Popular Science Monthly/Volume 46/December 1894/Studies of Childhood IV
|STUDIES OF CHILDHOOD.|
IV. THE CHILD'S THOUGHTS ABOUT NATURE.
By JAMES SULLY, M. A., LL. D.,
GROTE PROFESSOR OF THE PHILOSOPHY OF MIND AND LOGIC AT THE UNIVERSITY COLLEGE, LONDON.
WE have seen in the previous article how the child-mind behaves when brought face to face with the unknown. We will now examine some of the more interesting results of this early thought-activity, what are known as the characteristic ideas of children. There is no doubt, I think, that children do, by the help of reflection supplementing what they see or otherwise experience and what they are told by others, fashion their own ideas about Nature, death, and the rest. These ideas will probably be proved to vary considerably in the case of different children, yet to preserve throughout these variations a certain general character.
These ideas, moreover, like those of primitive civilized races, will be found to be a crude attempt at a connected system. We must not, of course, expect too much here. The earliest thought of mankind about Nature and the supernatural was very far from being elaborated into a consistent logical whole; yet we can see general forms of conception or tendencies of thought running through the whole. So in the case of this largely spontaneous child-thought. It will disclose to an unsparing critical inspection vast gaps and many unsurmounted contradictions. Thus, in the case of children, as in that of uncultured races, the supernatural realm is at first brought at most into only a very loose connection with the visible world. All the same, there is seen, in the measure of the individual child's intelligence, the endeavor to co-ordinate, and the poor little hard-pressed brain of a child will often pluckily do its best in trying to bring some connection into that congeries of disconnected worlds into which he finds himself so confusingly introduced, partly by the motley character of his own experiences, as the alternations of waking and sleeping, partly by the haphazard miscellaneous instruction, mythological, historical, theological, and the rest, with which we inconsiderately burden his mind.
As was observed in dealing with children's imaginative activity, this primitive childlore, like its prototype in folklore, is largely a product of a naïve vivid fancy. In assigning the relations of things and their reasons the child-mind does not make use of abstract conceptions. It does not talk about "relation," but pictures out the particular relation it wants to express by a figurative expression, as in apperceiving the juxtaposition of moon and star as mamma and baby. So it does not talk of abstract force, but figures some concrete form of agency, as in explaining the wind by the idea of somebody's waving a big fan somewhere. This first crude attempt of the child to envisage the world is indeed largely mythological, proceeding by the invention of concrete and highly pictorial ideas of fairies, giants, and their doings.
The element of thought comes in with the recognition of the real as such and with the application of the products of young fantasy to comprehending and explaining this reality. And here we see how this primitive child-thought, though it remains instinct with glowing imagery, differentiates itself from pure fancy. This last knows no restraint, and aims only at the delight of its spontaneous playlike movements, whereas thought is essentially the serious work of realizing and understanding what exists. The contrast is seen plainly enough if we consider first the mental attitude of the child when he is frankly romancing, giving out now and again a laugh which shows that he himself fully recognizes the absurdity of his talk; and, secondly, his attitude when in gravest of moods he is calling upon his fancy to aid reason in explaining some puzzling fact. How early this splitting of the child's imaginative activity into these two forms, the playful and the thoughtful, takes place, is not, I think, very easy to determine. Many children at least are apt at first to take all that is told them as gospel. To most children of three and four, I suspect, fairyland, if imagined at all, is as much a reality as the visible world. The disparity of its contents, the fairies, dragons, and the rest, with those of the world of sense does not trouble their mind, the two worlds not being as yet mentally juxtaposed and dovetailed one into the other. It is only later, when the desire to understand overtakes and even passes the impulse to frame bright and striking images, and, as a result of this, critical reflection applies itself to the nursery legends and detects their incongruity with the world of e very-day perception, that a clear distinction comes to be drawn between reality and fiction, what exists and can (or might) be verified by sense, and what is only pictured by the mind. When this date is reached, the child's imaginative activity, losing its first naïveté and unconsciousness of its own worth, becomes conscious of itself; that is to say, the child, when framing his mental pictures, is aware that he is playing, pretending, or fooling; or, on the other hand, trying to understand things.
With this preliminary peep into the modus operandi of children's thought, let us see what sort of ideas of things they fashion.
