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Guidance of Child Development

By Harold Kelman

[This lecture was recorded and included in the New York City Municipal Archives: WNYC Collection. Described as an “ Attempt to define ‘childhood,’ ” this lecture observes that it “cannot be defined by arbitrary physical attribute[s],” and childhood a process that is both physical and mental. It offers “Parenting guidance related to nurturing children and allowing them independence,” and a “Discussion of children with dominant personalities who are either moving toward, away [from], or against people,” and acknowledges the difficulty of fostering constructive child development (quotations from  — AKS]

Guidance of Child Development
Monday, December 12, 1949

Transcribed from NYC Municipal Archives audio recording (hosted on

Monday, December 12, 1949

Being a parent is a full-time job. I’m assuming that you are interested in this subject because of your realization of that, whether you are a parent or a professional worker dealing with the various aspects of child development. Despite the variety of your experience, the single common purpose must be to gain some knowledge which will help in achieving happy, productive children. Because of the immensity of the topic, I’ll have to confine this discussion to certain generalities which form the basis of our theories about child development. We’ll first discuss what is meant by “childhood,” or more precisely, what’s meant by “development in childhood.” Then, we shall take up at some length certain matters which involve the guides. After this, we’ll focus on the child and on his interpersonal relations, and finally, we shall take up some of the problems one meets when childhood does not proceed along healthy lines.

First, what do we mean by “childhood”? The precise limitations of that period we call “childhood” cannot be defined by any simple criterion. Gesell says that it takes about twenty-four years for an American youth to reach maturity, and that in a biological sense, the span of human infancy extends from the zero hour of birth to the middle twenties. Other writers give a physiological-limited childhood, that is, when puberty begins. But we avoid a real understanding of child development if we attempt to make a division between childhood and adulthood on any mechanical basis, such as age or grade in school. And if we limit ourselves to certain physiological changes which mark puberty, we are also making a division which is not in accord with reality. I should like to submit the following as a more dynamic approach, and therefore one which will give us a more useful conception of development: It is far more important to consider what happens to the child, in the childhood period, than to set some arbitrary physical attribute as the upper limit of the period.

First, we know that childhood development is a process — and as such, involves change, growth, movement towards some end. We know that it is a complex process, and does not occur in a vacuum. One often speaks about the child as being influenced in one way or another, but a more real way to put it would be to say that many things, including the food he eats as well as the emotional environment, are themselves intimately synthesized into the end-product — the individual.

Now, what is the direction of this movement? What is the goal of this process? I believe the most concise statement would be, “The goal of development is the achievement of the self — spontaneous, creative, and mutually related to one’s fellows.” We shall have more to say about this goal, but for now, let’s say that childhood is the period during which development occurs, and specifically the period during which the most rapid and the most profound development for the whole span of life occurs. You well know that development never ceases, and so you might say that this definition of childhood would apply to all ages. In a sense, that’s true — and rather than establish a precise end to childhood, which even on casual scrutiny could be disputed, I prefer to think in terms of the process, and leave the term “child,” or “adult,” to the name-callers.

Now, being a “self” — independent and spontaneous — is not the prerogative of age. Unfortunately, too many people become aged without ever developing a self. A child of five may be as much a self as a man of forty who has arrived at this desirable status by living. But the important difference for us is that the six-year-old has a much more tenuous grip on this self. He must still consolidate and extend this self, and is much more vulnerable to profound changes of a constructive and destructive nature. Our aim is to gain some understanding of this emerging self, so that we may more certainly guide it to a position of invulnerability, where the term “maturity” or “adulthood” can have a functional as well as a chronological meaning.

It is necessary to make some further remarks to distinguish our dynamic approach, because so much has been written about the oral, or grasping; and the anal, or obstinate, meticulous characteristics of the child. We hear, too, about the pleasure principle, and the implication that we are fundamentally destructive, and must be hobbled or sublimated to make us fit for polite society. This is a pessimistic, practically misanthropic point of view. It is not necessary here to dilate on the arguments against this approach to understanding child development. However, I should mention that this classical approach is limited by its emphasis on inherent, rigid, though modifiable instincts, only casually related to our culture. It is an exclusively biological approach. For us, development is biological and cultural, and both aspects are intimately related — not one primary, and the other secondary, both — are the matrix of growth. An individual is not a grasping, receiving type of person because he had inadequate oral gratification in his suckling period, but he’s this way rather because this is his solution to many relationships which have left him dissatisfied. An individual does not become sexually promiscuous because he was sexually stimulated as a child, but because he finds this the only way he can approximate the expression of his self — being unable to do so in any other area. The achievement of a self, of a healthy individuality, is the goal of a dynamic process which involves physiological maturation in the establishment of interpersonal relationships. And so we shall examine some aspects of the interpersonal relationships of a child, and, as our title indicates, the interpersonal relationships of the guides.

