Research Findings: Symbolical Realm/Sphere of Subjectivity


Sphere of Subjectivity



“Uttering a word is like striking a note on the keyboard of the imagination.”  — Ludwig Wittgenstein

Now is the time for the child to “stand and deliver.”  As she identifies, distinguishes and uses lexical items, she can drop the gestural accompaniments of “performatives” and experience the power of words.

Science tends to rely on numbers and mathematics to establish “quantitative” truth, and as a result tends to downplay the significance of language:  words are “qualities.”  But all numbers are words, but not all words are numbers.  Without language, math and science would not exist in consciousness.  Numbers come into consciousness as a result of narratives, but narratives do not come into consciousness as a result of numbers (this is not to say that mathematical formulas are irrelevant to narratives; as with relativity, they can inform their own narratives).

Scientists often compete to be “hard-headed realists,” eschewing what are considered “sentimental” subjects such as poetry.  But without sentimentality we wouldn’t have babies to become children whom parents expect to learn to talk as their first contribution to being part of the family and community.

There are things beyond language probably more significant than language, but we know of them because of language, not in spite of language.  In other words, this website will be taking the significance of language development very seriously.  To understand the child’s experience, it would be silly not to.  And a “good” scientist would never want to be silly, eh?  [irony intended]  Or, as Wittgenstein has observed, “Never stay up on the barren heights of cleverness, but come down into the green valleys of silliness.”

Or, more generally, “If people never did silly things nothing intelligent would ever get done.”  (Wittgenstein)

So let’s get down to the serious business of playing with the idea of language.

Learning to talk is a very emotional process.  We can see this most clearly when there is a major failure to learn language, followed by its remedy.  This process is revealed in the story told by Susan Schaller, teacher of sign language (which shares the same brain region as spoken language) in her book, A Man Without Words (UC Press, 1995).  Schaller tells the story of Ildefonso, a deaf man who never was taught sign language until she helped him learn, requiring an arduous and ultimately creative effort.  His experience of life before he learned language was similar to the “no-world” that Helen Keller described before she learned language at age seven.  The relief both felt when language brought them out of their solitude shows the central role of language acquisition on development.

Does language spring upon us, or does it slowly and imperceptibly sneak up through the babblings and performatives of the infant?  The “birth of language” has been shrouded in the mists of time and the clutter of everyday family life.  This has led to many fine researchers to throw up their hands and enlist the relativist cliche, as Elizabeth Bates (1976, pg. 72) does here:

Anthropology recognizes that man has no birthday; zoology recognizes that life has no birthday; physics recognizes that matter has no birthday.  The murky line between life and non-life, man and non-man, matter and non-matter stems from the fact…that we can recognize what, for example, is definitely at either end of a conceptual continuum…the transition from one to the other is continuous and not discrete.

While she concludes this, she also subscribes to Piaget’s assumption that language is secondary to symbolization, and that the cognitive symbol forms the basis of the linguistic social label for the symbol.  The symbol is the “body”, the word the “costume” designed to “display” the symbol outside the mind.

Vygotsky, and Bruner in his stead, criticised Piaget on that score, showing how language is acquired in social interactions, with the language ability and the symbolic ability being one and the same.  If language and symbolization are “born” in social interaction, is it something we can see?  It turns out that yes, we can see (and hear) it, especially with the aid of modern technology.  In the March 2011 TED Talk, “The Birth of a Word”, MIT researcher Deb Roy presented some findings from 90,000 hours of home video he took over the course of three years in all the rooms of their family house (excluding private areas).  He sought to detail the influence of social environments on language acquisition, and ended up tracking 7 million words of home transcripts.  The most significant findings are contained in the following transcript of the TED Talk (link):


So he didn’t just learn water. Over the course of the 24 months, the first two years that we really focused on, this is a map of every word he learned in chronological order. And because we have full transcripts, we’ve identified each of the 503 words that he learned to produce by his second birthday. He was an early talker. And so we started to analyze why. Why were certain words born before others? This is one of the first results that came out of our study a little over a year ago that really surprised us. The way to interpret this apparently simple graph is, on the vertical is an indication of how complex caregiver utterances are based on the length of utterances. And the [horizontal] axis is time.


