Popular Science Monthly/Volume 46/January 1895/Studies of Childhood V
|STUDIES OF CHILDHOOD.|
V.—PSYCHOLOGICAL AND THEOLOGICAL IDEAS.
GROTE PROFESSOR OF THE PHILOSOPHY OF MIND AND LOGIC AT THE UNIVERSITY COLLEGE, LONDON.
WE may now pass to some of the characteristic modes of child-thought about that standing mystery, the self. There is reason to suppose that a good deal of terribly earnest thinking goes on in the childish head respecting the problem of "my" nature, "my" existence, "my" origin.
The date of the first thought about self, the first dim self-awareness, probably varies considerably in the case of different children according to rapidity of mental development and circumstances. The little girl who was afterward to be known as George Sand may be supposed to have had an exceptional development, and the accident to which she refers as having aroused the earliest form of self-consciousness was, of course, exceptional too. There are probably many robust and dull children, knowing little of life's misery, and allowed in general to have their own way, who have little more of self-consciousness than that, say, of a young, well-favored, well-supplied porker.
The earliest idea of self seems to be obtained by the child through an examination with the senses of touch and sight of his own body. A child has been observed to study his fingers attentively in the fourth and fifth months, and this scrutiny goes on all through the second year and even into the third. Children seem quite early to be impressed by the fact that in laying hold of a part of their body with a hand they get a different kind of experience from that which they obtain when they grasp a foreign object. Through these self-graspings, self-strikings, self-bitings, aided by the very varied and often extremely disagreeable operations of the nurse and others on the surface of their bodies, they probably reach during the first year a dim idea that their body is different from all other things, is "me" in the sense that it is the living seat of pain and pleasure. The growing power of movement of limb, especially when the crawling stage is reached, gives a special significance to the body as that which can be moved, and by the movements of which interesting and highly impressive changes in the environment—e. g., bangs and other noises—can be produced.
It is probable that the first ideas of the bodily self are ill-defined. It is evident that the head and face are not known at first as a visible object. The upper extremities, by their movement across the field of vision, would come in for the special notice of the eye. We know that the baby is at an early date wont to watch its hands. On the other hand, the lower limbs seem to receive special attention from the exploring and examining hand.
There is some reason to think, however, that in spite of these advantages the limbs form a less integral and essential part of the bodily self than the trunk. A child in his second year was observed to bite his own finger till he cried with pain. Preyer tells us of a boy of nineteen months who, when asked to give his foot, seized it with both hands and tried to hand it over. The Worcester collection of children's thoughts has a story of a child of three years and a half who, on finding his feet stained by some new stockings, observed, "O mamma, these ain't my feet, these ain't the feet I had this morning!" On the other hand, the boy C—— spoke of his limbs as foreign objects coming in the way of himself—that is, his body.
Probably different influences combine to give this importance to the trunk in the child's conception of the bodily self. The trunk is the larger portion; it is stationary, always at hand, whereas the hands and feet come and go, and may disappear for some time. Much more important, I suspect, is the fact that the child soon begins to localize in a vague way in the trunk the most frequent and important of his feelings of comfort and discomfort, such as the pains of impeded respiration and digestion and the corresponding reliefs. We know that the "vital sense" forms the sensuous basis of self-consciousness in the adult, and it is only reasonable to suppose that in the first years of life, when it fills so large a place in consciousness, it has most to do with determining the idea of the sentient or feeling body. Afterwards the observation of maimed men and animals would confirm the idea that the trunk is the seat and essential portion of the living body. The language of others, too, by identifying "body" and "trunk," would strengthen the tendency.
About this interesting trunk-body and what is inside it, the child speculates vastly. References to bones, stomach, and so forth have to be understood somehow. It would be interesting to get at a child's unadulterated view of his anatomy.
At a later stage of the child's development, no doubt, when he comes to form the idea of a conscious thinking self, the head will become a principal portion of the bodily self. In the evolution of the self-idea in the race, too, we find that the soul was lodged in the trunk long before it was assigned a seat in the head. As is illustrated in C——'s case, children are quite capable of forming a double idea of their bodily self, the trunk and limbs which may die and be put in the ground, and the head the seat of the soul which lives on and passes into heaven. But of this more later on. Nay, more. A child may indulge the fancy—playfully, at least—that the several parts of the body are so many different bodily selves. Laura Bridgman would amuse herself by spelling a word wrong with one hand, slap that hand with the other, and then proceed to spell it right, laughing at her game. Here the offending hand was for the moment personified and given a sort of independent existence.
