The fundamental hypothesis of genetic epistemology is that there is a parallelism between the progress made in the logical and rational organization of knowledge and the corresponding formative psychological processes. With that hypothesis, the most fruitful, most obvious field of study would be the reconstituting of human history—the history of human thinking in prehistoric man. Unfortunately, we are not very well informed in the psychology of primitive man, but there are children all around us, and it is in studying children that we have the best chance of studying the development of logical knowledge, physical knowledge, and so forth.
If one might wish for impossibilities, I might then wish that my children might be well versed in physical science, but in due subordination to the fulness and freshness of their knowledge on moral subjects. ... Rather than have it the principal thing in my son's mind, I would gladly have him think that the sun went round the earth, and that the stars were so many spangles set in the bright blue firmament.
“I don’t like it, the 3-year-old muttered to herself as the guests left. Miserable throughout her older sister’s birthday party, she was now growing angry. “I want Ally’s doll, not this one!” Her parents had bought her a consolation present, but the strategy went down like a bomb. The girl threw her doll to the floor. “Ally’s doll! Ally’s doll!” She began to cry. You can imagine a parent making any of several choices in the face of this bubbling brew.
“You seem sad. Are you sad? is what the girl’s dad said. The little girl nodded, still angry, too. The dad continued. “I think I know why. You’re sad because Ally’s gotten all the presents. You only got one!” The little girl nodded again. “You want the same number and you can’t have it, and that’s unfair and that makes you sad.” The dad seemed to be pouring it on. “Whenever somebody gets something I want and I don’t, I get sad, too.” Silence.
Then the dad said the line most characteristic of a verbalizing parent. “We have a word for that feeling, honey”, he said. “Do you want to know what that word is?” She whimpered, “OK.” He held her in his arms. “We call it being jealous. You wanted Ally’s presents, and you couldn’t have them. You were jealous.” She cried softly but was beginning to calm down. “Jealous”, she whispered. “Yep”, Dad replied, “and it’s an icky feeling.” “I been jealous all day”, she replied, nestling into her daddy’s big strong arms.
This big-hearted father is good at a) labeling his feelings and b) teaching his daughter to label hers. He knows what sadness in his own heart feels like and announces it easily. He knows what sadness in his child’s heart looks like, and he is teaching her to announce it, too. He is also good at teaching joy, anger, disgust, concern, fear—the entire spectrum of his little girl’s experience.
Research shows that this labeling habit is a dominant behavior for all parents who raise happy children. Kids who are exposed to this parenting behavior on a regular basis become better at self-soothing, are more able to focus on tasks, and have more successful peer relationships. Sometimes knowing what to do is tougher than knowing what to say. But sometimes saying is all that’s needed.
Parents who raise kids like my friend Doug, the valedictorian, have this type of courage in spades. They are fearless in the face of raging floods of emotions from their child. They don’t try to shoot down emotions, ignore them, or let them have free reign over the welfare of the family. Instead, these parents get involved in their kids strong feelings. They have four attitudes toward emotions (yes, their meta-emotions):
• They do not judge emotions. • They acknowledge the reflexive nature of emotions. • They know that behavior is a choice, even though an emotion is not. • They see a crisis as a teachable moment.
Thousands of experiments confirm that babies learn about their environment through a series of increasingly self-corrected ideas. They experience sensory observations, make predictions about what they observe, design and deploy experiments capable of testing their predictions, evaluate their tests, and add that knowledge to a self-generated, growing database. The style is naturally aggressive, wonderfully flexible, and annoyingly persistent. They use fluid intelligence to extract information, then crystallize it into memory. Nobody teaches infants how to do this, yet they do it all over the world. This hints at the behavior’s strong evolutionary roots. They are scientists, as their parents suspected all along.
We could also immediately change workplaces to allow for part-time work that has similar benefits and pay to full-time work and to allow for flexible hours and career paths. Our own workplaces, the universities, provide both very good and very bad examples. For years professors have worked at home and determined their own schedules with no loss of productivity. On the other hand, the career structure of universities is deeply in conflict with the imperatives of evolution—the years when we expect academics to work the hardest and longest hours are exactly the years when women can have children.