And all of the data, we aligned based on the following idea: Every time my son would learn a word, we would trace back and look at all of the language he heard that contained that word. And we would plot the relative length of the utterances. And what we found was this curious phenomena, that caregiver speech would systematically dip to a minimum, making language as simple as possible, and then slowly ascend back up in complexity. And the amazing thing was that bounce, that dip, lined up almost precisely with when each word was born — word after word, systematically. So it appears that all three primary caregivers — myself, my wife and our nanny — were systematically and, I would think, subconsciously restructuring our language to meet him at the birth of a word and bring him gently into more complex language. And the implications of this — there are many, but one I just want to point out, is that there must be amazing feedback loops. Of course, my son is learning from his linguistic environment, but the environment is learning from him. That environment, people, are in these tight feedback loops and creating a kind of scaffolding that has not been noticed until now.

When Deb Roy says that caregivers “create a kind of scaffolding that has not been noticed until now”, he seems unaware of the work of Vygotsky and Bruner.  Bruner says the same thing when defining “fine tuning”:  “Parents speak at the level where their children can comprehend them and move ahead with remarkable sensitivity to their child’s progress.”  (1983, pg. 38)  Bruner also supplemented Vygotsky’s term “scaffolding” with his concept of the “format”:  “A format is a standardized, initially microcosmic interaction pattern between an adult and an infant that contains demarcated roles that eventually become reversible.”  (pp. 120-1)  Examples include “peek-a-boo”, its older sibling “hide-and-seek”, picture book reading (“What’s this?  It’s a…”), greetings and departures (“Say bye-bye!”). etc.

Who, steady now…look up…Wow,look at that!

Now that we have explored the heart of symbol formation in the inspiration of language acquisition, we can move to the details of the development of declarative sentences and simple narratives of young children, before language becomes internalized and polite forms develop.  But first, a word of advice for parents and teachers of young children from my 35 years of family therapy practice:  Just as you don’t want your child yelling to get his way, you also don’t him whining to get his way.  Whining regresses the child from language competent requests to infantile demands, and goes against what Bruner calls the “felicity” conditions of language acquisition, which is a way to say that when mom’s not happy, nobody’s happy.  Which is why parents and teachers should train the child more on appropriate delivery than correct for grammar or diction (which they naturally do, unless they are training in the grammar police academy).

Now that she is a walker and a talker, the child is ready to take off in both the world, and the world of language (for a great depiction of the walking toddlers new perspective on the world, see this Air BnB Ad).  But before she moves on from being a walker to becoming a runner, she picks up dancing.  It may be necessary for children to practice different leg, hip and arm movements to attain the required balance to run without crashing.  (Again, music takes its place nudging the newbie walker into a full-fledged runner.)

This children’s music cd cover shows children in various states of toddling and dancing.  Below shows how dance therapy can help children learn how to control themselves better:


Not only does the advent of language play a central role in human development, it also irreversibly alters the brain.  By the end of symbol formation, the child has acquired the basic building block of “the neural lyre of poetic meter” (Turner & Poppel, The Neural Lyre:  Poetic Meter, the Brain, and Time, Poetry, vol. 142, no. 5, Aug. 1983).  Of poetic meter, Turner and Poppel say:

This fundamental unit is nearly always a rhythmic, semantic, and syntactical unit, as well:  a sentence,  a colon, a clause or a phrase; or a completed group of them.  Thus other linguistic rhythms are entrained to the basic acoustic rhythm, producing the pleasing sensation of “fit” and inevitability which is part of the delight of verse, and is so helpful to the memory.  Generally a short line is used to deal with light subjects, while the long line is reserved for epic or tragic matters.  (pg. 288)

