(02:41) An open invitation to check out the new book that will be released in August 2023.
(04:59) Why these child psych books from the 1980s are all over parenting Facebook groups today
(06:01) The Gesell philosophy of human behavior
(08:48) Who is Louise Bates
(10:32) Who is Arnold Gesell
(11:28) How the children were selected to participate in the experiment
(14:28) How our view of childhood had undergone a massive shift in the previous 100 years
(16:09) What’s it like to have a child involved in the study
(19:35) Some of the significant milestones provided by researchers
(20:50) Dr. Gesell is looking to study the natural development of children’s physical capabilities
(22:07) What normal seems to mean in the study
(23:11) Gesell fails to observe what the baby’s hands are actually doing
(24:18) The purpose of the ‘performance box’
(27:44) I add my own judgment of the research
(28:32) Gesell wrote that what he called ‘systematic cinematography’
(29:22) Another way that the situation was anything but natural was that the study took place within a dome
(30:59) Dr. Gesell observed the effect of the running commentary on him in the experimenter role
(31:54) Dr. Gesell makes contradictory statements about whether the behavior he observed in the lab was the same as the behavior the child displayed at home
(32:58) A baby’s behavior changes based on the environment it is in
(35:04) What the researchers say about children’s capabilities outside of the lab
(35:56) Even the view of maturation itself is inextricably linked to Euro-centric ideas about time, on both micro and macro scales.
(40:51) What are parents supposed to do with all this information
(45:19) One of the Dr. Bates Ames’ key ideas is that development doesn’t proceed in a linear fashion
(47:52) The similarity between reading the development book and reading a horoscope
(52:33) The idea that things aren’t linear in our children’s development is super helpful
(52:54) I found the most useful description of why this non-linear behavior happens in a book of essays by Dr. Myrtle McGraw
(54:14) Going back to the outdated ideas about gender
(57:11) The flow of authority
(01:00:55) When we use our power to get children to do what we want them to do we’re still promoting the values of a patriarchal culture
(01:02:58) The most common word uttered is ‘mine’
(01:05:04) Each of the decisions parents make is made in a cultural context
(01:07:36) An episode suggestion to listen to
Click here to read the full transcript
Hi, I’m Emma, and I’m listening from the UK. We all want our children to lead fulfilled lives, but we’re surrounded by conflicting information and clickbait headlines that leave us wondering what to do as parents. The Your Parenting Mojo podcast distills scientific research on parenting and child development into tools parents can actually use every day in their real lives with their real children. If you’d like to be notified when new episodes are released, and get a free infographic on the 13 reasons your child isn’t listening to you and what to do about each one, just head on over to yourparentingmojo.com/subscribe. And pretty soon, you’re going to get tired of hearing my voice read this intro. So come and record one yourself at yourparentingmojo.com/recordtheintro.
Jen Lumanlan 00:51
Hello and welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo podcast. Have you ever seen recommendations for the books called Your One Year Old, Your Two Year Old, and so on, by Dr. Louise Bates Ames? Every few weeks I see parents posting in online communities asking about some aspect of their child’s behavior that is confusing or annoying to them, and somebody responds: “You should read the Louise Bates Ames books!” They are really short; just about 150 pages each, and were written in the 1970s and ‘80s, and seem to describe a ‘normal’ child’s behavior at each age. The idea of the books, as Dr. Bates Ames and her co-authors state, is that the parent will be able to see their child’s behavior described in the book and be able to relax because the child really is ‘normal.’
Jen Lumanlan 01:36
I first heard about these books when Carys was about two, and I have to say I found them somewhat helpful and reassuring at the time, even though I would read them and think: “no, Carys doesn’t do that…or that…but she does do that – OK; I guess everything is fine.”
Jen Lumanlan 01:50
Whenever someone suggests reading these books, they always come with a caveat that you have to disregard the outdated information on topics like gender roles, and that didn’t quite sit right with me but for a while I couldn’t put my finger on why. Then more recently parent educator Robin Einzig posted in her group with a link to a Slate article that recommends these books, and suddenly I realized what I was struggling with. I do want to say that this is not a take-down of Robin Einzig; I GREATLY respect her work, because she’s one of the few people out there who works with parents who truly sees and treats children with respect. I almost wrote this episode without mentioning her but it would have been really hard to explain how my own understanding shifted without talking about her post, and even if I’d anonymized it I know we have enough folks who follow both of our work that it would most likely have gotten back to her. Overall it seemed more honest to just acknowledge the whole story, so that’s what I’m doing.
Jen Lumanlan 02:41
In a minute I’ll tell you about the whole process but before I do that, I just want to say that the reason these ideas are now much clearer for me than they were even a year ago is because I’ve spent the last year writing a book at the intersection of parenting and social justice. Many of the books on this topic that have been written recently take the perspective that to create a society where everyone belongs, we should talk with our children about the kinds of systems that make that not the case today like White supremacy and racism, patriarchy, and capitalism. I agree that yes, we absolutely MUST do those things…and that also if those are the only things we’re doing, we’re missing something really important. Our ideas aren’t just transmitted to our children through the conversations we have with them but also through the ways we interact with them about things like mealtime and bedtime and what we do when we’re feeling frustrated. If we’re using our power over our children to manage those situations then we’re still perpetuating the very same ideas that we’re telling our children are bad. The book will be released in August 2023, and I’m starting to think about ways to get the word out about it. I’ve created a new page on my website at yourparentingmojo.com/book, so you can go there to find out more information. There’s only a bit about the book there now, but there is also a form where you can let me know that you’d like to be notified when the book is released, and if you’d like to know if I come and do a reading in a town near you, and maybe even offer to help bring me to your town to do a reading or a workshop related to the ideas in the book. So, you can do that at yourparentingmojo.com/book, and we’ll also update that page when we have more information available about where I’ll be and when after the book is released.
Jen Lumanlan 04:20
So, the event that caused me to think about these books again was when Robin posted in her group: “I just came across this wonderful article about the persistent value of the [occasionally outdated, “old” in the world of publishing] series by Louise Bates Ames and the Gesell Institute of Child Development entitled “Your One Year Old”, “Your Two Year Old” and so on.
I recommend these books left and right, almost every day, both online and in personal consultations. Get them. Read them. Read excerpts of them online. Disregard the outdated stuff–you can do this, you can overlook stuff that doesn’t apply anymore and focus on the information about child development, which is top-notch. There is really nothing else like them out there, and there is so much in them that is of great value.”
Jen Lumanlan 04:59
She then posted a link to an article in Slate from 2021 called “Why these child psych books from the 1980s are all over parenting Facebook groups today,” which mentions some of the stuff we’re going to go into in more detail in this episode – the idea that a 4 ½ year-old can be trusted to play outdoors without much supervision, which implies that the family lives in a safe neighborhood, and probably has a fenced yard as well that the parent can look into. We’ll look at the weird gender stuff more closely as well, where girls are shy, boys are exuberant, and the stay-at-home mother is always the book’s reader. The article concludes that “one things these books offer that does transcend time is a feeling of parental solidarity – and that, alone, is valuable.” And to the extent that parents see themselves and their families reflected in these books I imagine it is. But what I realized as I read Robin’s post is that you really CAN’T disregard the outdated stuff and focus on the information on child development. Dr. Bates Ames opens her 1979 book The Gesell Institute’s Child from One to Six with this paragraph: “The Gesell philosophy of human behavior maintains, and has always maintained, that behavior is a function of structure. This means that to a large extent we behave as we do because of the way we are built, and because of the stage of development we have reached.” This is the guiding principle of the Your X-Year-Old books. She goes on to say that “Age norms are not set up as standards; they are designed only for orientation and interpretive purposes. It is a gross misinterpretation of our normative work for anyone to assume that we are staying that all children do or should develop in exactly the same way or at the same rate.”
