Popular Science Monthly/Volume 47/May 1895/Studies of Childhood VIII

1228627Popular Science Monthly Volume 47 May 1895 — Studies of Childhood VIII1895James Sully




MAY, 1895.





IN passing from a study of children's ideas to an investigation of their feelings we seem to encounter quite a new kind of problem. A child has the germs of ideas long before he can give them clear articulate expression; and, as we have seen, he has at first to tax his ingenuity in order to convey by intelligible signs the thoughts which arise in his mind. For the manifestation of his feelings of pleasure and pain, on the other hand, Nature has endowed him with adequate expression. The states of infantile discontent and content, misery and gladness, pronounce themselves with a clearness, with an emphasis, which leave no room for misunderstanding.

This full, frank manifestation of feeling holds good more especially of those states of bodily comfort and discomfort which make up the first rude experiences of life. It is necessary for the child's preservation that he should be able to announce by clear signals the oncoming of his cravings and of his sufferings, and we all know how well Nature has provided for this necessity. Hence the facility with which infant psychology has dealt with this first chapter of the life of feeling. Preyer, for example, gives a full and almost exhaustive epitome of the various shades of infantile pleasure and pain growing out of this life of sense and appetite, and has carefully described their physiological accompaniments and their signatures.[1]

When we pass from these elementary forms of pleasure and pain to the rudiments of emotion proper—as the miseries of fear, the sorrows and joys of the affections—we have still, no doubt, to do with a mode of manifestation which, on the whole, is direct and unreserved to a gratifying extent. A child of three is delightfully incapable of the skillful repressions and the yet more skillful simulations of emotion which are easy to the adult. Yet, frank and transparent as is the first instinctive utterance of feeling, it is apt to get checked at an early date, giving place to a certain reserve. So that, as we know from published reminiscences of childhood, a child of six will have learned to hide some of his deepest feelings from unsympathetic eyes.

This shyness of the young heart, face to face with old and strange ways of feeling, exposed to ridicule if not to something worse, makes the problem of registering its pulsations of emotion more difficult than it at first seems. As a matter of fact, we are still far from knowing the precise range and depth of children's feelings. This is seen plainly enough in the quite opposite views which are entertained of childish sensibility, some describing it as restricted and obtuse, others as morbidly excessive. Such diversity of view may, no doubt, arise from differences in the fields of observation, since, as we know, children differ hardly less than adults, perhaps, in breadth and fineness of emotional susceptibility. Yet I think that such contrariety of view points further to the conclusion that we are still far from sounding with finely measuring scientific apparatus the currents of childish emotion.

It seems, then, to be worth while to look further into the matter in the hope of gaining a deeper and fuller insight; and as a step in this direction I propose to inquire into the various forms and the causes of one of the best-marked and most characteristic of children's feelings—namely, fear.

That fear is one of the characteristic feelings of the child needs no proving. It seems to belong to these wee, weakly things, brought face to face with a new, strange world, to tremble. They are naturally timid, as all that is weak and ignorant in Nature is apt to be timid.

I have said that fear is well marked in the child. Yet, though it is true that fully developed fear or terror shows itself by unmistakable signs, there are many cases where it is difficult to say whether the child is the subject of fear. Thus the reflex movement of a start on hearing a sound does not amount to fear, though it is akin to fear.[2] Again, a child may show a sort of aesthetic dislike for an ugly form or sound, turning away in evident aversion, and yet not be afraid in the full sense. Fear proper betrays itself in the stare, the grave look, and in such movements as turning away and hiding the face against the nurse's or mother's shoulder. In severer forms it leads to trembling and to wild shrieking. Changes of color also occur. It is commonly said that great fear produces paleness; but, according to one of my correspondents, a child may show fear by his face turning scarlet. Fear, if not very intense, leads to voluntary movements—as turning away, putting the object away, or going away. In its more violent forms, however, it paralyzes the child. It is desirable that parents should carefully observe and describe the first signs of fear in their children.

