Popular Science Monthly/Volume 45/July 1894/Studies of Childhood I

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ONE of the few things we seemed to be certain of with respect to child nature was that it is fancy-full. Childhood, we all know, is the age for dreaming, for decking out the as yet unknown world with the gay colors of imagination, for living a life of play or happy make-believe. So that nothing seems more childlike in the "Childhood of the World" than the myth-making impulse, the overflow of fancy to hide the nakedness of things.

Yet even here, perhaps, we have been content with loose generalization in place of careful observation and analysis of facts. For one thing the play of infantile imagination is probably much less uniform than is often supposed. There seem to be matter-of-fact children who can not rise buoyantly to a bright fancy. Mr. Ruskin, of all men, has recently told us that when a child he was incapable of acting a part or telling a tale; that he never knew a child "whose thirst for visible fact was at once so eager and so methodic."[1] We may accept the report of Mr. Ruskin's memory as proving that he did not idle away his time in day dreams, but by long and close observation of running water and the like laid the foundations of that fine knowledge of the appearances of Nature which everywhere shines through his writings. Yet one may be permitted to doubt whether a writer who shows not only so rich and graceful a style but so truly poetic an invention could have been in every respect an unimaginative child.

Perhaps the truth will turn out to be the paradox that most children are at once matter-of-fact observers and dreamers, passing from the one to the other as the mood takes them and with a facility which grown people may well envy. My own observations go to show that the prodigal output of fancy, the reveling in myth and story, are often characteristic of a period of childhood only. We are apt to lump together such different levels of experience and capacity under that abstraction "the child." The wee mite of three and a half years, spending more than half its day in trying to realize all manner of pretty, odd, startling fancies about animals, fairies, and the rest, is something vastly unlike the boy of six or seven whose mind is now bent on understanding the make and go of machines and of that big machine the world.

So far as I can gather from inquiries sent to parents and other observers of children, a large majority of boys and girls alike are for a time fancy-bound, A child that did not want to play and cared nothing for the marvels of story-land would surely be regarded as queer and not just what a child ought to be. Yet supposing that this is the right view, there still remains the question whether imagination always works in the same way in the childish brain. This is a point about which we are beginning to know something definite. The movements of fancy may be expected to have as many directions as the impulsive forces of young interests, and these we know are numberless. Fairies and angels (which are not differentiated in the child's consciousness), the animal world, the mysterious past before the baby came, the doings of the great people up in the sky—these appear to be some of the favorite haunts of the young fancy.

Science is beginning to aid us in understanding the differences of childish imagination. For one thing it is leading us to see that a child's whole imaginative life may be specially colored by the preponderant vividness of certain orders of images; that one child may live imaginatively in a colored world, another in a world of sounds, another rather in a world of movement. It is easy to note in the case of certain children of the more lively and active turn how the supreme interest of story as of play lies in the ample range of movement and bodily activity. Robinson Crusoe is probably for the boyish imagination more than anything else the goer and the doer.[2]

With this difference in the elementary composition of imagination there are others which turn on temperament, tone of feeling, and preponderant directions of emotion. Imagination is intimately bound up with the life of feeling, and will assume as many directions as this life assumes. Hence the familiar fact that in some children imagination broods by preference on gloomy and terrifying objects, religious and other, whereas in others it selects what is bright and gladsome; that while in some cases it has more of the poetic quality, in others it leans rather to the scientific or the practical type.

Enough has been said perhaps to show that the imaginativeness of children is not a thing to be taken for granted as existing in all in precisely the same way. It is eminently a variable faculty, requiring especial study in the case of each new child.

But, even waiving this fact of variability, it may, I think, be said that we are far from understanding the precise workings of imagination in children. We talk, for example, glibly about their play, their make-believe, their illusions; but how much do we really know of their state of mind when they act out a little scene of domestic life or of the battlefield? We have, I know, many fine observations on this head. Careful observers of children and conservers of their own childish experiences, such as Rousseau, Pestalozzi, Jean Paul, Madame Necker, George Sand, have told us much that is valuable; yet I suspect that there must be a much wider and finer investigation of children's action and talk before we can feel quite sure that we have got at their mental whereabouts, and know how they feel when, for example, they pretend to enter the dark wood, the home of the wolf, or to talk with their deities, the fairies.

