The Child-Watchers

PAUL H. ROHMANN is on Ihe staff of Ihe Antioch Press in Yellow Springs, Ohio, He is the author of “Father of the Twins,”which appeared in the August, 1951, Atlantic


RECENTLY I was leafing, for no particular reason, through one of those journals devoted not only to the study of child development but to the study of the study of child development, when I came across a description of a portable one-way observation booth.

This intriguing contraption consists of three wall panels, the middle one of which contains a window of oneway glass. Inside are a table and chairs, and the whole thing is roofed over — to protect the occupants from flying finger paint, I presume. In operation the booth is set up against the wall of a schoolroom, and inside it the observer secretly spies on and records the behavior of whatever unsuspecting children come into his line of vision.

The construction plans looked familiar and it took me only a few minutes to remember where I had seen something similar. It was at Abercrombie & Fitch’s. This thing was nothing more than a portable duck blind.

I was shocked. I consider myself something of an observer of children, but in an amateur way. I don’t go on safaris to bag the out-of-the-ordinary game, nor do I mount my particularly fine specimens in monographs or lectures. I more or less confine myself 1o the species indigenous to my locale, which I find interesting enough and which can give a man plenty of sport. Hut there is a code to which we gentlemen sportsmen adhere and which these professionals, I feel, violate in spirit if not in letter. It is one thing to observe children in their natural habitat from behind a newspaper; to build a duck blind is quite another.

Take the use of decoys, for instance. In front of the blind the observers arrange a templing assortment of dolls, doll furniture, and such. To the unwary child these are fine toys, similar to the ones provided by the amateurs at home, and he plays with them happily. Little does he suspect that these are no ordinary dolls at all but a Father Figure, a Mother Figure, and Sibling Figures; and that as he blithely manipulates them through the patterns of a fantasy, the hunter behind the glass is noting and interpreting like mad.

Even worse — as bad as dynamiting fish— is the Frustration Problem, any one of a number of gimmicks guaranteed, when worked on by the victim, to make him blow up in one bright flash, illuminating not only himself but his parents and almost everyone else concerned — everyone, that is, but the chuckling note-taker in the duck blind.

All of these, I say, are not pukka. The real sportsman approaches his quarry in the open, taking his chances with flung clay and kicked shins. True sport always contains the element of danger, and this is real — sophisticated man versus the untrammeled glades and meadows of a child’s world. The leading question, the stock in trade of the professional if he ever does come out in the open, is in the category of the moose horn — to be used only if the game does not approach the water hole of its own volition. And it is a one-man sport — no fair taking a crew of graduatestudent bearers and beaters along.

Of course, I may be doing these professional child-watchers an injustice. They are, after all, a cut above that other crowd, the archaeologists who try to reconstruct the child’s civilization through a study of its artifacts. These operators interpret drawings and paintings, examine clay images and utensils, measure cardboard ornaments, and never see a child. They talk a good game and keep up their memberships in the club, but it’s locker-room stuff, no more like real child-watching than taxidermy is like tiger hunting.

In fact, the more I think of these dusty museum workers, the more kindly disposed I feel toward the field men, who at least go out to see nature in the raw, albeit from behind oneway screens. Mine may be just the jealousy of the fisherman on the levee with the bamboo pole, watching the yacht filled with shiny equipment and smelling of bourbon and aftershave lotion glide out towards the Gulf Stream. We do, after all, bring back different trophies of the chase.

The amateur is after no more than the immediate rewards—the heartwarming remark, the boost to the parental ego. The only immortality his bag can achieve is in a family anecdote. But these others are the real hunters, the mountain men who take on whole herds at a time. The observations they cam home in their creels or strapped to their fenders become savory statistics, tanned and stretched on charts, or dried into points on a curve.

And perhaps these professionals do have their code and, for all their fancy equipment, do share the true sportsman’s thrills and disappointments of the hunt. Maybe when they gather in the lobbies at the annual meetings of the American Psychological Association or the Society for Research in Child Development they sound much like the boys in the barbershop at the close of the pheasant or trout season.

“I went oul through the Westchester private school section last season,”I can imagine one Ph.D. saying as he pats his illustrated monograph fondly. “I was afraid that territory was all worked over by the Yale boys but I flushed up a significant correlation the first week out. Thought at first I’d lose it — my first shot went wild, just clipped off a few statistics. But it came to ground again and Old Bess pinned it down within plus or minus one point seven. You know Old Bess, don’t you? By Vassar out of University of Pennsylvania. Fine in the field. She can nose out a correlation in a thicket of behavior patterns.”

“We trekked through the Lake Forest nursery schools,” another one says, toying with a spool of microfilm. “Amazing profusion of game out that way. Came across the first fully developed Sibling Orientated Female I’ve seen west of the Alleghenies but I wasn’t loaded for anything larger than Normal Deviations. We were after Mixed Group Aggressions Between Four and Six and they were so thick we just couldn’t pack out any more. Might go out again next year if I can round up a good crew and a Carnegie grant. Natives are a bit unfriendly in that territory but easily pacified with a few footnotes.”

“Some guys have all the luck,” says a third. “I sat in the blind for three days in North Carolina without getting a bead on a thing. First I set out the Blocks That Don’t Fit Problem. A few nibbled at it but they weren’t biting. Then during the midmorning Crackers-and-Milk I substituted a problem of my own, a variation of the Royal Coachman. I didn’t want to tell about it until my paper was published, but I guess it doesn’t really matter—those fool kids just laughed at it, t ho light it was fun !

Tried ‘em with the Doll Family the next day but nothing much happened.

Too well-adjusted a group, I’m afraid.

“By the third day I was pretty cramped in that booth. And my Number One Boy was gelling sullen, lie was beginning to hint that he could have gone out to Denver with O’Murray, bet him grouse, I thought. Let him think he’s stuck with a punk observer who doesn’t know a Suppressed Aggression from a Motor Compulsion. O’Murray and his tlashy Pro-Adolescent Relationships! Hell, anybody can make a growth curve out of that stuff. But for some real acute and fancy observing, just hang around and watch the Old Man.

“Well, I was just about to give up on that third day when 1 saw it. It was a dark day, raining outside, and they were running strong. Then one kid bumped into another kid and fell down with a yell. You know that feeling you get inside when you see the quarry approaching, just shimmering the surface. I felt it then. I grabbed my pencil and nudged my Number One Boy. He put his hand on the tape recorder switch and we waitled. And then, oh man, when that kid picked himself up, there it was —a perfect six-point Oral Fixation.

“But when that damn, stupid Number One Boy threw the switch, he had the tape on backwards with the volume way up. It went off with a squawk, there was a startled pause, and then the whole covey took off over the sandbox like a bunch of frightened children.”