Very interesting in connection with the formation of the idea of self is the experience of the mirror. It would be absurd to expect a child when first placed before a mirror to recognize his own face. He will smile at the reflection as early as the tenth week, though this is probably merely an expression of pleasure at the sight of a bright object. If held in the nurse's or father's arms to a glass when about six months old, a baby will at once show that he recognizes the image of the familiar face of the latter by turning round to the real face, whereas he does not recognize his own. He appears at first and for some months to take it for a real object, sometimes smiling as to a stranger or even kissing it, and then trying to grasp it with the hand, turning up the glass or putting his hand behind it in order to see what is really there. Darwin has shown that monkeys behave very much in the same way before a mirror. Little by little he gets used to it, and then, by noting certain agreements between his bodily self and the image, as when he notices the reflection of his pinafore or of the movement of his hands as he points—partly, no doubt, by a kind of inference of analogy from the doubling of other things by the mirror—he reaches the idea that the reflection belongs to himself. By the sixtieth week Preyer's boy had associated the name of his mother with her image, pointing to it when asked where she was. By the twenty-first month he did the same thing in the case of his own image.
An infant will, we know, take a shadow to be a real object and try to touch it. Some children, on first noticing their own and other people's shadows, are afraid as at something uncanny. Here, too, in time the strange phenomenon is taken as a matter of course and referred to the sun.
We know that the phenomena of reflections and shadows, along with those of dreams, had much to do with the development, in the primitive thought of the race, of the animistic conception that everything has a double nature and existence. Do children form similar ideas? We can see from the autobiography of George Sand how a clever girl, reflecting on the impressive experience of the echo, excogitates such a theory of her double existence; and we know, too, that the boy Hartley Coleridge distinguished among the "Hartleys" a picture Hartley and a shadow Hartley. I have not, however, discovered that children are given to working out and seriously believing a theory of the multiple existence of themselves and other things.
The prominence of the bodily pictorial element in the child's first idea of self is seen in the tendency to confine personal identity within the limits of an unchanged bodily appearance. The child of six, with his shock of curls, refuses to believe that he is the same as the hairless baby whose photograph the mother shows him. How different, how new a being a child feels on a Sunday morning after the extra weekly cleansing and brushing and draping! The bodily appearance is a very big slice of the content of most people's self-consciousness, and to the child it is almost everything.
But in time the conscious self which thinks and suffers and wills comes to be dimly discerned. I have long thought, and nothing that I have read in the way of argument against the idea has shaken my belief, that a real advance toward this true self-consciousness is marked by the appropriation and use of the different forms of language, "I," "me," "mine."
As long as the bodily aspect is uppermost in the idea of self, so long is it natural for the child to speak of himself in the third person by his proper name, as he would speak of any other object of perception. The use of the first person seems to mark a clearer distinction of the ego as subject from its polar opposite the world of objects, and this manifestly involves true self-reflection as distinguished from self-perception—i. e., perception and recognition of the bodily self.
Sometimes the apprehension of a hidden self distinct from the body comes as a sudden revelation, as to little George Sand. Such a swift awakening of self-consciousness is apt to be an epoch-making and memorable moment in the history of the child.
A father sends me the following notes on the development of self-consciousness: "My girl, three years old, makes an extraordinary distinction between her body and herself. Lying in bed, she shut her eyes and said, 'Mother, you can't see me now.' The mother replied, 'Oh, you little goose, I can see you, but you can't see me.' To which she rejoined, 'Oh, yes, I know you can see my body, mother, but you can't see me.'" This child about the same time was concerned about the reality of her own existence. One day, playing with her dolls, she asked her mother, "Mother, am I real, or only a pretend like my dolls?" Here, again, it is plain, the emphasis was laid on something non-corporeal, something that animated the body, and not a mere bit of mechanism put inside it. Two years later she showed a still sharper intellectual differentiation of the visible and the invisible self. Her brother happened to ask her what they fed the bears on at the Zoo. She answered impulsively, "Dead babies and that sort of thing." On this the mother interposed, "Why, F——, you don't think mothers would give their dead babies to the animals?" To this she replied: "Why not, mother? It's only their bodies. I shouldn't mind your giving mine." It is worth noting that this was the same girl who about the same age took compassion on the poor autumn leaves dying on the ground. Her mind was plainly brooding at this time on the conscious side of existence.
