What is it like to be a small child? II
Scientifically informed writing about children's inner experience.
Posted June 19, 2009
In my last post, I promised to say more about those explorations of young children's experience that have taken scientific research as their inspiration. To my mind, some of these popular science treatments have been as thoughtful and imaginative as their counterparts in the world of fiction. Here are a few of the books that have made the biggest impression on me.
Although it is more than two decades old now, Daphne and Charles Maurer's The World of the Newborn is still timely, relevant and fascinating. Drawing on Daphne Maurer's groundbreaking research on perceptual development in infancy, the Maurers' book tries to convert scientific findings into an understanding of what it must be like to be a newborn baby. They write compellingly about the experience of being in the womb, the upheavals of birth, the development of the five senses, and end with some fascinating speculations on infant synesthesia: the conversion of sensory information in one modality, such as vision, into an experience in another modality, such as touch.
Another favourite from the same era is Daniel N. Stern's Diary of a Baby. While the Maurers focus on cognitive development, Stern's greater interest is in the emotions. As well as giving the depth of scientific and theoretical background that you would expect from a leader in the field, Stern takes the unusual step of actually giving the small child—a fictional infant named Joey—a voice. We see Joey responding to the sight of the bars of his crib, for example, or hungrily encountering the nipple, or reacting to his mother's face:
Her face becomes a light breeze that reaches across to touch me. It caresses me. I quicken. My sails fill with her. The dance within me is set free.1
Stern's is a poetic and ambitious attempt to interpret a young child's experience on the basis of real science and careful thought.
One other book that is right at the top of my list wears its learning lightly, but is no less profound a meditation on young children's experience. You won't learn much about Piaget, Vygotsky or Bowlby from reading Brian Hall's marvellous Madeleine's World, but you will learn plenty about becoming a human. Hall, an acclaimed novelist, has simply set out to write a biography of his three-year-old daughter, and in doing so has brought a small human being into touching, tender focus. I could quote from this funny, moving book all day long, but here is just a flavour of it, a snippet of two-year-old Madeleine's thoughts about the mysteries of death:
She knew the word, but not from any of her books. Will fell down, the wolf was butted into the water, Angus was nipped, a variety of characters fell asleep, and everyone pooped. But no one died. The rainbow that disappeared, crying, came the closest, but Madeleine had banished that story.2
All the books I have mentioned are a few years old now. Research into infant psychology has moved on apace in that time, and next time I'll be asking where we're currently at in our scientific understanding of young children's experience.
1 Stern, D. N. (1990). Diary of a Baby: What your child sees, feels, and experiences. New York: Basic Books. p. 59.
2 Hall, B. (1997). Madeleine's World: A biography of a three-year-old. New York: Houghton Mifflin. p. 211.