Henri Wallon

The Psychological Development of the Child

Written: 1965;
Source: "L'evolution psychologique de l'enfant" in The World of Henri Wallon;
Translator: Michael Vale;
Publisher: Jason Aaronson 1984;
Transcription / Markup: Nate Schmolze;
Online Version: Wallon Internet Archive (marxists.org) 2001.

The child can only live his childhood; to understand childhood is the province of the adult. But whose vantage point is to prevail, the adult's or the child?  The adult recognizes differences between himself and a child. But these differences are usually reduced to the quantitative, to a matter of mere degree. When he compare himself with a child, an adult sees the child as relatively or eve totally incapable of actions or tasks he himself can accomplish. These inabilities can shed light on differences in mental organization between the child and the adult.

An adult demonstrates his egocentrism through his conviction that all mental development must naturally and inevitably lead to modes of thought and feeling exactly like his own and bearing the particular stamp of the time and place in which he lives. If he does somehow manage to achieve the insight that a child's thoughts an feelings do follow paths quite different from his own, it does not occur to him to consider this as anything more than an oddity. Since this oddity is constant and seems as necessary and normal as his own ideological system, he feels an attempt should certainly be made to understand its mechanism. But he first finds he must understand the nature of this oddity. Is it true that the mentality of the child and that of the adult follow different paths and conform to different principles; that the transition from one to the other involves a total transformation; that the principles the adult believes govern his own thought constitute an immutable and inflexible norm in the light of which a child's thought may be dismissed as outside the domain of reason; and that the intellectual inferences of a child bear no relation whatever to an adult's? Could adult intelligence have remained so rich and productive if it really had been forced to abandon the sources from which the child's intelligence springs?

After all, it is the world of adults that the environment imposes on the child, so that at each stage the structures and contents of the mind display a certain uniformity. But it does not follow that the adult need take into account only those aspects of a child's thought that the adult imposes. Even the manner in which a child assimilates material may bear absolutely no resemblance to the way an adult utilizes it. If the adult surpasses the child, the child in his way surpasses the adult.

The child's frequent inability to use a previously acquired skill has been pointed out by several authors. The explanations given by W. Stern and, later, by Piaget are more or less similar. A particular mental operation extends over different levels, and during the course of mental development the passage from one level to the next always occurs in the same sequence. The circumstances under which an operation must be carried out present obstacles of widely varying difficulty. If the difficulty increases, the operation may then be performed at a lower level. Thus, the same person, at the same age, can perform the same operation at a variety of levels. Piaget, by way of explanation, uses concepts such as causality, which the child seems to know how to apply objectively to everyday activity, though in his explanations at the "verbal level" he regresses to much more subjective forms of causality, such as voluntaristic or affective ones.

Although a child's mental development presupposes a kind of network in which internal and external factors are intertwined, it is possible to unravel their distinct, respective roles. The internal factors are presumably responsible for the strict sequence of developmental phases, the chief determinant of which is the growth of the organs. Substances of relatively simple chemical composition seem to perform the decisive roles of stimulating and regulating the differentiation of organs. This differentiation sets the stage for the emergence of the future organism's structures from the embryo (in which they are latent, though invisible). These substances are the hormones, secreted by the endocrine glands. Each hormone is endowed with a strict specificity, although hormones are often mutually dependent. They control the appearance and development of different kinds of tissues, and the sequence in which they are activated is precisely attuned to the needs of growth. In addition to their morphogenic role, they also exercise an equally specific elective action on physiological and mental functions. Von Monakow regarded them as the material substrate of the instincts.

The problem of the relations between functional maturation and functional learning now arises. Obviously, to systematically impute every development to the maturation of the corresponding organs would be only to repeat, in modified form, the old explanations in which every effect was merely referred to an entity modeled after it. But to contend a priori, as Piaget does in his book La naissance de l'intelligence chez l'enf ant (1936), that during the course of mental development new activities emerge that must necessarily have their source in the functional activation of matured organic structure, is to mistake a simple description, however rich, penetrating, and ingenious, for the deep-seated mechanisms of mental life.


It has been said that play is the activity uniquely appropriate to the child; and as a child often sees deeply engrossed in his play, certain authors (W. Stern, for example) have felt obliged to attribute to children what they call serious games. According to Charlotte Bühler, play is a stage in the total development of the child that disappears of its own accord at succeeding periods. Indeed, play is mingled in all of the child's activity so long as that activity remains spontaneous and untouched by objects introduced for educative purposes. At the beginning, games are purely functional; then come games of make-believe and games of practical skill.

