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The Magic Years

Understanding and Handling the Problems of Early Childhood

Introduction by T. Berry Brazelton



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About The Book

A pioneering work on early childhood development that is as relevant today as when it was first published 60 years ago.

To a small child, the world is an exciting but sometimes frightening and unstable place. In The Magic Years, Selma Fraiberg takes the reader into the mind of the child, showing how he confronts the world and learns to cope with it. With great warmth and perception, she discusses the problems at each stage of development and reveals the qualities—above all, the quality of understanding—that can provide the right answer at critical moments.


Chapter 1

All About Witches, Ogres, Tigers, and Mental Health


There once was a boy named Frankie who was going to be the very model of a modern, scientifically reared child. His mother and his father consulted the writings of experts, subscribed to lecture series and educated themselves in all the rites and practices of child rearing sacred to these times. They knew how children develop fears and neurotic symptoms in early childhood and with the best intentions in the world they set out to rear a child who would be free -- oh, as free as any child can be in this world of ours -- of anxiety and neurotic tendencies.

So Frankie was breast-fed and weaned and toilet-trained at the proper ages and in the proper manner. A baby sister was provided for him at a period in his development best calculated to avoid trauma. It goes without saying that he was prepared for the new baby by approved techniques. His sex education was candid and thorough.

The probable sources of fear were located and systematically decontaminated in the program devised by Frankie's parents. Nursery rhymes and fairy tales were edited and revised; mice and their tails were never parted and ogres dined on Cheerios instead of human flesh. Witches and evil-doers practiced harmless forms of sorcery and were easily reformed by a light sentence or a mild rebuke. No one died in the fairy-tale world and no one died in Frankie's world. When Frankie's parakeet was stricken by a fatal disease, the corpse was removed and a successor installed before Frankie awakened from his afternoon nap. With all these precautions Frankie's parents found it difficult to explain why Frankie should have any fears. But he did.

At the age of two when many children are afraid of disappearing down the bath-tub drain, Frankie (quite independently and without the influence of wayward companions) developed a fear of going down the bath-tub drain.

In spite of all the careful preparations for the new baby, he was not enthusiastic about her arrival and occupied himself with the most unfilial plots for her disposal. Among the more humane proposals he offered was that the baby should be taken back to the dime store. (And you know how thorough his sex education had been!)

And that wasn't all. At an age when other children waken from bad dreams, Frankie also wakened from bad dreams. Incomprehensibly (for you know how ogres were reformed in Frankie's nursery) Frankie was pursued in his bad dreams by a giant who would eat him up!

And that wasn't all. In spite of the merciful treatment accorded to witches in Frankie's education, Frankie disposed of evil-doers in his own way when he made up stories. He got rid of witches in his stories by having their heads chopped off.

What is the point of this modern fable? What does it prove? Doesn't it matter how we rear a child? Are the shibboleths of modern child rearing a delusion of the scientist? Should we abandon our beliefs about feeding, toilet-training, sex education as matters of no consequence in promoting mental health?

Parental wisdom and understanding in the conduct of feeding, toilet-training, sex education, discipline, serve the child's mental health by promoting his love and confidence in his parents and by strengthening his own equipment in regulating his body needs and impulses. But the most ideal early training does not eliminate all anxiety or remove the hazards that exist everywhere in the child's world and in the very process of development itself.

We should not be shocked -- for there is no way in which children can be reared without experiencing anxiety. Each stage in human development has its own hazards, its own dangers. We will find, further, that we do not always serve the child's mental health by vigilantly policing his environment for bogies, ogres and dead parakeets. We cannot avoid many of these fears. Nor do we need to. We do not, of course, deliberately expose a child to frightening experiences and we do not give substance to the idea of bogies by behaving like bogies ourselves, but when bogies, ogres and dead parakeets present themselves, it is usually best to deal with them in the open and to help the child deal with them on the same basis.

We are apt to confuse two things. Anxiety is not in itself a neurosis. Frankie, of our fable, is not to be regarded as neurotic -- not on the basis of this evidence. Is he afraid of the bath-tub drain? Many two year olds share this fear. It is not necessarily an ominous sign. Has he bad dreams about a giant? Nearly all pre-school children have anxiety dreams of this type occasionally. Doesn't he like his baby sister in spite of the expert preparation? Preparation for a new baby is essential and makes things easier, but no amount of preliminary explanation can adequately prepare a child for that real baby and the real experience of sharing parental love.