Perhaps I have said enough to justify my plea for new observations, and for reconsideration, in the light of these, of hasty theories. Nor need we object to a fresh survey of what is perhaps the most delightful side of child life. I often wonder, indeed, when I come across some precious bit of droll infantile acting, or of sweet child-soliloquy, how mothers can bring themselves to lose one drop of the fresh, exhilarating draught which daily wells up from the fount of a child's fantasy.

Nor is it merely for the sake of its inherent charm that children's imagination deserves further study. In the early age of the individual and of the race what we enlightened persons call fancy has a good deal to do with the first crude attempts at understanding things. Child-thought, like primitive folk-thought, is saturated with myth, vigorous Fantasy holding the hand of—Reason as yet sadly rickety on his legs—and showing him which way he should take. In the beginning of the moral life, again, we shall see how easily the realizing force of young imagination may expose its possessor to deception by others, and to self-deception too, with results that clearly simulate the guise of a knowing falsehood. On the other hand, a careful following out of the various lines of imaginative activity may show how moral education, by vividly suggesting to the child's imagination a worthy part, a praiseworthy action, may work powerfully on the unformed and flexible structure of a child's will, moving it dutyward.

The play of the young imagination meets us in the domain of sense-observation: a child is fancying when it looks at things and touches them, and moves among them. This may seem a paradox at first, but in truth there is nothing paradoxical here. It is an exploded psychological fallacy that sense and imagination are wholly apart. No doubt, as the ancients told us, fantasy comes of sense; we live over again in waking and sleeping imagination the sights and sounds of the real world. Yet it is no less true that imagination in an active constructive form takes part in the very making of what we call sense-experience. We learn to read the visual symbol, a splash of light or color, now as a stone, now as a pool of water, just because imagination drawing from past experience supplies the interpretation, the group of qualities which composes a hard, solid mass, or a soft, yielding liquid.

Children's fanciful readings of things, as when they call the twinkling star a (blinking) eye, are but an exaggeration of what we all do. Their imagination carries them very much further. Thus they may attribute to the stone they see a sort of stone-soul, and speak of it as feeling tired.

This lively way of envisaging objects is, as we know, similar to that of primitive folk, and has something of crude Nature-poetry in it. This tendency is abundantly illustrated in the metaphors which play so large a part in children's talk. As everybody knows, a child describes what he sees or hears by analogy to something he knows already. This is called by some, rather clumsily, I think, apperceiving. For example, a small, oscillating compass needle was called by a child a bird, on the ground of a faint likeness of form and fluttering movement. M. Taine tells us of a little girl who called the eyelids prettily eye-curtains. Distant and unknown things, for example the moon, will naturally come in for much of this vivid imaginative interpretation. Thus the moon when reduced to a crescent was said by a boy of three to be broken. American children described it ingeniously as half stuck or half buttoned into the sky.[3] Similarly with sounds. The spluttering of coals in the fire was called barking by a little girl of four and a half years. The American children already referred to described thunder variously as a throwing down of toys, a shooting in of coals, and so forth.

This play of imagination in connection with apprehending objects of sense has a strong vitalizing or personifying element. That is to say, children, in common with uncivilized peoples, see what we regard as lifeless and soulless as alive and conscious. Thus a child will say a tree rustling in a cold wind "shivers." The tree is apprehended or "apperceived" as having sensation and behaving as the child itself behaves. Moving things come in for most of this personifying impulse. A little girl of five, pleased at being aide to manage her hoop, said: "Mamma, I do b'lieve this hoop must be alive, it's so sensible; it goes where I want it to."

Children's fear of feathers, of which I have several instances, and which they have in common with uncultured folk, is probably due to the uncanny look of a sort of ghost life as the light, unsubstantial thing slowly moves of itself from the ground and poises in mid-air. Perhaps a dog's uneasiness at the sight of leaves whisked in an eddy over the ground by the wind shows a degree of the same personifying instinct. Sometimes this endowment of things with sensation leads to a quaint manifestation of sympathy. Miss Ingelow writes of herself when a little over two years old and for about a year after: "I had the habit of attributing intelligence not only to all living creatures, the same amount and kind of intelligence that I had myself, but even to stones and manufactured articles. I used to feel how dull it must be for the pebbles in the causeway to be obliged to lie still and only see what was round about. When I walked out with a little basket for putting flowers in I used sometimes to pick up a pebble or two and carry them on to have a change; then at the farthest point of the walk turn them out, not doubting that they would be pleased to have a new view."[4]