In his play the child repeats the impressions of events he has just experienced. He reproduces; he imitates. For the very young child, imitation is the only rule of the game so long as he is unable to go beyond the concrete, living model to abstract instructions. Initially, children's comprehension is no more than the assimilation of others to themselves and themselves to others, and in this process imitation plays an important role. Imitation, as the instrument of this fusion, demonstrates a contradiction that explains certain contrasts on which play thrives. Imitation is not random; the child is very selective. He imitates people who enjoy the most prestige in his own eyes, those who evoke his positive, affectionate feelings. At the same time, the child "borrows" or becomes these persons. Always totally immersed in what he is doing, he accordingly imagines and wishes himself to be them. But soon his latent awareness of this borrowing arouses in him feelings of hostility against the person serving as a model, whom he cannot eliminate. He finally comes to resent this person whose absolutely incontestable and frustrating superiority he often continues to experience.

Between the ages of six and seven it becomes possible to disengage the child from his spontaneous activity and to divert his interest to others. Until comparatively recently, productive labor, including factory work, began at this age. Indeed, in some colonial countries this is still the case. In France, the child enters school at this age and tackles the demands of formal education—which include self-discipline.


Two contradictory elements are basic to all imitation. One is a plastic union in which the external impression is taken in and then discharged again gently from its strange receptacle, leaving only those elements that are able to be incorporated into existing mental structures. The result is a new, albeit rudimentary, capacity. The second and active aspect, equally important to the first, is execution and completion. The ensuing act requires tentative, and sometimes obvious, gropings. Separation and recombination of suitable elements are operations whose often long-enduring imperfections indicate the difficulties these processes involve. In particular, the rediscovered gestures and movements may not yet be in the right order. Taken by themselves they by no means reproduce the model; they must conform to the requirements of an internal prototype. However, as they become more explicit, they make possible and even encourage objective comparisons with the external model. Alternation between these two contrary but complementary phases of intuitive assimilation and controlled execution may then assume a more or less rapid cadence until the imitation appears adequate.


Emotions, affectivity's outward expression, trigger changes that tend to reduce the emotions themselves. * Emotions [* Affectivity refers to the total dynamic aspect of the personality and as such involves the emotions as a form of expression and such diverse tendencies as will, desires, etc.] are the underlying basis for the gregarious drives that constitute a rudimentary form of communication and community. The relations made possible through emotions create finer and more subtle forms of expression and transform these into more and more specialized instruments of social interaction. But as their significance becomes more precisely defined, these modes of expression become more autonomous and detached from emotion. Instead of releasing the floodtide of emotion, they tend to dam up emotion and compartmentalize it, thus destroying its pervasiveness and power of contagion. As soon as speech and convention become the media of mimicry, convention multiplies nuances, tacit understandings, and innuendos. Subtlety is thus introduced, in contrast to the undivided expression of pure emotion.

Emotion and intellectual activity follow the same evolution and present the same antagonism. Even before a situation is analyzed the activities that a situation provokes and the dispositions and attitudes it arouses give it meaning. In mental development this practical insight appears long before the ability to discriminate and compare. It is a first form of comprehension, wholly dominated by the interest of the moment and thoroughly absorbed in the particular. The sharing of attitudes is the first crude form of mutual contact or understanding between individuals, even though it is still totally engrossed in desires or impulses of the moment. An image that is useful for comparison or expectation can emerge from these pragmatic and concrete relations only by gradully reducing the role of body reactions—that is, of emotions and affectivity. Conversely, each time that affective attitudes and the corresponding emotion again become dominant, an image loses its richness, becomes blurred, and vanishes. This phenomenon is commonly observed in adults: suppression of emotion through intellectual control or by simple translation of its motives or conditions into intellectual modes; or, on the other hand, the routing of reason and objective representations by emotion. In the child, progress from purely casual, personal, and emotional reactions to a more stable conception of things is a slow process. Regression is very frequent.