It is not the bath-tub drain, the dream about the giant or the unpropitious arrival of a sibling that creates a neurosis. The future mental health of the child does not depend upon the presence or absence of ogres in his fantasy life, or on such fine points as the diets of ogres -- perhaps not even on the number and frequency of appearance of ogres. It depends upon the child's solution of the ogre problem.

It is the way in which the child manages his irrational fears that determines their effect upon his personality development. If a fear of bogies and burglars and wild animals invades a child's life, if a child feels helpless and defenseless before his imagined dangers and develops an attitude of fearful submission to life as a result, then the solution is not a good one and some effects upon his future mental health can be anticipated. If a child behaves as if he were threatened by real and imaginary dangers on all sides and must be on guard and ready for attack, then his personality may be marked by traits of over-aggressiveness and defiance, and we must regard his solution as a poor one, too. But normally the child overcomes his irrational fears. And here is the most fascinating question of all: How does he do it? For the child is equipped with the means for overcoming his fears. Even in the second year he possesses a marvellously complex mental system which provides the means for anticipating danger, assessing danger, defending against danger and overcoming danger. Whether this equipment can be successfully employed by the child in overcoming his fears will depend, of course, on the parents who, in a sense, teach him to use his equipment. This means that if we understand the nature of the developing child and those parts of his personality that work for solution and resolution toward mental health, we are in the best position to assist him in developing his inner resources for dealing with fears.


In recent years we have come to look upon mental health as if it were nothing more than the product of a special dietary regime, one that should include the proper proportions of love and security, constructive toys, wholesome companions, candid sex instruction, emotional outlets and controls, all put together in a balanced and healthful menu. Inevitably, this picture of a well-balanced mental diet evokes another picture, of the boiled vegetable plate from the dietician's kitchen, which nourishes but does not stimulate the appetite. The product of such a mental diet could just as easily grow up to be a well-adjusted bore.

Therefore, it seems proper in this discussion of mental health to restore the word "mental" to an honored position, to put the "mental" back into "mental health." For those qualities that distinguish one personality from another are mental qualities, and the condition which we speak of as mental health is not just the product of a nourishing mental diet -- however important this may be -- but the work of a complex mental system acting upon experience, reacting to experience, adapting, storing, integrating, in a continuous effort to maintain a balance between inner needs and outer demands.

Mental health depends upon an equilibrium between body needs, drives, and the demands of the outer world, but this equilibrium must not be conceived as a static one. The process of regulating drives, appetites, wishes, purely egocentric desires in accordance with social demands, takes place in the higher centers of the mind. It is that part of the personality that stands in closest relationship to consciousness and to reality which performs this vital function. It is the conscious ego that takes over these regulating and mediating functions, and it does this work for all of the waking hours of a human life.

We should not err by regarding personal satisfaction, "happiness," as the criterion for mental health. Mental health must be judged not only by the relative harmony that prevails within the human ego, but by the requirements of a civilized people for the attainment of the highest social values. If a child is "free of neurotic symptoms" but values his freedom from fear so highly that he will never in his lifetime risk himself for an idea or a principle, then this mental health does not serve human welfare. If he is "secure" but never aspires to anything but personal security, then this security cannot be valued in itself. If he is "well adjusted to the group" but secures his adjustment through uncritical acceptance of and compliance with the ideas of others, then this adjustment does not serve a democratic society. If he "adjusts well in school" but furnishes his mind with commonplace ideas and facts and nourishes this mind with the cheap fantasies of comic books, then what civilization can value tho "adjustment" of this child?

The highest order of mental health must include tho freedom of a man to employ his intelligence for the solution of human problems, his own and those of his society. This freedom of tho intellect requires that the higher mental processes of reason and judgment should be removed as far as possible from magic, self-gratification and egocentric motives. The education of a child toward mental health must include training of the intellect. A child's emotional well-being is as much dependent upon the fullest use of his intellectual capacity as upon the satisfaction of basic body needs.