The mystery of self-existence has probably been a puzzle to many a thoughtful child. A lady, a well-known writer of fiction, sends me the following recollection of her early thought on this subject: "The existence of other people seemed natural; it was the 'I' that seemed so strange to me. That I should be able to perceive, to think, to cause other people to act, seemed to me quite to be expected, but the power of feeling and acting and moving about myself, under the guidance of some internal self, amazed me continually."
It is, of course, hard to say how exactly the child thinks about this inner self. It seems to me probable that, allowing for the great difference in reflective power, children in general, like primitive man, tend to materialize it, as indeed we all can not help doing, thinking of it dimly as a filmlike, shadowlike likeness of the visible self. The problem is complicated for the child's consciousness by religious instruction with its idea of an undying soul.
As may be seen in the recollections just quoted, this early thought about self is greatly occupied with its action on the body. Among the many things that puzzled the much-questioning little lad already frequently quoted was this: "How do my thoughts come down from my brain to my mouth, and how does my spirit make my legs walk?" C——'s sister, when four years and ten months old, wanted to know how it is we can move our arm and keep it still when we want to, while the curtain can't move except somebody moves it. The first attempts to solve the puzzle are of course materialistic, as may be seen in our little questioner's delightful notion of thoughts traveling through the body and out at the mouth.
Very carious are the directions of the first thoughts about the past self. The idea of personal identity so dear to philosophers does not appear to be fully reached at first. On the contrary, in the case of the Boy C——, the past self was divorced from the present under the image of the opposite sex in the odd expression "When I was a little girl." This idea I find is not confined to C——. Another little boy when about three years and a half old asked his mother, "Was I a girl when I was small?" and the little questioner whom I have called our zoölogist was also accustomed to, say, "When I was a ickle dirl" (girl). But, funnily enough, this same little boy would also say, "When I was a big man," to describe the state of things long long ago. What does this mean? Is the child apt to think of his life as a series of transformations, of transitions from littleness to bigness and the reverse, and even of transmutation from the one sex into the other? And if so, how does he come by this odd view of life? It seems probable to me that to the child's lively fancy such metamorphoses of the self present themselves as easy and natural. Is not much of his time passed in fancying himself transformed by some wondrous magic into a prince, a fairy, and what not? It may be hard to trace out all the little misapprehensions of language, all the quaint childish inferences, which lie behind such thoughts as these. It is possible, however, after all, that the child does not mean to be taken too literally in this talk about his past self. The little boy's reference to his past girlhood or bigness may be only his bold, figurative way of trying to express the idea of a state very, very different from the present, a phase of his existence which he can not join on to the later and nearer, and which he is forced to regard as another existence.
The difficulty to the child of conceiving of his remote past is surpassed by that of trying to understand the state of things before he was born. The true mystery of birth for the child, the mystery which fascinates and holds his mind, is that of his beginning to be. This was illustrated in C——'s question: "Where was I a hundred years ago? Where was I before I was born?" It remains a mystery to all of us, only that after a time we are wont to put it aside. The child, on the other hand, is stung, so to say, by the puzzle, his whole mind being thrown into energetic movement.
It is curious to note the differences in the attitude of children's minds toward the mystery. The small person accustomed to petting, to be made the center of others' thought and action, may be struck with the blank in the common home life before his arrival. A lady was talking to her little girl H——, aged three years, about something she had done when she was a child. H—— then wanted to know what she was doing then, and was told by her mother, "Oh., you were not here at all." She seemed quite amazed at this, and said: "And what did you do without H——? Did you cry all day for her?" And being informed that this was not the case, she seemed quite unable to realize how her mother could have existed without her. There is something of the charmingly naive egoism of the child here, but there is more, there is the vague expression of the unifying integrating work of love. Lovers, one is told, are wont to think in the same way about the past before they met and became all in all to one another. For this little girl, with her strong sense of human attachment, the idea of a real life without that which gave it warmth and gladness was a contradiction.