In the domain of affectivity, this conflict produces transformations. If rationalist theories of emotion have seemed plausible, it is by virtue of the importance of intellectual motives and images in the realm of feelings and passion. In reality there is a transfer between emotion and the latter feelings. This tranfer is dependent on the age of the child. But the most emotional children do not necessarily become the most sentimental or the most passionate. Rather, it is a question of different types of children, in whom the various psychic functions are balanced differently.


The beginnings of speech in the child coincide with marked progress in his practical skills. In this respect, a comparison of the child's behavior with that of the monkey is particularly striking. Thus, Boutan, followed by others, particularly Kellog and his wife, compared a child in the preverbal and verbal period with a young monkey in identical situations. Child and monkey were even raised together in the same environment. During the initial period, behavior was very similar. But as soon as the child acquired the use of speech he rapidly outstripped his companion. For example, when presented with several boxes arranged in a row, one of which contained a treat, the training necessary to find the special box without error at first yielded similar results. But if the order of the boxes was altered, the monkey became perplexed and had to rely on trial and error, whereas the child, once he could speak, was quickly able to discover the change.

Obviously, speech was still at a level too primitive to warrant the hypothesis of an internal instruction or some sort of mental calculation. Rather, the child was displaying a capacity to imagine a displacement, a line, or a direction that did not exist between the objects perceived. This capacity is possible only if vision, instead of being total absorption in the objects themselves, deploys them over an imaginary canvas of stable and interdependent positions. Without this ability, there is no way to conceptualize any sort of order or to mentally construct a sequence. This capacity is also necessary to give order to the successive parts of discourse. The loss of one of these abilities entails the loss of the other. An aphasic cannot indicate the directions up, down, right, left, etc., with his eyes closed. When his eyes are open, that which he points out, according to Sieckmann, is not a direction, but an object—for example, the ceiling, the floor, the hand holding the razor, the hand that is not writing, etc.

A necessary but not sufficient condition is the awareness that objects and movements are seen successively or in transition. This by no means explains all the functions of language, nor its important implications for the species and the individual. Without going into the social relations made possible by, and patterned after, language, or into the fact that each dialect is a bearer and transmitter of history, one may at least state that it is language that has transformed into consciousness the compact mélange of things and actions that constitute the raw material of experience. Actually, language is not the cause of thought; it is the indispensable tool and sustaining element in thought's progress. If one sometimes falls behind the other, their reciprocal action quickly reestablishes a harmonious balance.

Through language, the object of thought need no longer be confined to things presently perceived. Language provides a means whereby the representation of things no longer present, or of things that might appear, can be evoked and compared and contrasted between themselves and with current perceptions. In reintegrating the absent into the present, language provides a means of expressing, fixing, and analyzing the present. It imposes the world of signs, the marks of thought, on direct experience, in circumstances in which thought can imagine and pursue a free course, unite what was disjointed, and separate what had been simultaneous. But this substitution of the sign for the thing is not without its problems and pitfalls. It forces the practical solution of problems that can be dealt with only later through speculative reflection. In clarifying what was unclear and permanently establishing what was transitory, representational thought, delimited by means of signs, gives rise to an opposition between the same and the other, the like and the unlike, the one and the many, the permanent and the transitory, the identical and the changing, the stationary and the moving, and the being and the becoming. Many inconsistencies and incongruities that startle us in a child have their actual source in the clash between these contradictory notions, however adept the child may be at evasion through omission or at circumvention with the aid of speech and thinking habits acquired from adults. The advance that language permits thought to make and the effort it demands from thought in return may be clearly seen in the setback thought suffers when language appears to regress—as in aphasics.

Problems of Discontinuity in Development

The discontinuity in the thought of the child has another cause whose consequences are no less significant: the inadequacy of accommodation to an object, whether it activates motor, perceptual, or intellectual mechanisms. Accommodation long remains hesitant and irresolute. It oscillates back and forth around its object, its precise focus remains elusive, and its fluctuations are out of step with those of its objective. Like a kitten that on seeing its ball of yarn disappear into an inaccessible place stops short and becomes uncertain, the most lively and playful child has his moments of sudden disorientation and loss of objective. The moment the object of his thought eludes him, a faintly bewildered expression passes over his face. Thus, a fluctuating image of things results, making it difficult to identify any one object and easy to confuse one with another. The notion of possible transformations of things, far from being diminished through contact with reality, instead finds its base in this contact. Hence, the phantasmagorias a child finds so believable should cause us no surprise.

