child psychologists

Childcare courses emerge early 20th century with the first child psychologists

As the science of Psychology developed in the beginning of the 20th century, the idea of maternal instinct took a backseat. Childcare was not left to chance any longer. There were now all these experts in childcare like child psychologists who would explain matters. The very concept of methodologically explaining how to care for babies and children was unknown. Books and childcare courses came into existence.

Emergence of Childcare courses and Child psychologists

“The key to childcare is a good character.”

said John Watson (1878 – 1958), not John H. Watson known as Dr. Watson the fictional character in the Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle but John B. Watson, one of the first great American child psychologists.  He was a great believer of this idea. To produce a fine character very strict discipline was needed, and as early as possible. He believed, in childcare nothing is instinctual.

Watson established the psychological school of Behaviorism back in 1913 when he published the article Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It called The Behaviorist Manifesto. With Behaviorism, Watson put the emphasis on external behavior of people and their reactions on given situations, rather than the internal, mental state of those people.

Watson is one the child psychologists that stands on the side of Nurture in the Nature-Nurture debate. Watson said that

“nothing is instinctual; rather everything is built into a child through the interaction with their environment. Parents therefore hold complete responsibility since they choose what environment to allow their child to develop in.” (Watson, Psychological Care of Infant and Child, 1928)

With this in mind, Watson influenced child psychologists but also childcare literature substantially in this first part of the twentieth century and childcare courses emerged. Watson wrote extensively on child-rearing in many popular magazines and his book Psychological Care of Infant and Child (1928). To Watson, behaviorism was based on the idea that a methodology could transform psychology into a science. He knew better than others how to bring forth ‘people of great character’ and tried to make a science of it. In his words

“It is quite easy to start habits of day time continence when the child is from 3-5 weeks old by putting the chamber pot to the child each time it is aroused for feeding. It is quite surprising how quickly the conditional response is established if your routine is unremitting and your patience holds out.”

Watson was among the child psychologists that believed that sentimentality kept mothers of sticking to the routine and the childcare courses. Mothers needed to remain detached and never show any kind of warmth or sympathy let alone favoritism.

“There is a sensible way of treating children. Treat them as though they were young adults. Dress them, bathe them with care and circumspection. Let your behavior always be objective and kindly firm. Never hug and kiss them, never let them sit in your lap. If you must, kiss them once on the forehead, when they say goodnight. Shake hands with them in the morning. Give them a pat on the head if they have made an extraordinarily good job of a difficult task. Try it out. In a week’s time you will find how easy it is to be perfectly objective with your child and at the same time kindly. You will be utterly ashamed of the mawkish, sentimental way you have been handling it.” (Watson, Psychological Care of Infant and Child, 1928)

In the 1920s, Watson allotted fathers half an hour with their children:

“It keeps the children used to male society. They have a chance to ply him with questions.”

Watson researched many topics in his career, but child-rearing became his most prized interest. His book Psychological Care of Infant and Child was extremely popular and many critics were surprised to see his contemporaries come to accept his views. The book of the first child psychologists sold 100,000 copies of these childcare courses after just a few months of release. Although Watson wrote extensively on child rearing, he later regretted, saying that to do a good job,

“he did not know enough”

First appearance of separation anxiety

There was also Truby King, another celebrity amongst child psychologists. His theories were originally aimed at reducing the infant death rate. Hygiene, breast feeding and strict schedules were the pillars of his evangile. Both the Schools for Mothers, set up by volunteers from 1908 onwards, and the childcare courses of the Mothercraft Training Society Truby King founded, set out to teach mothers to take care of their infants.

Truby King had a lasting influence on all children who were born between 1915 and 1950 in England and America. Together with Sir James Spencer, regarded as one of the best child psychologists, who set up the first mother-baby unit in 1927 and Susan Isaacs who wrote her first book in 1929 all messages in the childcare courses were always based on the mother child bond and were directed at getting the relation tighter. The mother was encouraged to be with children who have a desperate need to be understood by them. To be separated from the mother had now a deep psychological and physical effect on the child.

