On Understanding Children


SOME curious discoveries in what is quaintly called behavior are promised by famous research workers in mental science, both in Russia and in America. The two animals most concerned are Russian dogs and American children. Whatever the future may bring, the art of penetrating the minds of both these difficult but pleasing species has advanced a very long way within the last year or two. The rather unwholesome psychoanalysts from Austria are already left behind, though they made their own discoveries and enlarged the subject. But better results are obtained from studying upward, from the dog to the child to the man, than downward, from the perhaps oversexed adult of a corrupt aristocracy to the child and the lower mammal, or even the bird.

One attraction of this branch of science is that every dog owner and every human parent can take a part. Any of us who are in this class may help to elucidate the subject, as rediscovered by such workers as Professor Pavlov in Russia and Dr. Watson in America, without presuming to enter seriously or very philosophically into their peculiar field. Conversely, the professor can help us to see the more abstruse significance of the quaint incidents and records — from both nursery and kennel — which we delight to note and remember. All those sayings we have laughed at or admired in little children, all those symptoms of intelligence we have found (or thought we have found) in our dogs, are as lines of little lights blazing the trail to the highest and remotest peaks of animal intelligence.

To summarize, the dog piles up his knowledge almost wholly by association of ideas, especially pleasurable associations; and this comes very near to a perception of cause and effect. He can learn up to about one hundred words. He can acquire a strong artistic sense — that is, can tell fine shades of black and gray, and distinguish a very round ellipse from a circle. He can distinguish both separate notes and ranges of notes. His brain matter behaves very much as a child’s, especially in shutting off attention from things that bore him by their unintelligibility, and can so concentrate on things that interest him that all the rest of his mind, and indeed his other senses, are shut down. The study of the dog’s actual brain has given concrete evidence of how like it is to the mind of the child. Though soon the human mind climbs to heights that tower over the dog’s attainment, its loss is permanent if it misses the perceptions proper to its doglike infancy.

A small boy, just under two years old, stood by a famous musician as he played a number of pieces, most of them from German masters, on the piano. The performance was repeated many times on successive evenings, and the small boy was always all eyes and ears. Presently it was discovered that as the first bars were played he could give the name of the piece, though he quaintly murdered the tough German names. One day someone asked the musician what he was going to play, and before he could reply the child made answer for him — quite accurately, save for the pronunciation. It thus became apparent that though he could not read, and could scarcely speak in any full sense, he could tell by a glance at the music what notes would proceed. In this sense, and in this sense only, he could read the music. The boy was no genius in music or letters, but he possessed one gift of extreme youth in high power. He had seen a certain thing and heard a certain thing at the same time and in association; and thereafter the two were bound together. When he saw the one he heard the other; when he heard the one he saw the other.

The gift is called by philosophers the association of ideas; and on it is founded the science of memory, so far as memory has any claims to science. It is stated thus: when two things have been known together, perception of one at once suggests the other. It is a law with many little reservations, as in a delightful example given to his pupils by an old lecturer: ‘When Tobias’s mother sees Tobias’s dog, she at once thinks of Tobias; but when Tobias’s mother sees Tobias, she does not think of his dog.’ The lesser, or the less interesting, is more likely to suggest the greater than the greater the less. However this may be, this law works much more promptly and effectively with children, whose associations are few, than with their muddle-headed elders, who have had traffic with the hurly-burly. May it not be that the superiority of the child in this gift, and some others like it, suggests right ways of dealing with the mind of the child, and — if children and dogs will forgive the coupling of their names — with the half-witted or those regarded as half-witted, and with various animals classed as lower.

Indeed, some of the behaviorists go as far as to affirm that even among lunatics and half-wits a great proportion are manufactured, not born. If the proper associations and juxtapositions had been made in their childhood, they would not have suffered that paralysis, or inhibition, of parts of their mind which has cut off half their wits. Most people have plenty of wits, but it is decided at an early age what proportion they will use.