It may be well to begin our study of fear by a reference to startling effects. As is well known, sudden and loud sounds, as that of a door banging, will give a shock to an infant in the first weeks of life, which, though not amounting to fear, is its progenitor. A clearer manifestation occurs when a new and unfamiliar sound calls forth the grave look, the trembling lip, and possibly the fit of crying. Darwin gives an excellent example of this. He had, he tells us, been accustomed to make all sorts of sudden noises with his boy, aged four months and a half, which were well received; but one day, having introduced a new sound—that of a loud snoring—he found that the child was quite upset, bursting out into a fit of crying.[3]

As this incident suggests, it is not every new sound which is thus disconcerting to the little stranger. Sudden sharp sounds seem to be especially disliked, as those of a dog's bark. Loud and voluminous sounds, too, have a terrifying effect. The big noise of a factory, of a steamship, of a passing train, are among the causes alleged by my correspondents of this early startling and terrifying effect. My little girl when taken into the country at the age of nine months, though she liked the animals she saw on the whole, showed signs of fear on hearing the bleating of the sheep, by seeking shelter against the nurse's shoulder. So strong is this effect of suddenness and volume of sound that even musical sounds often excite some alarm at first. "He (a boy of four months) cried when he first heard the piano," writes one lady, and this is but a sample of many observations. A child of five months and a half showed such a horror of a banjo that it would scream if it were played or only touched. Preyer's boy, at sixteen months, was apparently alarmed when his father, in order to entertain him, produced a pure musical tone by rubbing a drinking-glass. He remarks that this same sound had been produced when the child was four months old without any ill effects.[4]

This last fact suggests that such shrinkings from sound may be developed at a comparatively late date. This idea is supported by other observations. "From about two years four months (writes a mother) to the present time (two years and eleven months) he has shown signs of fear of music. At two years five months he liked some singing of rounds, but when a fresh person with a stronger voice than the rest joined, he begged the singer to stop. Presently he tolerated the singing as long as he might stand at the farthest corner of the room." This child was also about the same time afraid of the piano, and of the organ, when played by his mother in a church.

It is sometimes supposed that this startling effect of loud sounds is wholly an affair of nervous disturbance.[5] But the late development of the repugnance in certain cases seems to show that this is not the only cause at work. Of course, a child's nervous organization may, through ill health, become more sensitive to this disturbing effect. But I suspect that vague alarm at the unexpected and unknown takes part here. There is something uncanny to the child in the very production of sound from a usually silent thing. A banjo lying now inert, harmless, and then suddenly firing out a whole gamut of sound may well shock a small child's preconceptions of things. The second time that fear was observed in our child at the age of ten months it was excited by a new toy which squeaked on being pressed.[6] This seems to be another example of the disconcerting effect of the unexpected. In other cases the alarming effect of the mystery is increased by the absence of all visible cause. One little boy of two years used to get sadly frightened at the sound of the water rushing into the cistern which was near his nursery. The child was afraid at the same time of thunder, calling it "water coming."

I am far from saying that all children manifest this fear of sounds-Miss Shinn points out that her niece was from the first pleased with the piano, and this is no doubt true of many children. Children behave very differently toward thunder, some being greatly disturbed by it, others being rather delighted. Thus Preyer's boy, who was so ignominiously upset by the tone of the drinking-glass, laughed at the thunderstorm; and we know that the little Walter Scott was once found during a thunderstorm lying on his back in the open air clapping his hands and shouting "Bonnie, bonnie!" at the flashes of lightning. It is possible that in such cases the exhilarating effect of the brightness counteracts the uncanny effect of the thunder. More observations are needed on this point.

A complete explanation of these early vague alarms of the ear may as yet not be possible. Children show in the matter of sound capricious repugnances which it is exceedingly difficult to account for. They seem sometimes to have their pet aversions like older folk. But I think a general explanation is possible.