Childcare courses evolve into Child Science

In 1923 The Mothercraft Manual by Mabel Liddiard based on the same principles of childcare courses was a popular book. It has run twelve editions, and still available today. Liddiard, one of the first female child psychologists, believed in the existence and the importance of a natural, maternal instinct in women but it was

“no adequate basis on which to build a home and raise a family.”

She needed to be trained through childcare courses and thought precise rules of how to be a mother if

“she was to give her best.”

The Manual aimed to help mothers carry out these duties and provided also with daily schedules for living that included precise times of waking, feeding, bathing and even playing.

These times child rearing was not light pass time. No, it was about ‘training’ and ‘doing a good job’. After all they needed to become properly disciplined and hardworking adults. The Watsonian fashion told women to commit and to see their motherhood as serious business.

In these folly twenties, it was amongst the same women that would now have taken on further education that there was a return of domesticity. Further education in some colleges would now include classes on homemaking and childcare courses. At Vassar college, a historically sister institution of the Ivy League colleges and at the time one of the most reputed women-only college, there would be a series of courses like Husband and Wife, Motherhood, The Family as an Economic Unit. Women could learn to be gracious and intelligent at the same time. The head of one of the colleges would have said in his speech:

“One of the chief ends of a college for women is to fit them to become the makers of homes … whatever else a woman may be, the highest purpose of her life always has been … to strengthen and beautify and sanctify the home.” (according to The American Woman: Her Changing Social, Economic and Political Roles 1920-1970, writen by William Chafe, p. 104)

And in magazines we would read similar voices. William Chafe has made a study of the magazines of this period and there are many allusions of motherhood and how ‘natural’ it is. These magazines declared,

“Liberated women had thrown away the essence of femininity without putting anything else in its place.”

According to the journalists of this time,

“a woman’s career was to make a good marriage, to be deeply fundamentally, wholly feminine. Women, who demanded recognition for themselves were violating their own true nature”,


“once she accepted that big biologic fact that man was intended to be selfish and woman self-sacrificing the way to fulfillment was clear. Only if a woman rejected her natural identity would she have cause to experience dissatisfaction and despair”,

would be the explanation to grief and frustration.

Outsourcing babycare to child psychologists

But slowly the climate changed and it became possible for a woman to be an independent mind, to choose a career or a passion and pursue it on top of marriage and the responsibility of children. There were far less practical problems for these women at the time. They were helped at home with servants and nannies and it was still customary not to be with the child whatever the age around the clock. White upper class ladies did not spend that much time with their children as often recommended today. Both parents would never have thought that the mother (versus the caretaker) would need to spend more time with her children. This came later.

child psychologists

child development stages

Parenting Through the Cognitive Child Development Stages of Jean Piaget

Piaget said,

“Intelligence organizes the world by organizing itself.”

He would prove this methodically throughout his life. There are many parenting guides and techniques for new mothers and fathers to choose from to help them raise their child. One of the best sources and psychologists that have the most influential theories on child development stages  is Jean Piaget. He is seen as one of the major figures in developmental psychology. Jean Piaget’s child development stages are based on a child’s learning techniques due to the child’s hands on experience. A new parent can benefit from Piaget’s child development stages and help grasp the thought process of their child as they develop.

From Zoology to Psychology

Jean Piaget was a Swiss biologist who was a lifelong learner who earned his doctorate by the age of 21 and had published more than two dozen papers. After completing his doctorate, he changed his field of interest from biology to psychology, focusing on child development theories. He first studied in Zürich, under Carl Jung and Eugen Bleuler, and he then studied two more years at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1919. The school was run by Alfred Binet, the developer of the Binet intelligence Test, and Piaget helped creating these intelligence tests.

From Psychology to Child Learning

His interests grew more about how the child learned and observed while they worked on different exercises he set out for them. He was not interested in whether or not the children got the answers correct as in how they came up with the answers and how their answers changed as they grew older. He observed, talked, and listened to the children and became amazed at how different each one was based on their learning experiences. Piaget believed that children learned through hands on experience and through their successes and failures. In more than 50 books and monographs over his long career, he continued developing his theory, where the mind of the child evolves through set stages.

