, uses a clutch of recent books as a basis for showing that our conception of childhood and adolescence is very different from what it was 15 years ago. But although our knowledge is greater, there are still poignant gaps in our understandingan understanding which becomes ever more crucial in modern society.
How refreshing to find five books on human development, all published in 1962, which reflect the scientific advances of the 1950s! The tiresome dichotomies of earlier decades between "mind and body" and "heredity and environment" are missing entirely from four of the five books and mentioned as outmoded in the fifth. These thread-bare and fruitless ideas from the past are replaced by the more sophisticated views of the continuous interaction of different parts of the developing organism, and between the organism and its external environment from the moment of conception to death.
All five books emphasize a more accurate definition of environmental influences at every stage, including the individual's perception of himself. These authors are concerned with the world as perceived by the individual, his emerging awareness of himself as a separate entity, and his changing roles, status, and self-concept.
If the writers give more space to the individual's cultural inheritance and his widening "life space" than to his biological inheritance, they can advance at least two reasons for this emphasis. For one, they can note that the pendulum has swung to the opposite extreme from the rigid conception of inheritance of specific traits, immutable and uninfluenced by environment; and for the other, they can point out that textbooks reflect the available literature and that there has been more published research applicable to human development in the field of cultural than of biological inheritance during the past decade.
Each of the books has its own specific aims, defines its own scope, and has its own unique style and organization. Having mentioned the prevailing trends of the times which run through them all, we now turn to a discussion of their differences.
Four of the five are text books, presumedly intended for the undergraduate or beginning graduate student. The fifth, having quite a different purpose, should be discussed separately. In The Widening World of Childhood, by Lois Barclay Murphy and her associates, preschool children come alive on beautifully written pages. This volume is one of a series of reports on a long-term investigation of certain aspects of the personality development of a small group of children studied intensively and extensively since infancy. Its intended audience is advanced graduate students and other scientists working on closely related topics. For anyone, however, who wishes to deepen his understanding of the behavior of preschool children and to become acquainted with their successful management by sensitive and knowledgeable adults, this book can be recommended without reservation.
Dr. Murphy does not go beyond her data. Although she makes comparisons with other relevant studies, she does not forget that her subjects are a small group of middle-class, white children whose parents are conservative citizens of a small Midwestern town. She defends the use of the observational method for an exploratory study in a relatively new area of research, the ways by which young children cope with new and sometimes threatening situations. Her conclusions are tentative, and if there is any way in which the book is less than completely satisfactory to the reader it is its lack of an end. For that one must await further reports on different aspects of the behavior of the same children, and for their further study at later ages.
One does carry away impressions which have broad applicability, however. For example, the younger children showed rather intense separation anxiety and in many instances used relatively poor methods of coping with totally new situations. For the most part, their mothers were sensitive to their need for emotional support and gave it freely. This book offers additional evidence for the growing conviction among many who work with young children and their parents, that the sick child under three years of age should not be hospitalized without his mother. From the child's point of view, what he needs most in such stressful situations at this period of his life is "rooming-in."
PEACE VS. PROBLEMS
Of the four textbooks, the authors of two have limited the scope of their work to coverage of only one segment of the developmental span.
Hawkes and Pease, covering the years from 5 to 12, have written a simple, direct, and readable book about elementary-school children. One of their aims was to present to the student "real" children, and in this they have succeeded admirably. Attractive pictures show healthy children of different ages, singly and in groups, engaging in a variety of childhood activities. Literary references and anecdotes have been generously supplied. The authors write with warmth, sympathy, and humor; it is obvious that they possess a genuine love for children.
In an attempt to broaden the base of culture to which their book applies, they have included literary selections from childhood experiences in different countries and in several American small towns, some of recent vintage and one at the turn of the century (H. L. Mencken wrote the latter). Included also are an account written by a Navajo Indian boy of his teacher's reactions to his family's mores and one picture of a bedraggled, undernourished, "latch-key" child.
In spite of these efforts, Hawkes and Pease have written a book about white, middle-class, suburban children. Although they mention differences between the children's families in child-rearing practices and beliefs, and present some examples of "discontinuities" between home and school with which the children must grapple, the reader emerges with the impression that the children described belong to a rather homogeneous culture and that their material needs are well met. They are free to roam about quiet, sundrenched streets, climbing trees. Parents and teachers are tolerant and permissive, and there are few problems. If this idyllic scene really exists, and the lives of these children are so free of obstacles and sources of stress, one wonders if their environment also fosters creativity, tolerance for persons different from themselves, and persistance toward challenging goals when the going gets rough.
The book does not raise controversial issues and is free of theoretical complexities. It is not thought provoking and will be of little help to those who must cope with any of the numerous other subcultural groups which are a part of the American scene. A chapter which lists the characteristics of succeeding ages does not, according to the preface, have the purpose of encouraging the reader to "verify normality," but it is difficult to imagine how it might be used for any other purpose.