The highest order of mental health must include a solid and integrated value system, an organization within the personality that is both conscience and ideal self, with roots so deeply imbedded in the structure of personality that it cannot be violated or corrupted. We cannot speak of mental health in a personality where such an ethical system does not exist. If we employ such loose criteria as "personal satisfaction" or "adjustment to the group" for evaluating mental health, a delinquent may conceivably achieve the highest degree of personal satisfaction in the pursuit of his own objectives, and his adjustment to the group -- the delinquent group -- is as nicely worked out as you could imagine.

Theoretically, then, mental health depends upon the maintenance of a balance within the personality between the basic human urges and egocentric wishes on the one hand and the demands of conscience and society on the other hand. Under ordinary circumstances we are not aware of these two forces within our personality. But in times of conflict an impulse or a wish arises which conflicts with the standards of conscience or which for other reasons cannot be gratified in reality. In such instances we are aware of conflict and the ego takes over the role of judge or mediator between these two opposing forces. A healthy ego behaves like a reasonable and fair-minded judge and works to find solutions that satisfy both parties to the dispute. It allows direct satisfaction when this does not conflict with conscience or social requirements and flexibly permits indirect satisfactions when judgment rules otherwise. If a man finds himself with aggressive feelings toward a tyrannical boss, feelings which cannot be expressed directly without serious consequences, the ego, if it is a healthy ego, can employ the energy of the forbidden impulses for constructive actions which ultimately can lead to solution. At the very least it can offer the solace of day-dreams in which the boss is effectively put in his place. A less healthy ego, failing at mediation, helpless in the face of such conflict, may abandon its position and allow the conflict to find neurotic solutions.

A neurosis is a poor solution to conflict, or, more correctly, not a solution at all but a bad compromise. Underground, the conflict persists in a disguised form and, since the real conflict is not resolved, a neurosis perpetuates itself in a series of attempted compromises -- neurotic symptoms. On the surface a neurosis resembles a cold war between two nations where strong demands are made by both sides and temporary compromises are achieved in order to avoid war. But since the basic issues are never dealt with, fresh grievances and demands are constantly in the making and more and more compromises and bad bargains are required to keep the conflict from breaking out into the open. The analogy of a cold war suggests another parallel. If each of the nations in conflict must be constantly prepared for the possibility of open warfare, it must expend larger and larger amounts of its wealth for defense purposes, leaving less and less of the national income for investment in other vital areas of national welfare. Eventually, so much of the national income and the energy of its people is tied up in defense that very little of either is available for the pursuit of healthy human goals. Here, a neurosis affords an exact parallel. For a neurosis engages a large amount of the energy of a human personality in order to prevent the outbreak of conflict. Energy which should be employed for the vital interests of the personality and the expansion of the personality must be diverted in large quantities for defense purposes. The result is impoverishment of the ego, a serious restriction of human functioning.

Whenever the underground conflict within the personality threatens to break out in the open, anxiety is created by the anticipation of danger. Anxiety then sets the whole process of neurotic defense and compromise into action once again, in the self-perpetuating process we have described. It would be correct to say that anxiety generates the neurotic process, but we must not deduce from this that anxiety is in itself a pathological manifestation. Anxiety need not produce a neurosis. In fact, anxiety may serve the widest variety of useful and healthy adaptations in the human personality.


In normal human development, dangers, real or imaginary, present themselves in various forms. If the ego did not acquire the means to deal with danger it would be reduced to chronic helplessness and panic. The instinctive reaction to danger is anxiety. In the beginning of life the infant behaves as if any unexpected event were a danger. We say he is "shocked" by a sudden loud noise, or sudden exposure to strong light. Later, when his attachment to his mother increases, he reacts to her disappearance from sight with anxiety, something still close to a shock reaction. There are large numbers of such circumstances that produce anxiety in an infant. Yet if the infant continued to react to all such events with terror and helplessness, he could scarcely survive in our world.