How far do the experiences of each of us, in our own childhood or our children’s childhood, fit in with the behaviorist’s conclusions? For example: Two small children were staying in London in a long street where all the houses were as nearly as may be identical. Their nurse, for mere amusement, tried again and again to make them pass their proper doorway, but always in vain. They were asked how they knew which was the right door; but they looked blank at the question, and the only definite answer ever evoked was this: ‘We know our little yellow beds are upstairs.’ This is pure instinct — the thing that animals possess, from homing dogs to migrant birds. The swallow knows its homely eaves are just there, even when it is three thousand miles away; and the abandoned dog makes straight across country to the picture of its basket in the inglenook. (I have known a dog to travel twenty unknown miles at full speed.)

Doubtless this power springs from accurate subtleties of observation. The little twin girls saw something or other that suggested the neighborhood of the little yellow beds. The swallow over all his miles of flight is aware of something giving him direction toward the particular muddy nest. The dog has observed the lie of the land, the points of the compass. But none of them is aware of the process, whatever it is. The inferences are instinctive, — that is, immediate, — and the end is reached without distracting thoughts about the means. Neither the child nor the dog nor the swallow knows why or how it knows.

Now this sort of instinctive power is perceptible in many of the capabilities of the young. It was the experience of a mathematical master in one of the naval colleges, to which boys are admitted at the age of thirteen, that quite a fair number could do advanced problems, though they showed no particular merit in the workaday processes of what Lewis Carroll calls ‘distraction.’ They could solve abstruse questions when they could not divide without errors. The boys lost this gift a little later. At a greater age they knew more, but could do less. They could divide accurately, but only arrived at the solution of a difficult problem after slow labor.

In face of such facts it is obviously our duty to inquire whether this change is natural or whether the childish power is killed by the prosaic slaving at such menial tasks as addition and division, and the higher spirit quenched, never again to be illumined. Occasionally an elder person keeps such an instinctive grasp of mathematical truth. There was a manager of one of the big daily papers who could give instantly the answer to problems that needed much working out by the most highly trained specialists. One of these greater mathematicians tested the manager, a man who had not been ruined by education, and never found his power to fail, but never discovered how the process worked. He had met with like gifts before, and came to the conclusion that you find them only among the uneducated.

In the common affairs of life we are continually coming across examples of the superior skill of the unintellectual or undeveloped mind. A well-known keeper of stock found that men of the type of ‘the village idiot,’ dull, halfwitted loons, were often supreme in the tendance of animals. They know by a sort of instinct when any animal is the least unwell; and the animals much prefer the ministrations of the fool. It happens so frequently as to be almost the rule that an understanding of animals and a love of them appear most strongly in the least intellectual and are least strong in the most intellectual member of a family. And who shall say that this understanding in the fool is not as true a gift as that intellectuality in the highbrow?

The child’s gift appears even in one domain of letters. Recent experiments in some British schools for the very young indicate that skill and pleasure in the making of rhythmic and rhymed verses are general among very small children. They write verse with considerable ease and real pleasure, and many reveal an unexpected perception of natural beauty. It is not perhaps altogether fanciful to compare this faculty with a well-established fact in animal biology. The colors and to some extent the behavior of infant animals, as well as their appearance in the embryo, are exactly those that were characteristic of their remote ancestors. The cycle of changes that their race has undergone through æons is repeated in the baby of to-day. You can trace the evolution of their race in the study of a small portion of any single life. For example, the embryo of nearly every mammal possesses gills, quite apparent on the neck, and this is taken as plain evidence of the evolutionary maxim that the origin of life was in the water.

So again ‘ the modern horse recapitulates his evolution’ — which means that in the embryo at one stage it shows three toes, which we know to be the characteristic of the primeval horse. Again, the color of the first hair or wool of many wild animals is the same as the adult color of their remote ancestors, though it does not survive the first month or two of life. There is no desire to labor the point. It is here recalled merely as a sort of metaphor to indicate and illustrate how far back into the nature of the human race the mind of the child may take us.

As we can trace in the infant beast the qualities of its far ancestor, so we may dimly perceive in the child, in each baby as it grows up, the evolution of the human race in intelligence, and in the chief vehicle of intelligence — literary production. Verse, as we know, came before prose, if we use the word in its full sense. A Sir Thomas Browne, a Swift, or, may one say, a Wister, comes later in time than a Homer or the author of the Book of Job. So if you compare the standard of merit in these children’s verses and in their prose, the superiority is overwhelmingly on the side of the verse. Incidentally the experience at once condemns that Philistine view of poetry that it is an artificial product which sets itself all sorts of unnecessary barriers in the way of its expression of a particular meaning. The first use of language is a rhythmic exercise. Poetry is a sister of music, though it is much beside; and in its final development it may express certain classes of ideas with at least as finely chiseled precision as any prose, especially in description.