To begin with, then, it is probable that in many of these cases, especially those occurring in the first six months, we have to do with an organic phenomenon, with a sort of jar to the nervous system. To understand this we have to remember that the ear is, in the case of man at least, the sense-organ through which the nervous system is most powerfully and profoundly acted on. Sounds seem to go through us, to pierce us, to shake us, to pound and crush us. A child of four or six months has a nervous organization still weak and unstable, and we should naturally expect loud sounds to produce a disturbing effect on it.

To this it is to be added that sounds have a way of taking us by surprise, of seeming to start out of nothing; and this aspect of them, as I have pointed out above, may well excite vague alarm in the small creatures to whom all that is new and exceptional is apt to seem uncanny. The fact that most children soon lose their fear by getting used to the sounds seems to show how much the new and the mysterious has to do with the effect.

Whether heredity plays any part here in the fear of the dog's barking and other sounds of animals seems to me exceedingly doubtful. This point will, however, come up for closer consideration presently, when we deal with children's fear of animals.

Before considering the manifold outgoings of fear produced by impressions of the eye, we may glance at another form of early disturbance which has some analogy with the shocklike effects of certain sounds. I refer here to the feeling of bodily insecurity which appears very early when the child is awkwardly carried, or let down back foremost, and later when it begins to walk. One child in her fifth month was observed, when carried, to hold on to the nurse's dress as if for safety. And it has been noticed by more than one observer that on dandling a baby up and down on one's arms, it will on descending—that is, when the support of the arms is being withdrawn—show signs of discontent in struggling movements.[7] Bell, Preyer, and others regard this as an instinctive form of fear. Such manifestations may, however, be merely the result of sudden and rude disturbances of the sense of bodily ease which attends the habitual condition of adequate support. A child accustomed to lie in a cradle, on the floor, or in somebody's lap, might be expected to be put out when the supporting mass is greatly reduced, as in bad carrying, or wholly removed, as in quickly lowering the child backward. The fear of falling, which shows itself on the child's first attempting to stand, comes, it must he remembered, as an accompaniment of a new and highly strange situation. The first experience of using the legs for support must, one supposes, involve a profound change in the child's whole bodily consciousness—a change which may well be accompanied with a sense of disturbance. Not only so, it comes after a considerable experience of partial failings, as in trying to turn over when lying, half climbing the sides of the cradle, etc., and still ruder bumpings when the crawling stage is reached. These would, I suspect, be quite sufficient to produce the timidity which is observable on making the bolder venture of standing.[8]

Fears excited by visual impressions come later than those excited by sounds. The reason of this seems pretty obvious. Visual sensations do not produce the strong effect of nervous shock which auditory ones produce. Let a person compare the violent and profound jar which he experiences on suddenly hearing a loud sound with the slight surface agitation produced by a sudden movement of an object across the field of vision. The latter has less of the effect of nervous jar and more of the characteristics of fear proper—that is, vague apprehension of evil. We should accordingly expect that eye-fears would only begin to show themselves in the child after experience had begun its educative work.[9]

At the outset it is well, as in the case of ear-fear, to keep before us the distinction between mere dislike to a sensation and a true reaction of fear. We shall find that children's quasi-aesthetic dislikes to certain colors may readily simulate the appearance of fears.

Among the earliest manifestations of fear excited by visual impressions we have those called forth by the presentation of something new and strange, especially when it involves a rupture of customary arrangement. Although children love and delight in what is new, their disposition to fear is apt to give to new and strange objects a disquieting if not distinctly alarming character. This apprehension shows itself as soon as the child has begun to be used or accustomed to a particular state of things.

