The Child and his Behavior. A. R. Luria

Adult and Child. The Principle of Metamorphosis

The incorrect belief that children and adults differ only in quantitative terms has become firmly entrenched in the general consciousness. Its proponents argue that if you take an adult, make him smaller, somewhat weaker and less intelligent, and take away his knowledge and skills, you will be left with a child.

This notion of the child as a small adult is very widespread. It does not seem to have occurred to many people that essentially the child is not always a mere miniature version of the adult, that he is in many respects radically different from the adult, and that he is a very special creature with his own identity.

The fact that people rarely ponder this question, but remain convinced that the child is nothing other than a small adult, is readily explained. After all, it is the easiest thing in the world to judge objects and their laws by analogy with oneself (“anthropomorphically”). Primitives used to invest even animals and plants with their own characteristics, endowing the whole world around them with their own qualities, such as joy and sadness; they believed that plants, and even inanimate nature, had reason, intentions and will, and they treated them like their own fellows.

It is not surprising, therefore, that they have always judged children by their own yardstick, ascribing to them all the adult traits with which they were familiar from their own personal experience. The way children are often depicted sheds much interesting light on this attitude toward them.

fig 20

Figure 20 contains two drawings, one of an adult, and the other of a child, done by a female adult Uzbek with a low level of cultural development, living in a remote village. [1] She had been asked to draw a picture of a woman. The figure on the left is, in fact, a primitive image of a woman. She pointed out, however, that “A woman, whoever she is, has got to have a child”, and then drew the figure of the child on the right. A close look at each of these drawings will reveal that they are strikingly similar, but for their size. Like the adult, the child depicted by this semi-civilized woman is merely a miniature adult, with the same primitive arrangement of head, arms and legs, the same scarf over the head and even the same necklace around the neck.

This representation of the child has endured for centuries. In every picture gallery we can see dozens of infants, each in the lap of a Madonna, and each with bodily proportions like those of an adult. The little Jesuses, princes and dukes, all in adult dress, and all looking exactly like dwarf-size adults, that one sees in the portrait galleries of German castles are clear evidence of mankind’s age-old tendency to view the child as a small adult. For centuries people have failed to realize fully that the child, by virtue of both his physical appearance and his psychology, is a very special type of being, qualitatively different from the adult, and that special attention is needed when dealing with the activity of the child as well as the laws that govern his life.

Not only does our child think and perceive the world differently from an adult, not only is his logic founded on special, qualitatively different principles, but even his bodily structure and functions set him apart, to a large extent, from the adult.

The metamorphoses through which the child passes affect his most fundamental traits, those that are usually thought to be immutable in man – the structure and design of his body and the proportion of its parts. While adults themselves differ by virtue of the relationships between various parts of the body, height, shape of skull, etc., how much greater are the corresponding differences between children and adults! Strictly speaking, an excellent case can be made for the notion of a child’s constitution, through which each newborn passes before becoming an adult. This child’s constitution is characterized by proportions wholly different from those we are accustomed to seeing in adults: a big head, an only slightly differentiated neck and short arms and legs – such are the outward physical characteristics of the small child. His further development consists of a radical re-arrangement of these characteristically childlike relationships: the neck becomes differentiated, the extremities grow longer, the ratio between head and body diminishes, and by the age of 15 to 16 we have an entirely different person, with entirely different proportions and shapes. The schematic outline showing the physical structure of the child at different ages and the adult (Figs. 21 and 22) shows that in the course of development a number of metamorphoses occur in the child’s external appearance.

fig 21

Underlying these metamorphoses, of course, there are profound alterations in the processes governing child development, such as the development of the endocrine system and the growth of individual parts of the nervous system, though we shall not dwell on those here. The basic premise that the development of the child’s organism comprises a complex system of metamorphoses has been endorsed by numerous researchers.[2]

While such profound changes characterize the growth of the child and its transition into adulthood, the metamorphoses in the mechanisms of the child’s behavior are even more pronounced.

We know that periodic changes between waking and sleeping are perhaps the most fundamental traits of the behavior of adults; each of us actually leads a dual existence, and each part of our life – asleep and awake – is concentrated, occupying compact intervals of time. None of this applies to the newborn child. As demonstrated by the research of a number of scientists – most recently by Shchelanov in Leningrad – the newborn child is neither asleep nor awake. In his life, waking and sleeping are fragmented into an interwoven succession of very short periods of time which form a sort of intermediate state marked by the irradiation of excitability and inhibition. The newborn child is a very special creature, with entirely different bodily proportions and a totally different organization of activity. We shall now scrutinize it more closely, trying to identify those strands that connect the newborn to the surrounding world. By inquiring into the nature of his world, we shall learn what he himself is like.

fig 20