Sometimes, again, in the more metaphysical sort of child-head, the puzzle relates to the existence of the outer world of things. We have all been perplexed by the thought of the world's existing before we were, and going on to exist after we cease to be; though here, again, save in the case of the philosopher, perhaps, we get used to the puzzle. Children may be deeply impressed with this apparent contradiction. Jean Ingelow, in her interesting reminiscences, thus writes of her puzzlings on this head: "I went through a world of cogitation as to whether it was really true that anything had been and lived before I was there to see it. . . . I could think there might have been some day when I was very little—as small as the most tiny pebble on the road—but not to have been at all was so very hard to believe." A little boy of five, who was rather given to saying smart things and what looked like a display of his powers, was one day asked by a visitor, who thought to rebuke what she took to be his conceit, "Why, M——, however did the world go round before you came into it?" M—— at once replied: "Why, it didn't go round. It only began five years ago." Was this, as perhaps nine persons out of ten would say, merely a bit of dialectic smartness, the evasion of an awkward question by denying the assumed fact? I am disposed to think that there was more, that the virtuous intention of the visitor had chanced to discover a hidden child-thought, for the child is naturally a Berkeleyan, in so far at least that for him the reality of things is reality for his own sense-perceptions. A world existent before he was on the spot to see it seems to the child's intelligence a contradiction. M——'s expression, "It only began five years ago," was merely a particularly audacious way of putting an idea which lurks, I suspect, in the dim region of many little minds that try to think about things.
Children will sometimes use theological ideas as an escape from this puzzle. The myth of babies being brought down from heaven is particularly helpful. The quick young intelligence sees in this pretty idea a way of prolonging his existence backward. The same little boy that was so concerned to know what his mother had done without him happened one day to be passing a street pump with his mother, when he stopped and observed with perfect gravity, "There are no pumps in heaven where I came from." He had evidently thought out the fiction of the God-sent baby to its logical consequences, and after taxing in vain his prenatal memory had arrived at the conclusion that pumps were not of heaven's furniture.
Children appear to have very vague ideas about the past. On the one hand, as in the case of their measurements of space, their standard of time is not ours; an hour, say the first morning at school, may seem an eternity to a child's consciousness. The days, the months, the years seem to fly faster and faster as we get older. On the other hand, as in the case of space-judgment, too, the child, through his inability to represent time on a large scale, is apt to bring the past too near the present. Mothers and young teachers would be surprised if they knew how children interpreted their first historical instruction introduced by the common phrase "Many years ago," or similar expressions. Here is an illustrative anecdote sent in by the aunt of the child, a boy of five years and a half: "H—— was beginning to have English history read to him, and had got past the 'Romans,' as he said. One day he noticed a locket on my watch chain, and desired that it should be opened. It contained the hair of two babies both dead long before. He asked about them. I told him they died before I was born. 'Did father know them?' he asked. 'No, they died below he was born.' Then who knew them and when did they live?' he asked, and as I hesitated for a moment, seeking how to make the matter plain, Was it in the time of the Romans?' he gravely asked." The odd-looking historical perspective here was quite natural. He had to localize the babies' existence somewhere, and he could only do it conjecturally by reference to the one far-off time of which he had heard, and which presumably covered all that was before the lifetime of himself and of those about him.
We may now pass to another group of children's ideas—a group already alluded to—those which have to do with the invisible world, with death and what follows, with God and heaven. Here we find an odd patchwork of thought, the patchwork-look being due to the heterogeneous sources of the child's information, his own observations of the seen world on the one hand and the ideas supplied him by what is called religious instruction on the other. The characteristic activity of the child-mind, so far as we can disengage it, is seen in the attempt to co-ordinate the disparate and seemingly contradictory ideas into something like a coherent system.