Bosomed high in tufted trees . . .

Did ever prose condense a picture more tightly? And, as for the classics, Horace could and did say in ten words what took Cicero several hundred.

The love of musical rhythm and a number of still obscure intuitions are to children what instinct is to other animals. We recognize those instincts in the dog, but forget the less observable gifts of the young whose reason has not yet taken their place, as it never completely does.


Many of us fail to understand dogs because we cannot realize how they read the world through scent and their still unexplained sense of orientation. It is the sense of smell — not to put too fine a point on things — that makes the dog necessarily and invariably courteous to the bitch, and it is probably the reason why any dog will bear the roughest treatment from children without rebellion. The world of birds is similarly conditioned by sight, and of insects by a sense of scent that is even acuter, and by a large margin, than the dog’s. We fail to understand children (and the halfwitted) for just the same reason. The senses are super-acute and the mind has not grown. We have to remember that most of the human race becomes deaf, if not blind, by the age of thirtyfive, and progressively loses the power of smelling with any acuteness. It is perhaps a sign of our contempt of the senses which we cease to possess that there is no word in the language for those who cannot smell or taste, or are without a real sense of direction.

Little accidents of experience will reveal to us how infinitely superior are the senses of children. Some of them can hear a fly walk along a windowpane. I was watching a beekeeper one day taking the honey from one of my hives, and he had brought his small son (who had a wonderful way with bees) to help him — perhaps to teach him as well as to learn from him. The boy was talking to me and had his back to his father when he said, interrupting our talk, ‘Why, Father, you’ve been stung!’ And this was the case. The boy quite certainly, as he explained when asked, had smelled the poison of the sting just as the bees quite obviously smell it. He wondered that we too had not smelled it. ‘The proper study of mankind’ is not ‘man,’ but child. The child comes ‘trailing clouds of glory’; perhaps spiritual glory, but certainly the glory that is common to the whole race of living things — the glory of delighted perceptions.

It is, of course, right and proper that certain childish possessions should be dropped as the brain grows. Most plants begin with seed leaves; and, as soon as the leaves proper develop, the original seed leaves disappear and the plant is all the better for the loss. But it would be all the worse if we picked them off before they were inclined to fall; yet we are continually picking off young capacities, most of them belonging to the acute senses of childhood, in order to encourage a sort of growth that is not yet due. The great sculptor Rodin once persuaded a number of schoolmasters to discover what picture was suggested to children when the word ‘boat’ — to quote one of many examples — was mentioned. It was found that the word suggested to quite a large number merely the letters b-o-a-t — that and little more; and of those who visualized the thing, ‘boat,’ hardly one saw it in depth. Their powers of visualization, killed by too much reading, could do no more than evoke the picture of a flat thing of a boat like outline.

It is possible — and a miserable thing to contemplate — that civilization, or the form of education favored by civilization, is in fact killing all sorts of artistic capacities, just as Rodin held it has half killed the sculptor. There is a deal of corroborative evidence to buttress the assertion that music is correlated with barbarism, or rather that in real musical capacity the higher civilizations of Europe and America cannot compare with aborigines— for example, the natives of South Africa. Premature and misapplied education has maimed a natural gift. The primeval hunter, as you may see in early cave and bone drawings, had a surprising gift of catching attitude. This artistic sense of his and the native’s musical sense were of course developed, both in essence and in technique, till the great works were produced; and this growth in technique can never be destroyed and will be further perfected, but its soul may vanish if the native ear and eye for the true harmonies lose their intuitive nicety and insight, and that is a possibility which must be faced.

The art of printing, in a famous passage of Victor Hugo, was said by the priest of Notre Dame to have killed architecture. The arts of writing and reading, the compulsion to use reason instead of instinct, may destroy the impulse to art throughout a community. It is arguable that the cult of the discord and the jargon of the cubist are not the issue of an extended art, but the signs of lack of natural instinctive harmony. You may damage even the art of letters in this way. There is something of autobiography in almost all the best work; and again and again we discover that the best writers owe their peculiar quality to the vividness of their memory of early childhood. Now early childhood should be filled with sense impressions, and the greatest of all gifts to a grown person is the print of those sights and sounds that belong to eyes and ears undimmed and unblurred by years and experience.

