A Study of the Child in America

Mark May

The Child in America, by W. I. Thomas and Dorothy S. Thomas. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 601 pages. $7.50.

SURELY this is the children's age. The child-welfare movement in America has, during the past ten years, assumed the proportions of one of the significant trends in American history. With a scientific literature numbering at least one thousand books and articles annually and with a popular literature of twice that amount, with hundreds of organizations, programs, plans, schemes and procedures, with an army of workers and lecturers, with millions of dollars spent annually on relief and research, to say nothing of the time, energy and money of the public schools spent on education that is not strictly of the three R's, it seems wise and fitting that an effort be made to take stock of the situation and appraise the results. Unlike many other popular movements, this one represents a strange mixture of science and sentiment, of fact and fancy all mixed up together and in such a way that only by the most careful scrutiny can the wheat be separated from the chaff.

This volume is of the nature of a source book, more than half the pages being direct quotations. The authors have made an heroic attempt to stick to the facts. Their data have been culled mainly from the scientific literature (Or at least that published in the scientific journals), but partly from direct observation of the operation of various programs and institutions. Conclusions are carefully stated and the approval or disapproval of this or that institution or method is used somewhat sparingly. The chapters are classified into three divisions: the first presenting varieties of maladjustment, the second, practical programs of prevention and relief, and the third, methods of approach to the study of the problem.

The major premise of the volume is that the problems of maladjustment arise for the most part out of the conflict between the "impulse behavior" of the child and the "inhibited behavior" of the adults. Adults who have become conditioned by and sensitized to conventional moral norms, and are therefore considered as adjusted, are likely to regard all behavior of children that deviates from these norms as "naughty," "disorderly," and "incorrigible." All behavior problems are essentially deviates from the norm, and when the norm itself is changing, as it now is, the situation becomes complicated and is viewed with alarm. All programs for the prevention and cure of social failures and all research projects are aimed ultimately at the control of the conduct of children. The practical programs proceed, for the most part, on traditional methods of control, whereas the scientific projects seek first to predict and then gain control.

The facts collected by the authors clearly indicate that the traditional methods of social control are inadequate to cope with the problems of social failure. No method has yet been devised for the prevention or treatment of juvenile delinquency that yields consistently successful results. All programs that depend on changing the external environment are sure to meet with very limited success, owing to the fact that when the delinquent returns to his old environment the old habits are quickly reestablished; Methods of incarceration are not only unsuccessful, but pernicious, because the delinquent comes in contact with other delinquents and more devilment is planned. The method of placing them in foster homes has met with limited success, but has its peculiar difficulties. The authors doubt if the method employed by Judge Hoffman of Cincinnati of returning the delinquent to his home on probation has all the values that have been claimed for it.

The newer and ostensibly more scientific methods of social control come in for their share of rigorous scrutiny. The psychiatric child-guidance clinics have not, the authors think, panned out as well as it was hoped they might. "Treatment plans which deal with behavior by working from the psychic processes outward must always face a certain indefiniteness." "There is evidence that dwelling on disturbing mental conflicts is favorable to their continuance.... " And again, "Certainly the psychiatric approach, in its present form, is far from being the panacea that its more ardent and less objective advocates have claimed."

Closely affiliated with the psychiatric approach is the psychometric, which assumes a close correlation between native intelligence and conduct, especially delinquency, with the resulting hypothesis that, if the mentally deficient are spotted and segregated, the social problem of delinquency will be in a large measure solved. Both the assumption and the hypothesis are attacked by the authors. They cite most of the available evidence to show that intelligence tests reveal something more than pure native intelligence; and they also marshal quite an impressive array of data showing that the correlation between mental deficiency and normal delinquency ís by no means as close as it has been claimed to be. Many feeble-minded persons are taking their places in society as satisfactory citizens. And, furthermore, the incidence of mental deficiency among social offenders is not as high as the early returns from prisons and reformatories indicated.

Among some of the other scientific programs reviewed are the approaches of personality-testing methods, of mental hygiene, of psychoanalysis, of bio-chemistry, of morphology and finally of sociology. The chapter on sociology embraces a review of the work on conditioned reflexes and a résumé of the researches of the child-welfare institutes. Toward the work conducted by these institutes the authors are not less critical, but more 'sympathetic, as may be judged by the space allotted to them and by the fact that they bestow upon them their blessing.

The grand finale of this book is an ardent appeal for what they call the "situational" approach. This approach consists, first of all, in finding out what children actually do in certain well defined situations without attempting to ascertain in the first instant "why" they do it. This is the method of the physical sciences. The data should be concise and for the most part quantitative statements of what happened in very definite situations. "Through studies of this sort we learn how people behave and from them we can then infer why people behave as they do."

When we learn how they behave in specific situations, we can then also predict behavior, within limits, in those situations. When this happy day of scientific prediction arrives, we will then be in possession of the most powerful scientific instrument of control; we will then be able to clear up obscure etiology and to evaluate current practical programs and build new ones on safe foundations.-.



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