Jessie Taft, “Early Conditioning of Personality in the Pre-School Child,” 1925

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 or delinquency.

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.


Source: Jessie Taft, “Early Conditioning of Personality in the Pre-School Child,” 1925, typescript in Ethel Sturges Dummer Papers, Box 36, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University. Also published in School and Society 21 (546) (June 13, 1925):695-701.

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