A nurse was telling some children about the early days when she was a child, and was interrupted by the youngest, who looked up and asked, ‘What was the color of the floor of your nursery?’ It is, of course, of vast importance to a child, who is near the ground, that this should be agreeable both in color and in texture. The floor is the foundation of his artistic training. To him it is a virtue, not a vice, to be a groundling. To color the floor agreeably is possibly a much more important influence than any abstract instruction, intellectual or even moral!


In bird, dog, and child the senses matter supremely. They must visualize before they can understand. You perceive this in every act of the dog, every word of the child. A small child had been instructed by a too scientific parent in the meaning of the law of gravity, and soon after one lesson was heard talking to himself while he went downstairs laboriously. As each foot was lowered, he muttered, ‘Kind gravity does that.’ The professor was perhaps a little upset to hear such an adjective applied — surely for the first time! — to so stern a universal law; but a modern psychologist would be pleased. Personification is a necessary mode of thought for the very young. Every word has a quite concrete meaning with child as with dog. My terrier knows the words ‘walk, mat, heel, gently, fetch, go,’ and perhaps a dozen more. A child who is using a host of words is using all the more abstract terms in his own sense. He means something quite different from what his elders think he means. Ask a child what is the meaning of ‘wise.’ He will answer after the idiom of the small boy who explained to a smaller sister that it meant ‘ keeping covered up in bed.’ ‘Brave’ means shooing a strange dog out of the garden. ‘Obstinate’ means, ‘I could n’t say what I was told to say.’ ‘Obedient’ means ‘doing what Father says when he talks loud.’ The child is such an excellent parrot, since his ears are good, —

As if his whole vocation
Were endless imitation, —

that we fail to notice how very little he understands of what is said to him.

Infant ears are beset with a tiresome jargon not only on duty, on religion, and such wide abstractions, but on simpler forms such as goodness and naughtiness, greediness, unselfishness, and the rest of the alleged sins and virtues. A small boy who had been given two chocolates, one to consume, one to carry upstairs to his sister, was heard to say as he swallowed the second, ‘Poor Pamela!’ Only an older person can see the humor of the sympathetic interjection, because only he contrasts (and contrast is often the essence of humor) the virtue of the pity with the sin of the greed. The small boy really was sorry for Pamela, — she would have enjoyed her chocolate like anything, — but his own selfishness was not a concept he was as yet capable of appreciating — or regretting. If he had been punished for it, from the point of view of his own sin, he would not have understood, though emphasis on Pamela’s loss might have reduced him to dust and ashes. The boy was a little like the lady in the siege of Paris (as invented by Mr. Labouchère), who, when she had finished a meal on her pet dog, swept the bones to the side of the plate and said with tears in her voice, ‘How poor Fido would have enjoyed them! ’


Many children caught in this tangle of mysterious obligations and abstractions, and feeling

. . . the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world,

suffer, in some cases to a considerable degree, from what the Austrians call repressions and complexes. The repressions are not sexual and the complexes are not terrors. Dr. Watson, the great behaviorist (if the grim word must be used), has done no greater service than in proving — for proof it is — that the human child is as nearly as may be fearless. In his babyhood he has scarcely any instinctive fear. He must be taught fear, and his first lesson in fear is usually some moral ‘don’t’ which scares him as a savage is scared by an eclipse. Positively any accidentally inspired fear can be cured merely by simple associations, as when Dr. Watson’s child, who was afraid of goldfish, came soon to like them because they were put within sight at pleasant mealtime. Almost all the repressions of which psychoanalysts have made much are caused (except in cases of sudden shock) by the infliction on delicate senses of things not understandable. The wife of an eminent British statesman was kept awake in childhood and seriously troubled for years because of the terror of the thought of the National Debt.

Few pictures of children are more pleasing than that evoked by Francis Thompson in one of his few quite simple poems, ‘Ex ore infantium’: —

And didst Thou feel quite good in bed,
Kissed, and sweet, and Thy prayers said?