Confusion between the Self and Others

The initial lack of distinction between the self and others implies inadequate discrimination of others. When a small child pursues every man he sees with the name "Daddy," it would be premature to say that he identifies them all with his father or that he puts them into a class denoted by the name of the individual because he does not know the collective name for them. He experiences a reaction to the whole, which evokes by means of certain of its features a specific quality in which the parts are confused with the whole and hence are liable to entail a confusion of totalities otherwise mutually distinct.


The first weeks of life are totally taken up by the needs of sleep and nourishment. However, turgescence of the genitals has been observed during the days immediately following birth. In the girl infant it may even reach the point of blood loss. Although it appears to be the result of hormones, the mechanism and significance of this turgescence are still imperfectly understood. The act of feeding involves a child's first organized movements. But the gesticulations elicited from the infant by a diaper change or a bath exceed the narrow limits of this first field of movement. A detailed record of these movements will reveal two tendencies. On the one hand, there is a disappearance of certain spontaneous or elicited reactions, which are reabsorbed or inhibited by less automatic activities. On the other hand, there is an emergence of new gestures often derived from dissociation of global muscular actions and exhibiting a tendency to integrate fragments sequentially. From the third month on, these advances in movement become the child's major occupation.

The infant's first affective manifestations are limited to cries of hunger or colic or to the calm of sleep or digestion. Their differentiation is initially very slow. But by the age of six months, the structured channels available to the infant for expressing his emotions are sufficiently diversified to serve as a broad osmotic surface with his human environment. This is a major stage in his mental development. His gestures acquire a certain efficacy through the mediation of other persons, and the gestures and movements of others take on specific anticipatory meanings. However, this reciprocity is at first completely undifferentiated. It involves the child's total participation, whereas at a later stage he will come to define himself, already profoundly enriched by this initial absorption in others. A synchronism is to be noted at this stage, as the child also begins to show an interest in colors at the age of six months.

During the latter third of the first year, sensorimotor action patterns begin to be systematized and become the means by which movements may be linked with their perceptual effects. Proprioceptive and sensorial impressions become mutually attuned, down to their subtlest nuances. After first establishing a continuity and concordance among their variations over extended sequences, these impressions can then go on to mutual exploration and discovery. The voice refines the ear; the ear cultivates the voice. Sounds, which become identifiable and discernible through this concurrence of various impressions, can later be recognized when they come from an external source. When the child visually follows the intricate patterns and contours traced by his own moving hand, he is marking out the first spatial references of his visual field. Thus marked out by proprioceptive responsiveness, the perceptual fields may then merge and in so doing eliminate their source or, rather, consign it to anonymity, the source now having superseded interoceptive or visceral responsiveness. The same object becomes identifiable in different perceptual fields, and their fused totality acquires sufficiently real attributes for the child to seek in it an object that has disappeared or that has been revealed through data from only one of the senses.

But walking, and then language, which develop during the second year, once again come to upset this delicate balance in behavior. Objects that a child is able to fetch and carry from place to place and that he knows have a name become dissociated from their settings and are manipulated for their own sake. He picks them up, pushes them, drags them, moves them about by hand or in a cart; he arranges them in piles, either at random or by kind; he empties and fills boxes and bags. But at another level, the independence achieved by the child through this ability to get about by himself and the greater diversity that language introduces into his relations with others around him make possible a more resolute and clear cut affirmation of his personality. The crises of opposition, and then of imitation, begin at the age of three and last until age five.

During the period in which he is intent upon appearing distinct from others, the child also becomes increasingly capable of distinguishing between objects and sorting them by color, shape, dimensions, tactile qualities, and odor. At the age of four a child begins to be concerned with, and self-conscious about, his attitudes and manners, what they are, and how they may appear. He begins to blush when embarrassed, which conversely allows him the material for mockery and jesting. Grimaces, jokes, and pranks delight him. He enjoys laughing and seeing himself laugh. His name, surname, age, and home become for him an image of his diminutive person, which, in turn, becomes for him a sort of sounding board for his own thought. Now that he is able to observe himself, he diffuses his attention less and pursues a task with more patience and perseverance. He contemplates himself in his works and deeds and becomes attached to things he has made. He reflects upon them in his thoughts, along with himself, for comparison and contrast. Emulation is born, and with it the first needs for companionship. However, the groups that form are still of the gregarious type, in which each member takes his place spontaneously as follower or leader. But by this time the child no longer limits himself to the elaboration of further nuances in his discrimination of objects and their qualities: his perception becomes more abstract; and he begins to distinguish among patterns, lines, directions, positions, and graphic signs. Yet the actual observation of things, in which detail must be continually referred to the whole, the many to the one, and the variable to the constant for orientation, is still beyond his capacities.