Like the beginning of life, its termination, death, is one of the recurring puzzles of childhood. This might be illustrated from almost any autobiographical reminiscences of childhood. Here indeed, the mystery is made the more impressive and recurrent to consciousness by the element of dread. A little girl of three years and a half asked her mother to put a great stone on her head, because she did not want to die. She was asked how a stone would prevent it, and answered with perfect childish logic, "Because I shall not grow tall if you put a great stone on my head, and people who grow tall get old and then die."
Death seems to be thought of by the unsophisticated child as the body reduced to a motionless state, devoid of breath and unable any longer to feel or think. This is the idea suggested by the sight of dead animals, which but few children, however closely shielded, can escape.
The first way of envisaging death seems to be as a temporary state like sleep, which it so closely resembles. A little boy of two years and a half, on hearing from his mother of the death of,a lady friend, at once asked, "Will Mrs. P—— still be dead when we go back to London?"
The knowledge of burial leads the child to think much of the grave. The instinctive tendency to carry on the idea of life and sentience with the buried body is illustrated in C——'s fear lest the earth should be put over his eyes. The following observation from the Worcester collection illustrates the same tendency: "A few days ago H—— (aged four years and four months) came to me and said, 'Did you know they'd taken Deacon W—— to Grafton?' I, 'Yes.' H——: 'Well, I s'pose it's the best thing. His folks' (meaning his children) 'are buried there, and they wouldn't know he was dead if he was buried here.'" This reversion to savage notions of the dead in speaking of a Christian deacon has its humorous aspect. It is strange to notice here the pertinacity of the natural impulse. All thoughts of heaven were forgotten in the absorbing interest in the fate of the body.
Do children, when left to themselves, work out a theory of another life, that of the soul away from the dead deserted body? It is of course difficult to say, all children receiving some instruction at least of a religious character respecting the future. One of the clearest approaches to spontaneous child-thought that I have met with here is supplied by the account of the Boston children. "Many children," writes Prof. Stanley Hall, "locate all that is good and imperfectly known in the country, and nearly a dozen volunteered the statement that good people, when they die, go to the country—even here from Boston." The reference to good people shows that the children are here trying to give concrete definiteness to something that has been said by another. These children had not, one suspects, received much systematic religious instruction. They had perhaps gathered in a casual way the information that good people, when they die, are to go to a nice place. Children pick up much from the talk of their better-instructed companions which they only half understand. In any case it is interesting to note that they placed their heaven in the country, the unknown beautiful region where all sorts of luxuries grow. How like the idea of the happy hunting grounds to which the American Indian consigns his dead chief! One would have been glad to examine these Boston children as to how they combined this belief in going to the country with the burial of the body in the city.
In the case of children who pick up something of orthodox religious creed the idea of going to heaven has somehow to be grasped and put side by side with that of burial. How the child-mind behaves here it is hard to say. It is probable that there are many comfortable and stupid children who are not troubled by any appearance of contradiction. As we saw in the remark of the American child about the deacon, the child-mind may oscillate between the indigenous idea that the man lives on in a sense underground and the imported idea that he has passed into heaven. Yet undoubtedly the more thoughtful kind of child does try to bring the two ideas into agreement. The boy C—— attempted to do this first of all by supposing that the people who went to heaven (the good) were not buried at all; and later by postponing the going to heaven, the true entrance being that of the body by way of the tomb. Other ways of getting a consistent view of things are also hit upon. Thus a little girl of five years, probably starting from the knowledge that it is the body—which she interpreted as the trunk—which is put under ground, and perhaps following the hint given by a drawing of cherub heads, thought that the head only passed to heaven. A little boy of six, reflecting the early process of human thought as still registered in such words as spirit (cf. πνένμα), held that God took the breath to heaven.
In what precise manner children imagine the entrance into heaven to take place I do not feel certain. The legend of being borne by angels through the air probably assists here. It has been suggested to me that the theory entertained by many children that old people shrink and become of the size of children is connected with this thought about going to heaven. Just as we arrive on earth as babies in the arms of angels, so growing small again we are carried back from earth to heaven. This may be so in certain cases, although some of my facts show that the child thinks of old people as getting small without any direct reference to death.
