Popular Science Monthly/Volume 45/October 1894/Studies of Childhood III

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THE child's first vigorous effort to understand the things about him may be roughly dated at the end of the third year, and it is noteworthy that this synchronizes with the advent of the questioning age. The first putting of a question occurred in the case of Preyer's boy in the twenty-eighth month, in that of Pollock's girl in the twenty-third month. But the true age of inquisitiveness, when question after question is fired off with wondrous rapidity and pertinacity, seems to be ushered in with the fourth year.

A common theory peculiarly favored by ignorant nurses and mothers is that children's questioning is a studied annoyance. The child has come to the use of words, and with all a child's "cussedness" proceeds to torment the ears of those about him. There are signs, however, of a change of view on this point. The fact that the questioning follows on the heels of the reasoning impulse might tell us that it is connected with the throes which the young understanding has to endure in its first collision with a tough and baffling world. The question is the outcome of ignorance coupled with a belief in a possible knowledge. It aims at filling up a gap in the child's knowledge, at getting from the fuller knowledge of another some light on the scrappy, unsatisfying information about things which is all that his own observation can gather, or all that others' half-understood words have managed to communicate. It is the outcome of intellectual craving—a demand for food. But it is much more than an expression of need. Just as the child's articulate demand for food implies that he knows what food is, and that it is obtainable, so the question implies that the little questioner knows what he needs, and in what direction to look for it. The simplest form of question—e. g. . What is this flower, this insect?—shows that the child, by a half-conscious process of reflection and reasoning, has found his way to the truth that things have their qualities, their belongings, their names.

Questioning may take various directions. A good deal of the child's catechising of his long-suffering mother is prompted by thirst for fact.[1] The typical form of this line of questioning is "What?" The motive here is to gain possession of some fact which will connect itself with and supplement a fact already known. How old is Rover? Where was Rover born? Who was his father? What is that dog's name? What sort of hair had you when you were a little girl? These are samples of the questioning activity by the help of which the little inquirer tries to make up his connected wholes—to see things with his imagination in their proper attachment and order. And how greedily and pertinaciously the small people will follow up their questioning, flying, as it often looks, wildly enough from point to point, yet gathering from every answer some new contribution to their ideas of things! A boy of three years and nine months would thus attack his mother: "What does frogs eat, and mice, and birds, and butterflies? and what does they do? and what is their names? What is all their houses' names? What does they call their streets and places?" etc.

Such questions easily appear foolish because, as in the case just quoted, they are directed by quaint childish fancies. The child's anthropomorphic way of looking out on the world leads him to assimilate animal to human ways. Hence one value of these questionings as showing which way the current of the child's thought is setting. Hence, too, it would appear that not every child's question is to be answered. We may, however, set aside, or rather correct, the form of a child's question without treating it with an ill-deserved and quite inappropriate contempt.

One feature in this fact-gleaning kind of question is the great store which the child sets by the name of a thing. M. Compayré has pointed out that the form of question, "What is this?" often means "What is it called?" The child's unformulated theory seems to be that everything has its own individual name. The little boy just spoken of explained to his mother that he thought all the frogs, the mice, the birds, and the butterflies had names given to them by their mothers, as he himself had. Perhaps this was only a way of expressing the childish idea that everything has its name, primordial and unchangeable. A nameless thing may well seem to a child no less of a contradiction than a thing without any size. Perhaps, too, the name as an external sound joins itself to and qualifies the thing in a way that we, who are wont to employ words as our own created signs, can hardly enter into.

A second direction of this early questioning is toward the reason and the cause of things. The typical form is "why?" This form of inquiry occurred in the case of Preyer's boy at the age of two years and forty-three weeks. But it becomes the all-predominant form of question somewhat later. Who that has tried to instruct the small child of three or four does not know the long, shrill, whinelike sound of this question? This form of question develops naturally out of the earlier, for to give the "what" of a thing—that is, its connections—is to give its "why"—that is, its mode of production, its use and purpose. '

Nothing, perhaps, in child utterance is better worth interpreting, hardly anything more difficult to interpret, than this simplelooking little "why?"

