by Dr. David Weeks.
Preamble: This is the first in a 3-part series on childhood eccentricity.
Reliable distinctions between oneself and others are usually made in the second year of life. At around the age of one and a half to two and a half, the child deliberately does the opposite of what he or she is told. They are learning the uses and the power of the negative, and exercising it in personal ways.
As the eccentric poet Ivor Cutler once said, “A child is an anarchist — he hasn’t discovered there are bosses.” This marked refusal and disobedience may be a literal testing by the child of the limits of his independence, to see how far he can go with impunity while still retaining a sense of security. By contrast, parents try to control their child as if he or she is an extension of themselves.
The groundbreaking developmental psychologist Charlotte Buhler made some clever and interesting observations of actual infant behaviour in the 1930s. She also studied the spontaneous creativity of children at play with a variety of materials.
To this day her early experiments are pertinent to understanding differences in very young children.
In one of these, an adult forbade a child to touch a toy that was easily within reach. All of the one- to two-year old children understood this, and did not touch the toy as long as the adult was nearby, or within sight. As soon as he turned away or left the room, the child began to play with the toy. If the adult returned suddenly, sixty per cent of the children at one year and four months and all of the children at one year and six months showed signs of embarrassment, such as blushing, and turned toward the adult with what was described as a “frightened expression”. At one year and nine months the children tended to comply with the prohibition when the adult came back, by returning the toy quickly to where it previously had been placed. However, at two years of age, although the children clearly understood they were disobeying, they invented ways to excuse their non-compliance, for example by claiming ownership of the toy.
As Buhler wrote, “After the age of two the child expresses will, insistence on its own rights, and possessive impulses in its relations with adults.”
I think that what Buhler also showed was that non-compliance precedes non-conformity in developmental terms. I also think that in this non-conformity the first early seeds of childhood eccentricity begin with the children’s ability to freely exercise not only free will, but also some early signs of discrimination.