Among the more disconcerting effects of the ruder departure from the customary we have that of change of place. At first the infant betrays no sign of disturbance on being carried into a new room. But when once it has grown accustomed to certain rooms it will feel a new room to be strange, and eye its features with a perceptibly anxious look. My little girl at the age of seven months and a third gave unmistakable signs of such vague apprehension on changing her abode—a change which involved that of human surroundings also. She looked about her half wonderingly, half timidly, struck by the strangeness of the scenery, of the faces, and of the voices. Later, when experience and imagination are added, a child will show a still more marked shrinking from strange rooms. Thus a boy retained up to the age of three years and eight months the fear of being left alone in strange hotels or lodgings. Yet entrance on a strange abode does not by any means always excite this reaction. A child may have his curiosity excited, or may be amused by the odd look of things. Thus one boy, on being taken at the age of fifteen months to a fresh house and given a small plain room, looked round and laughed at the odd carpet. Children even of the same age appear in such circumstances to vary greatly with respect to the relative strength of the impulses of fear and curiosity.

How different children's mental attitude may be toward the new and unfamiliar is illustrated by some notes on a boy sent me by his mother. This child, "though hardly ever afraid of strange people or places, was very much frightened as a baby of familiar things seen after an interval." Thus "at ten months he was excessively frightened on returning to his nursery after a month's absence. On this occasion he screamed violently if his nurse left his side for a moment for some hours after he got home, whereas he had not in the least objected to being installed in a strange nursery." The mother adds that "at thirteen months, his memory having grown stronger, he was very much pleased at coming to his home after being away a fortnight." This case looks puzzling enough at first and seems to contradict the laws of infant psychology. Perhaps the child's partial recognition was accompanied by a sense of the uncanny, like that which we experience when a place seems familiar to us, though we have no clear recollection of having seen it before.

What applies to places applies also to persons; a sudden change of customary human surroundings by the arrival of a stranger on the scene is apt to trouble the child.

At first all faces seem alike to the child. Later, unfamiliar faces excite something like a grave inquisitorial scrutiny. Yet for the first three months there is no distinct manifestation of fear of strangers. It is only later, when attachment to human belongings has been developed, that the intrusion of strangers, and especially the proposal of a stranger to take the child, calls forth clear signs of displeasure and the shrinking away of fear. Preyer gives the sixth and seventh month as the date at which his boy began to cry at the sight of a strange face. In one set of notes sent me it was remarked that a child four months and a half old would cry on being nursed by a stranger. To be nursed by a stranger, however, is to have the whole baby world revolutionized: little wonder, then, that it should bring the feeling of strangeness and homelessness (unheimlichkeit).

Here, too, curious differences soon begin to disclose themselves, some children being decidedly more sociable toward strangers than others. It would be curious to compare the age at which children begin to take kindly to strangers. Preyer gives nineteen months as the date at which his boy surmounted his timidity; but it is probable that the transition occurs at very different dates in the case of different children.

I should like to add that the little boy to whom I referred just now displayed the same signs of uneasiness at seeing old friends after an interval, as at returning to old scenes. When eight months old "he moaned in a curious way when his nurse (of whom he was very fond) came home after a fortnight's holiday." Here, however, the signs of fear seem to be less pronounced than in the case of returning to the old room. It would be difficult to give the right name to this curious moan.

Partial alteration of the surroundings frequently brings about a measure of this same mental uneasiness. C——'s disturbance at the age of twelve weeks at finding his mother in a new dress is paralleled by the apprehensions of Preyer's boy when one year and five months old on seeing his mother in a black dress. The second observation, read in the light of the first, seems to suggest that a change from the customary rather than anything appalling looking in the black color itself was here the source of the boy's trouble.[10] This is borne out by another observation sent me. A child manifested between the ages of six or eight months and two years and a half the most marked repugnance to new clothes, so that the authorities found it very difficult to get them on. It is presumable that the donning of new apparel disturbed too rudely the child's sense of his proper self, and begot an uncanny feeling of another put in place of the old familiar child.

