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The best books on Children and their Minds

recommended by Alison Gopnik

Author and psychology professor, Alison Gopnik, tells us what's going on in children’s minds – and that it's a lot more than we may think

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First of all, what do you think are some of the common misconceptions regarding children and their minds?

Well, for many years people thought that children were basically defective adults – that they were like grown-ups, but missing certain important things that grown-ups could do. Even the great Jean Piaget, the founder of development psychology and cognitive development, thought that children were egocentric and amoral and that they had a very limited ability to understand or perceive abstract ideas such as causality etc. In fact, what we have discovered is that, far from being egocentric and limited in their thinking, even the very youngest children know more and understand more than we ever could have thought. They can think logically, understand cause and effect and take the perspective of other people.

So there have been some big changes in our understanding of children, which we will explore with your five book choices. First up is Imaginary Companions and the Children Who Create Them, by Marjorie Taylor.

This is a book by one of the people who has been part of the new wave of research in cognitive development. What Marjorie did is to deal with a really fascinating phenomenon that all parents notice, which is the fact that children often have these imaginary friends who are very vivid and significant.  Traditionally, explanations for this were either psychoanalytic explanations that had something to do with children’s neurosis, or the Piagetian idea that children failed to understand the difference between fantasy and reality.

What Marjorie did, and what makes the book so fascinating, is that she interviewed children in a very systematic and scientific way about their imaginary companions. Part of what is lovely about the book is the descriptions of these wonderful, strange creatures that the children invent.

She discovered that children can distinguish between fantasy and reality.

Exactly. She discovered that children can distinguish perfectly well, that they know that even very beloved and vivid imaginary companions are imaginary.  And she discovered that the children who had imaginary companions weren’t any crazier or smarter or lonelier than those who didn’t. In fact, something like more than 60% of all the children interviewed reported some kind of imaginary companion or friend. What Marjorie also showed is that children were actually using these imaginary friends to try to understand the real people around them. So children with imaginary friends did better at understanding other people, in what has come to be called Theory of Mind, than children without.  What had looked like a deficit suffered by certain children was actually a help to them, and an example of how brilliant children are at working and thinking to try and figure out the world around them and, in this case, to figure out the people around them.

And this is something you have actually seen with your own niece?

That’s right. It is a wonderful specific example. My niece, who grew up in high-powered literary New York, had an imaginary friend who was too busy to play with her. This is actually quite typical of the descriptions and stories you will find in Marjorie’s book. And what is nice is that Marjorie is not only describing these things, but explaining them.

Your next book, The People in the Playground, looks at Iona Opie’s fieldwork in a British playground at the end of the 1970s.

Yes. Iona and her husband Peter were folklorists, and they went out to try to understand children, in the same way that an anthropologist would go into a distant tribe or a folklorist would record the songs and stories of people in some distant place. Their great book, The Lore and Language of School Children, is a wonderful record of what schoolchildren do – the rhymes and songs, rituals and mythology of the school yard. What they discovered was that children have an incredibly powerful and wide-ranging social network – so that a rhyme would show up in a school somewhere in northern England, and within a year you could hear the same rhyme on the west coast of America.

Which is pretty incredible, given that this was a time before Facebook and social networking – and the children are so young.

Yes, it is amazing that long before computerised ‘social networking’ they would have their own social network. They managed it through travel – for example, one child might move down to London and introduce something to a new school, and then someone from that school might move to America, and the chain would continue until it reached the west coast. What I particularly love about the Opies’ book is that they did this beautiful scholarship, and their key message was that, instead of thinking of children as defective grown-ups, we should see schoolchildren as people who are also creating their own world and trying to understand the world around them. Also, they are often creating a world that is richer than the one we can imagine as adults.

This particular book is especially appealing because it is so personal and immediate. It is a kind of diary that Iona kept after her husband Peter died, a record of a year in the playground, just sitting in the corner and watching what the children were doing. She would go to a playground like an anthropologist would go to a village, sit in a corner, and get accepted by the children and find out all the things they were doing and talking about.

Let’s move on to your next book, Janet Astington’s The Child’s Discovery of the Mind.

This book is part of Harvard University Press’s excellent series, The Developing Child. I could have really chosen any of the books in the series.  They asked developmental scientists to write very simple versions of the research that they were doing for a lay audience. This particular book is about one of the most interesting areas of research in the past 30 years, which is our understanding of how children themselves come to understand the minds of the people around them.

Again, the traditional wisdom is that children are egocentric and have a hard time taking the perspective of other people, and they don’t understand the difference between the mind and the body. All this comes from Piaget, and in fact what Janet Astington does in this book is to summarise a whole lot of studies that show how sophisticated even young children are in their understanding of the mind.

Give me an example of that sophistication.