Beginning with their ideas of natural objects we find, as has been hinted, the influence of certain predominant tendencies. Of these the more important is the impulse to think of what is far off, whether in space or time, and so unobservable as like what is near and observed. Along with this tendency, or rather as one particular development of it, there goes the disposition, already illustrated, to vivify Nature, to personify things and so to assimilate their behavior to the child's own, and to explain the origin of things by ideas of making and aiming at some purpose. Since at the same time that these tendencies are still dominant the child by his own observation and by such instruction as he gets is gaining insight into the "how," the mechanism of things, we find that his cosmology is apt to be a quaint jumble of the scientific and the mythological. The boy C—— tried to conceive of the divine creation of men as a mechanical process with well-marked stages, the fashioning of the stone men, iron men, and then real men. In many cases we can see that Nature-myth comes in to eke out the deficiencies of mechanical insight. Thus the production of thunder and other strange and inexplicable phenomena is referred, as by the savage and even by many so-called civilized men and women, to the direct interposition of a supernatural agency. The theological idea with which children are supplied shapes itself into that of a capricious and awfully clever demiurgos who not only made the world-machine, but alters its working as often as he likes: for miracle is of the essence of the child's "Naturanschauung." Contradictions are not infrequent, the mythological impulse sometimes alternating with a more distinctly scientific impulse to grasp the mechanical process, as when wind is sometimes thought of as caused by a big fan, and sometimes—e. g., when heard moaning in the night—endowed with life and feeling. In many cases, too, the impulses combine, as when thunder is conceived of as God's action, but effected by mechanical means, such as shooting bricks on to the floor of heaven.
I shall make no attempt to give a methodical account of children's thoughts about Nature. I suspect that a good deal more material will have to be collected before a complete description of these thoughts is possible. I shall content myself with giving a few samples of their ideas so far as my own observations and those of others have thrown light on them.
With respect to the make or substance of things, children are disposed to regard all that they see as having the resistant quality of solid material substance. Just as the infant wants to touch pictures, the reflected sunlight dancing on the wall, and the shadows of objects, so later on the child continues to attribute the resistant quality of body to clouds or other inaccessible contents of the visible scene. Air at rest is of course not perceived by the child, but when in motion as wind it seems, so far as I can ascertain, to be thought of as substantial; at least this is suggested by the following story from the Worcester collection: A girl aged nine years was looking out and seeing the wind driving the snow in the direction of a particular town, Milbury, whereupon she remarked, "I'd like to live down in Milbury," Asked why, she replied: "There must be a lot of wind down there; it's all blowing that way."
Children are, as may be seen in this story, particularly interested in the movements of things. Movement is the clearest and most impressive manifestation of life. All apparently spontaneous or self-caused movements are accordingly taken by children as by primitive man to be the sign of life, the outcome of something analogous to their own impulses. Hence, the movements of falling leaves, of running water, of feathers, and the like are especially suggestive of life. Some children in the infant department of a London Board School were asked what things in the room were alive, and they promptly replied, the smoke and the fire. Big things moving by an internal mechanism of which the child knows nothing, more especially engines, are of course endowed with life, and the author of The Invisible Playmate tells us that his little girl wanted to stroke the "dear head" of a locomotive.
What is more extraordinary, the child's impulse to give life to many things often leads him to overlook the fact that movement is caused by an external force, and this even when the force is exerted by himself. The boy C——, on finding the cushion he was sitting upon slipping from under him in consequence of his own wriggling movements, pronounced it alive. In like manner children ascribe life to their moving playthings. Thus C——'s sister
when five years old stopped one day trundling her hoop, and turning to her mother exclaimed: "Ma, I do think this hoop must be alive, it is so sensible; it goes where I want it to." Another little girl, two years and a quarter old, on having a string attached to a ball put into her hand, and after swinging it round mechanically began to notice the movement of the ball, saying to herself, "Funny ball!" In both these cases, although the movement was directly caused by the child, it was certainly in the first case and apparently in the second attributed to the object. This tendency to attribute self-movement and will to toys survives in the older player. Do we not when playing billiards or bowls catch ourselves talking and thinking of the moving body as having a will of its own, and capable of carrying out our purpose if it only would, and equally capable, alas! of maliciously thwarting it?