To sum up the general argument of this essay:  metered poetry is a cultural universal, and its salient feature, the three-second LINE, is tuned to the three-second present moment of the auditory information-processing system.  By means of metrical variation, the musical and pictorial powers of the right brain are enlisted by meter to cooperate with the linguistic powers of the left; and by auditory driving effects, the lower levels of the nervous system are stimulated in such a way as to reinforce the cognitive functions of the poem, to improve the memory, and to promote physiological and social harmony.  Metered poetry may play an important part in developing our more subtle understandings of time, and may thus act as a technique to concentrate and reinforce our uniquely human tendency to make sense of the world in terms of values like truth, beauty, and goodness.  Meter breaks the confinement of linguistic expression and appreciation within two small regions of the left temporal lobe and brings to bear the energies of the whole brain.  (pg. 306)

The fit of the three-second meter with children’s developing neurology helps explain the often noted “ritualistic” characteristic of two year-olds who will adamantly correct a parent’s re-telling of a story if anything is changed, or who won’t go to bed without every step of the “going to bed” ritual being completed in proper order.  Metered poetry’s effectiveness at aiding memory is how human oral traditions have thrived over the centuries, and why music helps with memorizing sets like the alphabet song (6 verses ending with “mother aren’t you proud of me!”:  of course, children at this age don’t understand the alphabet yet as a written code, but can memorize the song and enjoy it).

Once children produce enough simple sentences, their vocabulary starts to explode, and they start piling sentences on top of each other using the simple conjunction “and”.  In terms of narrative development (Applebee), this moves the child from unjoined “heaps” to conjoined “sequences.”  An example of this in a basic child narrative might look something like this:  “The boy is lost and he is hungry and then he got found and eats dinner and goes to bed.”

So here are some characteristics of the “terrible twos”:  run-on sentences and running out into traffic!  Parents often use a method to “herd” their run-away two-year-old with the game of “chase” (as one mother told me of her relationship with her 2 year-old, “we love to be chased”):

A mother in the park was with her 2 year-old; he was mock-running-away, looking over his shoulder and giggling uncontrollably, as his mother ambled after him, mock-threatening “I’m going to get you!  I”m going to get you!”  Then, as she closed in on him, she swooshed her arms around his torso, and spun him around as she exclaimed:  “Wheee!”

Experiences like this explain why many young boys want to marry their mothers.

In terms of temporal distinctions, symbol comparison encodes the sensor-motor distinctions that occurred during image and agent developments.  With symbol comparison, the now/not now distinction is encoded, in the form of now and then (past).  This is when children learning English over-generalize the -ed ending marking past tense (e.g. “swimmed” for “swam”).  It won’t be until the child has achieved symbol relation that the past/present/future distinctions are fully encoded.

Linguistic conjunctions allow children to verbalize two-step communications:  if the child needs mom’s help, he can first use language to get her attention (“mommy, come here”) and then to direct her attention (“gimme bear” when bear is out of reach).

Another linguistic development that helps two-year-olds accelerate their speech production is the development of pronouns.  During symbol formation, young children use names — they learn that everything has a name — but now they start shortening those nouns with pronouns.  “I” and “you” are first to develop, then third person pronouns (“he”, “she”, etc.).  At this stage, children can only handle a single substitution of a noun into a pronoun in a sentence (e.g. “I give the ball to mommy” rather than “I give it to you.”); it won’t be until the next stage that multiple pronouns can be substituted.  There is a parallel in pretend play where children at this stage can substitute one pretend item to facilitate the play, but cannot yet substitute two items.

These development give the child’s language production a quality of uncoordinated and headlong compulsion, as though the child’s tongue is stuck on the accelerator and obstacles are dealt with by piling on more language at greater speed and higher volume.  Until children can take their tongue off the accelerator and eventually apply the brake, the more social children tend to be more aggressive until the means of self-control are at hand.


1-2-3  Go

1-2-3  Go — Going

1-2-3  Going

1-2-3  Going…etc., etc.