Jen Lumanlan 06:38
I quote that section to make it clear what I’m NOT debating. I’m not trying to argue that Dr. Bates Ames and her colleagues ARE saying that all children develop all at the same rate. But what I AM arguing is firstly, that children’s development is shaped much more by their environment than Dr. Bates Ames acknowledges. I’m not going to get into the nature-nurture debate here because I don’t think it’s helpful; I agree with them that we exist within the boundaries of what we’re physically and mentally capable of, but we are still impacted by our environment in ways they don’t seem to recognize that we’ll talk more about in a few minutes.
Jen Lumanlan 07:12
And secondly, I believe that what we know, or think we know is also highly shaped by our environment. That means that the way Dr. Bates Ames and also Dr. Gesell, who she worked with a lot, ask their research questions and set up their studies is NOT value-neutral, as they seem to think it is; it is very much shaped by our culture, which means their ideas about what they think children can do is also shaped by our culture.
Jen Lumanlan 07:38
So, to understand this better, I did what I do, and I got 20 books out of the University of California Library written by Dr. Bates Ames and her colleagues, because if there’s one thing that library does well it’s books published in the 1930s. I wanted to look more into the research that is behind the books in the Your X Year Old Child series so I could see what are the ideas about children’s development and about society that underpins them.
Jen Lumanlan 08:01
So in this episode we’re going to start by learning a bit about the two main players in this field. Dr. Louise Bates Ames, and Dr. Arnold Gesell. We’ll look at the ways they studied babies and young children, and how the children they chose to study and the methods they used to study them affected their views on how children develop. We’ll do this somewhat chronologically, starting with Dr. Gesell’s work in the 1920s, their work together in the 1930s-1940s, and then Dr. Bates Ames work with others at the Gesell Institute through the 1970s. By the end of the episode, we’ll have an understanding of whether the ideas in the Your X-Year-Old books fit with the kinds of relationships we want to have with children, and thus whether we should continue to rely on them.
Jen Lumanlan 08:42
Alright, let’s start by finding out about the two main actors in the drama that’s going to unfold in this episode. Louise Bates was born in 1908 in Portland, Maine. Her father was a lawyer and judge, and her mother a schoolteacher. She attended public school in Portland, and then Wheaton College in Massachusetts. Apparently, she disliked the elitist atmosphere of the all-female school and transferred to the University of Maine to receive her B.A. in psychology. She decided to pursue a career in psychology because it would allow more flexibility for family life, and the same year she graduated she married fellow student Smith Ames, although they would divorce in 1937. She received her M.A. from the University of Maine in 1933. She earned her Ph.D. in experimental psychology from Yale University in 1936, and her dissertation was on the sequence of creeping and crawling behavior in human infants. While working on her Ph.D., Bates joined the Yale Clinic of Child Development and worked there from 1933 until it was closed in 1948, acting as the clinic’s secretary and personal research assistant to the director, Dr. Arnold Gesell. They published a lot of books and papers together, and it was these books – as well as books that Gesell wrote alone – that I reviewed to understand the basis for the Your X-Year Old books. In a book published in 1972, Dr. Ames says that in 1950, she and others founded the Gesell Institute of Child Development Inc. That “Inc” implies that the institute is actually a company, although it is now known as Gesell at Yale. The Your X-Year-Old books leave off the “inc,” and the current website gives information on Dr. Gesell’s original research, but nothing about the early days of the institute.
Jen Lumanlan 10:23
We also need to know more about Arnold Gesell, since Dr. Bates Ames was intimately involved in his work and carried forward his legacy after he died. Gesell was born in Wisconsin in 1880 and received his doctorate at Clark University in Massachusetts in 1906. In 1911 he went to New Haven, Connecticut to head the Yale Psycho-Clinic, which was later called the Clinic of Child Development. He knew he would need medical training to understand child development so he obtained an M.D. from Yale in 1915. He initially studied abnormalities in childhood and then realized that he couldn’t really do that until he better understood “normal” infant growth and development. His first book appeared in 1912, but he really hit his stride between 1930 and 1960, when a multitude of books described the method he’d developed of using the new technology of video to observe young children’s behavior, many of which he co-authored with Dr. Bates Ames. Unfortunately for me, at least, these books are extraordinarily repetitive, describing the set-up of the experiments and their results over and over again.
Jen Lumanlan 11:28
The first thing I want to look at in the research is how the children were selected to participate. Gesell wanted to understand “normal” children’s development, and he said that to do that “the norm may be derived from a random sample or from a homogenous group.” He apparently rejected the random sampling method because he wanted to work with a small sample size, and he said that: “by carefully selecting a homogenous group rather than a random sample of the population, the normative character of the data was greatly strengthened and the central trends of development were accentuated. A relative homogeneity of environment, racial inheritance, and physical status was secured by including only those infants whose parents were of the middle socio-economic status with respect to occupation, schooling, avocational interests, and home equipment; whose parents were born in this country; whose grandparents were of northern European extraction, and whose gestation term, birth history, and physical status were within specified limits.”
Jen Lumanlan 12:34
To Gesell’s credit, he didn’t use the lazy sampling method that many other psychologists of his era did where they just studied the children in the nursery attached to their institution, which was mostly filled with the children of highly privileged graduate students, and then extrapolated that data to the entire population. The fathers in Gesell’s study had job titles like butcher, electrician, factory operator, mechanic, printer, and ticket seller. “Unemployed” was not an available category. There’s a large table describing the nationality of the mother’s and father’s parents; there are four possible categories of Irish (including Irish mixed with other nationalities), eight possible categories of German, and nine possible categories of English, plus one amusingly-named “Native U.S.,” by which we can imagine he doesn’t ACTUALLY mean “native to the U.S.” but that more than two generations of White ancestors were both born in the U.S. What he’s essentially trying to do is to remove all of the stressors associated with poverty and racism, and the economic advantages of that money can bring to education and housing, and say that what you’re left with once you’ve done that are exactly “normal” children who are going to develop the way children naturally would in the absence of any cultural influence. He says that he was remarkably successful at selecting normal children because even when the children were reexamined at age 5 and 10 there was “no evidence that a defective or even a highly atypical child has been included” in the data.