Now first, the guides. I started by saying that being a parent is a full-time job. And it is the parental guidance we shall talk of here. Teachers and other parent-surrogates differ in some respects from parents, but there are enough similarities to make this single focus adequate for this discussion.

Parents are not husbands and wives; they are fathers and mothers. This may seem to belabor a point or to quibble about definitions. But I think that you will agree with me that there are fundamental differences. Before conception, the potential parent sees the other as a loved one — a mutual partner in living, shrew, or a burdensome drain — depending upon how the marriage resolves itself. Immediately, conception occurs; a new relationship develops. All the emotions of the husband and wife become re-oriented toward the pending event. The child is wanted, or not wanted. The question of fear at a new responsibility, or pride in the coming heir, or dismay that another bond is being established that will make severance from a difficult situation less possible, comes to the fore. And it is not only in the are of consciousness that these factors appear, but we known the profound effect approaching parenthood has in stirring up conflicts, probably unconscious, whose pseudo-solutions are now being threatened. Long before the actual birth, the child has become a participant in a human relationship, and this participation never ceases throughout his entire life.

The first step, then, in the guidance of healthy child development must deal with parents. We have to examine and understand them — ourselves, if we are the parents. What are the goals in life of the parents, and how does a child, or children, affect these goals? Is the relationship of one or both parents so barren that the child is sought to fill it? If so, is this not a burden far too heavy to place on the shoulders of a little being already grappling with a big task? Is the relationship of the one parents to the other so dependent that the child becomes an intruder, and therefore is forced to compete with a more experienced adversary? Does the parent feel so inadequate and powerless that the child — a weaker one — becomes the only person the parent can dominate, and so the recipient of the whole of the parents’ hostility? Does the father, in his own pseudo-solved life, reject the mother? And does the latter, in desperation, turn to the child for the fulfillment she cannot get normally? Or — and if I have expressed too many sordid relationships, first, I have to point to unfortunate reality as blame — are the parents mutually fulfilled, spontaneous, expressive selves for whom the child is another manifestation of their creativity? A child of this latter relationship, as we shall see, will have problems, but he is in a much better position to solve them.

Here is a situation which is quite prevalent among families in which mother was a budding careerist prior to marriage. She desires marriage and wants to have children. She discusses all the pros and cons with herself and with her husband, and the arrangement arrived at is that she shall become pregnant and start start the family for, after all, a woman, to be fulfilled, should have children, she says. But as she approaches term, she has to leave her job. And even though it’s called a leave of absence, a shadow begins to appear on the horizon. The months after delivery are full ones, bringing new joys, new problems, new relationships. But somehow or other, this new relationship and the changes made in the pre-mother relationship don’t seem to satisfy. Being, for her, a mother, is not as gratifying as being a wife and a careerist. Baby grows, goes to nursery school as all the neighbors’ children do; mother reads all the books on child care, she believes in giving the child responsibility when he can accept it. In short, she does everything possible, consciously, to be a good mother. But the thought of ever having a second child never enters her mind — or if it does, it’s abhorrent. And getting back to business, and away from domestic activities, looms as beauteous as Shangri-La. No matter how admirable are the conscious goals of the mother, unconscious needs keep hers an only child. To what extent the child also feels rejected, in the way, and fails to develop a feeling of self-esteem, depends on the quality of the solution the mother makes to her own problems and the role the father plays in the relationship.

I don’t want to put the burden of responsibility on mothers, even though the example above emphasized her role. To establish a balance, I must cite another case in which the more obvious responsibility for responsibilities rested with the father.

Michael, a sixteen-year-old boy, is referred to the clinic because he has been a truant from school, is wasteful of money, travels with bad companions, has stolen his father’s car for joy-rides, and it is suspected that he has been involved in some pilfering in his friends’ homes. Here’s a thumbnail sketch of his father: he is a very successful person in business, but his apparent success has to be constantly fortified by what Veblen has called so well, “conspicuous consumption.” A more homely expression would be “keeping up with, and exceeding, the Joneses.” Therefore, to prove to the world that he is successful in his personal, as well as his business life, he has to become a parent. But the child becomes only one more person in the world with whom a relationship has to be established. And, as the relationships one establishes usually follow the same pattern, son Michael must be impressed, too, by his father’s success and greatness. Son gets the most expensive clothes and fishing tackle, but he cannot recite a single exploit of his own without having to hear about “When I was a boy … .” When visitors are in the home, Michael’s only importance is as the object of his father’s boasting. And usually, the achievements attributed to Michael are false and exaggerated. The demands made on Michael to approximate this false image far exceed his abilities, and he has before him constantly the falsity which makes up the veneer of his father’s life. Michael’s behavior is the only way he can deal with life, given the example of such a father.