But soon we discover that the number of such "dangers" diminishes. Ordinary repetition of these experiences helps the infant overcome the sense of danger, and the "shock" reaction diminishes to something that is often not much more than a slight startle, or surprise. Meanwhile another means is developing within him for meeting "danger." (I use quotes because these are dangers to him, though not to us as adults.) He learns to anticipate "danger" and prepare for it. And he prepares for "danger" by means of anxiety! His mother leaves him at nap-time or bedtime. In an earlier stage of development the infant reacted to her leaving with some manifestation of anxiety, an anxiety of surprise or shock following her disappearance. Now, at this later stage he produces a kind of anxiety, crying, protesting, when he approaches his bed, or even his room. He anticipates the feared event and prepares for it by producing anxiety before the event takes place. This anticipatory anxiety is actually a help to him in managing the painful separation from his mother. We have some reason to believe that separation from his mother is less painful when he can anticipate it in this manner than it was in the earlier phase when each separation was like a surprise or shock. We think this is so because throughout all human development tho effects of danger are less when the ego can prepare for it by producing anticipatory anxiety.

From this we immediately recognize that anxiety is not a pathological condition in itself but a necessary and normal physiological and mental preparation for danger. In fact, the absence of anticipatory anxiety may under certain circumstances invite neurosis! The man who succumbs to shock on the battle field is a man, who, for one reason or another, has not developed the necessary anticipatory anxiety which would have prepared him for danger and averted a traumatic neurosis. Anxiety is necessary for the survival of the individual under certain circumstances. Failure to apprehend danger and to prepare for it may have disastrous results. We will find, further, that anxiety can serve the highest aims of man. The anxiety of performing artists before going on the stage may actually bring forth the highest abilities of the artist when the performance begins.

Anxiety serves social purposes. It is one of the motives in tho acquisition of conscience. It is fear of disapproval from loved persons as well as the desire to be loved which brings about conscience in the child. It is fear of criticism from one's own conscience that brings about moral conduct. It was anxiety before danger of extinction which first bound human groups together for mutual security. We could go on endlessly with a catalogue of human inventions and human institutions to demonstrate how danger and the need to de/end against danger provided the motive for the highest attainments of civilized man.

But we know that anxiety does not always serve useful ends for the individual or society. The inability to cope with danger may result in a sense of helplessness and inadequacy, in reactions of flight, in neurotic symptoms, or in anti-social behavior. Only in such cases can we speak of anxiety as pathological, but it would be more correct to say that the solution or attempted solution was a pathological one.

So we return to our aims in promoting the mental health of children. We need to understand the nature of the fears which appear in childhood and we need to examine the means by which children normally overcome the dangers, real and imaginary, which accompany each stage of development.


Long before the child develops his inner resources for overcoming dangers he is dependent upon his parents to satisfy, his needs, to relieve him of tension, to anticipate danger and to remove the source of a disturbance. This is the situation of tho infant. To the infant and very young child the parents are very powerful beings, magical creatures who divine secret wishes, satisfy the deepest longings, and perform miraculous feats.

We cannot remember this time of life, and if we try to recapture the feelings of earliest childhood we can only find something analogous in fairy tales. The genies who are summoned in fairy tales and bring forth tables heaped with delicacies, the fairies who grant the most extravagant wishes, the magic boasts who transport a child to far-off lands, the companion lion who over-comes all enemies, the kings and queens who command power over life, give us imaginative reconstructions of the small child's world.

We know that the infant and very small child need to feel that they can count on these powerful beings to relieve tension and alleviate fears. And we know that the child's later ability to tolerate tension and actively deal with anxiety situations will be determined in good part by the experiences of early years. During the period of infancy, of biological helplessness, we make very few demands upon the child and do everything possible to reduce tension and satisfy all needs. Gradually, as the child develops, ho acquires means of his own to deal with increasingly complex situations. The parent gradually relinquishes his function as insulator and protector. But we know that even the most independent children will need to call upon the protection of parents at times of unusual stress. And the child, even when he can do without the protecting parent in times of ordinary stress, still carries within him the image of the strong and powerful parent to reassure himself. "If a burglar came into our house, my father would kill him dead." The protective/unction of the parent is so vital in early childhood that even children who are exposed to abnormal dangers may not develop acute anxiety if the parents are present. It is now well known that in war-time Britain the children who remained with their parents even during bombing attacks were able to tolerate anxiety better than the children who were separated from their parents and evacuated to protected zones.