In certain cases the introduction of new natural objects of great extent and impressiveness will produce a similar effect of childish anxiety, as though they made too violent a change in the surroundings. One of the best illustrations of this obtainable from the life of an average well-to-do child is the impression produced by a first visit to the sea. Preyer's boy, at the age of twenty-one months, showed all the signs of fear when his nurse carried him on her arm close to the sea.[11] The boy C——, on being first taken near the sea at the age of two, was disturbed by its noise. While, however, I have a number of well-authenticated cases of such an instinctive repugnance to and something like dread of the sea, I find that there is by no means uniformity in children's behavior in this particular. A little boy who first saw the sea at the age of thirteen months, exhibited signs not of fear but of wondering delight, prettily stretching out his tiny hands toward it as if wanting to go to it. Another child, who also first saw the sea at the age of thirteen months, began to crawl toward the waves. And yet another boy at the age of twenty-one months, on first seeing the sea, spread his arms as if to embrace it.

These observations show that the strange big thing affects children very differently. C—— had a particular dislike to noises, which was, I think, early strengthened by finding out that his father had the same prejudice. Hence, perhaps, his hostile attitude toward the sea.

Probably, too, imaginative children, whose minds take in something of the bigness of the sea, will be more disposed to this variety of fear. A mother writes me that her elder child, an imaginative girl, has not, even now at the age of six, got over her fear of going into the sea; whereas her sister, fifteen months younger and not of an imaginative temperament, is perfectly fearless. She adds that it is the bigness of the sea which evidently impresses the imagination of the elder.

Imaginative children, too, are apt to give life and purpose to the big, moving, noisy thing. This is illustrated in M. Pierre Loti's graphic account of his first childish impressions of the sea, seen one evening in the twilight. "It was of a dark, almost black-green; it seemed restless, treacherous, ready to swallow; it was stirring and swaying everywhere at the same time, with the look of sinister wickedness."Le Roman d'un Enfant.

There seems enough in the vast waste of unresting waters to excite the imagination of a child to awe and terror. Hence it is needless to follow M. Loti in his speculations as to an inherited fear of the sea. He seems to base this supposition on the fact that at this first view he distinctly recognized the sea. But such recognition may have meant merely the objective realization of what had, no doubt, been before pretty fully described by his mother and aunt, and imaginatively pictured by himself.

The opposite attitude—that of the thoroughly unimaginative child—in presence of the sea is well illustrated by the story of the little girl, aged two, who, on being first taken to see the watery wonder, exclaimed, "mamma, look at the soapy water!" The awful mystery of all the stretch of ever-moving water was invisible to the child, being hidden behind the familiar detail of the "soapy" edge.

There is probably nothing in the natural world which makes on the childish imagination quite so awful an impression as the watery leviathan. Perhaps the fear which one of my correspondents tells me was excited in her when a child by the sudden appearance of a mountain may be akin to this dread of the sea.

We may now pass to another group of fear-excitants—the appearance of certain strange forms and movements of objects.

The close connection between æsthetic dislike and fear is seen in the well-marked recoil of a child of thirteen months at the sight of an ugly doll. The said doll is described as a black doll with woolly head, startled eyes, and red lips. Such an ogre of a doll might well call up a tremor in the bravest of children.

In another case, that of a little boy of two years and two months, the broken face of a doll proved to be highly disconcerting. The mother describes the effect as a mixture of fear, distress, and intellectual wonder. Nor did his anxiety depart when, some hours later, the doll, after sleeping in his mother's room, reappeared with a new face.

In such cases, it seems plain, it is the ugly transformation of something familiar and agreeable which excites the feeling of nervous apprehension. Making grimaces—that is, the spoiling of the typical familiar face—may disturb a child even at the early age of two months.[12] Such transformations are, moreover, not only ugly but bewildering, and where all is mysterious and uncanny the child is apt to fear.