Children are disposed, too, to form their own ideas about the mechanism of these spontaneous-looking movements. The examination of the mystery of a mechanical toy may set the young brain trying to construct a whole theory of motion. How far children apply this idea of machinery to their own movements I have not been able to ascertain. As we shall see, they seem to be mainly occupied with the mystery of our being able to move our limbs when we wish to do so. The idea has occurred to me that children's passion for pulling flowers to pieces may be prompted in part by a vague expectation of finding the mechanical secret of their growth and of the opening and shutting of their petals. Movement plays, I believe, the chief part in children's first ideas of the life of plants, though this idea grows more definite when they get knowledge of their fading and dying.
Next to movement apparently spontaneous sound appears to be a common motive for attributing life to inanimate objects. Are not movement and phonation the two great channels of utterance of the child's own impulses? A little boy assured his teacher that the wind was alive, for he heard it whistling in the night. The ascription of life to fire is greatly aided by the observation of its sputtering, crackling noises. The impulse, too, illustrated in the case given above, to endow so little organic-looking an object as a railway engine with conscious life was probably supported by the knowledge of its puffing and whistling. M. Pierre Loti, when as a child he first saw the sea, regarded it as a living monster, no doubt on the ground of its movement and its noise. The personification of the echo by the child, of which George Sand's reminiscences give an excellent example, as by uncultured man, is a signal illustration of the suggestive force of a voicelike sound.
Closely connected with this impulse to ascribe life to what older people regard as inanimate objects is the tendency to conceive them as growing. This is illustrated in the remark of the boy C—— that his stick would in time grow bigger. On the other hand, there is in the Worcester collection a curious story of a little American boy of three years, who, having climbed up into a large wagon and being asked, "How are you going to get out?" replied, "I can stay here till it gets little and then I can get out my own self." We shall see presently that shrinkage or diminution of size is sometimes attributed by the child-mind to people when getting old. So that we seem to have in each of these cases the extension to things generally of an idea first formed in connection with the observation of human life.
Children's ideas of natural objects are anthropomorphic, not merely as reflecting their own life, but as modeled after the analogy of the effects of human action. Thus I find that they are apt to extend the ideas broken and mended to objects generally. Anything which seems to have become reduced by losing a portion of itself is said to be "broken." A little boy of three years, on seeing the moon partly covered by a cloud, remarked, "The moon is broken." On the other hand, in the case of one little boy everything intact was said to be mended. We can not, of course, infer from this last that the child thought everything in the world had been broken and mended. He probably had no words for expressing the ideas "make whole" and "keep whole," and so made an analogical use of the familiar word "mend."
So far I have spoken for the most part of children's ideas about near and accessible objects. Their notions of what is distant and inaccessible are, as remarked, wont to be formed on the model of the first. Here, however, their knowledge of things will be largely dependent on others' information, so that the naive impulse of childish intelligence has, as best it may, to work under the limitations of others' words.
It is perhaps hardly necessary to remind the reader that children's ideas of distance before they begin to travel far are necessarily very inadequate. They are disposed to localize the distant objects they see, as the sun, moon, and stars, and the places they hear about on the earth's surface, as near as possible. The tendency to approximate things, as seen in the infant's stretching out of the hand to touch the moon, lives on in the later impulse to localize the sky and heavenly bodies just beyond the furthest terrestrial object seen, as when a child thought they were just above the church spire; another, that they could be reached by tying a number of ladders together; another, that the setting sun went just behind the ridge of hills, and so forth. The stars, as so much smaller looking, seem to be located further off than the sun and moon. Similarly, when a little Londoner hears of distant places, as Calcutta, he tends to project them just beyond the furthest point known to him, say St. Paul's, to which he was once taken on a long journey from the West End. A child's standard of size and distance is, as all know who have revisited the home of their childhood after many years, very dilferent from the adult's. To the little legs unused as yet to more than short spells of locomotion a mile seems stupendous; and then the small brain can not yet pile up the units of measurement well enough to conceive of hundreds and thousands of miles.