Coming now to ideas of supernatural beings, it is to be noted that children do not wholly depend for their conceptions of these on religious or other instruction. The liveliness of their imagination, and their impulses of dread and trust, push them on to a spontaneous creation of invisible beings. In C——'s haunting belief in the wolf, we see a sort of survival of the tendency of the savage to people the unseen world with monsters in the shape of demons. Another little boy of rather more than two years old who had received no religious instruction acquired a similar haunting dread of "cocky," the name he had given to the cocks and hens when in the country. He localized this evil thing in the bathroom of the house, and he attributed pains in the stomach to the malign influence of "cocky." Fear created the gods, according to Lucretius, and in this invention of evil beings bent on injuring him the child of a civilized community probably reproduces the process by which man's thoughts were first troubled by the apprehension of invisible and supernatural agents.
On the other hand, we find that the childish impulse to seek aid leads to a belief in a more benign sort of being. C——'s stanch belief in his fairies who could do the most wonderful things for him, and more especially his invention of the rain-god (the Rainer), are a striking illustration of the working of this impulse.
Even here, of course, while we can detect the play of a spontaneous impulse, we have to recognize the influence of instruction. C——'s tutelary deities the fairies were, no doubt, suggested by his fairy stories; even though, as in the myth of the Rainer, we see how his active little mind proceeded to work out the hints given him in quite original shapes. This original adaptation shows itself on a large scale where something like systematic religious instruction is supplied. An intelligent child of four or five will in the laboratory of his mind turn the ideas of God and the devil to strange account. It would be interesting, if we could only get it, to have a collection of all the hideous eerie forms by which the young imagination has endeavored to interpret the notion of the devil. His renderings of the idea of God appear to show less of picturesque diversity.
It is to be noted at the outset that for the child's intelligence the ideas introduced by religious instruction at once graft themselves on to those of fairy lore. Mr. Spencer has somewhere ridiculed our university type of education with its juxtaposition of classical polytheism and Hebrew monotheism. One might perhaps with still greater reason satirize the mixing up of fairy story and Bible story in the instruction of a child of five. Who can wonder that the little brain should throw together all these wondrous invisible forms, and picture God as an angry or amiable old giant, the angels as fairies, and so forth? In George Sand's child-romance of Corambé we see how far this blending of the ideas of the two domains of the invisible world can be carried.
For the rest, the child in his almost pathetic effort to catch the drift of this religious instruction proceeds in his characteristic matter-of-fact way by reducing the abstruse symbols to terms of familiar everyday experience. He has to understand, and he can only understand by assimilating these exalted conceptions to homely, terrestrial facts.
Hence, as we all know, the frank, undisguised materialism of the child's theology. God is imaged as a man preternaturally big—as a big blue man, according to one child; as a huge being with limbs spread all over the sky, according to another; as so immensely tall that he could stand with one foot on the ground and touch the clouds, to another; strong like the giant his prototype. He dwells in heaven—that is, just the other side of the blue and white floor, the sky. He is so near the clouds that, according to one small boy (our little friend the zoölogist), the clouds are a sort of pleasance, made up of hills and trees which God has made to saunter in. To other children he seems still lower down; one little girl of five being in the habit of climbing an old apple tree to visit him and tell him what she wanted. With some others, on the contrary, God's abode is put farther away in one of the stars.
As we have seen, the childish intelligence is apt to envisage God as a citizen properly housed and leading the life of a sort of great lord in a big house or palace. He gets hungry like mortals, and has his regular meals. He has, according to some of the Boston children, birds, children, and Santa Claus living with him; curious company which clearly illustrates how religious instruction is aided by observation and by mythology. By one imaginative boy (our zoölogist) he was said prettily to receive visits from the birds, and to have the nightingales and the other birds to sing to him. The Californian children spoken of by Prof. Earl Barnes appear to beautify heaven spontaneously by making it a kind of park or pleasance with trees, flowers, and birds.