Jen Lumanlan 14:05
But who says that the way middle-class White parents in New Haven, Connecticut between 1927 and 1931 brought up their children is “normal”? Anthropologist Dr. David Lancy says that actually, the way middle-class White parents bring up their children is highly abnormal, both compared to the history of human development and compared to the global population 100 years ago and also today. Our view of childhood had undergone a massive shift in the previous 100 years; prior to that parents often wouldn’t name their new babies, or would name them after a sibling who had recently died. In the year 1800, 450 of each thousand children born in the U.S. would die before their fifth birthday. That’s almost half! These numbers were well on the decline throughout the 1800s, and then as vaccines for pertussis, diptheria, and tetanus were developed between 1914-1938, the mortality rate dropped to 100 per thousand live births during Gesell’s studies. To put that in context, the number was 7 deaths per thousand live births in 2020. And as the death rate fell, the specialness of children rose – among the upper classes first, and gradually among the lower classes as well. This transition hadn’t entirely permeated Gesell’s middle-class parents; he delicately notes that “the parent of middle socio-economic status is often very conservative and cautious. It took some extra effort to establish the cooperation of parents whose outlook had not made them sensitive to the values of research. However, with this impediment overcome, the homes selected proved ideal for our investigation.” I’m going to go out on a limb and do some translating here: “the parents in the study had very little education so they didn’t see the value of scientific research in general, and of studying their child in particular, but once we convinced them of these things worked out well because these parents were accustomed to seeing better-educated people wearing white coats as symbols of authority, so they cooperated with the research protocol and didn’t make undue demands of the researchers.”
Jen Lumanlan 16:04
So once this research is underway, what’s it like to have a child involved in this study? The first visit was often conducted at home, which would be the first, last, and only time the researchers would see your child in the environment where they spent most of their time. Once your child was over four weeks old, they would start to visit the Clinic in New Haven at regular intervals; usually once a month to start. The mother always went with the child to these visits, which happened on weekdays. The child would go with the examiner into the Photographic Dome, which had one-way visibility screens so the mother would sit outside along with a stenographer, so they were both invisible to the child. Every aspect of the procedure was controlled. A list of 27 items is required for the examination, including a glass bottle 7cm in height and 2cm in diameter at the opening, a 2.5cm square white wooden cube that has been painted bright red, and there’s an entire paragraph describing a performance box that the child can poke rods of different shapes into, is provided for the reader. Precise instructions are provided for every step of the procedure; the examiner is to draw the child’s attention to the location the object would be presented before bringing the object into view, hold the object in a manner to permit the infant a full view as it is presented, for instance, if the object is a small one, hold it between index finger and thumb with the other fingers drawn back. The examiner should bring objects into view at the far table edge and advance them along the median line and place them in the standard position, and there’s a photograph of a table showing how to advance an object from the far median to standard median and then near median position if the child didn’t react. The examiner was to always permit the child full opportunity to react to and exploit the situation before removing the stimulus object.
Jen Lumanlan 17:51
Then there would be a precisely scripted set of instructions on how to use each piece of equipment. For example, in the block test, conducted at four months of age, the child is placed into a canvas seat on the crib surface and, since most four-month-olds can’t support themselves at that age, they are to be held upright in the seat using a strap that goes under their arms. A block is presented to them along the mid-line of the table that is in front of the child, and the examiner waits to see what the child does with it before removing it to do the next test. The exam proceeds through a number of these situations using the different props, and the infant is weighed and measured.
Jen Lumanlan 18:24
Dr. Gesell stated that “every effort was directed toward obtaining natural and characteristic modes of response to the controlled behavior situations”, but when I saw the procedure for these very young children I was reminded of some research that Dr. Emmi Pikler did in the 1960s and 1970s looking at children’s progression from lying on their backs to walking – and if Dr. Pikler’s name sounds familiar, it’s because she was the family physician who treated Magda Gerber’s child for a cold, and who inspired Gerber to develop the Resources for Infant Educarers approach to being with very young children, and we’ve done a couple of episodes on that. Dr. Pikler ran an orphanage for children in Hungary whose families had been killed in the second world war, where children developed close relationships with their caregivers and were seen and respected as whole people, and who had none of the traditional challenges we often associate with children who have been institutionalized.
Jen Lumanlan 19:19
Dr. Pikler compiled data from seven different researchers, conveniently including Dr. Gesell’s work among these, showing the age at which each of them saw that children achieved certain physical developmental milestones. Not every researcher provided data for every milestone, but here are some of the significant items: Dr. Gesell found that infants turn from their back to their side on average at the end of 20 weeks; another researcher found this happened at 28 weeks – a 40% difference. A similar spread exists for most of the other milestones, including turning from back to front; turning from front to back, crawling, creeping, sitting, standing, and walking. One of the most notable gaps was related to creeping on level ground, which one researcher observed at an average of 32 weeks and another at an average of 62 weeks; Dr. Gesell was in the middle at 40 weeks.
Jen Lumanlan 20:12
In some ways, the things that are missing from the table are the most interesting, because many researchers include the times of “sits with assistance,” “stands with assistance,” and “remains standing when made to stand up.” Dr. Pikler didn’t include those items based on her own research because the employees at the orphanage never propped children up to sitting or standing positions – the only way they would get into these positions would be if they did it by themselves. In spite of this, in no case were the children at the orphanage the last ones to achieve these physical milestones – in most cases they were in the middle of the observations.
Jen Lumanlan 20:47
What’s most interesting to me about this is that Dr. Gesell is looking to study the natural development of children’s physical capabilities, but he’s propping children into a sitting position so he can see how they manipulate a wooden block. There’s even an elaborate page-long description of how to achieve the “pulled to sitting” position, which involves inserting the experimenter’s thumbs into the child’s hands and then the experimenter pulls up on the child’s forearms. The manual suggests starting the motion a couple of times “which will serve to establish postural responsiveness and will produce favorable conditions for later reactions.” In other words, Dr. Gesell is TRAINING the child to know what will happen when he puts his thumbs in their hands and his hands on their forearms. He is training the child to sit up, even as he’s looking to understand what constitutes NORMAL development in the absence of cultural influences. He says that: “although sitting is a natural ability, it is in its early stages highly dependent upon props and aids supplied by the infant’s elders,” which Dr. Pikler has shown us is NOT the case. Supplying props and aids is a choice, and doing them in the context of this research affects what our view of “normal” is for this child, and then for all children, once the research is published.
Jen Lumanlan 22:07
In this case, “normal” seems to mean “the age at which a child can sit with assistance when they visit a clinic every few minutes where someone shows them how to sit up, and where the watching mother may or may not see the doctor in the white coat doing this and copy the behavior at home, all of which may or may not be impacting what the child is able and willing to do in the lab.” In one book there are photos of a four-month-old baby sitting in the canvas seat, keeled over to the side. This baby would clearly not be sitting up by themselves if it weren’t for the seat and the strap, but because putting babies in seats is apparently considered “normal,” the researcher doesn’t think about the impact of this decision on the behavioral outcomes.
Jen Lumanlan 22:46
There’s a photo to illustrate this section of the book showing a baby in a seat looking at a wooden cube, with accompanying text that says: “His eyes fasten upon the text object, and they maintain a firm grasp. The hands are activated even though they cannot as yet obey precisely. It is again evident that the eyes have a top priority in the scheme of development. He can reach with his eyes – but not with his hands.” Gesell fails to observe what the baby’s hands are actually doing – in one of the photos they appear to be propping the baby up against the table to try to brace himself from leaning hard against the strap. There’s a big fold of skin hanging over the strap, indicating that the baby’s torso is putting significant pressure on the strap. Because the baby isn’t touching the cube, which the researcher has decided is the significant item, the behavior of propping himself up isn’t considered relevant. Never mind that perhaps the baby would have been very much willing to engage with the cube if he was lying down, and allowed to reach for it himself, and both of his hands weren’t occupied holding himself up. The decision to prop up the baby in the chair has had a profound impact on this child’s ability to engage with the cube. The researcher has assumed he has identified something important about the baby’s development when the researcher’s own choices have interfered with the baby’s ability to do anything with the cube.
