Commentary Magazine

The Study of Man:
Childhood the World Over

Here then, we have those mysterious children popping in and out of the house, and how are we to discover what makes them tick? We might do well to listen to “the new field of personality and culture,” or “personality in culture,” which is apparently the coming integrative science of man, in which anthropology, psychiatry, psychology, child development, and other disciplines will find their place. At least that is the opinion of Margaret Mead and Martha Wolfenstein, who have produced a substantial anthology on childhood as seen by various experts in the collaborating fields.

American parents are “comrades rather than a couple in the French sense,” says Françoise Dolto, and “The gangster has become the substitute father of American boys.” How does she know? True, she has never been to America, but she is a French child-analyst and has had a number of American patients. American piano lessons tend to be sterile drudgery, suggests Colin McFee. How does he know? He helped a group of Balinese boys form a gamelan orchestra, and they learned music in a more creative fashion. Learning is “the primary basis for social stratification, at least in principle,” in Jewish culture, says Mark Zborowski, and this emphasis “has diminished little in intensity on different levels of acculturation” in America. How does he know? He grew up in an Eastern European shtetl, and he and colleagues have interviewed many Eastern European Jews in the United States. “The German child is prepared in the home to become an independent individual, who, through the practice of willing obedience to parental rules, has learned to obey all rules of his own accord and who, through painful experience, has trained his will to master the problems of life,” says Rhoda Métraux. How does she know? She has been reading German child-guidance books.

As these examples may suggest, the study of personality in culture seems to produce insights of varying authority and value. One problem is the relation of any significant trait to the larger configuration. In 1949, Geoffrey Gorer and John Rickman published The People of Great Russia, placing great emphasis on swaddling of the child as a determinant of the later adult character, and Ruth Benedict’s “Child Rearing in Certain European Countries” appeared posthumously in The American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, warning that swaddling might have a variety of effects, depending on the cultural configuration. These were apparently the poles of opinion in the Columbia Research in Contemporary Cultures project Benedict had inaugurated. In 1954 Mead, who had inherited the project when Benedict died in 1948, published “The Swaddling Hypothesis: Its Reception” in The American Anthropologist. Here, in the name of clearing up “some of the confusions . . . during the last four years regarding the study of cultural character,” Mead led a strategic retreat to what was essentially the Benedict position.



Much of Childhood in Contemporary Cultures, edited by Margaret Mead and Martha Wolfenstein, reflects this new sophistication, with the emphasis on configuration rather than the isolable trait, as Mead explains in her introduction:

But, while striking differences in behavior may give rapid clues to important differences in the whole pattern, it is important to realize that it is not any single item of child-rearing practice or of culturally patterned child behavior—not the presence or absence of feeding bottles or slates, skates or hoops or balls, prayers or homilies or bribes—which is significant in isolation. It is the way in which all these thousands of items, most of which are shared with other cultures, some of which are shared with all other cultures, are patterned or fitted together to make a whole.

Some of the contributors, however, are still unreconstructed. One of Wolfenstein’s contributions, “Some Variants in Moral Training of Children,” a cross-cultural study involving interviews with parents of Chinese, Czech, Eastern European Jewish, and Syrian origin, was first published in 1950, cites Benedict’s article, and goes happily ahead showing how characteristic modes of nursing, swaddling, and toilet-training determine personality and character.

The emphasis on these readily discernible “striking differences” in national character arose during the war, when anthropology was mobilized to study the cultures of occupied and enemy countries that could not be studied in the field, and here we encounter the much debated “study of culture at a distance.” I would say that Margaret Mead is one of the finest field workers alive, and that one of the reasons she is so good is that she is a natural snoop. “Peeking over a house wall, one may see . . .” she writes in her marvelous essay, “Children and Ritual in Bali.” (In Growth and Culture,1 a book on Balinese children done in collaboration, Mead admitted that the Balinese village she worked in was chosen in part because its household walls were “loosely constructed fences through which it was easy to see what was taking place.”) It is precisely this quality of texture, of the richness of intimately observed behavior—in short, of snooping—that is lacking in her article written in collaboration with Elena Calas, “Child-Training Ideals in a Postrevolutionary Context: Soviet Russia.” Where Wolfenstein is studying culture at a distance (a thematic analysis of “The Image of the Child in Contemporary Films”) she is terrible; where she gets closer to it (French children observed in the park) she makes some convincing observations; where she is saturated in it (clinical experience with “Two Types of Jewish Mothers” and their children) she is wonderful. When Wolfenstein describes Mrs. S, one of her two types of Jewish mother, warning her son that a woman across the street was actually aggravated to death by her son, she is talking about something; when she generalizes from half a dozen Italian films that “An older ideal of womanly purity and virtue, which seems to have lost its hold on other western cultures, remains in the ascendant in Italy,” she is talking about nothing, and the significant difference in the language shows it.