Sample from Pilot Study, 1983

Counting to three becomes prevalent as children approach their third birthday.  In the sample above, a boy almost three years old, used this chant , rocking back and forth, while waiting in the back of his father’s pick-up truck (as if to get the truck going by pushing it forward).  Notice the shift from the present indicative (go) to the infinitive (going).  The boy uses the 1-2-3 rhythm as a cue for the wait —> release pattern of his rocking — while holding on to the tailgate, he lunges forward on the count of 3.

In our culture, the child’s third birthday makes this ability to count relevant to encoding time distinctions:  he begins to understand “I was 2, now I’m 3, and I will be 4.”

In the above example, the boy is using his chant to help him wait until his father is ready to go.  Children at this stage can wait when told to, but can’t wait on their own accord.  This example demonstrates two aspects of language for the 3 year old:  first, he can take his tongue off the accelerator and stop aggressively pestering his father, and he can use language to entertain himself while he waits.  When psycholinguists examine the functions of speech, particularly “private speech”, they tend to neglect the fact that children love to play with language.

Two important conjunctions children learn here are “but” and “because” (Bates).  These are important because they allow children to verbalize conflict, which is a first step towards learning how to resolve conflict.  We intuitively know the difference between “and” and “but” — we see this when we prompt someone to complete a sentence.  For instance, if a friend says “Harry wanted to go to the store…”, and then stops, if the partial sentence ends with lowering intonation, we are likely to say “and?”, which may prompt the completion of “and he borrowed my car.”  But if the partial sentence ends with rising intonation, we are cued that for some reason the intended action was not completed, and we are likely to prompt with “but?”, which may prompt the completion of “but he didn’t have any money.”

In this way children can better communicate with parents about what is wrong.  These findings are in line with Applebee’s description of children’s “primitive narratives” at this stage.

Another linguistic development among 3 year-olds is the subordinate clause.  This allows the child to go from two sentences like “the horse was tiny” and “the horse struggled up the hill” to “The horse, who was tiny, struggled up the hill.”  (and eventually to “the tiny horse struggled…”)  Patricia Greenfield (The Development of Rule-bound Strategies for Manipulating Seriated Cups:  A Parallel Between Action and Grammar, Cognitive Psychology, 3, 291-310, 1972) found an interesting parallel between action and grammar on a task of “nesting” seriated cups.  She finds that children develop through three strategies for successfully seriating the cups that parallel the stages of symbol formation, comparison, and relation.  At first children need to understand that they can’t put any cups in any others if they first pick up the largest cup.  After they figure that out, they can then pile a number of smaller cups inside the largest (and another, and another).  At the end, when they can produce subordinated (“embedded”) clauses, they can also seriate a cup in the middle of the series when given it after having seriated the others.

These parallels between action and grammar should not surprise us since Applebee’s definitions of narrative structures came from a sorting exercise Vygotsky developed.

So all-in-all, the child at this stage is much more coordinated than the 2 year-old, but he still cannot be trusted alone because he has yet to develop the self-regulation that comes with the internalization of speech.

Sphere of Subjectivity


Scan 6

from radials to stick figures

With this new sphere of experience, the child is thrown back on herself in confusion as she realizes that her experience is subjective, or “internal” and private, as is the experience of others.  The “interior” nature of subjectivity is reflected in children’s drawings at this stage.  3 year-olds can do circles and lines and crosses.  4 year-olds can form a radial, where spokes come out from a center point.  Here is when we see children producing suns with rays emanating out, or sunflowers, with happy faces.  This is the beginning of the stick figure, which first has arms and legs coming out of its round head — later, a torso gets added with arms and  legs coming out from the torso.  (Rhonda Kellog, Understanding Children’s Art, Psychology Today, 1967, 1, 16-25)  Children’s imagination now makes them less interested in stories about the familiar world and more interested in strange worlds they can master from a distance (Applebee, pg. 75).  Imaginary friends can help children learn social expectations and limits (Brazelton, Imaginary Friends Help Kids Develop, SF Chronicle, 11-17-1992, D4).

But before we go down this rabbit-hole, a few words on how we got here that were not covered in the last section.