Children, like animals, will sometimes show fear at the sight of what seem to us quite harmless objects. A shying horse is a puzzle to his rider, his terrors are so unpredictable. Similarly in the case of a timid child, almost anything unfamiliar and out of the way, whether in the color, the form, or the movement of an object, may provoke a measure of anxiety. Thus a little girl aged one year and ten months showed during a drive signs of fear at a row of gray ash trees placed along the road. This was just the kind of thing that a horse might be expected to shy at.

As with animals, so with children, any seemingly uncaused movement is apt to excite a feeling of alarm. Just as a dog will run away from a leaf whirled about by the wind, so children are apt to be terrified by the strange and quite irregular behavior of a feather as it glides along the floor or lifts itself into the air.[13]

In these cases we may suppose that we have to do with a germ of superstitious fear which seems commonly to have its starting point in the appearance of something exceptional and uncanny that is unintelligible, and so smacking of the supernatural. The fear of feathers as uncanny objects plays, I am told, a considerable part in the superstitions of folklore. Such apparently selfcaused movement, so suggestive of life, might easily give rise to a vague sense of a mysterious presence or power possessing the object, and so lead to a crude form of a belief in supernatural agents.

In other cases of unexpected and mysterious movement the fear is slightly different. A little boy, when a year and eleven months, was frightened when visiting a lady's house by a toy elephant which shook its head. The same child, writes his mother, "at one year and seven months was very much scared by a toy cow which mooed realistically when its head was moved. This cow was subsequently given to him at about two years and three months. He was then still afraid of it, but became reconciled soon after, first allowing others to make it moo if he was at a safe distance, and at last making it moo himself."

There may possibly have been a germ of the fear of animals here; but I suspect that it was mainly a fear of the signs of life (movement and sound) appearing when they are not expected and have an uncanny aspect. The close simulation of a living thing by what is known to be not alive is disturbing to the child as to the adult. He will make his toys alive by his own fancy, but resent their taking on the full semblance of reality. In this sense he is a born idealist and not a realist. More careful observations on this curious group of child-fears are to be desired.

Concerning an African idea of the origin of monkeys or chimpanzees, Mr. Herbert Ward relates a fable of the natives of Balangi and adjacent tribes of the upper Congo, to the effect that many generations ago a tribe of natives who lived on the banks of the Congo River, near Bolobo, fell into a condition of debt and difficulties with their neighbors. In order to escape the persecutions of their wrathful creditors, they retired into the great forest. Time passed, but they still remained poor. Forest life degenerated them. Flair grew upon their bodies. They arranged to forego speech, lest they should be recognized. They are still in the forest, and are known as Bakewa, or monkey men. Upon being asked if they ate chimpanzees, a member of the Balangi tribe replied: "No; we are not cannibals!"
  1. Op. cit., cap. 6 and 13.
  2. For an account of this reflex, see Preyer, op. cit, cap. 10, S. 176.
  3. Mind, vol. ii, p. 288.
  4. Op. cit., p. 131.
  5. This seems to be the view of Perez: The First Three Years of Childhood (English translation), p. 64.
  6. Observation of F. H. Charapneys. Mind, vol. vi, p. 106.
  7. See the quotation from Sir Charles Bell, Perez, First Three Years of Childhood, p. 63.
  8. Preyer seems to regard this as instinctive. Op. cit., p. 131.
  9. M. Perez (op. cit., p. 65) calls in the evolution hypothesis here, suggesting that the child, unlike the young animal, is so organized as to be more on the alert for dangers which are near at hand (auditory impressions) than for those at a distance (visual impressions). I confess, however, that I find this ingenious writer not quite convincing here.
  10. Op. cit., p. 181. Compare the alarming effect of the father's putting on a big hat, p. 117.
  11. Op. cit., p. 131.
  12. Quoted by Tracey, op. cit., p. 29. But this observation seems to me to need confirmation.
  13. See The Pedagogical Seminary, i, No. 2, p. 220.