As all who have talked with children know and as inquiries into the contents of the little Boston minds confirm, the child thinks of the world as a circular plain, and of the sky as a sort of inverted bowl upon it—that is to say, he takes them to be what they look. In a similar manner C—— took the sun to be a great disk which could be put on the round globe to make seesaw. Heaven is localized agreeably to what has been said about the tendency to bring things as near as possible, just above the sky, which forms its floor. Some genuine thought-work is shown in the effort to adjust the various things seen and heard of respecting the celestial region into something like a connected whole. Thus the sky is apt to be thought of as thin, this idea being probably formed for the purpose of explaining the shining through of moon and stars. Stars are, as we know, commonly thought of by the child as holes in the sky letting through the light beyond. One Boston child ingeniously applied the idea of the thinness of the sky to explain the appearance of the moon when one half is bright and the other faintly illumined, supposing it to be halfway through the partially diaphanous floor. Others, again, prettily accounted for the waning of the moon to a crescent by saying it was half stuck or half buttoned into the sky.
As with the savage, so with the child, the heavenly bodies seem to be personified spontaneously, and quite independently of theological instruction. A little boy, two years and two months old, sitting on the floor one day in a great temper, looked up and saw the sun shining, and said angrily, "Sun not look at Hennie," and then, when he found this unavailing, "Please, sun, not look at poor Hennie." Many children seem quite spontaneously to apperceive stars as eyes, and the moon of course as a human face.
The movements of the sun and other heavenly bodies are similarly apperceived by the help of ideas of movements of familiar terrestrial objects. Thus the sun was thought by the Boston children half mythologically, half mechanically, to roll, to fly, to be blown (like a soap bubble or balloon), and so forth. The anthropocentric form of teleological explanation is apt to creep in, as when a Boston child said charmingly that the moon comes round when people forget to light some lamps. Theological ideas, too, are pressed into this sphere of explanation, as when the disappearance of the sun is variously attributed to God's pulling it up higher out of sight, to his taking it into heaven and putting it to bed, and so forth. These ideas are pretty obviously not those of a country child with a horizon. There is rather more of Nature-observation in the idea of another child that the sun after setting lies under the trees, where angels mind it. But I confess that many of these answers of the Boston children look to me more like attempts of vacuous minds to invent something smart on the spur of the moment than spontaneous growths pre-existing before the questioner appears on the scene.
The impressive phenomena of thunder and lightning give rise in the case of the child, as in that of the Nature-man, to some fine myth-making. The American children, as already observed, have different mechanical illustrations for setting forth the modus of the supernatural action here, thunder being thought of now as God groaning, now as his walking loud on the floor of heaven (cf. the old Norse idea that thunder is caused by the rolling of Thor's chariot), now as his hammering, now as his having coals run—in ideas which show how naïvely the child-mind envisages the Deity, making him a respectable citizen with a house and a coal cellar. In like manner the lightning is attributed to God's burning the gas quick, striking many matches at once, or other familiar human device for getting a brilliant light suddenly. So rain is let down by God from a cistern by a hose, or, better, through a sieve or a dipper with holes.
Throughout the whole region of mysterious unexplained and exceptional phenomena we have illustrations of the anthropocentric tendency to regard what takes place as designed for us poor mortals. The little girl of whom Mr. Canton writes thought "the wind and the rain and the moon 'walking' came out to see her, and the flowers wake up with the same laudable object." When frightened by the crash of the thunder a child instinctively thinks that it is all done to vex his little soul. One of the funniest examples of the application of this idea I have met with is in the Worcester collection. Two children, D—— and K——, aged ten and five respectively, live in a small American town. D——, who is reading about an earthquake, addresses his mother thus: "Oh, isn't it dreadful, mamma? Do you suppose we will ever have one here?" K—— (intervening), with the characteristic impulse of the young child to correct its elders, "Why, no, D, they don't have earthquakes in little towns like this." There is much to unravel in this delightful childish observation. It looks, to my mind, as if the earthquake were envisaged by the little five-year old as a show, God being presumably the traveling showman, who takes care to display his fearful wonders only where there is an adequate body of spectators.