Jen Lumanlan 24:10
In an extension of this idea, the researchers often found that children would engage with what they called the ‘performance box’ in unexpected ways. As far as the researchers were concerned, the purpose of the box was to poke rods into the matching shaped holes. But the children would try to use it to pull themselves into standing position, causing the experimenter to show the child what to do with the box. Because the child hadn’t done the thing the experimenter wanted, the behavior was ‘invalid’ until the child could be appropriately redirected. We also see this training with an exercise that would be done with a child who had reached 8 months, where the researcher would roll a small ball to the child. After the child grasps the ball, the researcher encourages the child to return it by beckoning to the child. If the child holds onto the ball the researcher is to take hold of it; if the child doesn’t release it then the researcher is to gently remove it by pressing the ball out of the child’s hands “in a manner suggesting responsive release.” This procedure is repeated three or more times “to determine the nature and degree of the child’s response,” although really what the researcher is looking for is whether the child will roll it back because the researcher has decided in advance that this is the only appropriate response. If the baby wanted to look at the ball more closely or explore its texture or shake it to see if it made any sound, these would all be considered invalid actions and the researcher responds by pressing the ball out of their hands to show them how to respond correctly. And this method is supposed to show us children’s ‘natural’ development.
Jen Lumanlan 25:43
At 48 and 60 months the researcher empties a box of construction material on the table and says: “Here are some things you will like. Look at all these nice things. Now, make something.” Then the researcher records whether the child hesitates, and provides more encouragement if the child is still only looking at the end of one minute. At the end of three minutes, the researcher records what the child has made, based on the amount and type of construction over those three minutes. This exercise is packed full of value judgments. A child who observes before jumping in is penalized. A child who takes time to think before jumping in is penalized. A child who does things slowly is penalized. A child who uses all of the pieces to make a house gets full points. All of these things are value judgments about what’s important and what isn’t, but they disappear into the research protocol which becomes seen as “neutral,” because it’s “scientific.”
OK, I’ve been talking for quite a while now: would you like to hear the first part of a song about boogers?
booger song 26:40
Jen Lumanlan 27:33
As an aside, I want to note that one of the most common critiques of this podcast that I get in my iTunes reviews is that I insert my own judgment on the research and I should let the science speak for itself. Yes, I do add my own judgment of the research – but it’s a mistake to think that science is value-neutral. As we can see here, this researcher’s decision to prop a baby up affects the baby’s ability to engage with the cube, and thus the researcher’s interpretation of the priority of the baby’s visual versus physical exploration. The researcher made a judgment about what is the appropriate thing to do with a ball, which affects how the researcher views the child’s development. The researcher made a whole host of value judgments in the way the research was set up, which means that science is not inherently neutral, and if we treat it as if it was inherently neutral then we misunderstand the context it sits within.
Jen Lumanlan 28:24
Even the choice to film the children’s behavior is linked to a value judgment – that things captured on film represent a true and complete record of what happened. Gesell wrote that what he called “systematic cinematography” “permits us to view the ‘mind’ of the infant as a structured action system, governed by deep-seated laws of growth.” In other words, “because we got it on film, we can see inside the child’s mind in a way we wouldn’t be able to see otherwise, and what we see is the very laws of growth that we’re trying to prove exist by making the film in the first place.” Gesell often begins books by looking back to the moment of conception and tracing the development and movement of viewable parts of the fetus. The analysis is then seamlessly continued, via filming, after the baby’s birth – as if watching the formation of mouth movements and the movement of a leg in response to touch in utero is the same as understanding a child’s brain development by recording them engaging with toys in a lab.
Jen Lumanlan 29:22
Another way that the situation was anything but natural was that the study took place within a dome, with only the child and the researcher present, and with the researcher giving a running commentary on everything he was doing. The walls of the dome were unmarked and dispersed light coming into the room to reduce the distractions of physical surroundings. Dr. Gesell wrote that the painstaking efforts to keep the procedure standardized and systematic were only deviated from to preserve the “optimal emotional conditions” in parent and child. He went on to say that “in this we enjoyed marked success, as indicated by the almost uniform co-operation of the parents and the sustained output of creditable performance on the part of the infants.” In other words, “we know we did well because all the mothers did what we told them to do, and all the children produced behavior we wanted to see.” Elsewhere he observed that “the general novelty and interest of the situation were usually sufficient to prevent any interference on the part of the mother” – so, the situation was sufficiently bizarre that it intimidated mothers into doing what the examiners wanted, but it was also simultaneously normal enough that the child’s behavior was in no way affected by the research equipment. One paper I’ve seen described Dr. Gesell as “tall and well-built, meticulously dressed, he seemed to embody an air of authority” – which must have come in handy when he was asking mothers to trust him with their babies. I do wonder to what extent it affected what mothers did with their babies at home – it’s possible that they may have thought “well that doctor propped my baby up in a sitting position and he clearly knows what he’s doing so I guess I should do that as well.”
Jen Lumanlan 30:59
Dr. Gesell observed the effect of the running commentary on him in the experimenter role in that it helped to direct his focus of attention, but he didn’t do any analysis of whether the running commentary impacted the child’s behavior in any way – it’s entirely possible that the child used this as a signal: “Oh; I’m in the place where the guy in the white coat talks constantly as I’m playing. That means I’m supposed to perform in a certain way.” In a relatively late book published in 1974, Dr. Gesell says that “a quietly dictated commentary may actually enhance an infant’s performance by eliminating the void of silence.” It seems as though it would be good to understand whether or not this actually had any impact on the children’s performance, since children at the time didn’t often play with a parent giving a running commentary, although perhaps it is a bit more common now than it was then. But in decades of research, the effects of this basic part of the exam situation has never been investigated.
Jen Lumanlan 31:54
Dr. Gesell makes contradictory statements about whether the behavior he observed in the lab was the same as behavior the child displayed at home – even within the same paragraph. Here’s one that starts out: “that the behavior displayed at the Clinic was not unlike the behavior displayed at home was ascertained by interview with the parent.” Then the very next sentence he says: “we have reasons to believe that the examining conditions stimulated rather than inhibited activity,” and went on to describe babies doing things in the lab that they had never done at home, including taking their first steps and climbing up a staircase. So, I’m really not seeing how this examination helps us to understand a child’s “normal” behavior, when the child is doing things for the first time in the exam situation, perhaps due to the running commentary, or that there was nothing else to do other than interact with the item Dr. Gesell had put in front of them, or for any one of 100 other reasons. As Dr. Gesell says in another book, “growth always occurs in a milieu and is configured by factors that support it.” In other words, a baby’s behavior changes based on the environment it is in, which means that the laboratory situation must have had an impact on the baby’s behavior – perhaps it isn’t surprising that the warmth and soft brightness of the interior of the photographic dome enabled the child to focus on some tasks in a way that a distracting home environment might not. But since we don’t grow up in photographic domes, should we take the performance of tasks in a dome as indicative of “normal” development?