After five years, school age begins; henceforth, interest will pass beyond the self to become involved with things. However, the transition is slow and difficult. Until the age of six or more, the child remains absorbed in his interests and activities of the moment. His activity has a certain exclusivity. He is unable to shuttle rapidly from object to object or from task to task. In order to divert her young pupils' attention from what they were doing to a proposed new object of attention, one teacher hit on the idea of an automatic interruptive gesture, which the child executed whenever she gave the signal.

 School demands that intellectual activities be immediately concentrated on command, on subject matters that are consecutively and arbitrarily diverse. Schools have often abused this authority. The tasks imposed must to some extent tear the child away from his spontaneous interests, and too often these tasks are able to obtain from him only a constrained effort, a feigned attention, or simply intellectual apathy. Too often they are exercises with only a future usefulness, which is not at all apparent to the child executing them. Thus, it has seemed necessary to shore up the child's activity with accessory incentives. This is the purpose of rewards and punishments, which in many cases are still based on the principle of "the carrot or the stick"—that is, a simple technique of discipline and training. At the other extreme are those who claim to base the compulsory activities of the child on his sense of responsibility. The first method is inhibiting; the second, premature. A trained animal responds to a cue with movements in accordance with inculcated sets of associations. It does not perform a task, which requires pursuit of an end, adjustment of means, rules to be observed, and sustained application of effort. But as the child is successively absorbed in each of his tasks, he seems no more capable than an animal of sustaining the burden of his tasks solely on the basis of his own independently conceived idea of what he owes himself. To appeal prematurely to this sense of obligation is to outline its features, so that far from promoting self-sufficiency, such an appeal imposes on a child a forced, confusedly understood dependence.

The period from seven to about twelve or fourteen years is the age at which syncretism yields to objectivity. Things and the self gradually lose their quality of being fragments of an absolute, undivided experience that impose themselves successively on intuition. The various categories of understanding bring to bear the most variegated array of classifications and relations. But the real initiator of these processes is the child's own activity, which itself enters into a categorical phase; it must now establish tasks and learn to apportion time to them so that each may be carried out with full possible effectiveness. Interest in a task is indispensable—far more important than simple training; it may suffice, and it precedes by far a constant and conscientious personal involvement in carrying out a task.

The taste a child acquires for things is commensurate with his desire and power to manage, modify, and transform them. He continually finds himself occupied with tearing down and building up. In this way he discovers the details, relations, and varied possibilities of things. He also selects his companions with a view toward determinate tasks. His preferences change according to the game or task. Naturally, he has regular companions, but all their interactions refer to their common ventures. They are united as collaborators or accomplices around mutual projects and mutual problems. They vie with each other through emulation in the execution of a task. Their projects determine their rivalries. Differences thus emerge in relationships, from which each child derives a notion of his own distinctness, according to circumstances, and at the same time, of his own essential continuity and individuality throughout a diversity of situations.

When friendship and rivalries are no longer based on agreement or conflict or interest in ongoing or impending tasks, when their justification is sought in moral affinities or moral repulsions, and when they seem to be concerned more with intimacy than with effective collaborations or conflicts, then childhood is already being undermined by puberty. Once again, the effects of the new period will permeate simultaneously all spheres of mental life. A single mood of discord or disquiet will make itself felt in actions, personal conduct, and cognitive processes. In each sphere, there are mysteries to penetrate. There is a continuing and undifferentiated need for possession, a need that is, in a certain sense, so basic that actual possession is unable to satisfy it and must go in quest of uncharted horizons.

From one stage to another, a child's mental development demonstrates that beyond the complexity of factors and functions and the variety and contrasts of the crises that punctuate it, there is a certain unity, an interrelatedness, both within each stage and across stages. To treat the child fragmentarily is contrary to nature. At each age he constitutes an indivisible and original whole. In the succession of different periods, he remains one and the same being undergoing metamorphoses. Composed as he is of contrasts and conflicts, his whole self will only be that much more capable of further enrichment.