We ourselves, perhaps, do not use the word "why" and its correlative "because" with one clear meaning; and the child's first use of the words is largely imitative. What may be pretty safely asserted is that even in the most parrotlike and wearisome iteration of "why" and its equivalents "what for?" etc., the child shows a dim recognition of the truth that a thing is understandable, that it has its reasons if only they can be found.

Let us, in judging of this pitiless "why?" try to understand the situation of the young mind confronted by so much that is strange and unassimilated, meeting by observation and hearsay with new and odd occurrences every day. The strange things standing apart from his tiny familiar world, the wide region of the quaint and puzzling in animal ways, for example, stimulate the instinct to appropriate, to master. The little thinker must try at least to bring the new and the odd into some recognizable relation to this familiar world. And what is more natural than to go to the wise lips of the grown-up person for a solution of the difficulty? The fundamental significance of the "why?" in the child's vocabulary, then, is the necessity of connecting new with old, of illuminating what is strange and dark by light reflected from what is already matter of knowledge. And a child's "why?" is often temporarily satisfied by supplying from the region of the familiar an analogue to the new and unclassed fact. Thus his impulse to understand why pussy has fur is fully met by telling him that it is pussy's hair.

It is only a step further in the same direction when the "why" has to be met by supplying a general statement: for to refer the particular to a general rule is a more perfect and systematic kind of assimilation. Now we know that children are very susceptible to the authority of precedent, custom, general rule. Just as in children's ethics customary permission makes a thing right, so in their logic the fact that a thing generally happens may be said to supply a reason for any single thing happening. Accordingly, when the much-abused nurse answers the child's question, "Why is the pavement hard?" by saying, "Because pavement is always hard," she is perhaps less open to the charge of giving a woman's reason than is sometimes said.[2] In sooth, the child's queries, his searchings for explanation are, as already suggested, prompted by the desire for order and connectedness. And this means that he wants the general rule to which he can assimilate the particular and as yet isolated fact.

From the first, however, the "why" and its congeners have reference to the causal idea, to something which has brought the new and strange thing into existence and made it what it is. In truth, this reference to origin, to bringing about or making, is exceedingly prominent in children's questionings. Nothing is more interesting to a child than the production of things. What hours and hours does he not spend in wondering how the pebbles, the stones, the birds, the babies are made! This vivid interest in production is to a considerable extent practical. It is one of the great joys of children to be able themselves to make things, and the desire to fashion things which is probably at first quite immense, and befitting rather a god than a feeble child, naturally leads on to know something about the mode of producing. Yet from the earliest a true speculative interest blends with this practical instinct. Children are in the complete sense little philosophers, if philosophy, as the ancients said, consists in knowing the cause of things—"causas rerum cognoscere." This is the completed process of assimilation, of the reference of the particular to a general rule or law. Everything remains a mystery, looks distant and foreign, until its history, its origin is ascertained, and it can be classed with the known things whose existence is accounted for.

This inquisition into origin and mode of production starts with the amiable presupposition that all things have been hand-produced after the manner of household possessions. The world is a sort of big house where everything has been made by somebody, or at least fetched from somewhere. This application of the anthropomorphic idea of fashioning follows the law of all childish thought that the unknown is assimilated to the known. The one mode of origin which the embryo thinker is really and directly familiar with is the making of things. He himself makes a respectable number of things, including these rents in his clothes, messes on the table cloth, and the like, which he gets firmly imprinted on his memory by the authorities. And, then, he takes a keen interest in watching the making of things by others, such as puddings, clothes, houses, hayricks. To ask who made the animals, the babies, the wind, the clouds, and so forth, then, is for him merely to apply the more familiar type of causation as norm or rule. Similarly in all questions as to the "whence" of things, as in asking whether babies were bought in a shop.