Jen Lumanlan 33:24
In addition to being an unnatural physical environment, the dome was also an unnatural social environment. Mother is kept out of view outside the dome, which “served effectively to keep the social distractibility of the surroundings to a minimum.” But we don’t grow up in environments devoid of social distraction – we have people moving around us, and wanting to play with us, and siblings knocking over our stuff. I’m thinking of the study that purported to test babies’ depth perception by putting them on a glass-topped table with lines drawn underneath that made it seem like the table suddenly ended next to a massive void. Some babies were willing to cross the ‘void’ and others weren’t, which may have been a function of the babies’ depth perception…or more likely this was actually a test of the mother’s encouragement at the other end of the table. So, we assume that if we keep mother outside the environment then we’re seeing baby’s undistracted performance…but this may be very different from what the baby is able to do with the social support that surrounds them in their home. In another book, Dr. Gesell notes that “it would be futile to attempt to make a thorough-going distinction between self-initiated play and social play because under the natural conditions of domestic life the individual and induced aspects are in a state of constant fluctuation and alteration. Merely to receive a toy from the parent becomes a social experience.” And to the extent that the researcher is handing the toys to the child in the lab, it’s a social experience there as well; it’s just not acknowledged that it is one.
Jen Lumanlan 34:57
We’ve talked a good deal about the lab situation, so let’s now look at what the researchers say about children’s capabilities outside of the lab. The researcher interviewed the mothers to determine “whether the child is influenced by ordinary methods of discipline and makes elementary distinction between what is permissible and not permissible.” From this interview, Gesell concluded that “at 18 months a child has learned that certain object must not be touched and he inhibits without command.” He does acknowledge that this item can’t be standardized, meaning that we can’t say for sure that 18 months is the average age at which this behavior is achieved, but by today’s standards this would be considered EXTRAORDINARILY young. Apparently, Dr. Ames thought so too, because the Your Two Year Old Child book says that “he cannot yet be given the run of the house, for he still tends to produce his own special kind of havoc – he gets into his mother’s powders and creams; he strews and he smears.” Surely parents have told their eighteen-month-old not to do these things, so why is he still creating havoc at age two?
Jen Lumanlan 36:00
The same sort of discrepancy appears related to potty training – in a 1940 book that Dr. Ames co-authored with Dr. Gesell, they describe the developmental sequence of “elimination,” which starts at 15 months with a “cooperative toilet response especially for bowel movement, indicates wet pants or puddles, usually by pointing, and may awake dry from nap.” By 18 months the child is “toilet regulated for both bowel and bladder control,” and the descriptions for ages after this are about occasional accidents and making bowel movements routine. This reminds me of the episode I covered on toilet learning where all the experts have different ideas of what even are the signals for toilet readiness, never mind when they appear – but Gesell and Ames aren’t shy about putting this date at 18 months with no caveats, which would be considered very early today for parents who aren’t doing some sort of elimination communication practice.
Jen Lumanlan 36:56
Even the view of maturation itself is inextricably linked to Euro-centric ideas about time, on both micro and macro scales. On the micro-scale, Dr. Bates Ames says in Your Two-Year-Old Child that “the two-year-old lives rather in the immediate present, but even by Two most children can respond positively to such phrases as “in a minute,” “soon,” “pretty soon,” as in: “Pretty soon it will be time to__.” Of course, by “responding positively,” Dr. Bates Ames means that the child will stop telling us what their need is and will instead “mind’ us. This focus on teaching children about time is important in Euro-centric cultures where we live our lives by the clock and expect things to happen on a set schedule. This might seem like ‘just the way things are,’ but in fact, there are plenty of cultures where that isn’t just the way things are, and where things happen when people are ready, and not when the clock says. This leads us into the macro-scale issues: Dr. Bates Ames and Dr. Gesell see maturation as a journey that the infant undergoes until they ‘arrive at adulthood,’ which is seen as the peak experience. This has a lot to do with the person’s ability to be productive in a capitalist society – in a 1925 book called The Retarded Child: How to help him, Dr. Gesell quotes British neurologist A.F. Tredgold in defining feeblemindedness as “a state of restricted potentiality for, or arrest of, cerebral development, in consequence of which the person affected is incapable at maturity of so adapting himself to his environment or to the requirements of the community as to maintain existence independently of external support.” Gesell goes on to say that “a feebleminded man ought never to be allowed to try to find a home and rear a family; a feebleminded woman cannot properly manage a home and for this reason alone if for no other, she ought not to become a mother of children.” When I went to look up Dr. Tredgold, I found a gem of a paper published in none other than the journal Eugenics Review that noted a correlation between criminals and mental defecits, and that “even when these poor creatures are relatively harmless, we have to protect society from the burden due to their non-productiveness. Some of the cost of this will be gathered from the fact that of all the feeble-minded persons in this country no less than 67 percent, or two-thirds, are supported, partially or entirely, by the British public; whilst the amount expended by the State upon many of these individuals, from birth to the grave, must be between one thousand and two thousand pounds per head…I do not think that the general public realise the magnitude of the bill which they annually pay for the upkeep of this class, and I am sure they do not realize how little they get in return.” So, a properly matured child is one who contributes financially to capitalist society; an improperly matured child is one who needs financial support to survive in a system that is set up primarily for the benefit of those who function well in capitalist society. Anyone who needs help is a burden who is somehow less than fully human. People in other cultures don’t see the fully-abled, fully-performing adult as the pinnacle of success. Plenty of people in Asian cultures revere the wisdom that the elderly have accumulated, even if they are now a net financial drain. We all used to perceive time as circular, governed by the sun and moon and planting and harvesting cycles until the Gregorian calendar was introduced in the 1500s. The cyclical view of time is still present in some cultures, as people see that their maturation doesn’t end with their most productive age, but continues into old age, death, and perhaps their rebirth as well. All of this is culturally defined, not “natural” or inevitable.
Jen Lumanlan 40:51
So, what are we parents supposed to do with all this information? Well, I can say it no better than Dr. Gesell himself did in a book published in 1930. He opens the book by describing the child-rearing practices of one Susannah Wesley, who wrote these down at her son, the preacher John Wesley’s request. Gesell says that Susannah Wesley’s philosophy can be summed up in the following passage: “In order to form the minds of children, the first thing to be done is to conquer their will, and bring them to an obedient temper. To inform the understanding is a work of time, and must with children proceed by slow degrees as they are able to bear it: but the subjecting the will is a thing which must be done at once; and the sooner the better.” She isn’t shy about saying how their will be broken – through rewards when the child’s behavior warrants it, and through punishment, including a great deal of physical punishment, when the child’s behavior warrants that.
Jen Lumanlan 41:57
Dr. Gesell says that “It is not that we have so much more knowledge at our disposal than did Susannah Wesley, but there is a new spirit of rationalism, a new interest in truth for its own sake, which makes for increased liberality in our methods of child training. In the same subtle way, the Wesleys came under the influence of the cultural atmosphere of their own generation, it is scarcely necessary to add that we are not permitted untrammeled satisfaction in our advantages over the eighteenth century. Two hundred years from now the commentator will find amusing absurdities, not to say hardships, in our current child training codes, which are modern but sufficient only for their day.” Now I think the designation of two hundred years is sort of arbitrary and happens to be approximately the distance between Susannah Wesley and Dr. Gesell’s work. We’re approaching 100 years between his work and our world today, and so much of Dr. Bates Ames’ work is based on Dr. Gesell’s. Dr. Gesell’s work was a product of its time, and it generated information that was useful as we moved away from literally beating children into compliance, and also provided a counterpoint to behaviorism, which saw us as beings that simply responded to stimuli. Dr. Gesell saw that even though the lay public could only have a dim respect for what it could do for us, scientific research had already saved us from “imperfect folklore, erroneous superstition, ignorance, and quackery.” He knew that children’s growth was governed by certain limitations, but within that growth, he aimed to “bring the whole cycle of child growth gradually under greater control.” This view “embraces the so-called normal child. In fact it places a new premium upon normality.” So, if we, too, embrace normality then this work still has a great deal to offer us.
