Popular Science Monthly/Volume 83/November 1913/The Scientific Study of Child Development




THE public recognition that questions of development are different from questions of health has caused a constantly increasing demand for another type of expert than the physician. We may call him an expert in child development. When a parent stops to consider the matter he knows that neither the short boy nor the short-minded boy is primarily a sick boy. Moreover, if a child is persistently poor in mathematics, it is not because of ill health. Mathematics makes him sick, but in a different sense. He may lack the native interest necessary for a mental flight into the fourth dimension. When a mother discovers that her daughter can not play the piano, she does not take her to a doctor. She recognizes that it is a question of the absence of a capacity for music or of improper training. Which fault it is, she often can not tell.

The expert in judging development must understand, not only how the child is influenced by disease, but also how it is influenced in other and more fundamental ways by hereditary tendencies, environment and education. The attempt to specifically prepare such experts began some fifteen years ago with the establishment of the first psychological clinic. This work has now been taken up by half a dozen of the leading universities. Graduates, trained by their psychologists, are giving special service of this character in connection with the public schools, juvenile courts, bureaus for vocational guidance, special schools for exceptional children, schools for feeble minded, correctional and penal institutions. Besides improving the methods for diagnosing the individual child, scientific study is now rapidly increasing the data for deciding how large groups of children should be handled in school and out. This study of groups has been called to general attention most prominently by various investigations of laggards in the public schools. The most extensive of these is an elaborate report by Professor George D. Strayer, published by the U. S. Bureau of Education, which covers hundreds of cities scattered throughout the country. To understand what the scientific study of development stands for, it is necessary to consider both the researches which are directed at the study of groups of children and those which emphasize the prolonged study of particular children.

Practical people and school authorities everywhere are forcibly aroused when they learn, through the statistical studies, that our public educational system is based upon a theory of the pupil's progress in school which perhaps miscalculates by two years the success of the ordinary child in passing through the grades. According to the estimate of retardation made by Ayres, the average child in the country at large would not complete the eight grades in less than ten years. This means unmistakably that a decided change must be made either in the curriculum or the teaching if our schools are to become adapted to the abilities and needs of the average child.

Group studies are being made of many other sides of child life. A recreation survey of the city of Milwaukee, made by Mr. Rowland Haynes, a field secretary of the American Playground and Recreation Association, brings out, as do similar surveys elsewhere, many facts which bear upon the most dangerous part of the child's day, the play hours. With about 350,000 tickets sold weekly on the average to shows in Milwaukee, 60 per cent, are to moving picture shows and 21 per cent, to vaudeville houses. The public has not begun to realize the tremendous possibilities of the moving picture show for good and bad. Again, this report shows that, after allowing 300 children to play on every usable acre of public and private play space within three districts tested, half of the thousand children enumerated would have to play in streets or alleys or not play at all out of doors in those districts. Perhaps even more significant of a condition of child development is that for 1,400 children observed in these districts outside of school hours, half of them were neither working nor playing, but doing nothing. Idleness, mischief and bad development probably correlate closely in the child's make-up.

For those who can stand statistics or, perhaps I should say, understand them, the frequent enumerations of child welfare conditions have served to demonstrate the needs and dangers of childhood. We have learned of the tremendous unnecessary waste of life through infant mortality, which is the most important health problem of the day, because proper care will here save the most lives. Statistics have also shown the need for medical and dental treatment for school children. Lying back of these problems are still more fundamental biological problems of eugenics and euthenics. A whole school of statistical experts traces its origin and inspiration to the personality and work of the late Francis Galton, who established just before his death the Galton Laboratory of Eugenics in London. The work of these eugenic experts and the biometrists is making it clearer every day that the problem of the mental defective is mainly a problem of heredity.

There is a childish query which aptly puts the question of inheritance and environment. A little lad was gazing raptly at the stove when he suddenly burst forth with one of those inspirations of infants: "Oh, papa, suppose our cat had kittens in the oven, would they be kittens or biscuits?" Many biometrists would agree with papa that the oven is not so important as the old cat. The more this group of scientists studies mental defectives and bad boys the more evidence they disclose that to get good biscuits you must have good dough, that the dough out of which boys are made is more important than the "dough" spent in bringing them up.

Statistical inquiries will lay bare the great underlying causes at work in modifying human development. They are essential to estimating the relative importance of public questions which the community must settle, and they enable society to attack intelligently its most vital problems. On the other hand, when we come face to face with the question what shall we do with a particular child, statistics are often woefully dumb. We may know that a town is seriously affected by its unrestrained temptations to strong drink, and yet the particular boy we are interested in may not be at all influenced by this temptation. We may know that a hundred women successively admitted to the reformatory at Elmira, N. Y., were all feebleminded, as was recently discovered, and yet this does not settle the question whether or not the girl we have before us is weakminded. The statistical cross-section studies of groups must be supplemented by prolonged studies of the same individuals before we shall be able to scientifically apply our knowledge to particular cases.

