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Tot Thought


Why are adults half-blind to the ways of the child’s mind? Equally puzzling, why are they so gullible about fashionable dogmas on that oddly vexed subject? Years ago I was stunned to hear Anna Freud declare in a lecture at Harvard that if a three-year-old wandered unrestrained from Central Square to Harvard Square, he would likely commit every crime in the statute books on the way. How had psychoanalysis managed to displace Rousseau’s Emile or William Blake’s “Songs of Innocence” from mythological center stage so quickly?

The usual explanation for adult incomprehension of the child’s mind is, of course, that we are all victims of infantile amnesia and, having forgotten what our own early childhood was like, we must learn about it again from scratch and from the outside. Yet there is something a bit fishy about this standard account. For, in fact, we are the only species where parents really teach their young—and we are astonishingly adept at it. It is remarkable, for example, how human adults talking with young children simplify their syntax and lexicon to match what the kid can understand.1 And we talk cute “Motherese” without instruction, and without even realizing how crucial it is for modeling the prosody and sound structures of a language. So, though we may be half-blind about the child’s mind, we obviously know far more about it than we realize, know it (as some seem to draw comfort from saying) unconsciously.

But what about our gullibility in accepting fashionable dogmas, particularly gloomy ones? Are we so anxious about our parental duties that we attend only to those things kids do that tell us whether we’re succeeding or failing as parents? Does that blind us to the ordinary day-to-dayness of how young children’s minds work? We seem even less curious about the “mental processes” of young kids than we are about our own.

An example. There’s no other species on the face of the earth whose young point to things to bring them to the attention of an adult, even looking back from the things pointed out to see whether the adult “got it.” Not even our closest primate cousins do it. Even blind human babies do it in response to strange sounds, also at about eight months, though their pointing usually disappears a month or two after it starts, unrequited by feedback from adults. It is an evolutionary miracle. But parents, generally, just take it for granted, pay it no heed—unless it fails to appear, as in autistic babies.

Then gullibility sets in. Despite having witnessed this wizard act of “intersubjective” sharing right there at cribside, parents (educated ones especially) are fully prepared to buy a wildly exaggerated dogma of “egocentrism”: that young children in their first few years are incapable of recognizing or appreciating another human being’s perspective. Even psychologists went overboard on this one. And it has taken the last two decades of research to shake a belief that should have been seen as absurd from the start by any observer. The fact is that virtually from birth, we are involved, we human beings, in refining and perfecting our species-unique gift of sharing attention and achieving workable “intersubjectivity.”2

But once again the anomaly of “not knowing what you know” interferes with our recognizing the reality. In fact, if you do a close frame-by-frame analysis of mothers and infants during their first eight months, say, it is plain as day that the mothers know exquisitely well how to manage direct eye-to-eye contact, how to respond to their infant’s efforts to bring objects into those eye-to-eye bouts, or just what kind of expression to use to tempt their baby to follow a shift in the direction of their gaze. We might say they know unconsciously. Or perhaps we should say something like “Humans are born parents!” Born that way or not, parents seem to know a very great deal more than they know that they know—including here as well older siblings and baby sitters, among many others.

Perhaps it’s the social definition of “growing up” and “bringing up” that produces our half-blindness and our gullibility. For, as Philippe Ariès3 long ago made plain, raising children, however much it expresses human tenderness, is also an ideological, social, and religious enterprise, fraught with duties and moral responsibilities. And like all such enterprises, it is hemmed in by dangers and pitfalls that all too easily create attitudes that suppress what, from a broader perspective, seems like “just” common sense. Can we discern in the dogma of all-encompassing childhood egocentrism—which runs so counter to the day-to-day, observable relations of ordinary parents with their children—the long arm of Christian dogmas of selfishness and original sin? It is not that children come out of Blake’s “Songs of Innocence,” but only that they are complicated and far more familiar with the world than is often acknowledged—“the adult in the crib,” to paraphrase the title of one of the books under review.

In recent times, of course, things have become even more complex. Hillary Rodham Clinton may indeed be right that “it takes a village” to raise a child. But the village would be in tough shape without federal and state funds. And can you let one in ten American children grow up in families below the poverty line, no matter in what village—given that those poor kids will mostly be living in the village’s black ghetto? What kind of theory of the child’s mind and its development is most usefully brought to bear on problems of this kind?

