This “clinical method” was an artificial one in that it presented the child with an unfamiliar and rather irksome situation, and the questions asked were concerning phenomena with which the child had had but meager acquaintance, e.g. “How did the sun begin?” “Does the sun move?” “What are dreams?” “Is this fly alive?’ Why?” In such a situation a child is out of his depth.
Rather than admit that he is nonplussed he will invent an answer or fall back on more primitive conceptions and give semi- magical or animistic explanations. Very young children think largely in personal terms, and tend to regard objects in the external world as having the same feelings and powers as themselves.
A belief in animism is characteristic of primitive peoples, and until the child has had sufficient experience of the real world to check his naive personal viewpoint, which is similar in some respects to primitive folk, he will tend to use animistive explanations. This does not mean that he cannot think quite logically concerning matters which have come within his own experience.
Piaget outlines certain definite stages of child thinking. He claims that the mental life of the child is characterized by the following developmental phases:
His talking during this second stage is in the nature of collective monologue in which he talks mainly to himself. Piaget contends that there is no real interchange of ideas. The child cannot handle judgments of such relations as brother-sister, or right-left involving reciprocity at this stage.
The first period of logical unification does not take place until seven years in his view. And he does not consider a child capable of real logical thought until about the age of eleven or twelve years.
He appears to ignore the fact that a young child can give a practical demonstration of how to make green paint out of blue and yellow, how he makes his bicycle to go, or the effect of heat on such substances as wax or wood or water-that is when the phenomena is within the range of his experience.
Hazlitt, Isaacs, and Mead (22) have presented evidence to refute some of Piaget’s theories from their study of the behaviour of pre-school children and primitive children. It is clear that young children who possess only a limited vocabulary seek a manipulative solution to a problem rather than a verbal one, and use the logic of action rather than the logic of speech.
It is equally clear, as Piaget himself points out, that animistic thought is co-existent with logical thought, but this is also apparent in the case of adults when faced with a novel or difficult situation. People tend to let personal feelings intrude and influence impersonal situations.
They blame circumstances, and endow situations and objects with personal emotions when they are at a loss or annoyed or confused, e.g. “the fire will never burn for me,” or “the train is sure to be late if I am in a hurry.”
Piaget considers that it is in the first appearance of the “social instincts” at about seven or eight years that the key to intellectual development lies. Before this, he contends, the child is egocentric and uncritical.
From self-criticism, logical judgment and ability to reason is born. Modern psychology is critical of this point of view in regard to the sudden maturation of the “social instincts.”
Clearly they are the outcome of a gradual growth process from quite early infancy when the infant begins to learn to adapt to society. Moreover impact of, and contact with the physical world, forces a child to abandon his phantasies and to re- adapt his behaviour.
The observations of young children undertaken by Isaacs (18) for instance, indicates quite clearly to my mind that they are capable of original thought, practical and verbal solutions, some verbal formulations and even discussions.
Here is a delightful example quoted from The Intellectual Growth in Young Children, which illustrates this point.
‘The bread’s buttered already, isn’t it? So if we want it without butter we can’t, can we? -unless we ‘crape it off with a knife, and if we want it without butter and don’t want to ‘crape it off with a knife, we have to eat it with butter, don’t we?”
“Why are there two I’s in pull? We don’t need two, do we? One would do, wouldn’t it?” (One is reminded of Bernard Shaw’s recent letter to The Times when he questions the necessity of having a “h” at the end of bomb.).
In my own nursery class the discussion held by three- four-year-olds quoted in The Natural Development of the Child (4) is relevant to this point.
Certainly some of Piaget’s writings are well worth studying but his somewhat extreme view on the nature of child thought is not generally supported by other psychologists.
Anthony’s (1) work on The Child’s Discovery of Death is interesting, and her methods of investigation are similar in some respects to those of Piaget. By means of interviews, intelligence tests, absurdity tests, and story completion tests she made a study of some 117 children to try to determine the nature of their conception of death. The following are some of her results:
1. The child is liable to feel a strong sense of guilt when a member of his family dies. This sense of guilt will almost certainly be, from a common- sense point of view, utterly unreasonable (1).
2. The idea of death occurs readily in children’s phantasm thinking.
3. The idea arises as a response to suggestions of grief and fear, the grief being frequently associated by the child with loss or separation, and the fear with aggressive intrusion.
4. Phantasm about death is commonly found together with talon ideas (retaliation and reparation) (1)
Ben (aged 6 yrs.). “Do you think when we die we go up to the shops in heaven, and then God buys us and puts us in the larder and eats us (1).
And Richard (aged 5 yrs. 5 mths.). “We shall go up in the sky if a war comes so you needn’t mind. The angels will let down a long rope with a hook on the end and catch you up on the hook and then you’ll turn into an angel, and it will be lovely ‘cos you’ll be able to fly-because angels can fly, they have wings” (1).
The records include many delightful and naive childish ideas about death:
Griffiths (17) made a study of imagination in young children by a modified form of the interview method coupled with projection methods. She gave twenty interviews of twenty to forty minutes duration to fifty five- year-old children, thirty attending London elementary and twenty attending State schools in Brisbane.
She listened to their free conversation, to a spontaneous story, to their account of their dreams or day dreams, and studied their drawings and their comments on them, their reactions to an ink blot test and to an imagery test. Each child was also given a mental test.
She distinguished two main types of emotional reaction to environment; (1) emotions accompanying success, positive in type and showing self-confidence, satisfaction, pride and love of objects, and (2) emotions accompanying failure, negative in type and showing disappointment, humiliation, fear and hatred of objects.
She also found evidence of marked ambivalence (loving and hating) towards significant persons, and marked expression of antagonism towards persons, in play, in free phantasm, day dreams, and dreams.