In 1968, Kohlberg wrote an article on the issues of “private speech” and its relation to the internalization of language.  “Private speech ” are the verbalizations of children that occur while they are alone or when they do not seem to be considering the response or understanding of others present.  His researches concluded that private speech is not exclusively egocentric as Piaget contended, and that it did play a role leading to the internalization of language.  He especially singled out “mumbling” as a clear predecessor to internal dialogue.

This is an interesting finding, but a rather narrow one given the range of speech behavior exhibited by 3 year-olds.  For instance, during my MSW thesis participant-observer pilot project, I was able to observe and elicit a range of verbal behaviors from two research subjects who were neighborhood children in family student housing at UC Berkeley.  One was a 3 year-old girl, I will name Sydney, who was rather soft-spoken.  In the housing complex, which was former WWII ship-builder housing, our married studio unit was up-stairs and next door to a one-bedroom family unit in which the subject family resided.  When Sydney was on the up-stairs balcony and her mother was in sight down below, Sydney had to make a special effort to yell loud enough for her mother to hear.  Conversely, when she was sitting right next to her mother, she would share something in a whisper, obviously making sure her mother could hear but others couldn’t.  This volume control leads children to realize that when they are speaking to themselves, they can be quieter than a whisper — indeed not vibrating the vocal cords at all (not even a mumble).

These findings are reinforced by research on “sub-vocalizations” and auditory hallucinations.  “Sub-vocalizations” are when the vocal tract is muscularly engaged, but the vocal cords are not.  This may be because when we are thinking rather than speaking the words, we are still imagining saying them.  So when researchers found that psychotic patients experiencing auditory hallucinations were sub-vocalizing at the same time, it suggests that their sub-vocalizations have become dis-associated from their sense of agency, and they experience the thoughts as coming from outside themselves (Louis Gould, Verbal Hallucinations and Activity of Vocal Musculature, American Journal of Psychiatry, 105, Nov. 1948, pp. 367-72).  This was further reinforced by the finding that auditory hallucinations can be interrupted by having the subject hum a song.  I used this technique to great benefit with a psychotic teenager who loved his new ability to banish the voices he didn’t like.  He was quickly able to sub-vocalize his humming so that the disruption of his voices didn’t make him appear “crazy.”

Further collaboration of these findings comes from a study showing that 4 and 5 year-old children recall items better when they subvocalize while learning the items and while they wait to recall them (internal rehearsing).  (Linda Garrity, An Electromyographical Study of Subvocal Speech and Recall in Preschool Children, Developmental Psychology, 1975, Vol. 11, no. 3, 274-281)  This suggests that the internalization of speech is not only a sign of development, but is also a driver of development during this period.

“Confusion” at this point in development (following the “inspiration” of the symbolical realm) means the fusion of mind and body, as evidenced by blushing (Bhuwan Joshi, personal communication).  Shame and the development of modesty and politeness are the hallmarks of this phase.  Whereas the two year old will thrillingly shed his clothes to nakedness and balk at being clothed by parents, the three year old is helping to have clothes put on, and the four year old is learning how to clothe himself.  Typically 3 1/2 is the time when children are most “potty-mouthed” with their language, and struggling with toilet training.  The cooperative and coordinated homeostasis of the 3 year-old becomes disrupted by the nearly 4 year-old’s self-consciousness, resulting in often strained relations with peers and adults.

In the mental health field, the experience of shame is associated with some controversy (one does not want to spend one’s life “in shame”).  In my perspective, there is a marked difference between “humility” (as a virtue) and “humiliation” (as an abusive practice).  Along these lines, I agree with the Canadian philosopher and anthropologist of everyday life Margaret Visser (The Gift of Thanks, 2009) who points out that the opposite of shame is not pride, but shamelessness.  To best understand this term, it helps to know Spanish, where the term “sinverguenza” is a well-defined character-type that is best well-avoided in life.  Attached to a “sinverguenza” for long, one will live a life of continual grief if not devastating scandals, embarrassments, and other calamities.