The whole poem indicates how religion may be fitly imparted to the very young; but religious abstractions, the more deeply philosophic the worse, may do almost as much harm as the witch doctor’s threats in a barbarian community. Nothing will prevent a child from visualizing and finding a concrete picture. ‘Is that God?’ whispered a small child to its mother as they entered a room where sat a reverend old man with white hair and a white beard. He was, in fact, a newspaper editor; and, though he perhaps deserved the implied compliment more than many, the awe he inspired was not good for the child.

An astonishing number of the stories parents record of their children are concerned in one way or another with their ludicrous reactions to untimely abstractions, especially in religion. Very earnestly, after the manner of children when they try to think, a small girl put this inquiry to her mother: ‘Nature is a woman, is n’t she? And God is a man? Are they a sort of husband and wife?’ And when the children’s hour was over and the elders were left to themselves, they first laughed and then began to discuss this very subject. Why muddle and retard the lively senses of the young with any abstractions, generalizations, concepts, and all this race of later sophistications, which drive them into troublesome thinking before their hour is come?

Very simple peasants never grow out of the childish mind in its passion for what it can see or touch. An old English laborer, waked up during a serious illness, looked round his cottage and, thinking that he had died, said with due deliberation: ‘If this be Heaven, I don’t think much of it, and if it’s Hell it ain’t so bad.’ To talk theism to a mind still reliant on its sense impressions is to set up a pernicious conflict in the soul. This laborer probably did not use more than a thousand words; and real knowledge of words (those ‘wise men’s counters’) comes very late in the development of the individual. Words suggest to a child, as often to the peasant, a host of muddled and often frightening things; and the reading of many words by infant eyes, in alliance with the muddled and teasing ideas they convey, robs the child of its simple, instinctive perceptions and may help to destroy all sorts of powers, both of visualizing and of enjoying. Someone described education as ‘the art of breaking a child’s spirit.’ If it is not that, it is very often the art of spoiling the spirit, slowing down ‘the happy, prompt, instinctive way of youth’ without substituting an equally good alternative.


And what is the conclusion of the whole matter? There never is a conclusion of the whole matter, but knowledge advances, and the new knowledge of rudimentary minds all goes to back up the sort of theory after which, at various dates in various countries, educational prophets have been feeling — Pestalozzi, Froebel, Montessori, Dalton, and the rest. The prime virtue of childhood is what Wordsworth called, recalling his own childhood, ‘the deep power of joy,’ founded almost wholly at first on the vivid harvest of the senses.

This vivid pleasure ought to color all the rest of life, providing the adult (however teased, worried, and beset) with a hearth of thought at which he may sit and warm his soul. We all know how a sound or a scent may help a vivifying fact to rise up, not necessarily in conscious memory of details: we feel again as we felt when young. Just as Pavlov’s dogs welcomed the pain of a sharp prick of a needle because it was associated with the approach of a meal, we may delight in sounds that are themselves, you would think,

irritating, such as church bells, or the ‘damnable iteration’ of the cuckoo, that immoral bird (not, like Keats’s nightingale, an ‘immortal bird’) which filled old Wordsworth with pleasure as he stood in his wood among the Lakes:
And I can listen to thee yet;
Can lie upon the plain
And listen, till I do beget
The golden time again.
O blessèd Bird! the earth we pace
Again appears to be
An unsubstantial, faery place;
That is fit home for Thee!

Most people perhaps lose this power to ‘beget the golden time again’ because it was originally golden for too brief a period. Instead of being encouraged to live the bright life of a brain which records sense impressions with delight, but is dulled and retarded by any abstraction, they are browbeaten with a number of stupid tasks that inflict a knowledge belonging to a later stage of development. Their mind, like the dog’s, fights against what is foreign to it; and this fighting is actively destructive. It inhibits (blessed word!) whole sections of the brain; and may do them active damage. The act of inhibition does direct harm in itself, and at the same time narrows the proper zest of extreme youth.

No, the human seed leaves should be left on the human plant till they fall off of themselves. The whole of life should be illumined by the ‘unimaginable light’ in which the world is clothed for those children whose senses have free play, whose knowledge grows almost of itself by pleasant associations and attains the rhythm of a flying bird or a baby poet who ‘ lisped in numbers, for the numbers came.’ The prime enemy of youth may perhaps be described as prose abstractions. They probably do very much more harm than sex repressions.