From the perspective of personality in culture, another recent book on childhood, Child Behavior, a publication of the Gesell Institute of Child Development, speaks for a culture that is neither Western civilization nor the United States, but a place we might call Geselland. The language of Geselland uses exclamation points as the Hottentot tongue uses clicks, so that they say, “The mother-child relationship! The first, and one of the most important and exciting that the human being ever experiences!” In Geselland every couple has one child who occupies their exclusive attention (although they borrow another one, apparently, for the sibling rivalry rites). They live in cities where the schools have psychologists and guidance teachers, the mothers are “modern mothers in their wish to follow modern methods,” the fathers take the children to the dentist “to overcome resistance,” and both parents are preternaturally eager to learn anything that will contribute to the welfare of their child, although reading about problems like “insecurity” makes them worry. Wolfenstein needs an article to summarize the behavior of French children in the park, but Ilg and Ames have been down to the Geselland playground so many times that they can recreate it in a paragraph:

However, even by the time some children are two and a half, you can help them to develop techniques for getting along with friends. You can tell Joey, ‘Talk to Jimmy, don’t hit him,’ if Joey is a hitter. Or, ‘What can Danny have instead?’ if you are addressing a grabber. Or, ‘Let Mary have a turn now,’ or, ‘You can have it after Betty is finished.’

This is perhaps unfair, since Child Behavior is a popularization, pieced together from a syndicated newspaper column of the same name that Ilg and Ames produce. One would never guess from it that Dr. Ames was the author of “Precursor Signs of Plantigrade Progression” in The Journal of Genetic Psychology, or Dr. Ilg a collaborator in equally learned publications. But popularization is a kind of projective test or vehicle for self-revelation too, and it often shows more nakedly than technical writings the tendencies of a movement. Just as the Balinese child is seen as a small adult, the Syrian child as a vessel to be filled, or the German child as a plant to be cultivated, the child in Geselland is seen as a fertile seed or egg that “grows” and “unfolds” according to some built-in plan. “Growth, growth,” says Dr. Gesell’s foreword to the book. “Behavior grows!” the authors begin, with a click. The emphasis is on order, measure, “norms and standards of development,” “watching the growing infant as he unfolds” or twitching nervously when growth “possibly doesn’t unfold or move.”

The metaphors that cannot be countenanced see the child as something limitlessly plastic, “a lump of clay,” or as something primarily determined by the culture or “mother’s treatment of the baby.” This seed-egg figure may be a popular image deliberately substituted for the Gesell group’s more scientific and dialectic image of the spiral of development, but it may equally reflect an unconscious ideal in the authors. There is at least one certainly unconscious metaphor for the child buried deep in Child Behavior, underlying the suggestions that newspaper be placed in a comer of the bathroom floor for difficult excretory cases, a police whistle be bought to summon the dilatory child, and a biter be dealt with by muzzling with an adult hand.

In this culture, the nature of the child is known, not only because it is all built in from the start, but because it classifies readily into easily identifiable physical and temperamental types: Sheldon’s constitutional typing of endomorph (fat and lazy), mesomorph (muscular and active), and ectomorph (thin and shy); a division into “focal” and “peripheral” personalities (one concentrates and the other diffuses); Kanner’s “autistic” or solitary personality and its sociable opposite; and even an ultimate typing: “Children can almost be placed in two different groups, those who love peanut butter and those who don’t.” From the vantage point of these fixities, syndicated shamans can do a number of things for parents: consoling (“You can be prevented from feeling too much surprise or discouragement”); coaching (“And don’t be above using guile”); indoctrinating (“Try to recognize and respect your child’s basic, inborn individuality”); laying down the law (“We do not recommend spanking for this behavior”); and cooling-off (“This information may help you to keep down your expectations”).