In sharp contrast to Hawkes and Pease's portrayal of the elementary school years as almost unbelievably free of problems, Rogers's textbook on the adolescent years shows them to be fraught with feelings of inadequacy and an inability to accept the self, and haunted with guilt, hostility, and anxiety. Could these be the same children a few months or years later? Adolescents are shown to worry about all the things adults worry about, plus a few added which result from confusion over roles, uncertain status, and other features of a society which fails to provide them with a happy passage from childhood to maturity. The emphasis on problems during this period is not entirely the choice of the author, for the literature available to her, perhaps more than that of any other period, is a problem literature, as Murphy has commented in the early pages of her own book. In virtually every reference, for every happy adolescent, at peace with himself, his peers, his teachers, and his family, there are ten who are not. Rogers has tried to be constructive by ending each chapter with suggestions as to how adults can help adolescents with the problems described and how they can help themselves.
PREVENTION AND DEVELOPMENT
But prevention is better than cure. From this book one cannot visualize the home, school, or community which would meet the needs of the American adolescent satisfactorily. Rogers includes the usual contrast between the simple rites of passage of primitive cultures and the confusions and contradictions of the prolonged adolescence in the Western world. Is there nothing to be said for complexity? By offering adolescents several years in which to adjust to adult responsibilities, and a variety of choices in the use of their abilities and interests, do we not perhaps provide better for individual differences? In primitive cultures, what happens to the early or late maturing child, the dull child or the brilliant one, the emotionally disturbed child or the gifted nonconformist?
Although Rogers mentions the saltatory theory of adolescence as obsolete, her failure to provide a transition from childhood makes the onset seem abrupt, and the emphasis on the problems also creates the impression of "storm and stress" so vividly described in earlier times by G. S. Hall. Murphy and her collaborators may be expected to find something positive to say about the modes of adjustment employed by their subjects when they reach adolescence. Let us hope that by that time there will be many others who are producing data permitting a more positive approach.
The other two books cover the range of human development from conception to maturity, an increasingly difficult task as studies proliferate. Bernard's book is the more conventional of the two. After offering a justification for the study of human developmentwhich seems unnecessary to this reviewerhe proceeds to a chapter on the methods of investigation. Assuming that the book will be used mainly by undergraduates, one may raise the question as to the usefulness of a necessarily brief and superficial discussion of methods before the student has been introduced to content. If a discussion of methods has any place in an elementary textbook, perhaps it should accompany descriptions of selected studies as they occur in the text.
Bernard has attempted to live up to his title by the inclusion of a detailed and well-documented section on socio-economic and other cultural influences upon development in the United States. Although he apparently intended the term "western culture" to include other countries, even Russia, his coverage beyond our borders hardly justifies the extension of the term.
The book is marred by careless writing and by numerous errors which accumulate to overshadow its better features. Sentences which begin "anthropology proves" or "medical science has proven" will irritate readers accustomed to greater precision of statement. Pediatricians will be surprised to learn that they and not obstetricians care for pregnant mothers (an error made twice in different contexts). A more serious type of error is lack of documentation of controversial statements, such as the following: "It has recently been demonstrated that the fondling, petting, talking to, moving and lifting about that the mother does with the infant in his first hours of life has measurable effects on his digestion, sleeping, bodily tonus, and alertness" (p. 19). This has not been attributed to, though it sounds like a paraphrase of, Margaret Ribble's views, which have been seriously challenged.
HOW LONG IS ADOLESCENCE?
In Human Development, Gordon gets off to a good start by offering his own point of view as a unifying concept for the material which follows: the emergence of the self through a series of transactions between the organism and its environment. The next chapter is devoted to the biological basis of behavior. In subsequent chapters, he traces the emerging and changing self-concept through infancy and childhood; all changes with age, including physical growth and development, are related to the self-concept and thereby given relevance. Smooth transitions are made from one stage in development to another, including that from adolescence to adulthood. Perhaps the weakest section is the one on infancy; it includes the erroneous statement that the newborn cannot see or hear, for example.
Gordon writes well and introduces many thought-provoking discussions. His bibliography covers a wide range of disciplines. He includes more research data from various American subcultures and from other countries than do any of the other authors. An example of Gordon's effort to arouse thought in his readers is the commentary in the final chapter on the distorted perceptions concerning social class and ethnic groups other than their own held by most young Americans. In comparison with the youth of some other countries, the young American seems little interested in the social revolution in which much of the world is involved today, and is content to deal almost exclusively with his own personal achievements and material gains. Has adolescence been further prolonged in our culture, and is this so-called adult not yet really grown up? Perhaps even in these moon-race days, teachers and parents have somehow failed to help him achieve complete maturity.
As reflected in these books, the research of the past decade has offered rewarding new concepts and have cleared away much dead wood. The gaps in our knowledge, particularly at the extremes of the developmental cycle, are more apparent than even before. The work of the 1960s has been roughed out. We shall eagerly await the filling in of the details.
Cornell University Medical College
New York City