It is because the now well-known method of measurement devised by Professors Binet and Simon, of Paris, is of importance in diagnosing the mental development of a particular child that it has given so much impetus to the study of childhood. When one reads the literature on the subject it is easy to get the impression that the diagnosis of mental age begins and ends with the Binet tests. This is one of those popular mistakes which is very disquieting to the scientists. Ever since the first psychological laboratory was established in Leipzig in 1879, a large part of the work in this science has borne directly or indirectly upon the problem of mental measurement. The attempt of an inexperienced person to measure intelligence or to use the Binet scale without some knowledge of this twenty years of investigation along similar lines is likely to be more or less of a farce. Even the studies that have been made the past five years of the Binet tests alone would fill a goodsized volume. There are at least half a dozen materially different English translations and adaptations of these tests. In this situation a parent had better trust the opinion of the school teacher as to his child's mental development, than to depend upon a diagnosis by the Binet scale which is made by a person inexperienced in psychology and in the use of laboratory tests. A properly trained expert, however, can diagnose a child's mental age within a year, and thus provide an important check upon the opinion of his school teacher.

Perhaps I can illustrate the reliability and value of these mental examinations of children by telling a joke on myself. In a paper read at the State Conference of Charities and Correction, I cited an example of the examination by a student of mine of twenty boys at the Minneapolis Juvenile Detention Home. I stated that among these twenty there was only one boy who was normal mentally and in the proper grade at school for his mental development. Later, in going over these examinations again, I noted a fact, which had escaped me before, that among these twenty boys reported was the son of the superintendent of the home. "What was my surprise to find that it was he who was normal and in his proper school grade. The examinations had indirectly singled out the only boy on the farm who was not a juvenile delinquent, as well as brought out the irregular mental and scholastic development of delinquents.

The most important part of a diagnosis of development is, of course, not the question what stage has this child reached now; but what accounts for his retardation, if he is retarded, and what improvement may we expect in the future if his physical or environmental handicaps are corrected and he is given proper training from this time forth. So far as this prognosis is concerned its value to-day depends largely upon the experience and judgment of the person making the prediction. We are only beginning to gather and record these data for prognosis and it will be years before we can make predictions with the scientific precision that is to be desired. A beginning, however, has been made. We know that if a child stands still in his mental development for a year after receiving the best medical treatment and under expert training then we may be reasonably sure that all except the simplest school training is virtually wasted. We should have a case of arrested development resembling the case of Abbie described by Dr. Goddard. Abbie came to the N'ew Jersey Training School when she was eleven years old with a mental development that was about that of a seven-year-old child, as nearly as can now be judged. After receiving expert training and treatment for ten years she was examined and found still to have a seven-year-old mind. The ten years thrown away in trying to teach Abbie to read and cipher might have been much better spent in improving her work in those employments suitable for a seven-year-old child, and then allowing her to occupy herself with them under proper guidance. If the seriously deficient child is to be permanently isolated from society, as has been suggested by experts in eugenics, the public would undoubtedly be better satisfied to have the final disposition of these cases postponed until after a year or more of special training following the diagnosis. This suggestion has been made by Dr. H. D. Newkirk, director of the juvenile-court clinic in Minneapolis, and it merits careful consideration by those formulating our laws.

In rare cases, on the other hand, we find that the mentality is in advance of the child's school attainment. I have in mind one boy whom we examined in our clinic who was brought to us by one of the probation officers from the juvenile court. He had attended one school after another, jumping about from parochial to public school and back again with no assistance at his home and general neglect on the part of his incapable parents. We found him to be nine years old intellectually and yet he was not succeeding in first grade work. He was thus retarded at least two years in school attainment. In thirty hours of expert training, after he had been properly fitted with glasses, he was taught to read in the Second Reader, although he could not read in the First Reader when the training began. A decided deficiency in mathematics or reading has thus been overcome occasionally by special training.

In one system of schools in the east, examined by Dr. H. H. Goddard, about one out of five pupils who were retarded in school attainment were shown by mental examinations to be at least a grade behind the grades most frequently reached by pupils of their mental development. Some of these were undoubtedly kept back because they had started school after they were seven years of age or had been long absent. We should hardly expect a fifth of the scholastic retardation to be corrected by brief expert training, and yet how much might thus be alleviated we do not know. It is one of the most important questions that has been raised by these tests for ability.

The measurement of the intellect, such as is accomplished by the Binet scale, should not be overemphasized. It is only one of the ways in which the study of individuals has of late been undertaken. The Vocational Bureau at Boston and vocational tests in Cincinnati have opened a large field. The child welfare work makes another demand. In mentioning the recent impulses to child study, which seem to be thrilling the social body, we should not slight what promises to give the greatest inspiration to this movement, I mean the work of Maria Montessori. Dr. Montessori has rediscovered the golden rule of scientific education, observe how the child develops. Instead of inviting a healthy young fledgling to ride in his teacher's air-ship, she would let him try his own wings under guidance of a mother bird.