Piaget’s child development stages

Jean Piaget believed that children learned through different child development stages. Piaget called this theory the Theory of Cognitive Development. The Cognitive Development theory describes how children represent and reason about the world.The four stages of Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development are
  • Sensori-motor, which takes place from birth to 2 years of age,
  • Pre-operational. which is from 2 years to 7 years of age
  • Concrete operational, which begins at 7 years and continues to 11 years of age, and
  • Formal operational, which starts at 11 years of age and continues on up.

In each stage the child develops and learns new skills.

Sensori-motor stage

In the sensori-motor stage which is the very first stage, the child learns to differentiate between themselves and objects. A child at this child development stage learns to use their senses to discover the world. The child at this stage is able to react to touch, taste, smell, and sound of their mother and another human or object.The sensorimotor stage is divided into six substages:

  1. Simple reflexes; birth-1month. Reflexes like rooting and sucking.
    First habits and primary circular reactions; 1-4 months. The child learns to coordinate sensation with two forms of reactions: habit and primary circular reaction where the infant tries to reproduce an event that happened by accident (ex.: sucking thumb).
  2. Secondary circular reactions; 4-8 months. Awarenes of things beyond their body arises. Object-oriented.
  3. Coordination of secondary circular reactions; 8-12 months. Intentional action. They can now combine and recombine schemata to reach an objective. They now understand object permanence (objects continue to exist when unseen)
  4. Tertiary circular reactions, novelty, and curiosity;12-18months. Trying different schemata
  5. Internalization of schemata.

Pre-operational stage

In the second stage, the pre-operational stage, a child learns to use language and symbols to represent words and images. At this stage, the child still thinks of themselves as the center of the universe, very egocentric stage.
Symbolic Function Substag. 2-4 years. Use of symbols to represent physical models of the world. Observable in drawings.
Intuitive Thought Substage 4-7 years. Increase of curiosity and start of primitive reasoning.  Centration, conservation, irreversibility, class inclusion, and transitive inference. Piaget named it the “intuitive substage” because children realize they have a vast amount of knowledge, but they are unaware of how they acquired it.  (Santrock, John W. (2004). Life-Span Development (9th Ed.). Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill College – Chapter 8)

Concrete operational stage

The third stage, the concrete operational stage that begins at the age of 7 and lasts until the age of 11, is the stage where a child begins concrete thinking and can be very literal. The child is no longer egocentric and starts to understand and see things in the eyes of others. A child in this stage can think logically about objects and events.

Formal operational stage

Finally, the last stage, the formal operational stage is when a child becomes a young adult and can think in abstract ways, understanding and interacting on a more adult level. The adolescence becomes concerned and aware of hypothetical, future, and ideological problems.

The child development stages help parents understand their children better. At schools and in homes.

Piaget said

“The principal goal of education in the schools should be creating men and women who are capable of doing new things, not simply repeating what other generations have done.”

Being a parent is an amazing gift, yet can be incredibly challenging at times. Remembering that every child learns differently based on what they are taught can help parents understand that not all children learn and grow at the same speed. Using Piaget’s theory of Cognitive Development will help a parent be more patient and understanding toward their child.

Among Piaget’s major works available in English are Le Langage et la pensée chez l’enfant (1923; The Language and Thought of the Child), La Naissance de l’intelligence chez l’enfant (1948; The Origins of Intelligence in Children), The Psychology of the Child, and Le Jugement et la raisonnement chez l’enfant (1924; Judgment and Reasoning in the Child). A great book that can help parents follow Piaget’s child development stages is called Your Baby’s Mind and How It Grows, Piaget’s Theory for Parents.

Following one of the many theories on child development  stages that psychologists created is a great way for parents to understand what their child is learning and developing in and at what rate is normal.

child development stages
Jean Piaget in Ann Arbor, Wikimedia CC2.0