Well, you can see between the ages of three and four that children start to understand that people could think differently about the same thing. So, for instance, if I showed you a closed-up box of candy, and it turned out to have pencils inside it, but you could only see the closed-up version, I might think that there were pencils inside, but you would think that there were candies inside. And that seems to be something that children are developing and understanding between three and four. These very young children are learning this very deep thing about how different people can have different perspectives on the world.

Is this something that your studies conclude as well?

Yes. In fact, some of the studies she describes are studies that I took part in back in the 1980s. This is one of those cases in which a whole lot of scientists started working on the same sort of problems at the same time and came up with very interesting kinds of results. And the work is still ongoing, and shows remarkable abilities in younger and younger children.

Why do you think these things have only been picked up on in the last few decades?

Part of the reason is that we started getting new techniques for testing them. We’ve discovered that, by looking at what children do as well as what they say, we can understand more about the way their minds work – even with pre-linguistic infants. And, even with preschoolers, we’ve discovered that by asking them very focused questions instead of just looking at everything that they say we can get a better picture of what is going on.

Considering that such young children are obviously very capable and intelligent, why do you think that, compared with other animals, we are so vulnerable as children?

What I argue in my most recent book is that there is a trade-off. If you look at lots of different animals across different species, you see a correlation between how immature and how hopeless the young are and how sophisticated the adults are. Crows, for example, are much cleverer than chickens, but they are dependent fledglings for much longer. The idea seems to be that you need a protective period where you can do the learning before you can put it all to use, which is something that we see especially vividly with humans. Children are incredibly good at learning, but not so good at getting on in the world. They can learn everything, but they can’t tie their shoes or put on their trousers or get themselves to school in the morning.

It sounds similar to a very bright university professor to me!

Yes – that is another argument that I have made. I often say that it is not that children are little scientists so much as that scientists are big children!

Let’s hear about Alma Gottlieb’s The Afterlife is Where We Come From.

With these five books, I have tried to give a sense, not only of what is going on in psychology, but also of what is going on in other disciplines. This is a book by an anthropologist, and what she wrote is an anthropological account of babies and children in a very poor community in Africa. It is a beautiful and moving account of the relationships between the mothers and children in this community and how close they are, even when childhood is endangered.

Even though many children die within the first year, the mothers have learned to try to cope with the vulnerability of these babies. As always with really interesting anthropological accounts, it is fascinating, first, because the attitudes and beliefs it describes are so different from ours. So for example, the mums make a point of putting beautiful jewellery on the babies because they think that will ensure the babies will be happy to stay in this life and won’t die and move back to the afterlife they were in before. But there are also parts that are fascinating because they will sound like what any contemporary mother will know about.

One of my favourite parts is the description of the local shamans, whom the mothers consult about their babies. They all sound exactly like paediatricians. They have that incredibly calm attitude and that absolute certainty of what they are talking about, even if it involves magic and ritual. It could easily be someone like Berry Brazleton or Gina Ford talking, which makes you wonder a little about how much of what we Western mothers do with our babies is really a form of magic too…

Let’s finish with Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding, by Sarah Hrdy.

This is another book by an anthropologist, although, rather than being a social anthropologist like Alma Gottlieb, Sarah Hrdy is a physical anthropologist who looks at different types of primates. So she is looking at human babies from the perspective of evolution. What this book is really about is how caregiving and our relationship between caregivers and children actually evolves, and she makes the very interesting argument that our particular evolutionary niche is such that we can’t just depend on mothers to provide care.

We are more like other kinds of primates, who utilise a whole extended family network of caregivers. She thinks that humans have quite a lot in common with certain species of primates like langurs, more in some ways than we do with chimpanzees and gorillas, and that might explain our patterns of childcare.

And what do you think about our current patterns of childcare?

One of the reasons that I like Sarah Hrdy’s work so much is that she makes the point that it actually isn’t as natural as we think for mothers to be at home in the suburbs with their babies. Actually, we need a whole community of carers to raise a child, like fathers, grannies and grandpas and uncles and aunties.  The real challenge for us is how we can do that. And one obvious thing we can do is try to have pre-schools and institutions that replicate what we would do in a kind of village community. So not a school for three year olds, but a pre-school that is more like the ideal village, where children can explore and play and be with adults who care about them and watch them do the things they do. It also points us towards a society where it is much easier for biological parents to be with the children and to combine work with taking care of their children, which is what we would have had in our evolutionary past.

August 15, 2012

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Alison Gopnik

Alison Gopnik

Alison Gopnik is Professor of Psychology and Affiliate Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Berekley. She is an internationally recognised leader in the study of children’s learning and development, and was the first to argue that children’s minds can help us understand deep philosophical questions. She has written numerous articles and several books on the subject.

Alison Gopnik

Alison Gopnik

Alison Gopnik is Professor of Psychology and Affiliate Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Berekley. She is an internationally recognised leader in the study of children’s learning and development, and was the first to argue that children’s minds can help us understand deep philosophical questions. She has written numerous articles and several books on the subject.