This is by no means a unique example of a childish lavishing of pity on what we think the insentient world. Plant life seems often to excite the feeling. Here is a quotation from a parent's chronicle. A girl aged eight brings a quantity of fallen autumn leaves in to her mother, who says, "Oh! how pretty, F——!" to which the girl answers: "Yes, I knew you'd love the poor things, mother. I couldn't bear to see them dying on the ground." A few days afterward she was found standing at a window overlooking the garden, crying bitterly at the leaves as they fell in considerable numbers.

This is not the place to speak of the rich endowment of the animal world with human susceptibilities by the childish imagination. We all know how grotesquely the little humanitarian insists on fondling pussy, or wiping her nose, and otherwise tormenting that long-suffering quadruped, all from the kindest of motives.

Now it may be asked whether all this analogical extension of images to what seem to us such incongruous objects involves a vivid and illusory apprehension of these as transformed. Is the eyelid realized and even seen for the moment as a sort of curtain, the curtain image blending with and transforming what is present to the eye? Are the pebbles actually looked at as living things condemned to lie stiffly in one place? It is of course hard to say, yet I think a conjectural answer can be given. In this imaginative contemplation of things the child only half observes what is present to its eyes. One or two points of supreme interest in the visible thing, the falling of the leaf, the hiding of the eye by the lid, are selectively attended to; and assimilative imagination, the overlaying of the visual impression with an image called up by similarity or analogy, does the rest. In this way the actual field of visible objects is apt to get veiled, its appearance being transformed by the wizard touch of a lively childish fancy.

No doubt there are various degrees of illusion here. In its matter-of-fact and really scrutinizing mood a child will not confound what is seen with what is imagined; in this case the analogy recalled is distinguished and used as an explanation of what is seen—as when a child observed of a panting dog, "Dat bow-bow like puff-puff." On the other hand, when another little boy aged three years and nine months, seeing the leaves falling exclaimed, "See, mamma, the leaves is flying like dickey-birds and little butterflies!" it is hard not to think that the child's fancy for the moment transformed what he saw into the pretty pictures. And one may risk the opinion that, with the little thinking power and controlling force of will which a child possesses, the chances are that such assimilative activity of imagination always tends in the young brain to develop a degree of momentary illusion.

It may be added that abundant evidence goes to show that children at first quite seriously believe that all things are alive and feel. A child starts from himself as the model of a thing, and mentally fashions other things like himself. He has slowly to learn the distinction between the living and the lifeless, the sentient and the insentient. No parent who has lived with his children could, I think, doubt this. Dr. Stanley Hall's inquiries have, among other curious results, shown that out of forty-eight little ones just attaining the school age, twenty believed the moon and stars to be alive, fifteen thought a doll and sixteen thought flowers would suffer pain if burned. Perhaps a good many more had a secret belief to the same effect, but through shyness and a shrewd half-guess of the drift of the question declined to be drawn into a categorical statement. The animism of children is apt to get laughed at, and as soon as that begins they become reserved and secretive of the "contents" of their minds.

There is another way in which imagination may combine with and transform sensible objects, viz., by what is commonly called association. Mr, Ruskin tells us that when young he associated the name crocodile with the creature so closely that the long series of letters took on something of the look of the lanky creature. The same writer in his Præterita tells of a Dr. Grant into whose therapeutic hands he fell when a child. "The name" he adds, "is always associated in my mind with a brown powder—rhubarb or the like—of a gritty or acrid nature. . . . The name always sounded to me gr-r-ish and granular."