While thus relegated to the sublime regions of the sky God is supposed to be doing things, and of course doing them for us, sending down rain and so forth. What seems to impress children most, especially boys, in the traditional account of God, is his power of making things. He is emphatically the artificer, the Demiurgos who not only has made the world, the stars, etc., but is still kept actively employed by human needs. According to the Boston children, he fabricates all sorts of things from babies to money, and the angels work for him. The boy has a great admiration for the maker, and our small zoölogist when three years and ten months old, on seeing a group of workingmen returning from their work, asked his astonished mother, "Mamma, is these gods?" "God," retorted his mother, "why?" "Because," he went on, "they make houses and churches, mamma, same as God makes moons and people and ickle dogs." Another child, watch-, ing a man repairing the telegraph wires that rested on a high pole at the top of a lofty house, asked if he was God. In this way the child is apt to think of God descending to earth in order to make things. Indeed, in their prayers children are wont to summon God as a sort of good genius to do something difficult for them. A boy of four years and a half was one day in the kitchen with his mother, and would keep taking up the knives and using them. At last his mother said, "L——, you will cut your fingers, and if you do they won't grow again." He thought for a minute and then said, with a tone of deep conviction: "But God would make them grow. He made me, so he could mend my fingers, and if I were to cut the ends off I should say, 'God, God, come to your work,' and he would say, 'All right.'"
While this way of recognizing God as the busy artificer is common, it is not universal. The child's deity, like the man's (as Feuerbach showed), is a projection of himself; and as there are lazy children, so there is a child's God who is a luxurious person, sitting in a lovely armchair all day, and at most putting out (from heaven) the moon and stars at night.
With this admiration of the doer there goes naturally that of skill and practical intelligence. A little boy once said to his mother he would like to go to heaven to see Jesus. Asked why, he replied: "Oh! he's a great conjurer." The child had shortly before seen some human conjuring, and used this experience in a thoroughly childish fashion by envisaging in a new light the New Testament miracle-worker.
The idea of God's omniscience seems to come naturally to children. They are in the way of looking up to older folks as possessing boundless information. C——'s belief in the all-knowingness of the preacher, and his sister's belief in the all-knowingness of the policeman, show how readily the child-mind falls in with the notion.
On the other hand I have heard of the dogma of God's infinite knowledge provoking a skeptical attitude in the child-mind. Our astute little zoölogist, when five years and seven months old, in a talk with his mother, impiously sought to tone down the doctrine of omniscience this way: "I know a ickle more than Kitty, and you know a ickle more than me; and God knows a ickle more than you, I s'pose; then he can't know so very much after all."
Another of the divine attributes does undoubtedly shock the childish intelligence—I mean God's omnipresence. It seems indeed amazing that the so-called instructor of the child should talk to him almost in the same breath about God's inhabiting heaven and his being everywhere present. Here, I think, we see most plainly the superiority of the child's mind to the adult's, in that it does not let contradictory ideas lie peacefully side by side, but makes them face one another. To the child, as we have seen, God lives in the sky, though he is quite capable of coming down to earth when he wishes, or when he is politely asked to do so. Hence he rejects the idea of a diffused ubiquitous existence. The idea apt to be introduced early as a moral instrument, that God can always see the child, is especially resented by that small, sensitive, proud creature, to whom the ever-following eyes of the portrait on the wall seem a persecution. Miss Shinn, a careful American observer of children, has written strongly, yet not too strongly, on the repugnance of the child-mind to this idea of an ever-spying eye. My observations fully confirm her conclusions here. Miss Shinn speaks of a little girl who, on learning that she was under this constant surveillance, declared that she "would not be so tagged." A little English boy of three, on being informed by his older sister that God can see and watch us, while we can not see him, thought awhile, and then in an apologetic tone remarked, "I'm very sorry, dear, I can't (b) elieve you." What the sister aged fifteen thought of this is not recorded.
When the idea is accepted odd ideas are excogitated for the purpose of making it intelligible. Thus one child thought of God as a very small person who could easily pass through the keyhole. The idea of God's huge framework illustrated above is probably the result of an attempt to figure the conception of omnipresence. Curious conclusions, too, are sometimes drawn from the supposition. Thus a little girl, of three years and nine months, one day said to her mother in the abrupt childish manner: "Mr. C——" (a gentleman she had known who had just died) "is in this room." Her mother, naturally a good deal startled, answered, "Oh, no!" Whereupon the child resumed: "Yes, he is. You told me he is with God, and you told me God was everywhere; so, as Mr. C—— is with God, he must be in this room." With such trenchant logic does the child's intelligence cut through the tangle of incongruous ideas which we try to pass off as methodical instruction.