Which brings us to the two books under review. The Scientist in the Crib, by Alison Gopnik, Andrew Meltzoff, and Patricia Kuhl, is a triumph, a clear-headed account of the kinds of things that go on inside the heads of young children. It describes the way young kids look at the world, how they go about coping with the endless problems they encounter, and how parents, as it were, manage “as if born to it” to help them understand what it’s all about. But more important than anything else, it sets out a way of looking at the mind growing up that forswears baby-book norms, current jeremiads about “teach-them-early-or-lose-out- forever,” and dogmas about “the” right way to bring up kids. And most refreshingly, its authors could not care less about the labels of the disciplines they draw on—psychology, neuroscience, linguistics. They are experts in the new “cognitive sciences” but with none of the cocksure “cog sci” baby-as-computer-to-be-programmed attitudes of a decade ago; they wear their learning lightly and gracefully.

The other book, John Bruer’s The Myth of the First Three Years, is of a different genre altogether. It is an expression of protest, levelheaded though it may be, speaking out strongly against the all too prevalent false claim that if young children don’t embark on a serious learning career by the third year, they will fall irreversibly behind and even suffer brain defects. It is a troubled and troubling book.

How could the dogmas attacked in Bruer’s book have gained credence in a world that gave birth to The Scientist in the Crib—the pair published within weeks of each other? Why are even such well-intentioned proponents of adequate child care as Hillary Rodham Clinton hinting that contemporary brain research demonstrates that (to use the current mantra) “early is forever”?

The Scientist in the Crib speaks in the voice of intelligent parents talking to other intelligent parents—witty, rather personal, and very well informed. The three authors report “data”; they review and reframe great philosophical dilemmas; but their good-humored admission of their own, shall I say, epistemic vulnerability keeps their story buoyant throughout. The book will be as well received on Merton Street, where Oxford philosophers keep their debating headquarters, as it will among parents.

The authors, though caught up in the never-ending cognitive revolution of our times, begin by revisiting the “ancient questions” our forebears raised about the nature of the mind—how we gain our knowledge of the world, of others, of ourselves, and how we manage to make our knowledge known to others. From the start, they forswear the arrogance of objectivity, of the “view from nowhere”: “Trying to understand human nature,” they write, “is part of human nature.” The best we can do is construct representations of what the world is like and test those representations against what we experience—whether we are developmental scientists or two-year-olds. And it is in that spirit that the book bears the title The Scientist in the Crib.

Reversing the order characteristic of books about the mind, which usually start with how the mind knows the physical world, they take up the question of how children learn about other minds—what they seem to have by way of a beginning endowment, how they manage, with the aid of cooperating parents, to become workaday “folk psychologists.” This is the new terrain of “intersubjectivity” that I mentioned earlier, and they discuss it with the flair of direct involvement. The chapter provides the opportunity for them to set out their major theme. Babies begin life with “start-up” knowledge inherited from our evolutionary past, knowledge that provides the means for making a first shot at representing what they encounter. Once they have done this, infants are in a position to repair their first “edition” in the light of new experience, which, in turn, alters previous knowledge in such a way as to make new experience possible. In short, new experience leads to new knowledge which then permits new experience, the cycle never ending. But most important, the cycle requires the involvement, even the collusion, of others, whose minds and ways of thought we come to take for granted, much as we take the world for granted. Both are constructions, representations of the physical and the social.

The authors then show how children construct a world of space, time, and causality, and they deal particularly with the human push to explain experience, showing that this involves trade-offs in which some things are represented at the expense of ignoring others and that there are forms of blindness to the world that are part of the process of learning. They turn to an engaging and wonderfully informative chapter on the ways children learn language—how and when to use it in what ways, and how to use it in representing the world of things and people. This analysis is blessedly free both of the kind of Chomskian nativism that has everything there at the start and of the equally tiresome dogmatism that treats language as a kit of social conventions.

We are given a brief but convincing account of how children master the Sound Code—how meaningless sounds are put together to make meaningful words—and an excellent description of how Motherese manages to help the child grasp the phonology, syntax, and lexicon of her mother tongue, with some shrewd added remarks on dyslexia and dysphasia. The young child’s mastery of language could not proceed without the steady dialogic support from parents; nor could it ever get going without some “start-up” knowledge of how language is structured and to what uses it can be put. For the rest, as with the very development of the nervous system, the child’s increasing control and understanding of language is a function of opportunities provided (or created).

  1. 1

    See the chapter by Catherine Snow in C.E. Snow and C.A. Ferguson, editors, Talking to Children (Cambridge University Press, 1977).

  2. 2

    Chris Moore and Philip Dunham, editors, Joint Attention: Its Origins and Role in Development (Erlbaum, 1995).

  3. 3

    Philippe Ariès, Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life (Knopf, 1962).

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