In all this emphasis on growth and culture, it is not surprising that the voice chiefly identified in our time wtih unchanging instincts and biological limitation, Sigmund Freud’s, is seldom heard. Erik H. Erikson is the only contributor to Childhood in Contemporary Cultures who overtly resists the prevailing cultural emphasis. His article on “Sex Differences in the Play Configurations of American Adolescents” notes “how many questions remain unanswered if a one-sided cultural explanation is accepted as the sole basis for the sex differences expressed in these configurations.” Wolfenstein has Freudian moments, as when she gives the traditional phallic reading of “Jack and the Beanstalk,” or suggests brilliantly that American “fun morality” may be “a new kind of defense against impulses,” or ends her concluding chapter on a tribute to Freud’s humanistic vision. Else Frenkel-Brunswik turns briefly to “depth psychology” for a “dynamic” dimension to her environmental study of family backgrounds. Robert Sunley finds in studying 19th-century American child-rearing literature, somewhat to his surprise, that American Calvinist ideas about the child were more realistic in recognizing his sexual and aggressive drives than later optimistic thought. (The paper on “Freud, Infant Damnation, and Total Depravity” still remains to be written, and would clear the air wonderfully.)

Child Behavior is, as could be expected, sharply anti-Freudian. When little girls attempt to urinate standing up, “This is a perfectly normal experiment and not in our opinion a sign that they have ‘penis envy’ or have been overexposed to little boys.” The emphasis is always away from the psyche: “Reasonable experimentation with laxatives and experimenting with a relaxing diet should certainly be tried before you conclude that your child’s constipation is an ‘emotional’ problem.” There is even a slash of Occam’s Razor at Freud: “However, in keeping with the principle of never seek a complicated explanation when a simple one will do, don’t seek ‘deep’ reasons and complicated therapy unless you’re sure that something simple will not suffice”—which we might translate as “Never seek a reason when a rationalization will do.” With endomorphic personalities, quoting Sheldon, “Nothing is ever choked or held back. There is no emotional inhibition”; when the authors encounter an uncontrollable little boy with no discernible superego, they conclude sourly “this boy’s personality was the thing at fault”; when they encounter the little boy who prefers to dress up as a girl and play with dolls, he is “the feminine” type. Characteristically, masturbation is always treated as a “tensional outlet,” and the remedy for it, as for all childhood sexuality, is “providing ideas for something better to do.” For adolescent sexuality, the remedy is “providing a child with a view of himself and his life plan and life role which is not consistent with getting early sex expression and fulfillment.” Against adult sexuality, that well-known tensional outlet, something worse to do, and disrupter of life roles, the authors tactfully offer no recommendations.

Despite all the emphasis on culture, social and economic realities seem to play little part in it. All the people of Geselland are middle class, and they apparently have their days free for child-watching. In Childhood in Contemporary Cultures, Mead notes the value to the child of the extensive adult leisure in her Balinese village, but never relates it to wealth-getting activities or economic margin. Her conclusion to the book contains one of its few mentions of class differences as a factor in child care in our own culture. The most interesting case is that of Frenkel-Brunswik, who compares an authoritarian and a democratic family while specifically excluding “social and economic determinants” from consideration, choosing families of roughly similar stations. Nevertheless, she is so strongly concerned with social implications, noting “fascistic attitudes” in her authoritarian family (which is of German origin) and how they might come “to the fore” after “social upheavals of a major sort,” that it finally becomes obvious that she is writing a political parable, a cautionary tale about Good Germans, Bad Germans, and the rise of Hitler, and that its purpose is to warn.