Jen Lumanlan 43:39
To his credit, Dr. Gesell does state that tools like an Intelligence Quotient or IQ, and his own Development Quotient or DQ, shouldn’t be used alone to make decisions about children’s intelligence or abilities. Instead, he advises using race and class to decide how to treat children. He says, and I apologize for the racially insensitive term he uses: “In an academically oriented professional home, an older child with a measured IQ of 85, or even 95, is clearly impaired in comparison to other family members, most likely on the basis of organic brain disease. In a ghetto milieu, he probably has no significant brain pathology and would respond to an optimum environment, in its broadest sense, and an adequate educational program. In both instances, the IQ of 85 has management and treatment implications, but different ones.” So what he’s saying is that a Black child in a working-class family who has an IQ of 85 will benefit from better parenting and being in a good educational environment, but if we see a White child who is already benefiting in all the ways that economic privilege can allow, then we should be looking for a physical reason for the child’s low IQ.
Jen Lumanlan 44:48
It’s this kind of foundation that Dr. Ames’ work is built on. Having been listed as a second or third author on some of Dr. Gesell’s most popular books, once she became Director of Research for the Gesell Institute of Child Development she wrote, with Dr. Frances Ilg, the book Child Behavior: From Birth to Ten, for which Dr. Gesell wrote the foreword. This book was later broken down into the Your X-Year-Old books; the all-in-one volume has a bit less attention to the ages and stages and a bit more to overarching topics like sleeping, elimination, and fears.
Jen Lumanlan 45:19
One of the Dr. Bates Ames’ key ideas is that development doesn’t proceed in a linear fashion. In the introduction to Child Behavior she says: “Scientific studies of normal children have shown that this general trend toward “improvement” in behavior is not steady and uninterrupted. It does not go forward consistently and without setback. Each new age level tends to bring its own advantages and disadvantages.” In this early book, these concepts are described in words and with a table showing the periods of time that behavior falls into seven categories like “smooth and consolidated,” “breaking up,” “rounded and balanced,” “indwardized,” etc., and the whole thing is a bit hard to follow. She simplified the presentation in later books by showing it as a spiral with the more dysregulated behavior on one side and the more regulated behavior on the other side although she lost some nuance as she did that since there are only two sides to the spiral showing equilibrium and disequilibrium rather than the seven categories of behavior. I know parents who have followed the Wonder Weeks in their child’s first year are keen for a follow-up to that, and it wouldn’t surprise me if this is where the Wonder Weeks people got their idea – that there are certain weeks in an infant’s life when they’re growing and processing a lot and their behavior gets more difficult. Dr. Bates Ames does provide a warning that not all children at each age will behave just this way all of the time and she adds “in fact, some of them will behave that way scarcely any of the time.” Instead, it’s the kind of behavior you will get around a given age, assuming an average child who is developing at an average rate, but more important than the exact age that the stages appear is the order in which they follow each other. In addition, “each child gives his own individual twist to these age sequences.” And also in addition, “your child may reach this stage a little ahead or behind time, or maybe of such gentle nature that even at his worst his behavior may not be that bad, or his environment may fit especially well with his personal needs so his behavior is quite calm, and even if his behavior is disturbing to you, he may be quite at peace within himself.” We are warned that “each child is an individual, and that you must always keep in mind.” But when the whole thing is so caveated, what’s the point of assigning behaviors to ages at all? Can’t we just say that periods of equilibrium are often followed by periods of disequilibrium, and leave it at that? There’s no real reason to attach the behavior to specific ages when it’s so unlikely that our child will do this behavior at the exactly specified age.
Jen Lumanlan 47:52
I remember reading the Your Two-Year-Old book when my daughter Carys was two, and I do remember that feeling of finding a sentence that absolutely described what she was doing, and thinking “yes! It’s normal!” But for every one sentence that described what she was doing, there were two that didn’t, and I had to disregard those things to get to the one that did. When I was thinking about it more recently, I realized the experience is pretty similar to reading last week’s horoscope, when you can look back with the benefit of hindsight and see what aspects of the prediction fit your experience and which didn’t. Just for kicks, I looked up my horoscope last week, which said it was a good time for mental work such as studies, investigations, and solving puzzles, which is basically what I spend most of my life doing. My piercing intellect can be used in arguing my case and defending others against harassment or provocation and I shouldn’t back down but choose my battles carefully. And maybe it’s sort of right! My Dad had just told me two days before the start of this horoscope period that he thinks the main ideas in my book aren’t correct, so yeah, I did defend them, but does that count since it happened in the previous horoscope period? On Saturday and Sunday, I had a competitive and yet cooperative attitude, [how do those two things fit together?] as well as a warm attractiveness that made success and popularity easy. I had a stronger-than-usual desire for intimacy, and the respect and support of almost everyone because they will appreciate your drive, initiative, and courage. I have been having ongoing conversations with the folks who have offered stories for the book and feedback on it as well and they’ve said they appreciate my work which I suppose is partly because of my drive, initiative, and courage, but none of the rest of it rings true. My tarot card says that a kind, older man may be part of my scenario – a work colleague, my father, or a father-type figure. He may be interested in me romantically and if so, I shouldn’t rule him out just because of his age. And of course, that completely contradicts the issue about defending my idea, and there isn’t another father figure in my life and especially one who’s interested in me romantically. So yes; some of the horoscope is always true. Some of it can be back-fitted and seen to be true in hindsight, and some of it you have to look past to find the stuff that does fit.
Jen Lumanlan 49:59
Here’s an example from the book The Infant And Child In The Culture Of Today by Dr. Gesell and Dr. Bates Ames and a couple of other co-authors published in 1971. These things really are incredibly repetitive – this too has some overarching chapters but now dedicates a whole chapter to each of the ages that were later broken out into the Your-X-Year-Old child books. In a section on birth order, they write that “We have come to feel that certain characteristics have been linked, at least in our own minds, with order of birth. The first child, we have often found, is well endowed, acquires speech early, and shows early gross motor abilities. His speech is clear, he repeats accurately what he hears, and is less apt to indulge in or simulate “baby talk.”… Intellectually he strides forth with portents of genius. This observation is borne out in the predominance of first-borns in the listings of Who’s Who [and I just want to point out here that I’m a first-born myself]. There is, admittedly, a wide spectrum to the possibilities of what the first-born is equipped to become. Retardation is at the other end of the spectrum from superior endowment. In fact, first-born children seem to show more variables and more extremes than any other sibling order.” In other words, “sibling order might have a big effect on your child or it might not. They might be a genius, or they might be a not-genius. Anything is possible.” So is this “developmental information” that we should pay attention to? It sounds like it…but the actual information on development is no more precise than a horoscope.