But even the most loving and dedicated parents soon discover that in a child's world a good fairy is easily transformed into a witch, the friendly lion turns into a ferocious beast, the benevolent king becomes a monster and the paradise of early childhood is periodically invaded by dark and sinister creatures. These night creatures of the child's inner world are not so easily traced to real persons and real events in a child's life. While we are enormously flattered to recognize ourselves in a child's fantasy life as a good fairy, a genie, or a wise old king, we cannot help feeling indignant at the suggestion that we can also be represented as a witch, a bogey, or a monster. After all, we have never eaten or threatened to eat small boys and girls, we are not distillers of magic potions, we are not ferocious in anger, we do not order dreadful punishments for minor (or major) crimes. It is also true, to be fair about it, that we do not have magic wands, cannot be summoned from a bottle or a hump to grant wishes, and do not wear a crown, but we are less inclined to argue about these distortions of parenthood.

How is it then that a beloved parent will be transformed, ira the child's eyes, into a monster? If we look closely into the life of the small child we find that such transformations take place chiefly in those instances when we are compelled to interfere with the child's pleasure, when we interrupt a pleasurable activity or deny a wish, when we frustrate the child's wishes or appetites in some way. Then mother becomes the worstest, the baddest, the meanest mother in the world for the duration of a small child's rage. Now it is conceivable that if we never interfered with a child's pleasure seeking, granted all wishes, opposed nothing, we might never experience these negative reactions of the child, but the product of such child-rearing would not be a civilized child. We are required to interfere with the child's pleasure not only for practical reasons which are presented daily in the course of rearing a child -- health, safety, the requirements of the family -- but in order to bring about the evolution of a civilized man and woman. The child begins life as a pleasure-seeking animal; his infantile personality is organized around his own appetites and his own body. In the course of his rearing the goal of exclusive pleasure seeking must be modified drastically, the fundamental urges must be subject to the dictates of conscience and society, must be capable of postponement and in some instances of renunciation completely.

So there are no ways in which a child can avoid anxiety. If we banished all the witches and ogres from his bed-time stories and policed his daily life for every conceivable source of danger, he would still succeed in constructing his own imaginary monsters out of the conflicts of his young life. We do not need to be alarmed about the presence of fears in the small child's life if the child has the means to overcome them.


Very early in life we can observe how each child reacts and adapts to experience in ways which are specific for him. We suspect that these tendencies are partly innate, for even our observations of new-born infants in a nursery will show how each infant will react in a specific and individual way to a sudden sound, or any strong stimulus, or to a frustration, like withdrawal of the nipple. But these tendencies are also capable of a high degree of modification as the child develops, as they come under the influence of environment and the higher and more complex mental processes.

So we will find that not only does each child react to danger in ways which are specific for him, but he will defend against danger, protect himself, in ways which are specific for him. Every human being is equipped mentally, as well as physiologically for defense against danger, for handling his own anxiety. The parent who understands his own child and his tendencies supports the positive tendencies in his child for meeting danger and overcoming his fears.

This means that as the child develops into a more complex person we cannot rely upon prescriptions and generalizations for helping him adapt, or in helping him overcome fears. We need to examine those healthy adaptive tendencies already at work within his personality and cooperate with them if we are to achieve our aims. All of this gives support to the parent who listens to professional advice or the advice of friends and says, "But that wouldn't work with my Susie!" It can very well be that a method or an approach which works with one child will have no effect upon another, if the method is not geared to the personality needs of the second child.

But now let's put aside theoretical considerations for the moment. Let's just look at a few very young children and see what we mean by "adaptive mechanisms" or "defenses" and how we can put them to work for us in early childhood training and personality development.


Let me introduce you to Laughing Tiger. I first met him myself when my niece Jannie was about two years eight months old. One afternoon as I entered the door of her grandparents' house, I found my niece just about to leave with her granduncle. Jan did not greet me; if anything, she looked a little annoyed at my entrance, like the actress who is interrupted during rehearsal by a clumsy stage-hand who blunders on stage. Still ignoring me, Jan pulled on white cotton gloves and clasped her patent purse in her hand in a fine imitation of a lady leaving for an afternoon engagement. Suddenly she turned and frowned at something behind her. "No!" she said firmly. "No, Laughing Tiger. You cannot come with us for an ice-cream cone. You stay right there. But Jannie can come with us. Come along Jannie!" And she stepped out the door with her uncle, swinging her purse grandly.