Finally, the same impulse to understand the new and strange by assimilating it to the familiar is, so far as I can gather, seen in children's first ideas about those puzzling semblances of visible objects which are due to subjective sensations. To judge from C——'s case, the bright spectra or after-images caused by looking at the sun are instinctively objective—that is, regarded as things external to his body. Here is a pretty full account of a child's thought about these subjective optical phenomena: A little boy of five years, in rather poor health at the time, "constantly imagined he saw angels, and said they were not white, that was a mistake, they were little colored things, light and beautiful, and they went into the toy basket and played with his toys." Here we have not only objectifying but myth-building. A year later he re turned to the subject. "He stood at the window at B——, looking out at a sea mist thoughtfully, and said suddenly: 'Mamma, do you remember I told you that I had seen angels? Well, I want now to say they were not angels, though I thought they were. I have seen it often lately, I see it now: it is bright stars, small bright stars moving by. I see it in the mist before that tree. I see it oftenest in the misty days. . . . Perhaps by and by I shall think it is something in my own eyes." Here we see a long and painstaking attempt of a child's brain to read a meaning into the "flying spots" which many of us know, though we hardly give them a moment's attention.
What are children's first thoughts about their dreams like? I have not been able to collect much evidence on this head. What seems certain is that to the naïve intelligence of the child these counterfeits of ordinary sense-presentations are real external things. The crudest manifestation of this thought-tendency is seen in taking the dream apparition to be actually present in the bedroom. A boy in an elementary school in London, aged five years, said one day, "Teacher, I saw an old woman one night against my bed." Another child, a little girl, in the same school, told her mother that she had seen a funeral last night, and on being asked "Where?" answered quaintly, "I saw it in my pillow." A little boy, whom I know, once asked his mother not to put him to bed in a certain room "because there were so many dreams in the room." In thus materializing the dream and localizing it in the actual surroundings, the child but reflects the early thought of the race which starts from the supposition that the man or animal which appears in a dream actually approaches the sleeper.
The Nature-man, as we know from Prof. Tylor's researches, goes on to explain dreams by his theory of souls or "doubles" ("animism"). Children do not often find their way to so subtle a line of thought. Much more commonly they pass from the first stage of naive acceptance of objects as present here and now to the identification of dreamland with fairyland or the other and invisible world. There is little doubt that the imaginative child firmly believes in the existence of this invisible world, keeps it carefully apart from this one, even though at times he may give it a definite locality in this e. g., in C—— 's case, in the wall of his bedroom. He gets access to it by shutting out the real world, as when he closes his eyes tightly and "thinks." With such a child dreams get taken up into the invisible world. Going to sleep is now recognized as the surest way of passing into this region. The varying color of his dreams, now bright and dazzling in their beauty, now black and terrifying, is explained by a reference to the division of that fairy world into princes and good fairies, on the one hand, and cruel giants, witches, and the like, on the other hand.
We may now pass to some of children's characteristic ideas about living things, more particularly human beings and the familiar domestic animals. The most interesting of these, I think, are those respecting growth and birth.
As already mentioned, growth is one of the most stimulating of childish puzzles. A child finds that things are in general made bigger by additions from without, and his earliest conception of growth is, I think, that of such addition. Thus plants are made to grow—that is, swell out—by the rain. The idea that the growth or expansion of animals comes from eating is easily reached by the childish intelligence, and, as we know, nurses and parents have a way of recommending the less attractive sorts of diet by telling children that they will make them grow. The idea that the sun makes us grow, often suggested by parents (who may be ignorant of the fact that growth is more rapid in the summer than in the winter), is probably interpreted by the analogy of an infusion of something into the body.
In carrying out my inquiries into this region of childish ideas I lighted quite unexpectedly on the queer notion that toward the end of life there is a reverse process of shrinkage. Old people are supposed to become little again. The first instance of this was supplied me by the Worcester collections of Thoughts. A little girl of three once said to her mother, "When I am a big girl, and you are a little girl, I shall whip you just as you whipped me now." At first one is almost disposed to think that this child must have heard of Mr. Anstey's amusing story Vice Versa. Yet this idea seems too improbable, and I have since found that she is not by any means the only one who has entertained this idea. A little boy that I know, whan about three years and a half old, used often to say to his mother with perfect seriousness of manner, "When I am big then you will be little; then I will carry you about and dress you and put you to sleep."
I happened to mention this fact at a meeting of mothers and teachers, when I received further evidence of this tendency of child-thought. One lady whom I know could recollect quite clearly that when a little girl she was promised by her aunt some valuables—trinkets, I fancy—when she grew up, and that she at once turned to her aunt and promised her that she would then give her in exchange all her dolls, as by that time she (the aunt) would be a little girl. Another case narrated was that of a little girl of three years and a half who, when her elder brother and sister spoke to her about her getting big, rejoined, "What will you do when you are little? "A third case mentioned was that of a child asking about some old person of her acquaintance, "When will she begin to get small?" I have since obtained corroboratory instances from parents and teachers of infant classes.