Jen Lumanlan 51:26
Then we come back again to the idea that certain behaviors show up at certain ages. Take this passage from Your Two-Year-Old Child: “Any grouping, or lack of grouping, changes so rapidly that the whole situation in any room full of half a dozen Two-year-olds changes almost constantly. Any one child may contact half a dozen areas of interest in as many minutes or may, conversely, just stay in a single place. But few stick with anything or anybody, more than a short time. One child may join another at clay play or in “bathing” dolls in a tub of water, may pause momentarily to “paint,” may pound on a pegboard, may whirl around or jump up and down, may pause to look at a pet guinea pig or rabbit. One child may cling to his mother (if she is present). Another may ignore any or all adults. One may eagerly watch some other child or children: another may ignore all other children present. One may be very grabby and disruptive of what others are doing; another may make trouble for anybody.” It’s exactly the same as my horoscope – there’s enough in it that everybody will find something that fits their child’s behavior, even though the majority of it won’t apply.
Jen Lumanlan 52:33
The idea that things aren’t linear in our children’s development is super helpful! We parents often get into a linear mindset, because that’s the way our parents were with us, and that our culture says is a good thing. We’re always supposed to move forward, anticipate the next thing, keep going. But our children haven’t learned that lesson yet, and also they’re doing a lot of learning.
Jen Lumanlan 52:54
I found the most useful description of why this non-linear behavior happens in a book of essays by Dr. Myrtle McGraw, who was exploring children’s development at the same time as Dr. Gesell, but who apparently had a hard time getting funding because the Rockefellers were funding Gesell because he was using video recording. She writes that parents are often worried when their children’s behavior seems to backslide, and that “if under such circumstances both the mother and the pediatrician could recognize that regressions are a natural process of growth, they would not aggravate this phase by anxiety. Instead, they would look for the budding signs of maturation of some new ability, and bide their time. It may be that those cells of the child’s cortex which give vent to his vivid imagination have just begun to ripen and he can’t make them dovetail with the mature cells which had earlier enabled him to respond to physiological urges.” Children are always bringing new capabilities online, and sometimes it’s hard to mesh them with the capabilities they already had, which we perceive as ‘backsliding.’ So children go through stages. Sometimes we find their behavior less and then more difficult to deal with. Whatever stage they’re in right now, they’ll be out of it soon enough. Rather than fishing through a horoscope of ideas where perhaps 25% of them fit our child, maybe we can find solace that whatever our child is going through is normal for them.
Jen Lumanlan 54:14
Switching gears, let’s go back to those outdated ideas about gender. These pervade the book Child Development, first published in 1951 and republished in 1972. There’s a section in the book on the father-child relationship which talks about parental preference which states: “Father, home from work, generously offers to take over the feeding or the putting to bed routine. Son or daughter will have none of this. Tears and demands of “Mummy do” meet his offer.” Later on, “His feelings about Father are not as intense, not as mixed up, not as variable. Father tends to represent stability, firmness. He is the one to whom Mother reports extra-bad behavior. He is the court of last appeal. He is the person who gives out important rewards as well as important punishments. He is the prized companion on those welcome occasions when he can spend time alone with son or daughter. Thus fathers should not under ordinary circumstances expect to attract from their children the same kinds of responses which mothers attract. Father’s role in bringing up the children is perhaps, as in their production, an essential but a supplementary one.” It goes on to show that Mother is usually the one who “pleads for tolerance” because the child is “just going through a stage,” while Father is the one who insists that “it’s time the child learns to mind.” It concludes: “However, all of this doesn’t mean that Father should be afraid of clamping down when necessary. Mother’s gentleness and understanding, Father’s firmness but also, we hope, understanding, are both essential ingredients for a stable family life.” These ideas show up in a slightly gentler form in Your Two-Year-Old Child: “Without any parental pressure, most girls do prefer dolls; and most boys, stuffed animals, and when the parents have decided that they won’t acquiesce to the child’s demands, “Mother may be able to handle this herself, but father’s firm voice may need to be raised to stop these seemingly endless demands.”
Jen Lumanlan 56:10
This really gets at the heart of it, right? Ideas about how we should be in the world were passed down to us by our parents, and we pass these down to our children as well. As we explored a long time ago in the episode on Dr. Christia Brown’s book Parenting Between Pink and Blue, parents DO transmit ideas about gender to their children. Researchers can dress a baby up in blue clothes and give it to study participants to hold and they say: “oh, how big and strong you are!” and when they dress the VERY SAME BABY in pink clothes, research participants will say: “Oh, how sweet and cute you are!”. Most of this research happened after Dr. Bates Ames’ books were published, so we can’t really hold her responsible for research that didn’t exist when she was writing. But we CAN acknowledge that now we know better. We know that the side-long looks we give our boys when they play with dolls, even as we encourage our girls to pursue STEM careers, teach our children that qualities associated with femininity aren’t as worthy as qualities associated with masculinity.
Jen Lumanlan 57:11
We also know that the two-parent family is a hetero-normative, patriarchal structure that has been pushed on us for generations now. God provides the ultimate authority, and that authority is vested in the church, and in Father, and Mother is Father’s agent who carries out his wishes and appeals to his authority when she needs it, and little Two-Year-Old is down there at the bottom of the heap on the receiving end of all of it. That’s why Dr. Bates Ames says that “certainly one of the important attributes of a good child in most people’s estimation is that he minds quickly when he is spoken to” – and by “minding” she means what we now refer to as “listening,” by which we really mean “doing what you’re told.
Jen Lumanlan 57:52
We see this flow of authority come out in all kinds of ways in Your Two-Year-Old Child. We’re told that “no” is a much-used word, and its use is increased if you unwittingly ask a question that can be answered in the negative. Safer to make an entirely positive statement to him: “It’s time to __,” or “You need to__.” This allows less opportunity for royal rebellion than would an unwise question.” Dr. Bates Ames advises that “Young children are, perhaps, fortunately, very vulnerable to the many tricks and techniques that many mothers and fathers use almost instinctively,” and she goes on to recommend a few of her favorites, including keeping up a rapid patter when the child disagrees with you to distract them from their position, letting the child feel he is making the choice so he can do what he wants rather than what you want, not giving choices in really important situations where it seems necessary to you that the child act in a certain way, and make sure to ignore tantrums since these “can become a powerful weapon if he finds that his parents will do almost anything he wants once he throws” one. “So, as difficult as it may be for you, it is very important that the child find out as soon as possible that his tantrums are not going to gain him anything, even attention.”
Jen Lumanlan 59:08
I know a lot of this is still popularly-given parenting advice, so bear with me a minute here. What we’re essentially doing when we’re using these tools is we’re saying to our child: I have my reasons why I want you to do the thing I’m asking. You may have reasons why you don’t want to do it but if you do, I either don’t know what they are or I don’t care what they are. I’m going to use tricks and techniques to distract you, to make it seem like you have a choice when you really don’t, to avoid giving you choices, so things get done my way. And if you recognize how much I’m overruling you and throw a tantrum then I’m going to withdraw the thing you care about more than anything, which is my love and affection, so you know that complying with my wishes is more important than getting your needs met.”