The "why" takes on a more special meaning when the idea of purpose and adaptation of means to ends becomes clear. The search now is for the end, what philosophers call the teleological cause or reason. Here, again, the child sets out with the familiar type of experience, with human production and action as determined by aim. And it is easy for him, his mind being possessed by this anthropomorphic fancy which gives life to all things, to carry out this kind of inquiry. There is a stage in the development of a child's intelligence when questions such as "Why do the leaves fall?" "Why does the thunder make such a noise?" are answered most satisfactorily by a poetic fiction—by saying, for example, that the leaves are old and tired of hanging on to trees, and that the thunder-giant is in a particularly bad temper, and making a row. It is perhaps permissible to make use of this fiction at times, more especially perhaps when trying to answer the untiring questioning about animals and their doings—a region of existence, by the way, of which even the wisest of us knows exceedingly little. Yet the device has its risks; and an ill-considered piece of myth-making passed off as an answer may find itself awkwardly confronted by that most merciless of things, a child's logic.

But there is another sort of anthropomorphism in this interrogation. Children are apt to think not only that things in general are after our manner, but, what is very different, have their designs, so to speak, upon us. The sea, it will be remembered, made its noise with special reference to the ears of the small child C——. We may call this the anthropocentric idea—that is, the idea that man is the center of reference in the case of natural phenomena. This anthropocentric tendency is apt to get toned down by the temperament of a child, which is on the whole optimistic and decidedly practical, into a looking out for the uses of things. A boy, already quoted, once (toward the end of the fourth year) asked his mother what the bees do. This question he explained by adding "What is the good of them?" When told that they made honey, he observed pertinently enough from his teleological standpoint, "Then do they bring it for us to eat?"

The idea underlying this questioning as to uses is the same idea which the theological optimists of the last century were wont to drive to such a surprising length. Their amusing speculations showed how far from easy it Is to apply the idea to particular cases, and our small philosopher evidently saw the difficulty in the case of the bees, not by any means one of the most difficult.

A child's question may be prompted merely by ignorance and curiosity, or by a deeper motive, a sense of perplexity, of mystery, or contradiction. It is not always easy to distinguish the two types of question, yet in many cases at least its form, and the manner of putting, it will tell us that it issues from a puzzled and temporarily baffled brain. As long as the questioning goes on briskly, we may infer that a child believes in the possibility of knowledge, and does not know the deepest depths of intellectual despair. More pathetic than the saddest of questions is the silencing of questions by the loss of faith.

It is easy to see that children must find themselves puzzled with much which they see and hear of. The apparent exceptions to the rule don't trouble the grown-up persons, just because as recurrent exceptions they seem to take on a rule of their own. Thus adults, though quite unversed in hydrostatics, would be incapable of being puzzled by C——'s problem, why my putting my hand in

water does not make a hole in it. Similarly, though they know nothing of animal physiology, they are never troubled by the mystery of fish breathing under water, which when first noted by a child may come as a sort of shock. The little boy just referred to, in his far-reaching zoölogical interogatory asked his mother, "Can they (the fish) breathe with their moufs under water?"

In his own investigations, and in getting instruction from others, the child is frequently coming upon puzzles of this sort. The same boy was much exercised about the sea and where it went to. He expressed a wish to take off his shoes and to walk out into the sea so as to see where the ships go to, and was much troubled on learning that the sea got deeper and deeper and that if he walked out into it he would be drowned. At first he denied the paradox (which he at once saw) of the incoming sea going uphill. "But, mamma, it doesn't run up, it doesn't run up, so it couldn't come up over our heads?" He was told that this was so, and he wisely began to try to accommodate his mind to this startling revelation. C——, too, was much exercised by this problem of the moving mass of waters, wanting to know whether it came halfway up the world. Probably in both these cases the idea of water rising had its uncanny, alarming aspect.

We have seen that the disappearance of a thing is at a very early stage a puzzle to the infant. Later on, too, the young mind continues to be exercised about this mystery. Our little friend's inquiry about the whither of the big, receding sea, "Where does the sea sim (swim) to?" illustrates this perplexity. A child seems able to understand the shifting of an object of moderate size from one part of space to another, but his conception of space is probably not large enough to permit him to realize how a big tract of water can pass out of the visible scene into the unseen. The child's question, "Where does all the wind go to?" seems to have sprung from a like inability to picture a vast unseen realm of space. C——'s question as to where all the days go to may have been prompted by the idea that the days or their scenic contents continue to exist somewhere; that the past is something like the unseen region of space into which things disappear as they move away from us.

