Children through the ages have faced the same problem — adults.  Adults too old and crusty to recall childhood’s fear and magic.  Adults who warn, “spare the rod and spoil the child.”  Adults who carp that “children should be seen and not heard.”

     The 20th century was in its own infancy when a Swedish psychologist called it “The Century of the Child.”  But America made the label a cruel joke.  On into the 1900s, American mines and mills ground the innocence out of two million children, some as young as nine.  Gangs of tough kids roamed city streets, causing concern about “the boy problem.”  What was wrong with America’s kids?  Couldn’t they just grow up?  


     The problem festered for nearly a dozen years.  Then a mild-mannered man from Wisconsin opened a laboratory in a single room at Yale.  Suddenly, kids across America had a new best friend.


     Before he came to Yale, Arnold Gesell observed child development in his own home.  As the oldest of five, he learned from his mother, a teacher, how to treat children with kindness.  Gesell became a teacher himself, but his strongest lesson came in 1907 when, after earning a doctorate in psychology, he moved to a New York slum crawling with kids. 

     “They go scampering across your path, block the sidewalk, fill the curbs, pour into the narrow streets, peering out at you, out of windows above, creep up the fire escape, crawling behind garbage cans, clambering upon wagons and boxes, disappearing into hallways, hiding and chasing each other everywhere.  Children everywhere, everywhere.”  

     With their immigrant parents toiling sixty-hours a week, these children were raising themselves.  But Gesell saw a deeper problem.  The poor, he wrote, are “underclothed, underhoused, underfed.” Deciding to become a pediatrician, he enrolled at Yale Medical School.  He was only there a year when the school’s dean noticed his interest in children.


     Before Gesell opened the Yale Clinic for Child Development, psychologists thought they understood these kids, all right.  Their certainty started with Freud.  Yet Freudian stages of child development dealt mostly with sex.  Or murder. Or wanting to murder your father and have sex with your mother.  Another popular theory held that each child passed through stages mirroring human evolution.  A primitive barbaric stage.  A hunter-gatherer exploratory stage.  And finally, a civilized stage.  Gesell had a simpler idea — why not let the children show us?

     Gesell’s clinic used movie cameras and a dome of one-way mirrors to meet children on their own terms.  From age six months on, children played while Gesell’s team made reams of observations. Beyond academia, Gesell’s books — The Mental Growth of the Pre-School Child, The First Five Years of Life, An Atlas of Infant Behavior— were widely read back when Dr. Benjamin Spock was still in school.  Arnold Gesell, more than any other American, created modern childhood.


       Today, when we worry about “helicopter parents,” it’s hard to recall what a revolution Gesell started.  But his lessons were profound:  Forget Freud.  Spare the rod.  Children should be both seen and heard.  Above all, Gesell advised parents to “nourish the child’s trustfulness in life.”

     Modern parents speaking of the Terrible Twos, or of a child “going through a phase” are tapping the Maturational Theory of Arnold Gesell. With painstaking detail and avuncular advice, his books charted child development, month by month.  Yet his timelines were not rigid.  No parent should use “ought to. . .”  Each child was different.  Each was precious.


     Before he retired in 1948, Gesell compiled data on the skills and growth of some 12,000 children.  Between the ages of three and thirty months alone, he found 300 specific milestones.  He used these to fight the tyranny of I.Q., that single number misused as the sole measure of intelligence.  Gesell preferred D.Q., not Dairy Queen but Development Quotient based on children’s wide range of abilities.

     Gesell’s theories have been challenged, of course.  Some note that his developmental tables are based on white, middle-class children alone, that they. . .  that they. . .  But no one doubts that Gesell was “the father of child development.”  And few can argue with his tribute to childhood from his 1946 book The Child from Five to Ten.

     With humanity reeling from World War II and suddenly facing nuclear annihilation, Gesell wrote, “It is no longer trite to say that children are the one remaining hope of mankind. . .   If we could but capture their transparent honesty and sincerities!  They still have much to teach us, if we observe closely enough.”