Through all the glossy new gadgetry of method in these books a kind of old-fashioned rationalism peeks out. Childhood in Contemporary Cultures deals extensively with such symbolic expressions as art and rituals, but it is never in their own terms, always as didacticism or projective test. Mead sees works of literature as clear designs whose intentions “miscarry” if the audience gets anything not “carefully and creatively planned,” and the hopeful directions of her conclusion—constructively loaded juvenile books, constructively loaded dramatic performances, and pious group conferences—are neither so novel nor so innocent as she might think. Wolfenstein shows in some comments on Dickens and Dostoevsky that she has only the dimmest sense of how novels differ from tracts, and her one impressive literary insight, the significant “national character” difference in the endings of Oliver Twist and Huck Finn, turns out to be W. H. Auden’s. Ilg and Ames remark “They seldom ask, ‘How shall I tell him about war?’—though war, to our way of thinking, is much harder to explain than sex.” This would be rather a nice joke if it were a joke, but it is apparently a serious statement, suggesting that the authors will recognize Eros, the life instinct, at least as a tensional outlet, but never Thanatos, the death instinct. A letter they quote approvingly shows how beautiful death can be when “The cemetery has no tombstones permitted and truly looks like a beautiful park.” They simply do not credit the possibility of hostile or destructive elements in the personality. In their culture, the adopted child is always “a chosen child—desired, selected and doubly cherished for this reason,” never, say, a vessel the adopting parents fill with the guilt and reproaches they feel about their sterility.

All these ladies have a curious owlish quality, humorless and gullible. Wolfenstein gives a weighty analysis of a French child’s drawing of an arrow, which the child explained was a picture of a hunter shooting a bird, the hunter not in the picture because he had released the arrow, the bird not pictured because it had been missed. (This, doctor, is a joke, and that child may yet grow up to publish French Droodles.) Frenkel-Brunswik finds her democratic home admirable in part because the mother, a social worker who has been analyzed, divorced but “on good terms” with her husband, talks about her daughter as follows:

I do hope that she will do something that will make her happy and at the same time be constructive. I hope the girl will have experience early enough that she can integrate it and lead an outgoing, constructive life; that she won’t have to spend so long working out her aggression that she finds herself no longer young—not that I wish to spare my daughter the suffering and experience necessary for development, but I hope she may get it early and fast. I feel that I can help by giving a lot of trust and confidence in the girl. I do feel that at times in the past I may have expected too high a performance for the sake of my own gratification, and that may have troubled Peggy. The child has been given more responsibility than the average, but as a rule it hasn’t seemed to be a strain.

It never occurs to Frenkel-Brunswik that the easy jargon of understanding can be as readily used to obfuscate relations as to reveal them, and if her account of the authoritarian family is like taking the cover off a sewer, this is like riffling through the yellowing pages of PM.

These attitudes are characteristically accompanied by a general contempt for the arts of language. Child Behavior is written entirely in Gesell, the click of exclamation points and the soft wet thud of nursery-school slogans. German and French are translated in Childhood in Contemporary Cultures as one gets cocktail onions out of the bottle, with savage jabs, and the contributors quickly shift from English to Newspeak. Even David Riesman’s enormously impressive chapter from The Lonely Crowd, showing the dangerous nonsense in a children’s book called Tootle, ends at the apocalyptic moment when “the self-confirming process of the peer group pushes preference exchange to the point of parody.” The use of the first-person plural in these books seems significant. Ilg and Ames have a chummy “we” that includes authors and reader-parents, as in “We can try to smooth over the child’s ‘worse’ stages.” Wolfenstein attacks the false and misleading “we” of the nursery school, as in “We don’t hit,” which pretends that teacher and child are age-mates. Her own first-person plural goes to the other extreme. In “We have come to consider the child’s nature as totally harmless and beneficent,” or “In America we tend quickly to forget on the conscious level what we have put behind us or outgrown,” it specifically excludes herself and simply means “you benighted readers.”



It is hard to separate problems of methodology raised by these approaches from the personal limitations of authors and editors. Ilg and Ames are solidly configurational, insisting “But here as always the total child in the total situation should be the primary consideration.” Much of Childhood in Contemporary Cultures is similarly enlightened. But cultural configurations can oversimplify and distort too (as Boas showed in his comments on Benedict’s Patterns of Culture, noting that one would never realize from it that her aggressive and destructive Kwakiutl were warm and kindly parents). Studying the total child in the total situation, whether the nursery school and clinic of Ilg and Ames, or Mead’s “live children” in “play groups” and “real children in analytic situations,” runs us into the variant of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle that bedevils the social sciences, the fact that the very act of observation, the presence of teacher or doctor, dislocates things to the point where accurate observation is impossible. When Mead and Macgregor tried to validate the Gesell categories for a non-literate culture in Growth and Culture, they properly found that the categories had to be altered at key points. When Mead announced that what Gesell calls “ulnar grasp” (holding with the fingers furthest from the thumb) relates to a general Balinese “lack of focus and goal orientation,” she was engaged in using the categories as though they were already valid for Bali, and was trying to put what she decided from field study as though it had been learned or could be learned from motor behavior.

