NUMBER 1075 • 31 OCTOBER • individual differences
In the physical field, it is readily accepted that large individual differences may exist, even among children in one family. When a healthy, well-nourished child is nevertheless of small stature and rather slight build, this may cause comment, even regret perhaps, but neither concern nor reproach. Although theoretically there is a similar understanding in regard to intellectual, educational, emotional and social development, yet in practice, parents, and to some extent professional workers too, react with less tolerance and understanding.
Slow intellectual and educational progress are readily attributed to ‘laziness’ with disapproval and punishment being meted out in the hope of bringing about improvement. A similar attitude is taken to emotional and social ‘deviation’, such as timidity or shyness. This then is the third basic principle: that there are as marked individual differences in the extent and pace of children’s intellectual, education, emotional and social development, as there are of physical development.
Recent evidence indicates how very early individual differences in behaviour and ‘cognitive style’ can be observed. ‘New-born infants write their signature with their sucking rhythm, showing a constant individual pattern in the number of sucks and intervals between sucks per minute’ (Lipsitt, 1972). Though this is congenitally determined, nevertheless the baby learns very quickly to modify his sucking pattern in response to the way he is fed.
The next example of early individual differences shows the equally early interaction between nature and nurture: ‘Stable individual differences were found in motor activity [of new-borns] both in hospital and at home... The mothers of the more active infants were more demonstrative towards their children and appeared to form a stronger and earlier attachment to the baby’ (Campbell, 1972). Here is the beginning of an egg-and-chicken question: a more active baby probably calls out stronger maternal feelings and a more ‘motherly’ mother is likely to encourage the baby to be more active and responsive.
A third example of individual differences relates to the respective development of boys and girls. There is considerable and consistent evidence showing boys to be much more variable and vulnerable from birth onwards. For example, their morbidity and their accident rate is generally higher; their speech, language development and level of reading attainment are poorer, at least during the first ten years of life; a much higher proportion show emotional and behaviour difficulties, ranging from enuresis and school phobia to delinquency and crime; the majority of drop outs are also male. Girls, on the other hand, ‘are born with slightly more mature skeletal and nervous systems and gradually increase their developmental lead (in absolute terms) throughout childhood’ (Tanner, 1974).
Various hypotheses have been put forward to account for these sex differences. Most suggest a combination of and interaction between genetic, biological and environmental factors. Some consider that boys’ greater deviancy may be a function of a Y chromosome and hence largely genetically determined (Birley, 1973), Cultural, social and family influences are stressed by others and motivational aspects are also thought to play a part; for example, most parents are more ambitious career-wise for boys than girls. On the other hand, fathers cannot so readily serve as models for their sons; not only do most of them spend the major part of the child’s waking life away from home, but also they do work which their sons can neither observe nor clearly comprehend. Also, in Western society a boy is expected to be more active, outgoing, aggressive and less homecentred – not only in childhood but in his future work and leisure interests too – than a girl. Peers too exert greater pressures on boys than girls by their competitive self-assertiveness, in particular in relation to games and physical prowess. Additionally, the roles which boys are expected to play are less consistent than those demanded of girls: for example, the greater stress laid on boys’ educational progress means that they must be more studious and intellectual which inevitably conflicts with being more active physically and more outgoing; also physical prowess is not necessarily allied to educational abilities. Such conflicting expectations may to some extent at least account for the greater deviancy found among boys. Though all these expectations may now be changing, or at least becoming modified, such change is unlikely to bring rapid results.
It follows that methods of child-rearing must take individual differences more into account than at present. The practical implications would seem to be three-fold. First, only a few directions or antidotes can be of universal application; and it is the quality of understanding – often intuitive, rarely fully explicit – which can best guide parents in applying their knowledge of developmental needs to the upbringing of a particular child. An understanding of his physical and mental equipment at any given stage, and hence his readiness at a given time to respond and to adapt, is the most reliable gauge of whether parental expectations are appropriate. From a general knowledge of the principles of child-rearing parents need to fashion a method ‘tailor-made’ for each particular child at each particular stage of his development and suited to his particular environment.
The second implication is that it is never possible to treat two children in the same family alike if the aim is to treat each appropriately. Nor is ‘the same family’ psychologically the same for each child: partly because of the interaction between the parents’ personalities and that of the child; partly because the family constellation itself is different in respect of each member of the family – the parents’ age and the child’s position in the family (first-born, middle one, etc.) are just two examples.
The third implication lies in making allowance for the fact that just as physical endowment ranges from the resilient to the delicate, so children differ genetically in their intellectual and emotional constitution and susceptibility to stress. At the same time, environmental influences come into play at birth and in some respects from conception onwards; and they have potentially a far greater effect than has hitherto been generally realised.
MIA KELLMER PRINGLE
Kellmer Pringle, M. (1973) The needs of children. London. Hutchinson & Co. Ltd.,
pp. 24 – 27.