The very automaticity of our response to babies suggests that it can be combined with doing other things, as it surely was in the Pleistocene. Perhaps the telecommuting home office with the crib next to the fax machine will turn out to be the contemporary equivalent of the baby in the sling on his mother's back or the father plowing next to his children. Perhaps the circle of fellow workers and friends will help replace the extended family group. Grandparents and uncles and aunts have also disappeared from children's lives just when they are most needed, and grandchildren and nieces and nephews have sadly disappeared from our lives. Perhaps we will construct institutions that allow people whose own children have grown up, or who don't have children, to be involved with other people's children.
Vygotsky saw that adults, and especially parents, were a kind of tool that children used to solve the problem of knowledge. in contrast to our—probably necessary—parental megalomania. Vygotsky noticed, for example, how adults, quite unconsciously, adjusted their behavior to give children just the information they needed to solve the problems that were most important to them. Children used adults to discover the particularities of their culture and society.
But Vygotsky also thought that the adult influence on children's minds was fundamentally biological, a part of our basic human nature. He emphasized the role of language. Language is a natural, biological, and unique feature of human beings, but it is also the medium by which we transmit our cultural inventions. Just as Piaget saw that learning was innate. Vygotsky saw that culture was natural.
A child's world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood. If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation form the sources of our strength.
If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder without any such gift from the fairies, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in. Parents often have a sense of inadequacy when confronted on the one hand with the eager, sensitive mind of a child and on the other with a world of complex physical nature, inhabited by a life so various and unfamiliar that it seems hopeless to reduce it to order and knowledge. In a mood of self-defeat, they exclaim, "How can I possibly teach my child about nature--why, I don't even know one bird from another!"
I sincerely believe that for the child, and for the parent seeking to guide him, it is not half so important to know as to feel. If facts are seeds taht later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow. The years of early childhood are the time to prepare soil. Once the emotions have been aroused--a sense of the beautiful, the excitement of the new and the unknown, a feeling of sympathy, pity, admiration or love--then we wish for knowledge about the object of our emotional response. Once found, it has lasting meaning. It is more important to pave the way for the child to want to know than to put him on a diet of facts he is not ready to assimilate.
If you are a parent who feels he has little nature lore at his disposal there is still much you can do for your child. With him, wherever you are and whatever your resources, you can still look up at the sky--its dawn and twilight beauties, its moving clouds, its stars by night. You can listen to the wind, whether it blows with majestic voice through a forest or sings a many-voiced chorus around the eaves of your house or the corners of your apartment building, and in the listening, you can gain magical release for your thoughts. You can still feel the rain on your face and think of its long journey, its many transmutations, from sea to air to earth. Even if you are a city dweller, you can find some place, perhaps a park or a golf course, where you can observe the mysterious migrations of the birds and the changing seasons. And with your child you can ponder the myster of a growing seed, even if it be only one planted in a pot of earth in the kitchen window.
"Children who had the greatest self-control in primary school and preschool ages were most likely to have fewer health problems when they reached their 30s," says Terrie Moffitt, a professor of psychology at Duke University and King's College London.
Moffitt and a team of researchers studied a group of 1,000 people born in New Zealand in 1972 and 1973, tracking them from birth to age 32. The new study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is the best evidence yet on the payoff for learning self-discipline early on.
The researchers define self-control as having skills like conscientiousness, self-discipline and perseverance, as well as being able to consider the consequences of actions in making decisions.
The children who struggled with self-control as preschoolers were three times as likely to have problems as young adults. They were more prone to have a criminal record; more likely to be poor or have financial problems; and they were more likely to be single parents.
An estimated 181 654 (95% confidence interval: 148 548–214 761) children younger than 2 years of age were treated in emergency departments in the United States for injuries related to cribs, playpens, and bassinets during the 19-year study period. There was an average of 9561 cases per year or an average of 12.1 injuries per 10 000 children younger than 2 years old per year. Most of the injuries involved cribs (83.2%), followed by playpens (12.6%) and bassinets (4.2%). The most common mechanism of injury was a fall from a crib, playpen, or bassinet, representing 66.2% of injuries. Soft-tissue injuries comprised the most common diagnosis (34.1%), and the most frequently injured body region was the head or neck (40.3%). Patients with fractures were admitted 14.0% of the time, making them 5.45 (95% confidence interval: 3.80–7.80) times more likely to be hospitalized than patients with other types of injury. Children younger than 6 months were 2.97 (95% confidence interval: 2.07–4.24) times more likely to be hospitalized than older children.