In addition to this difficulty of the disappearance of big things, there seems to be something in the vastness, the infinite quantity and number of existents perceived and heard about, which puzzles and oppresses the young mind. The inability to take in all the new facts leads to a kind of resentment at their multitude. "Mother," asked a boy of four years, "why is there such a lot of things in the world if no one knows all these things?" One can not be quite sure of the underlying thought here. Did the child mean merely to protest against the production of so confusing a number of objects, or was there a deeper difficulty, a dim presentiment of Berkeley's idealism, that things can exist only as objects of knowledge? This surmise may seem far-fetched to some, yet I have found what seem to me other traces of this tendency in children. A girl of six and a half years was talking to her father about the making of the world. He pointed out to her the difficulty of creating things out of nothing, showing her that when we made things we simply fashioned materials anew. She pondered and then said, "Perhaps the world's a fancy." Here, again, one can not be quite sure of the child-thought behind the words. Yet it certainly looks like a falling back for a moment into the dreamy mood of the idealist—that mood in which we seem to see the solid fabric of things dissolve into a shadowy phantasmagoria.

The subject of origins is, as we know, beset with puzzles for the childish mind. The beginnings of living things are of course the great mystery. "There's such a lot of things," remarked the little zoölogist I have recently been quoting, "I want to know, that you say nobody knows, mamma. I want to know who made God, and I want to know if pussy has eggs to help her make ickle (little) kitties." Finding that this was not so, he observed, "Oh, then, I s'pose she has to have God to help her if she doesn't have kitties in eggs given her to sit on." Another little boy, five years old, found his way to the puzzle of the reciprocal genetic relation of the hen and the egg, and asked his mother: "When there is no egg, where does the hen come from? When there was no egg, I mean, where did the hen come from?" In a similar way as we saw in C——'s journal a child will puzzle his brains by asking how the first child was suckled, how the first chicken-pox was acquired, how the first man learned to speak (without any example).

The allied mystery of growth is also a frequent theme of this early questioning. "How" (asked one little three-year-old questioner) "does plants grow when we plant them? and how does boys grow from babies to big boys like me? Has I grown now while I was eating my supper? See!" and he stood up, to make the most of his stature. It would be funny to know all a child's speculations on this supremely interesting matter of growth. But of this more by and by.

Much of this questioning is metaphysical, in that it transcends the problems of every-day life and of science. The child is metaphysician in the sense in which the earliest human thinkers were metaphysicians, pushing his questioning into the inmost nature of things, and back to their absolute beginnings. He has no idea yet of the confines of human knowledge. If his mother tells him she does not know, he tenaciously clings to the idea that somebody knows—the doctor it may be, or the clergyman, or possibly the policeman, of whose superior knowledge one little girl was forcibly convinced by noting that her father once asked information of one of these willing officials.

Strange, bizarre, altogether puzzling to the listener are some of the child's questions. The "why" is applied to everything in a most bewildering fashion. A little American girl, of nine years, after a pause in talk, recommenced the conversation by asking, "Why don't I think of something to say?" A play recently performed in a London theater made precisely this line of questioning a chief amusing feature in one of its comical characters. Another little American girl, aged three, one day left her play and her baby sister, named Edna Belle, to find her mother and ask, "Mamma, why isn't Edna Belle me, and why ain't I Edna Belle?"[3] The narrator of this story adds that the child was not a daughter of a professor of metaphysics but of practical farmer folk. One can not be quite sure of the precise drift of this question. It may well have been the outcome of a new development of self-consciousness, of a clearer awareness of the self in its distinctness from others. A question with a much clearer metaphysical ring about it, showing thought about the subtlest problems, was that put by a boy of the same age: "If I'd gone upstairs, could God make it that I hadn't?"

All children's questioning does not, of course, take this sublime direction. Along with the tendency to push back inquiry to the unreachable beginning of things we mark a more modest and scientific line of investigation into the observable and explainable processes of Nature. Some questions which a busy listener would pooh-pooh as dreamy have a genuinely scientific value, showing that the little inquirer is trying to work out some problem of fact. This is illustrated by a question put by a little boy aged three years and nine months. "Why don't we see two things with our two eyes?" a problem which, as we know, has exercised older psychologists.