I thought I saw a shabby and wistful beast slink across the hall and disappear in the shadows. When I composed myself I found the child's grandmother and said, "Who is Laughing Tiger?" "He is the latest one," said grandmother. We understood each other. There had been a steady influx of imaginary companions in this household and an even greater number in the child's own. There were chairs which were sacred to Jane and Tommy, places reserved at the table for rabbits, dogs, and bears, and the very substantial and real child who directed this menagerie often did not answer to her own name. I noticed now that the child's grandmother looked a little distraught, and I realized with sympathy that she must have had Laughing Tiger under foot for most of the afternoon.

"Why Laughing Tiger," I asked.

"He doesn't roar. He never scares children. He doesn't bite. He just laughs."

"Why couldn't he go for an ice-cream cone?"

"He has to learn to mind. He can't have everything his own way....Anyway that's the way it was explained to me."

At dinner that evening my niece did not take notice of me until I was about to sit down. "Watch out!" she cried. I rose quickly, suspecting a tack. "You were sitting on Laughing Tiger!" she said sternly. "I'm sorry. Now will you please ask him to get out of my chair." "You can go now, Laughing Tiger," said Jan. And this docile and obedient beast got up from the table and left the company without a murmur.

Laughing Tiger remained with us for several months. As far as I was ever able to tell he led a solemn and uneventful life, with hardly anything to laugh about. He never demonstrated the ferocity of his species and gave no cause for alarm during his residence. He endured all the civilizing teachings of his mistress without rebelling or having a nervous breakdown. He obeyed all commands even when they were silly and contrary to his own interests. He was an irreproachable guest at the dinner table and a bulky but unobtrusive passenger in the family car. A few months after Jannie's third birthday he disappeared, and nobody missed him.

Now the time has come to ask, "Who was Laughing Tiger?" If we go way back to the beginning we find that Laughing Tiger was the direct descendant of the savage and ferocious beasts who disturb the sleep of small children. It is not a coincidence that Laughing Tiger sprang into existence at a time when Jannie was very much afraid of animals who could bite and might even eat up a little girl. Even the more harmless dogs of the neighborhood occasionally scared her. At such times she must have felt very small and helpless before the imagined danger. Now if you are very little and helpless before dangers, imaginary or real, there are not too many solutions handy, good solutions anyway. You could, for example, stay close to mother or daddy at all times and let them protect you. Some children do go through such clinging periods and are afraid to leave a parent's side. But that's not a good solution. Or you could avoid going outside because of the danger of an encounter with a wild beast, or you could avoid going to sleep in order not to encounter dream animals. Any of these solutions are poor solutions because they are based on avoidance, and the child is not using his own resources to deal with his imaginary dangers. (Instead he is increasing his dependency upon his parents.)

Now there is one place where you can meet a ferocious beast on your own terms and leave victorious. That place is the imagination. It is a matter of individual taste and preference whether the beast should be slain, maimed, banished or reformed, but no one needs to feel helpless in the presence of imaginary boasts when the imagination offers such solutions.

Jan chose reform as her approach to the problem of ferocious animals. No one could suspect the terrible ancestry of Laughing Tiger once he set eyes on this bashful and cowardly beast. All of the dangerous attributes of tigers underwent a transformation in this new creation. Teeth? This tiger doesn't bare his teeth in a savage snarl; he laughs (hollowly, we think). Scare children? He is the one who is scared. Wild and uncontrolled? One word from his mistress and this hulk shrinks into his corner. Ferocious appetite? Well, if he exhibits good manners, he may have an ice-cream cone.

Now we suspect a parallel development here. The transformation of a tiger into an obedient and quiescent beast is probably a caricature of the civilizing process which the little girl is undergoing. The rewards and deprivations, the absurd demands which are made upon Laughing Tiger make as little sense to us as we view this comedy as the whims and wishes of the grown-up world make to a little girl. So we suspect that the reformed tiger is also a caricature of a little girl, and the original attributes of a tiger, its uncontrolled, impulsive and ferocious qualities represent those tendencies within the child which are undergoing a transformation. We notice, too, that Laughing Tiger's mistress is more severe and demanding than the persons who have undertaken the civilizing of the little girl Jan, and we confirm the psychological truth that the most zealous crusaders against vice are the reformed criminals; the strength of the original impulse is given over to the opposing wish.