Another problem is of course the reliability of the informant. Anthropologists have increasingly been coming to realize that many of their pictures of primitive cultures are no more than what the old men (who tend, for a variety of obvious reasons, to be the principal informants) wish were so or believe was so in the happier past. Some of Childhood in Contemporary Cultures is obviously idealized reality of this sort, particularly the Zborowski article, which tends to picture East European shtetl life as a golden age of piety and learning. His statement, for example, that the Jewish ideal of male beauty was and is pale, deep-set-eyed, and scholarly seems to me (perhaps because I am a florid endomorph) extraordinarily unlikely. In Geselland, inevitably, only one wise old informant is ever used, and the authors clear up disputed matters with the simple “Dr. Gesell has commented on this subject.”

Where these works are most useful, in my opinion, is in their strongly implied criticisms of our own culture. One of the articles in Childhood in Contemporary Cultures, Benedict’s classic 1938 paper, “Continuities and Discontinuities in Cultural Conditioning,” demonstrates the crippling discontinuities in our own culture (in which the child learns roles of irresponsibility, submission, and a sexuality which it must then painfully unlearn in order to function as an adult) by showing how various American Indian and Pacific cultures avoid these discontinuities or minimize them through such devices as age grades and ritual ceremonies. Erikson’s remarkable “Sex Differences in the Play Configurations of American Adolescents” shows how much can be made of projective behavior when the analyst feels the culture on his own hide, whether by being enough moved by a withdrawn girl to permit himself “the clinical luxury of one non-standardized question,” or by being painfully aware of caste factors when a disturbed Negro boy dramatizes ultimate “lowness” by building his structure of blocks under the table.

Ilg and Ames love their culture, and even welcome television for “its real educational value,” but they too sometimes suggest that it has not entirely encapsulated all virtue. They note that some primitive peoples feature “the self-demand and self-regulation schedules which many pediatricians now recommend,” and some of their anecdotes, such as one in which a newborn baby sent daily gifts from the hospital to his sib and was welcomed on arrival home, suggest their appreciation of cultures in which gift-giving and reciprocity are ceremonial and institutionalized. In Growth and Culture, Mead notes that anthropological findings are welcomed in America if they underline plasticity and resisted if they document limits, that is, that we will only accept assurances that human possibility is open and infinite. She makes clear that the book’s intention is not primarily to tell us about Bali but to “give us much greater understanding of what is happening to our children,” and concludes “We can develop our culture” in certain preferable Balinese directions.



As critics of America, these ladies have certain obvious difficulties. Mead and Wolfenstein have produced an ethnocentric and culture-bound book, not by intention, surely, but because the cultures they could get suitable child material on, except for Bali, are all too similar, more like subcultures of Western civilization than independent organic wholes (here some of Mead’s own work on the Manus or Arapesh would have helped enormously). Ilg and Ames have not set foot outside Geselland for many years. The personality and culture field seems to be inevitably gyno-centered, and Mead remarks sharply, “Although there are distinguished male workers in the field . . . it is probably not an accident that all of them have worked closely with woman teachers or collaborators.” She appears to recommend “collaborative two-sex teams” (why not three-sex or four-sex?) in line with the general faith of our time that teamwork and “integration” will solve whatever problems individuals cannot. Growth and Culture, we might note, involved the collaboration of a dozen people, plus a theoretical hash of Gesell, Erikson, Lawrence Frank, Cybernetics, and a group conference of other experts. With all these voices joining in, debate gets promptly on to a high level of philosophic abstraction: growth or training, determinism or plasticity, biology or culture, nature or nurture. Through all this hubbub, the child crawls ignored between the adult legs, relieving tension by picking his nose, growing up as best he can.



1 Growth and Culture, by Margaret Mead and Frances Cooke Macgregor. Based upon photographs by Gregory Bateson analyzed in Gesell Categories (Putnam’s).


About the Author

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.