When this more definitely scientific direction is taken by a child's questioning we may observe that the ambitious "Why?" begins to play a second role, the first being now taken by the more modest "How?" The boy Clerk Maxwell, with his incessant inquiries into the "go" of this thing or the "particular go" of that, illustrates this early tendency to direct questioning to the more manageable problems to which science confines itself.

These different lines of questioning are apt to run on concurrently from the end of the third year, a fit of eager curiosity about animals or other natural objects giving place to a fit of theological inquiry; this, again, being dropped for an equally eager inquiry into the making of clocks, railway engines, and so on. Yet through these alternating bouts of questioning we can distinguish something like a law of intellectual progress. Questioning as the most direct expression of a child's curiosity follows the development of his groups of ideas and of the interests which help to construct these. Thus I think it a general rule that questioning about the make or mechanism of things follows questioning about animal ways just because the zoological interest (in a very crude form, of course) precedes the mechanical. The scope of this early questioning will, moreover, expand with intellectual capacity, and more particularly the capability of forming the more abstruse kind of childish idea. Thus, inquiries into absolute beginnings, into the origin of the world and of God himself, indicate the presence of a larger intellectual grasp of time relations and of the processes of becoming.

Our survey of the field of childish questioning suggests that it is by no means an easy matter to deal with. It must be admitted, I think, by the most enthusiastic partisan of children that their questioning is of very unequal value. It may often be noticed that a child's "Why?" is used in a sleepy, mechanical way, with no real desire for knowledge, any semblance of answer being accepted, without an attempt to put a meaning into it. A good deal of the more importunate varieties of children's questionings when they follow up question by question recklessly, as it seems, and without definite aim, appears to be of this formal and lifeless character, an expression not of a sound intellectual activity, but merely of a mood of general mental discontent and peevishness. In a certain amount of childish questioning, indeed, we have, I suspect, to do with a distinctly abnormal mental state, with an analogue of that mania of questions or passion for mental rummaging or prying into everything—Grübelsucht, as the Germans call it—which is a well-known phase of mental disease, and in which the patient will put such questions as these: "Why do I stand here where I stand?" "Why is a glass a glass, a chair a chair?"[4] Such questioning ought, it is evident, not to be treated too seriously. We may attach too much significance to a child's question, laboring hard to grasp its meaning, with a view to answering it, when we should be wiser if we viewed it as a symptom of mental irritability and peevishness, to be got rid of as quickly as possible by a good romp or other healthy distraction.

To admit, however, that children's questions may now and again need this sort of wholesome snubbing is far from saying that we ought to treat all their questioning with a mild contempt. If now and then they torment their elders with a string of random, reckless questionings, in how many cases, one wonders, are they not made to suffer—and that wrongfully—by having perfectly serious questions rudely cast back on their hands? The truth is, that to understand and to answer children's questions is a considerable art, including a large and deep knowledge of things, and a quick, sympathetic insight into the little questioners' minds. It is one of the tragi-comic features of human life that the ardent little explorer, looking out with wide-eyed wonder upon his new world, should now and again find as his first guide a nurse or even a mother who will resent the majority of his questions as disturbing the luxurious mood of indolence in which she chooses to pass her days. We can never know how much valuable mental activity has been checked, how much hope and courage cast down, hj this kind of treatment. Yet happily the questioning impulse is not easily eradicated, and a child who has suffered at the outset from this wholesale contempt may be fortunate enough to meet, while the spirit of investigation is still upon him, one who knows and who has the good nature and the patience to impart what he knows in response to a child's appeal.

  1. The first question put by Preyer's boy was, "Where is mamma?" That is an inquiry as to fact.
  2. Cf. some shrewd remarks by Dr. Venn, Empirical Logic, p. 494.
  3. Quoted from an article, Some Comments on Babies, by Miss Shinn, in the Overland Monthly, January, 1894.
  4. See W. James, Psychology, vol. ii, p. 284.