When we look at the more mental side of the child, we see that 3 1/2 year-olds can say honestly “I don’t know”, showing their initial understanding of mental verbs similar to “know.”  Aside from “know”, other mental verbs start to rear their heads, such as “dream”, “think”, “imagine”, and “guess.”  Over the course of this period of development, children learn how to sort out these mental verbs, such as to “know” should mean more than to “think” or “guess”, and that to “dream” or “imagine” are altogether different things.  More committed mental verbs, such as “plan” or “promise” are not yet within the young child’s grasp.  At this stage, the child understands a difference between “know” and “think” which is that “knowing something” means it is true, whereas “thinking something” might not be true (Johnson & Maratsos, Early Comprehension of Mental Verbs:  Think and Know, Child Development, 1977, 48, 1743-1747).

So the child’s mental and social worlds have been disrupted, he knows that the world is expecting that he control himself more, and he is entering the social world of peers outside his family.  He is increasingly expected to be potty trained, to clothe himself, and to be patient and polite.  He deals with it, but not very well at first.  He knows when he is being polite, but misidentifies how he does it, generally underestimating how polite he is being (what Bates calls “Minus Polite”).  Similarly, children make mistakes copying a hierarchical tree structure (“mobile” shape; see illustration below right) — whereas at 3 years-old, they can accurately copy part of the structure without realizing it isn’t the whole structure, 4 year-olds make a more complex structure, but with obvious errors that they are unable yet to track (Greenfield, Building a Tree Structure:  The Development of Hierarchical Complexity and Interrupted Strategies in Children’s Construction Activity, Developmental Psychology, 1977, vol. 13, no. 4, 299-313).  In general, the child’s functioning can be characterized by Applebee’s description of children’s narratives at this stage as “unfocussed chains.”

Scan 4

At 3 years-old, children have learned how to metaphorically take their foot off the gas pedal — now at this stage, children are learning how to apply the brake.  It can be rough riding, and often children will skid in and still bump the person ahead of them, but this is the messy beginnings of “executive functioning” as in “Stop and Think.”  Cognitive-behavioral researchers and therapists have found that at 3 1/2, children start to be able to follow directions to not do something, such as pressing a red button when it lights when the instructions were to press the green button when it lights and not press the red button when it lights (Meichenbaum & Goodman, Reflection-Impulsivity and Verbal Control of Motor Behavior, Child Development, 1969, 40, 785-797).  Meichenbaum also found that impulsive children could be taught methods of self-talk to improve their patience and attention to detail (Meichenbaum & Goodman, Training Impulsive Children to Talk to Themselves:  A Means of Developing Self-Control, Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 1971, vol. 77, no. 2, 115-126), methods that have been incorporated in best practices such as Aggression Replacement Training (Glick & Gibbs).  See also the program I developed for Self Control Trainings on this website under Welcome to My Projects.


Just as the “symbol comparison” stage is based on an “and, and, and” template, (propelling the story forward), so the “subject comparison” template is based on “why, why, why.”  Children of 5 years old never tire of asking “why” to every answer to their previous question of “why.”  In some instances, this is a sincere attempt to understand and find meaning in experiences; at other times it is an attempt to fore-stall the inevitable, the final reason being “Because I’m the Mommy.”

5 year-olds can do more than count their fingers, they can also appreciate the perception of age.  My pilot study subject, Jason, was aware of age norms when he said “I’m in kindergarten but I’m still 4.” (5 being the stereotypical kinder age)  Once I was with Jason and one of his neighborhood friends, Sonny.  Being the researcher that I am, I had asked Sonny previously if he was 4 years-old, and he had said yes, but it turned out he was still 3 years-old.

Peter (to Sonny):  “Why did you tell me you’re four?”

Sonny:  (no response)

Jason:  “Because I think he makes so that you’ll think he’s four.”