We can most of us, perhaps, recall similar experiences, where colors and sounds, in themselves indifferent, took on either through analogy or association a decidedly repulsive character. How far, one wonders, does this process of transformation of things go in the case of imaginative children? There is some reason to say that it may go very far, and that, too, when there is no strong feeling at work cementing the combined elements. A child's feeling for likeness is commonly keen and subtle, and knowledge of the real relations of things has not yet come to check the impulse to this free, far-ranging kind of assimilation. Dickens was not, one feels sure, the only child who saw odd resemblances in letters, finding, for example, that the thick O and S of his primer stood out from the rest as the easy, good-natured ones. This sort of fanciful reading of character into things is of the very life of childhood. Before the qualities and the connections of objects are sufficiently known for them to be interesting in themselves, they can only acquire interest through the combining art of childish fancy. And the same is true of associated characters. A child's ear may not dislike a grating sound, a harsh noise, as our ear dislikes it, because of its immediate effect on the sensitive organ. En revanche it will like and dislike sounds for a hundred reasons unknown to us, just because the quick, strong fancy, adding its life to that of the senses, gives to impressions much of their significance and much of their value.

There is a new field of investigation which is illustrating in a curious way this wizard influence which childish imagination wields over the things of sense. It is well known that a certain number of people habitually color the sounds they hear, visualizing the sound of a vowel, or of a musical tone, as having its characteristic tint which they are able to describe accurately. This "colored hearing," as it is called, is always traced back to the dimly recalled age of childhood. Children are now beginning to be tested, and it is found that a good proportion possess the faculty. Thus in the researches on the Boston children already referred to it was found that out of fifty-three, twenty-one, or nearly one half, described the tones of certain instruments as colored. The particular color, as also the degree of its brightness, ascribed to an instrument, varied greatly among different children, so that, for example, one child visualized the tone of a fife as pale or bright, while another imaged it as dark.[5] It is highly probable that both analogy and association play a part here.[6] As was recently suggested to me by a correspondent, the classic instance of the analogy between scarlet and the note of a trumpet may easily be due, in part at least, to association of tins tone with the scarlet uniform.

I may add that I once happened to overhear a little girl of six talking to herself about numbers in this wise: "Two is a dark number, forty is a white number." I questioned her, and found that the digits had each its distinctive color, thus: "one," white; "two," dark; "three," white; "four," dark; "five," pink, and so on. "Nine" was pointed and dark, "eleven" dark green, showing that some of the digits were much more distinctly visualized than others. Just three years later I tested her again and found she still visualized the digits, but not quite in the same way. Thus, although "one" and "two" were white and black as before, "three" was now gray, "four" red, "five" pink, "nine" had lost its color, and "eleven," oddly enough, had turned from dark green to bright yellow.

This case suggests that in early life new experiences and associations may modify the tint and the shade of sounds. However this be, children's colored hearing is worth noting as the most striking example of the general tendency to supplement and to overlay sense-impressions with vivid images. It seems reasonable to suppose that colored hearing and other allied phenomena, as the picturing of numbers, days of the week, etc., in a certain scheme or diagrammatic arrangement, when they show themselves after childhood, are to be viewed as survivals of early fanciful brain work. This fact, taken along with the known vividness of the images in colored hearing, which in certain cases approximate to sense-perception, seems to me to confirm the view here put forth, that children's imagination may alter the world of sense in ways which it is hard for our older and stiff-jointed minds to follow.

I have confined myself here to what I have called the play of imagination, the magic transmuting of things through the sheer liveliness and wanton activity of a child's fancy. How strong, how vivid, how dominating such imaginative transformation may become will of course be seen in cases where violent feeling, and especially fear, gives preternatural intensity to the realizing power of imagination. But this effect of emotion is too large a subject to deal with here.

This playful transformation of the actual surroundings is, of course, restrained in serious moments and in intercourse with older and graver folk. There is, however, a region of child life where it knows no check; where the impulse to deck out the shabby reality with what is bright and gay has it all its own way. This region is Play. In another article, with the permission of the editor, I hope to take up the subject of children's play, considered as an expression of their imaginative activity.

  1. Preterita, p. 76.
  2. The different tendencies of children toward visual, auditory, motor images, etc., are dealt with by P. Queyrat, L'Imagination et ses variétés chez l'enfant.
  3. These were children entering the primary school of Boston, whose ideas are described by Dr. Stanley Hall, in an article on The Contents of Children's Minds, in the Princeton Review.
  4. See her article The History of an Infancy. Longman's Magazine, February, 1890.
  5. See the article, Contents of Children's Minds, already quoted, pp. 265, 266.
  6. This has been well brought out by Prof. Flournoy, of Geneva, in his volume, Des Phénomènes de Synopsie (audition colorée), chap. ii.