Ten years, or
even five years ago, there was no such person as the preschool child.
Ten years ago we were just beginning to discover ordinary children
and their importance for social life and progress. . . .
In social work, my own ten years of experience have seen a revolution.
Ten years ago mental hygiene and psychiatric social work were just
beginning with adults. Family case work dealt with parents as individuals
and with the children as a group. You can read through the earlier
records of the family agencies without finding any recognition of
children as persons. They are apt to be differentiated only by name,
age and sex, except for some special problem of health, education
In the field of child placing, although we have to deal with individual
children whom we take from a broken home to place in a foster family,
we are only just learning to recognize the obligation to individualize
every child. Well do I remember when we used to comfort ourselves
with the thought that a baby needed only good physical care, that
unwholesome surroundings had less effect on a younger than on an
older child. It was only two years ago that the child-placing agency
with which I am associated determined to make a study of each infant
before placing for adoption. Any good healthy attracteive baby used
to be considered a good adoption risk. Now we know that babies as
well as older children may be rated as to native ability and we
give psychological tests to every child received by us, no matter
what his age. These tests are very tentative as yet, but when combined
with careful physical examinations and social histories and safeguarded
by retests at proper intervals, they offer at least one valuable
tool for beginning to treat babies as persons.
In concentrating upon the young child, therefore, we are not ignoring
later developments but are on the contrary for the first time recognizing
their origin and trying in a rational and scientific fashion to
seek control at the source. Both psychiatrist and psychologist are
demonstrating that the personality trends in children which later
make problems for educators and social workers as well as parents
have a history which can be traced. Modern psychology is pretty
well agreed that the reform of an individual is not accomplished
by will power, force, punishment or fear. Bad as well as good behavior
is not something which is established over night. It is a product
of years, the outgrowth of a particular experience. To change it
is a scientific rather than a moral problem. . . .
No one would blame a child of ten for lack of physical health produced
in the course of living under the care of his parents but would
explain his condition in terms not only of his inheritance but of
the health habits of his family, his feeding, exercise, rest, play,
clothing, etc. Yet we do tend to treat as a moral issue deserving
of praise or blame, the good or bad behavior of children as if they
were in some way responsible or could control the conditions under
which their ways of reacting to life have been formed.
If we are to be intelligent about social as well as physical problems
we have to abandon our emotional reactions to the things children
do in our homes, our streets and our school rooms and use the best
minds we have in trying to find out why and how behavior is built
up. If our interest lies in assigning responsibility, praise, blame
or punishment for any particular bit of conduct, we shall never
be able to take toward that behavior the scientific attitude which
treats it as a problem to be controlled only by complete understanding. . . .
The fundamental need for all human beings is a sense of at-homeness
in one’s environment, a feeling of being adequate to life
as one finds it. This sounds simple, but it depends upon a good
many factors which are in their ramifications infinitely complex.
This feeling of security and adequacy in life depends upon at least
three things in childhood: a stable background, ability to win approval
from others, and power to do, to carry out successfully some of
the activities which are characteristic of other children of the
same age. A little later in the child’s development we can
see that there must be included as part of his sense of security
a positive fearless attitude towards sex and a belief that he will
be able to achieve sex happiness, to find a satisfactory love object
outside of his own family.
How does a child get his sense of stability, of firm ground under
his feet? Where else but through his parents and the family circle?
We who work with dependent children understand only too well the
shock to confidence which comes with the discovery that one’s
own home is not necessarily a safe refuge, a permanent foundation.
The child who is moved from place to place is a prey to undercurrents
of fear and insecurity, which inevitably find expression in blind
attempts to compensate. Such attempts since they are unconscious
are seldom well chosen or socially acceptable. . . .
The facts which psychiatry and psychology are discovering about
the importance of parents and family life to the mental health of
the next generation, far from relieving the schools of responsibility,
only increase their obligation and enlarge infinitely the vision
of what it means to educate a child.