Differing perceptions mean a lot to 5 year-olds.  Whereas the four year old considers hide-and-seek to be an interesting diversion, the five year old considers it an obsession (good skill for hunters!).  At the previous level, she understands the basic idea of keeping a secret hidden, but is not very good at maintaining secrecy.  Now at 5 years old, she is better at hiding, making sure nothing is sticking out in view (well, pretty much), and trying to keep totally quiet (suppressed giggles, no wiggling around).  Similarly, five year-olds can keep a surprise a secret for far longer than 4 year-olds whose inhibitions break down fairly quickly to blurt out the secret.

My pilot study research subject, Jason, started his hide-and-seek career with me when he was about 4 1/2.  On his first outing at hiding, when I started to approach the hiding region of the game, he said “I’m in the living-room — come and find me!”  But as he approached five years old, his strategies of hiding and finding expanded considerably, but not yet as thorough as possible.  Here is a full account of a complete game of hide-and-seek when Jason was nearly five years old:

Jason was the first to hide, which he did under the living room couch.  He tried to be completely hidden and remain silent.  The latter became difficult for him as I entered tromping like the jolly green giant, pronouncing “Where is Jason?  Where could Jason BE?”  As a result I heard the muffled snorts of a child trying not to laugh by holding his breath and smothering his mouth with his hands.  A noble effort.

When it was my turn to hide, I used a method I had learned in my hiding career:  if you want to keep someone anxious to find something from seeing it, put it above eye level.  When anxious, people tend to not look up.

So I went into the bathroom and shimmied my way up, Spiderman style, into the upper bracket of the shower stall.  True to form, when Jason investigated the bathroom, he didn’t look up and didn’t find me.  After he left to investigate other rooms, I used the echo chamber effect of the small bathroom, aided by my hands forming a mega-phone, to pronounce “HE’S IN THE BATHROOM.”  Jason responded by scampering into the bathroom and re-investigating the spots he had already examined.  Again failing, he left to try his luck elsewhere.

Before giving up the game, I spontaneously decided on one more trial, and mega-phoned out:  “HE’S IN THE TOILET!”  Jason rushed in and lifted the toilet seat.  Fortunately he found nothing there but clean water.  I realized at that point that I had broken down his reality testing and it was time to give up the game so as not to traumatize him.  I revealed my hiding spot and we had a good laugh.

What we see here is not simple “egocentrism,” but earnest attempts to transcend egocentrism.  Which leads to the next study where Jason demonstrates his understanding that thoughts are private:

At the time I had a 1966 Chevy in-line six-cylinder truck.  Jason was with me when I changed the oil.  There is a lot of space under the hood to see the engine and what I was doing.  The session went as follows:

I open the hood, place the oil pan under the engine, remove the bolt to drain the oil (glug, glug, glug), remove the old oil filter and install a new one, replace the bolt, and pour in the new oil (glug, glug, glug).  Then I put the hood back down.

I used this as a metaphor by asking Jason some questions:

“Jason, you know how I could open the hood of the truck and see how the engine works?”


“If I opened your head, could I see what you think?”

In response to this Jason went into a somewhat lengthy description of a scene from the recent Star Wars movie when a space ship penetrates into a hollowed-out planet.  He was clearly following the metaphor, and I was being very patient, but I didn’t want to get side-tracked with another metaphor.  So I persisted:

“Yes, but Jason, if I opened up your head, could I see what you think?”  To which he responded:

“You have to guess until I tell you.”

“And if I did open your head?”

“Then I won’t be alive.”

“What would I see?”

“My engine?”

Obviously time to sew up that interview.  Because of the trusting relationship, Jason took my questions both playfully and seriously without getting over-stimulated or scared, and no scar was left.  But his response “Not until I tell you” has gained notoriety – as one of my clinical supervisors said, “Jason has better boundaries than most of my (adult) clients.”

Jason’s comprehension and use of “Not until” is important to understand what children that age are learning by way of frustration tolerance.  Prior to this kind of impulse control, children understand that their requests/demands are met with “yes” or “no.”  In this frame, a contingent yes is not understood (“not now, but later”), and is responded to as a “no” (eliciting either defeat or tantrum).  Now children are learning that parents will grant contingent permission, with “first this, THEN that” (e.g. yes you can have dessert, but only after you finish dinner).  Prior to the age 5 developments, children need this spelled out in order to not get upset — now parents can use the shortened “not until” phrasing with a chance their child will understand the contingency isn’t a categorical “no.”