Here we seem to have to do with a pure product of the childish brain. What does it mean? By what quaint zigzag movement of child-thought, by the use of what far-fetched analogy, was the idea excogitated? I can not learn that there is any idea like it in primitive folklore. This at once suggests that it is the result of the activity of the little brain as employed in deciphering the words of older people. It has been suggested to me that the playful way a nurse will sometimes adopt of speaking to the child when she wants it to do something—e. g., "When I'm a little girl I shall be good and not mess my clothes"—may be taken literally by the serious mind of the child. I do not, however, think that this will account for the frequency of the phenomenon. It seems probable that other processes of childish interpretation assist. Children often hear old people talked about as weak and silly. Now, if there is one proposition of which the child is sure it is that grown people are always able to do things and awfully knowing. C——'s belief in the preternatural calculating powers of Goliath shows how strongly the child-mind associates size and intelligence. Consequently, it is a shock to a child to overhear his mother talking about grown people as stupid, just as it is a shock to him to hear her characterizing them as bad or wicked. The creed of infancy is that all such defects will disappear with completion of growth. Hence it may be that children who are in the way of hearing old people spoken of as losing power and intelligence carry over the thought of littleness, and imagine that they must be getting small again. This tendency would, of course, be greatly strengthened if the child happened to hear an old person talked about as getting childish or passing into second childhood. Indeed, I am disposed to think, from the frequency of the appearance of the belief, that this reference to the childish condition of old age is probably always co-operant in bringing the tendency to the definiteness of a theory of senility. However the idea arises, it is a curious and striking illustration of the fact that with all our attempts to supply the young brain with our own ideas, it manages to substitute a good many new and thoroughly original ones.
The origin of babies and young animals furnishes, as we know, the child's brain with much food for speculation. Here the little thinker is not often left to excogitate a theory for himself. His inconvenient questionings in this direction have to be firmly checked, and various and truly wonderful are the ways in which the nurse and the mother are wont to do this. Any fiction is supposed to be good enough for the purpose. Divine action is commonly called in, the questioner being told that the baby has been sent down from heaven in the arms of an angel, etc. Fairy stories with their pretty conceits, as that of the child Thumbkin growing out of a flower, in Andersen's book, contribute their suggestions, and so there arises a mass of child lore about babies in which we can see that the main ideas are supplied by others, though now and then we catch a glimpse of the child's own contributions. Thus, according to Dr. Stanley Hall's report, the Boston children said, among other things, that God makes babies in heaven, lets them down or drops them for the women and doctors to catch them, or that he brings them down a wooden ladder backward and pulls it up again, or that mamma and nurse or doctor goes up and fetches them in a balloon. They are said by some to grow in cabbages, or to be placed by God in water, perhaps in the sewer, where they are found by the doctor, who takes them to sick folks that want them. Here we have delicious touches of child fancy, quaint adaptations of fairy and Bible lore, as in the use of Jacob's ladder and of the legend of Moses placed among the bulrushes, this last being enriched by a thorough master stroke of child genius—the idea of the dark, mysterious, wonder-producing sewer. In spite, too, of all that others do to impress the traditional notions of the nursery here, we find that a child will now and again think out the whole subject for himself. The little boy C—— is not the only one, I find, who is of the opinion that babies are got at a shop. Another little boy, I am informed, once asked his mamma, in the abrupt, childish manner, "Mamma, vere did Tommy (his one name) tum (come) from?" and then, with the equally childish way of sparing you the trouble of answering his question, himself answered it quite to his own satisfaction, "Mamma did tie (buy) Tommy in a s'op (shop)." This looks like a real childish idea. To the young imagination the shop is a veritable wonderland, an El Dorado of valuables; and it appears quite reasonable to the childish intelligence that babies, like dolls and other treasures, should be procurable there. The ideas, partly communicated by others, partly thought out for themselves, are carried over into the beginnings of animal life. Thus, as we have seen, one little boy supposed that God "helps pussy to have 'ickle kitties, seeing that she hasn't any kitties in eggs given her to sit upon."