But let's get back to imagination and its solutions for childhood problems. Jan's imaginary tiger gives her a kind of control over a danger which earlier had left her helpless and anxious. The little boy who stalks tigers and bears with his home-made Tommy-gun and his own sound effects, is coming to terms with the Tiger problem in his own way. (I have the impression that little boys are inclined to take direct action on the tiger problem, while the work of reforming tigers is left to the other sex which has long demonstrated its taste and talent for this approach.) Another very satisfactory approach to the tiger problem is to become a tiger. A very largo number of small children have worked their way out of the most devilish encounters, outnumbered by ferocious animals on all sides, by disguising themselves as tigers and by out-roaring and out-threatening the enemy, causing consternation, disintegration and flight in his ranks.

Under ordinary circumstances, these practical experiences with invisible tigers, fought on home territory under the dining table, in the clothes closet, behind the couch, have a very good effect upon the mental health of children. Laughing Tiger was a very important factor in the eventual dissolution of Jan's animal fears. When he first made his appearance there was a noticeable improvement in this area. When he finally disappeared (and he was not replaced by any other animal), the fear of animals had largely subsided and it was evident that Jan no longer needed him. If we watch closely, we will see how the imaginary companions and enemies fade away at about the same time that the fear dissolves, which means that the child who has overcome his tigers in his play has learned to master his fear.

This is the general pattern in normal development. But now lot's examine those conditions under which the fear does not disappear. As long as the danger is a fantasied danger, as long as the angry tiger keeps his place -- in the zoo behind bars, in pretend games behind the couch -- he can be dealt with as an imaginary tiger in imaginary games. Now, although it is most unlikely that a small boy or girl will ever encounter a real tiger under his bed, if he feels that someone whom he loves is a "dangerous" person and if he has some cause to fear this person, he will have much more difficulty in dealing with his fear, for this fear is at least partly real. The child who has cause to fear the real anger of a parent, especially in the extreme cases where a child has known rage, physical attack or violent threats from a parent -- such a child cannot overcome his fears through imaginative play because his fears are real. In extreme cases, and especially in the case of delinquents, a world view is formed on the basis of these early real and unmastered dangers, a view in which the world is populated with dangerous persons against whom the child must constantly defend himself.

But these are extreme cases. They only serve to illustrate that whenever reality reinforces a child's fantasied dangers, the child will have more difficulty in overcoming them. This is why, on principle, we avoid any methods of handling a child which could reinforce his fantasies of danger. So, while parents may not regard a spanking as a physical attack or an assault on a child's body, the child may regard it as such, and experience it as a confirmation of his fears that grown-ups under certain circumstances can really hurt you. And sometimes, unavoidably, circumstances may confirm a child's internal fears. A tonsillectomy may be medically indicated. It can be disturbing to a small child because his fears of losing a part of his body are given some justification in this experience where something is removed from him. We cannot always avoid the situation in which a child's fears are confirmed in some way in reality but where it is within our control, as in the realm of everyday parent-child relationships and methods of handling, we try not to behave in such a way that a child need feel a real danger.

There are other conditions, too, under which childhood fears may not be overcome through the ordinary means at a child's disposal. Now it is one thing to pretend that you are a powerful being who can tame tigers and lions or scare them into submission, to pretend that the clothes closet is a jungle with wild beasts lurking within, to turn the nursery into a theater for the performance of this drama, and quite another thing to carry this drama within you, to make it part of your personality and to turn the world into a theater for the performance of this drama. Yet this can happen, too, and we need to take a look at this kind of development.