Let me mention another way in which initially poor parental material can change to better. The Bible records that the sins of the father shall be visited on the sons. It is a commonplace that children mirror their parents. Is it not logical, then, for parents who wish to assay their work to look at their children as mirrors? When we know what to expect of our child, we should be able to recognize when something is wrong. If something is wrong, as shown by the child’s behavior, then we should ceaselessly examine the possible cause. And from our discussion already, you can see that the first point of focus must be yourself and your partner as a parent. If we are honest with ourselves, the first step in correcting the defect is made by this type of self-scrutiny. Sometimes, professional aid is necessary, but more often than not, difficulties in the parental relationship to the child can be worked out within the family. So many of the problems arise from superficial things or mere ignorance. Just learning, for instance, that one does not spoil a child by picking him up or rocking him when he cries is often sufficient to remove the greatest source of sleepless nights. Just learning that children normally find their sexual organs and investigate them in a masturbatory-like manner is often enough to eliminate embarrassment and its traumatic restraint of the child. A threatening, restraining, dirty attitude by others, particularly the parents, makes normal masturbation pathological in many instances.

As discussed, even here the importance of an interpersonal relationship — namely, in mothering and fostering adequate breathing. Her point, which I agree with completely, is that handling a child, giving it the security of warm, firm arms; it is as important, or more important, than giving him the proper formula, or even of greater importance than breastfeeding. The obvious practical aspect of this is that in breastfeeding, or in bottle-feeding, the child is to be held, caressed, and not merely placed in juxtaposition to the breast or the propped-up bottle.

The first independent action by the infant is the pattern for his whole development. He grows by the maturation of countless biological patterns and their mutual integration. Think of the process of grasping: directed arm and hand movements. Then, control of his lower limbs, in creeping and crawling; then finally, the complete integration of the graceful propulsion that involves swinging arms, balanced body, and striding legs. He grows by the establishment of relationships — his right hand to his left hand, his separate body parts to the integrated whole. The child grows further by the establishing of relations to objects external to himself — to his doll, or his crib; to his mother or father, or siblings. And throughout all this growth, there are before him the examples of other people who are weak or strong, affectionate or rejecting, honest or sincere, helpful or thwarting. These examples are, first, entirely within his family. Later, they become the kids in school, the radio serial, the comic book Superman, the teacher, and so on. The whole world is changing, as he is, and it is at once exciting, challenging, hostile, encouraging. Mother has to help here, too: just because crawling dirties clothes is no reason for confining the baby to the crib or to the carriage. Eating is another enterprise the child wants to attempt, and I don’t have to describe the mess that is bound to ensue. But the first consideration has to be that the child is trying to do something for himself, and not that the floor is a mess, and the clean dress has to be removed. And if you fear the child will not get enough to eat — an unlikely possibility if you give a large serving and assure its being thick enough so that at least some of it remains on the spoon — you can always help in the finishing-up process. Here is a point, however, where the parent’s own personality plays a great part. Some people cannot stand dirt — even to the point of developing nausea when baby’s cereal-smeared face is before them. Again, it is far less appetizing for the child to see the green face of his mother before him than to have the Pablum in his ears; and much more important for his own development that he be able to feed himself than not. If someone else can’t be present, or the child cannot be placed in a safe chair to eat alone, Mother just has to accomplish the difficult task of being in the room and just not looking. I haven’t suggested that such a delicate stomach is pathological in a person, but psychiatric help would not be wasted in such a case.

And so we can follow the developing child through more and more explorations, into more complex relationships, which carry him from the intimacy of his family, to the broader social groupings he becomes a part of. In all this process, he is trying new things, gaining strength, finding himself. Through all this, his parents are his guides — his aids to progress or to retardation. For instance, when he asks, “Where do babies come from?” he is not trying to find out about the intimacies of mother and daddy; but he wants to know something about himself. This is his first investigation into history. When he wants to know why he has a penis and sister does not, he wants to learn more about himself, in relation to other people. If he receives answers to his questions which are consistent with his degree of understanding, he gains more and more security in the knowledge of his self.

We should recognize that the big question being asked is, “What am I?” The first consideration is never to brush the child off impatiently, but to show him that above all else, he is a person, to be loved, worthy, and part of your family circle.

Dr. Horney has formulated three directions a child can take when confronted with a hostile environment. The child may move toward people, away from people, or against people. We shall mention some of the specific activities seen in children which should make us aware that the child is facing a hostile environment, and if we wish to be good guides, they should be a signal to make some changes.

And what sort of movements should we strive to achieve in being good guides? We want our child to be independent, but not isolated; we want him to be expressive, but not compulsive; we want him to be cooperative, but not submissive; in essence, we wish him to be mutually related to his fellows. We wish him not to move toward, away from, or against people, but with people.