Scan 7

articulated stick figures

In the more mundane world of “mobile construction,” children now perceive the mobile as two separate parts joined at the top, so they construct each side separately from the bottom up and then attach the two parts at the top (these structures are similar the Applebee’s “focussed chain” narratives).  The results are more accurate than the 4 year-old versions, but the two sides aren’t reliably the same.  Other areas where children struggle with accuracy are:  perceptions of politeness, where children remember behaviors as more polite than they really are (“Plus Polite” — Bates); as well as children’s understanding of the mental verb “guess” where they assume that a “guess” is a wrong thought, assuming that guesses are never right.  (Johnson & Wellman, Children’s Understanding of Mental Verbs:  Remember, Know, and Guess, Child Development, 1980, 51, 1095-1102)  Applebee describes narrative structures here as “focussed chains” in which the story line is held together by one constant feature, usually a character, but the plot is not fully developed and reversible.


Hallelujah!  Around 6 years-old, most children’ functioning is much more coordinated.  She has sorted out her mental verbs, understanding that knowing means perceiving directly or remembering accurately, and that thinking or guessing can be wrong or right (Johnson, 1980).  Perceptions of politeness are accurate (“Correct Polite” — Bates) and narratives are fully narrative in that the plots are fully reversible, i.e. the ending makes sense in relation to the beginning (Applebee).  Children can accurately copy the mobile structure as a whole, constructing it by going up one side, across, and down the other side (they don’t perceive the crossbars as hierarchical elements until seven years-old).  Common games (other than hide-and-seek) that help spur these developments are “mother-may-I”, “simon says”, and “tic-tac-toe”, all of which require the child to hold a rule in mind to select the successful response.

All of these developmental gains are good things as the child moves from pre-school and kindergarten to first grade where teachers can welcome children who can dress themselves, are toilet trained, know how to be polite, and can wait their turn without much prompting or fuss.  What could possibly go wrong?

What too often goes wrong is the children who don’t gain these self-control skills by 3rd grade (8 years old).  Impulsive children do poorly both socially and academically.  Peers certainly notice this and social sorting ensues accordingly.  If handled badly, impulsive children can become more aggressive, gaining “friends” (more like accomplices) through bullying and ridicule.  Although there are certainly effective remedies to these situations, these means are not often employed.  Given this picture, the self-control skills normally developed in the 3 to 7 age range may not be biologically and chronologically “critical” (in the sense that they cannot be learned later, such as “imprinting” in baby ducks), but developing these skills within a normal age range could be considered humanistically critical (where both bully and bullied lose potential for sustainable happiness).  I say this because in his 1964 article, Kohlberg makes the case that it is not very important that the skills learned in pre-operational development be learned within the normal age range.  Ask third grade teachers and they will tell you a different story.

Scan 8

articulated sticks to fantasy real

A widely noted characteristic of the typical 6 year-old is how imaginative he is and interested in fantasy and magic.  Typically this quality endears him to his mother, who is delighted by his levity and imagination.  Fathers typically wait until he can be “realistic” and do “real” things to engage him in favored activities such as sports or projects in the garage.  In his article The Loss of Pete’s Dragon:  Developments of the Self in the Years Five to Seven (in The Development of the Self, Robert Leahy [ed], Academic Press, 1985) Robert Kegan provides some good descriptions of this quality, while at the same time repeatedly stating that the 5 and 6 year-old child “lacks impulse control” (pg. 195).  I hope the research findings I have presented are sufficient to debunk the myth of the “egocentric pre-operational” child.  Because “concrete operations” don’t come from nowhere.

[For more on this age and how it relates to upcoming challenges, see the Calvin and Hobbes section in the Literary Depictions article on this website.  For a Calvin and Hobbes depiction of Jane Loevinger’s “self-protective” stage, click here.]

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