Jen Lumanlan 59:54
Are these the messages we WANT to send to our children? I really don’t think they are. I think we want to tell them: “I want to be in a relationship with you where both of our needs are seen and respected, even though I don’t always know how to do that now, so I’m going to use tools that I learned in a book published in the 1970s, which are based on research that was done in the 1930s, because I’m struggling and I don’t know what else to do.” We can’t strip out the outdated references to Mother being at home and Father coming home from work and expect the rest of the information to still be valid and useful. A world in which Mother is always the primary parent (because caregiving is looked down upon) and Father provides the Last Word is a patriarchal society which privileges masculine roles and trivializes feminine ones. These ideas are enacted not just in the way we look askance at boys playing with dolls and encourage girls to go into science-related careers; they’re also enacted in the way we make our children ‘mind,’ or in today’s language, get them to ‘listen.’ When we use our power to get children to do what we want them to do we’re still promoting the values of a patriarchal culture. When we use and promote so-called ‘norms’ that were developed to understand the behavior of middle-class White children, we are perpetuating White supremacy. And when our goal is to ensure that our child becomes an economically productive member of society, we’re doing our part to maintain a capitalist system that has hurt so many of us.
Jen Lumanlan 01:01:22
And these ideas don’t just show up in the child’s relationship with us; they permeate the child’s entire relationship with the world. Let’s start with the rest of the family first: Dr. Bates Ames describes a little anecdote of conscientious, talented big sister Marcia practicing piano when younger brother Nicky starts making a “terrible racket” with his trumpet, and Marcia comes running to her mother to make him stop. After peace has been restored, Mother asks: “Nicky, why do you do such mean things? Why do you bother your sister like that when she is practicing?” “Because,” replies Nicky,” “she’s so bossy. She always tries to raise me and make me do everything better, and this is the best way I know of to get even with her.” Dr. Bates Ames goes on to say: “Getting even with her (or him)! How many hours of childhood are spent getting even with brothers and sisters? It may not be very nice, but it certainly is very natural.” She goes on to provide more examples of siblings getting back at each other, but never questions why this might be happening. That it happens in most families is seen as evidence that it’s ‘natural,’ and Dr. Bates Ames never wonders if the reason why the children are always trying to get back at each other is not because of some in-built drive to be vindictive, but because of the parent’s judgments and how the parents treat the children. Do any of us like to be told we’re mean? Don’t we all want to be seen for who we really are, and not for who we are compared to a sibling? When we look back on our own childhoods, can we remember how we felt when we were the less favored one, and how much we resented our sibling for that, or if we were the favored one, how tenuous that status seemed and how we would do anything to maintain it?
Jen Lumanlan 01:02:58
Dr. Bates Ames notes in Your Two-Year-Old Child that “the most common word uttered is usually “mine,” as the child tries to protect his possessions from everyone else.” So true! I remember this phase so well! And where do our children learn this? They learn it from us! A child doesn’t somehow ‘naturally’ develop ideas about what’s theirs and what isn’t; they get these ideas from us. Do you remember going out for a walk when your child was a toddler and they want to pick flowers from everyone else’s garden, and you told them “you can’t pick those; they don’t belong to us”? Do you remember when they wanted to bring toys home from the playground and you said: “Oh we can’t bring those; they aren’t ours”? And what’s the flip-side of “they aren’t ours?” It’s “that’s mine.” THAT is how we teach our children about capitalism, because once they understand that there’s a distinction between “mine” and “yours,” they usually want to draw boundaries around their stuff, and then pile as much stuff inside that boundary as possible.
Jen Lumanlan 01:03:55
So, as we work toward a conclusion, I want to agree that yes, absolutely, children’s brains develop. New neural connections are made, and new capabilities come online. But this doesn’t happen in isolation; it happens in a cultural context. A young child hits the new baby in a way that may seem unprovoked to us when it’s actually an expression of the child’s unmet needs that the parent doesn’t know how to identify because all their own parent taught them how to do was ignore their own needs and ‘mind’ authority figures.
Jen Lumanlan 01:04:24
We’re told we will: “certainly want to provide books and toys and music and pictures and do what you can to enrich his surroundings” which assumes we have the resources to do this.
Jen Lumanlan 01:04:35
We should also: “try to get as much help from others as you can afford and feel that you need,” because help is to be purchased, not freely exchanged. Dr. Gesell and Dr. Bates Ames observe that “happily, now that supportive grandparents are often less available than formerly, supportive pediatricians have taken their place.” Perhaps most of us might argue that the type and degree of support provided by our child’s pediatrician isn’t exactly the same as a grandparent would provide.
Jen Lumanlan 01:05:04
Each of these decisions that we parents make is made in a cultural context. If we can’t see the child’s needs because our own parents couldn’t see our needs, so they couldn’t teach us how to understand our needs never mind anyone else’s, that’s a cultural context. When we see our role as providing every opportunity to enrich our child’s life, that’s a cultural context. When we live in single-family homes with fenced yards so our child can play outside unsupervised, and because of that we have to pay for hired help when we can’t cope with it all because we don’t have a village of folks who will jump in and help us when we need it, because they don’t know we’re struggling, because we all know it’s not OK to let anyone else know we’re struggling, that’s a cultural context. If we’re lacking in solidarity amongst parents and find that in a book that somehow implies, horoscope-style, that our child is ‘normal,’ that’s a cultural context. But we might be better served by stepping outside of that context and asking why it is we need to find solidarity because we don’t have it already, and looking for actual, real support from real people rather than relying on these books.
Jen Lumanlan 01:06:09
Dr. Gesell and Dr. Bates Ames argue that some parents are too bossy and authoritarian, while others are too permissive. They see the ‘developmental’ approach, grounded in their research on development and maturation as the ‘third way’ that allows you to avoid the evils of the other two approaches. I see all three of these ideas as hopelessly outdated, and that we should do what Dr. Gesell himself advised us to do when we saw this: move on to more useful approaches that are relevant in our culture today.
Jen Lumanlan 01:06:37
This is why I’m arguing that we shouldn’t read the Your X-Year-Old books anymore – because it simply is not possible to separate the cultural context from the developmental information. They are so intimately intertwined that they continually affect and are affected by each other. So, if we believe that the cultural context of the 1970s, drawing heavily on the cultural context of the 1930s, is what we want to prepare our children for, these books fit the bill. But if we want to prepare our children for a world where everyone belongs, and where power is not wielded over those who are smaller and weaker, and where we can see each person’s needs as equally valid as everyone else’s, and where each child’s needs are seen and met for exactly what they are instead of based on their deviance from a “norm” that is really only “normal” for middle-class White children, then we can’t use the information on these books. We can’t just ignore the cultural context and take the developmental advice.
Jen Lumanlan 01:07:36
If you want to go beyond what we SHOULDN’T do in these books to what we SHOULD do instead, then there are lots of episodes in the podcast to help with that – a good place to start would be episode 94, where we looked at using nonviolent communication to parent more peacefully, which should tide you over until my book comes out next year. And if you’d like to be notified about when my book is coming out, and let me know if you’re interested in attending a book reading or class near you, or potentially helping to make one of those events happen in your town, you can do that at yourparentingmojo.com/book.
Hi, I’m Emma, and I’m listening from the UK. We know you have a lot of choices about where you get information about parenting, and we’re honored that you’ve chosen us as we move toward a world in which everyone’s lives and contributions are valued. If you’d like to help keep the show ad-free, please do consider making a donation on the episode page that Jen just mentioned. Thanks again for listening to this episode of the Your Parenting Mojo podcast.
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About the author, Jen
Jen Lumanlan (M.S., M.Ed.) hosts the Your Parenting Mojo podcast (www.YourParentingMojo.com), which examines scientific research related to child development through the lens of respectful parenting.