Let us take some typical examples from the complaints made when a child is referred to a child guidance agency:

Susan is brought because at age 5, she is sucking her finger, masturbating, fights with other children in the neighborhood, and has tantrums when her mother refuses to buy a new toy she wants. Charles, six years old, plays nicely by himself, or even with one other child, but if a third child joins the group, he immediately runs home. He also has a panic when, in playing, the other child wants him to be the patient or the bad boy who has to stand in the corner. Both these children show common features. Both find their calmest gratification alone: Susan, by her sucking and masturbating, and Charles, by his solitary play. In a sense, both have moved away from people to seek their satisfactions; for both, being with others is a threat; and both run away, while Susan also fights — that is, she moves against. And the guides for both these children have the same failing: both are more interested in being considered good mothers by their neighbors and by their grandparents than in actually being good mothers. Both fathers collaborate with the mothers, and are only interested in peace and quiet when they come home from work or have their weekend off. Both children are finding the environment hostile and are reacting to it.

Or, another example: Johnny’s mother was called to school and told that he needed more disciplining at home, and that if his conduct continued as in the past term, the school would refuse to take him back. It was recommended by the principal that he be sent to a military academy. Incidentally, Johnny also finds it difficult to go to bed without an argument, and bitterly resents being told he can’t go to the movies on Saturday with the rest of the boys because the picture is not educational. I should mention that Johnny is thirteen. Are you surprised that he devotes his energies to moving against authority?

It is a little more difficult to find examples of children who are brought for treatment because their dominant behavior is moving toward people. These children are usually so accommodating and humble that parents think they have a good child, and rarely see the need for help, but occasionally we see a child this at the clinic. Quite often, it is an anxious father who refers his youngster after his schoolmates have beaten him up a few times for being the teacher’s pet. The father has probably given the youngster a few pep talks first, and perhaps has even brought him some boxing gloves and gone a few rounds with him. But finally, ashamed and desperate, father brings the boy in and explains, “I was always able to stand up for myself, even against bigger fellows, but my son — I guess times have changed.” And then son Richard comes, maybe eight, or ten, or twelve, but he has the vocabulary of an adult. He talks in complete sentences, rivaling an orator. He stands until I sit, and rushes to open the door for me when we finish the interview. “No” is not in his vocabulary, and his head seems able only to nod affirmatively. We find that he has been praised whenever he behaved, and if he has strayed even the slightest, perhaps just to ask what “damn” means, he has been the object of a frown, a tea-time shriek, and a strong admonition that nice boys don’t use that word. We find that daddy has always boasted that his life was a hard one. He sold newspapers on the corner and had to fight to keep his corner against the other gang, but daddy conquered all and recognizes that fighting is not the only way, although by golly it’s a good thing he did. Now, because he fought his way to the top, Richard can have the best of everything. He won’t have to wake at five in the morning to sell papers — no, sir! — and mother nods in adoring agreement. What can Richard do in this situation? What a strong father have I, and how ungrateful would I be not to be glad I have all this, because daddy fought to get it for me. And look, mother says, that's a good thing too! And so his poor little head begins to nod adoringly, occasionally fearfully, and so he moves toward people, because he’s not even strong enough to move against them, and is afraid to seek gratification through withdrawal, because, “little boys should be sociable,” says mother.

Sometimes, one doesn’t recognize readily the tendency to be either moving toward, against, or away from people. But the child’s maladjustment is expressed in a more predominant symptom, such a tic, or bedwetting, in older children, or stammering. Such symptoms, as well as the examples I have cited, are ways a child responds to a hostile environment. They are extreme examples from a psychiatric practice, but I believe they show trends that can be detected early by alert parents, and corrected before they get to the stage requiring professional help. All these examples represent a basic feeling of helplessness — a failure to establish a strong self, a relationship to others which is essentially destructive, a relationship in which the motive power comes from without.

If we are to be good guides for child development, to summarize, we must have as our goal the achievement of a spontaneous, free, mutually related person whose principal characteristic is that he moves with people. We must recognize the early signs of a hostile environment, as they appear in the child, by his moving away, toward, or against people. We must be willing to look into ourselves to see where we have erred, and to take the necessary steps to change. We must avoid the opiate, “he’ll grow out of it.” Knowledge is the key to being good parents. I speak not only of intellectual knowledge — although this, too, is important — but also of self-knowledge. It is provident to prevent problems, but it is never too late to correct them. One can look into himself, and with one’s partner, into the marital relationship; one can read about child care and guidance; and, if the need exists, professional advice can be sought. Guiding child development is not easy. It often is more demanding than any other human relationship, but nothing I could say would add to your recognition that the harmony of the home in which there are children depends on happy, healthy children, and that from these will come the health of the world.