It might easily be supposed that the child's readiness to pray to God is inconsistent with what has just been said. Yet I think there is no real inconsistency. The child's idea of prayer appears to be that of sending a message to some one at a distance. The epistolary manner noticeable in C—— 's prayers seems to illustrate this. The mysterious whispering is, I suspect, supposed in some inscrutable fashion, known only to the child, to transmit itself to the divine ear.
Of the child's belief in God's goodness it is needless to say more. For these little worshipers he is emphatically the friend in need who can help them out of their difficulties in a hundred ways. Our small zoölogist thanked God for making "the sea, the holes with crabs in them, and the trees, the fields, and the flowers," and regretted that he did not follow up the making of the animals we eat by doing the cooking also. As their prayers show, he is ever ready to make nice presents, from a fine day to a toy gun, and will do them any kindness if only they ask prettily. Happy the reign of this untroubled optimism! For many children, alas! it is all too short, the color of their life making them lose faith in all kindness and think of God as cross and even as cruel.
One of the real difficulties of theology for the child's intelligence is the doctrine of God's eternity. Puzzled at first with the fact of his own beginning, he comes soon to be troubled with the idea of God's having had no beginning. C—— showed a common trend of childish thought in asking what God was like in his younger days. The question "Who made God?" seems to be one to which all inquiring young minds are led at a certain stage of child-thought. The metaphysical impulse of the child to follow back the chain of events ad infinitum finds the ever-existent, unchanging God very much in the way. He wants to get behind this "always was" of God's existence, just as, at an earlier stage of his development, he wanted to get behind the barrier of the blue hills. This is quaintly illustrated in the reasoning of a child observed by M. Egger. Having learned from his mother that before the world there was only God the Creator, he asked, "And before God?" The mother having replied, "Nothing," he at once interpreted her answer by saying, "No, there must have been the place (i. e., the empty space) where God is." So determined is the little mind to get back to the "before," and to find something, if only a prepared place.
Other mysteries of which the child comes to hear find their characteristic solution in the busy little brain. A friend tells me that when a child he was much puzzled by the doctrine of the Trinity. He happened to be an only child, and so he was led to put a meaning into it by assimilating it to the family group, in which the Holy Ghost became the mother.
I have sought to show that children try to bring meaning and a consistent meaning into the jumble of communications about the unseen world to which they are apt to be treated. I agree with Miss Shinn that children about three and four are not disposed to theologize, and are for the most part simply confused by the accounts of God which they receive. Many of the less bright of these small minds may remain untroubled by the incongruities that lurk in the mixture of ideas, half mythological or poetical, half theological, which are thus introduced. Such children are no worse than many adults who have a wonderful power of entertaining contradictory ideas by keeping them safely apart in separate chambers of their brain. The intelligent, thoughtful child, on the other hand, tries at least to reconcile and to combine in an intelligible whole. His mind has not, like that of so many adults, become habituated to the water-tight-compartment arrangement, in which there is no possibility of a leakage of ideas from one group into another. Hence his puzzlings, his questionings, his brave attempts to reduce the chaos to order. I think it is about time to ask whether parents are doing wisely in thus adding to the perplexing problems of early days.
- For the facts see Preyer, Die Seele des Kindes, cap. xxii. Tracy, The Psychology of Childhood, p. 47.
- See the very full account of the mirror experiment in Preyer's book (3te Auflage), p. 459 et seq.
- Preyer argues that the child does not at first hear "I," "me," etc., the nurse and mother speaking to him in the third person: "Nurse says so," "Roland must be good," etc. Exactly. But why do the mother and others make the change about this time, and begin to say I and you? Is it not precisely because the child is making the advance, and showing that he can understand the language of adults?
- According to Prof. Earl Barnes, the Californian children seem to occupy themselves but little with the devil or hell. See his interesting paper, Theological Life of a Californian Child, Pedagogical Seminary, vols, ii, iii, pp. 442 et seq.
- I am here quoting largely from the material collected by Prof. Stanley Hall.
- Overland Monthly, January, 1894, p. 12.