The moral development of the child has been most recently brought under scientific observation in connection with the clinics established at several of the juvenile courts. Dr. William Healy organized the first of these about four years ago in Chicago. Several such clinics are now accumulating most interesting data. We have found in Minneapolis, through a survey of about 300 boys and 100 girls consecutively found delinquent in our juvenile court, that the most prominent measurable difference between these delinquents and the ordinary school children is apparently their retardation in school and in mental development. Seven out of ten of the offenders among the boys and nine out of ten among the girls were lagging a year or more behind the average position attained by those of their ages in school. This frequency of retardation in the delinquent groups is three and four times as great as among Minneapolis school children generally. When the average amount of retardation in school is considered it is found to be nine times as great among the delinquent boys and twenty times as great among the girls as among school boys and girls generally in the city. In intellectual development the indication is that over half of the repeaters and those sent to the detention home or state training schools are a year or more backward, while about twenty per cent, are three years or more retarded mentally.

Another serious condition which our study has disclosed is that nearly half of the girls who get into the juvenile court and half of the boys at the detention home are living with one parent or with neither. In other words, half of these more serious offenders and half of the delinquent girls come from homes which have been broken up by death, desertion or divorce.

Any child will be handicapped by disease, physical defects, bad training, or unsympathetic and improper environment at home, in school or at play. The removal of these handicaps, however, does not at once convert a youthful offender into an intelligent and upright citizen, when he has been subject for years to these baneful influences. This is a lesson which the difficulty of reforming character always drives home. To make a good boy or girl requires more than restoring his health and giving him some money to spend. He must be taught how to use his strength and his resources. This is a vastly more difficult problem than curing a disease. How difficult this training problem is may be indicated by telling you the story of one of the boys we have studied in our juvenile court work.

There is to-day nothing very bad about this boy, Harold, either as to his health or his mental ability, and yet his history shows a collection of physical handicaps which he carried from infancy. One of these disabilities of health made it impossible to send him to school until he was nine years of age. A year after that he had adenoids removed which had also been troubling him for years. Another ailment, with which he had suffered nobody knows how long and which would have kept him in a highly nervous state so long as it lasted, was discovered and corrected since the first of the year. Last December, when he was examined, he had the mentality of a child about two years younger than himself, although he had then been improving noticeably. Since the removal of his last physical handicap I have examined him again and he is to-day about normal in his mental ability, having apparently advanced almost two years in type of intellectual activity in less than a year, largely because relieved of these physical drains on his vitality. The physical defects, we may say, are to-day practically corrected and he is quite a healthy boy. But the result of all these past handicaps has been serious for Harold and he has carried over to his present age of twelve years the childish propensities and childish lack of control which he acquired during those long years of childish mental existence, while he was associating with boys much younger than himself and amusing himself almost like a child in the kindergarten. One of these childish impulses, while it was little more than mischievous, has become so firmly established that society must be protected from the boy until he can learn to correct it and control himself. His particular passion is for horses. When the whim strikes him to take a ride, all of the restraints which his parents, his teachers, the probation officers, the court and a term at the detention home are able to pile up for him have apparently so little effect that he will not think twice before driving off the nearest and most convenient horse in his vicinity. Longer training at the detention home, which all desired, he has made impossible by running away almost as quickly as he is taken there, another manifestation of his childish lack of control. Five times he has come to his home in Minneapolis, 15 miles away, in spite of the warning that boys were sent to the State Training School for this. On the last of these visits at home he went to a neighbor's barn, harnessed up the horse and drove off with another boy for an evening's ride. After this lark they returned the animal unharmed to the stable. Having repeatedly tried and finally exhausted the entire list of milder forms of restraint, it was necessary for the good of the boy and the protection of delivery wagons to see what the more severe discipline of some months of life at the State Training School would do to break up this childish habit which has been carried over into youth, to teach the boy the self-control that must belong to young men and which he would probably have normally attained had he not been handicapped by the ill health which kept him for years in the stage of early childhood.

Harold was trained under favorable conditions at home and in school. There is an excellent prospect for him to turn out well; but how much more difficult is the problem when the home is a nest of filth and corruption, as it sometimes is. The probation officers have discovered homes of delinquents where literally the pigs are brought up in the parlor; others where children do not know what it is to sit down to a table for their meals, but walk about helping themselves to the family bowl of mush or loaf of bread. Worse than this are the examples of theft and vileness set by others in the house or neighborhood. Fortunately, very bad conditions are rare; but they are frequent enough to make the need for assistance vastly greater than the supply. With many of us who were born in the west the joy of pioneering still continues. In this work of training retarded children and youthful offenders we arc again on the frontier, hewing down forests of bad habits and founding homes for the future generations. As our resources increase and our knowledge accumulates we may look forward to the time when we shall be able, at these border lands of society, to select the good seeds, mother them in a fruitful soil, weed out the tares, and raise a bumper crop of boys and girls that will do credit to the nation.