The child who tries to overcome his fear of tigers by becoming a tiger in his play is employing a perfectly healthy approach to the tiger problem. A child who stalks his parlor tigers with homemade weapons is conducting an honorable fight against his imaginary fears. But there are some children whose fears are so intense and so real to them that the sense of danger permeates all aspects of living, and the defense against danger becomes part of their personality equipment -- and then we may have difficulties. Many problems of later childhood which we lump together under the heading "behavior disorder" can only be understood as elaborate defenses against imagined danger. The child who indiscriminately attacks other children in his neighborhood or in school feels impelled to attack by a fantasy in which he is in danger of attack and must attack first in serf-defense. He will use the slightest gesture or harmlessly derogatory phrase used by another child to signify a hostile intention on the part of that child, and he will attack as if he were in great danger. He is so certain of the danger that if we talk to him about his attack afterward he will insist, with conviction, that the other guy was going to beat him up and he had to do it.

But what is this? This is not very far removed from the fantasy of our nursery tiger hunter who sees ferocious beasts in tho clothes closet and under, the couch and who must attack with his trusty Tommy-gun before the beast attacks him. But there is this important difference. Our nursery hunter keeps his tigers in their place. They don't roam the streets and imperil good citizens. They aren't real. Almost any two and a half year old will admit, if pressed, that there isn't really a tiger under the couch. And he very sensibly deals with his imaginary tigers by means of tho imagination. It's a pretend fight with a pretend tiger. But our older child who attacks other children because of his fantasied fear of attack, has let his tigers get out of the parlor, so to speak. They have invaded his real world. They will cause much trouble there and they can't be brought under control as nicely as tho parlor tigers can. When these "tough guys," the aggressive and belligerent youngsters, reveal themselves in clinical treatment we find the most fantastic fears as the motive force behind their behavior. When our therapy relieves them of these fears, tho aggressive behavior subsides.

In the light of all this we can see that the imaginative play of children serves mental health by keeping the boundaries between fantasy and reality. If the rules of the game are adhered to, if the imaginary beasts are kept in their place and brought under control in the parlor, there is less likelihood that they will invade the real world.

There is great misunderstanding today about the place of fantasy in the small child's life. Imaginary companions have fallen into ill repute among many educators and parents. Jan's "Laughing Tiger" would be hastily exiled in many households. The notion has got around that imaginary companions are evidence of "insecurity," "withdrawal" and a latent neurosis. The imaginary companion is supposed to be a poor substitute for real companions and it is felt that the unfortunate child who possesses them should be strongly encouraged to abandon them in favor of real friends. Now, of course, if a child of any age abandons the real world and cannot form human ties, if a child is unable to establish meaningful relationships with persons and prefers his imaginary people, we have some cause for concern. But we must not confuse the neurotic uses of imagination with the healthy, and the child who employs his imagination and the people of his imagination to solve his problems is a child who is working for his own mental health. He can maintain his human ties and his good contact with reality while he maintains his imaginary world. Moreover, it can be demonstrated that the child's contact with the real world is strengthened by his periodic excursions into fantasy. It becomes easier to tolerate the frustrations of the real world and to accede to the demands of reality if one can restore himself at intervals in a world where the deepest wishes can achieve imaginary gratification.

But play is only one of the means by which the child attempts to overcome his fears. The child discovers, at a very early age, that his intelligence and his ability to acquire knowledge will also help him combat his fears. This brings us to another story and the illustration of another approach to the universal problems and fears of early childhood.


Many years ago I knew a small boy named Tony who showed an early preference for a particular means of overcoming fears. He did not care for imaginative play and he probably would have found no pleasure in hunting tigers or reforming them or drawing pictures of them. This was not his way. I do not recall that he was even particularly afraid of wild animals. His fears were more generalized. He was afraid of the strange, the unfamiliar, the unknown -- common enough fears at all stages of development -- and his approach was mainly an investigative one. If he could find out how something worked, if he could locate the causes for events, he felt himself in control and lost his fear.

At the age of two he showed no interest in conventional toys. His dearest toy was a pocket-sized screw driver which he carried with him everywhere. He displayed such dexterity with this screw driver that he succeeded in turning his home into a mantrap before he was able to talk. Unhinged cupboard doors collapsed upon touch or swung crazily from one out-of-reach hinge. Chairs and tables listed perilously or skated out from under while a lost caster or wheel rusted in the sand-pile.

Like many other children around the age of two, Tony was afraid of the vacuum cleaner and its deafening roar. Some children overcome their fear by learning to control the switch, to put themselves in command of the noise. Others, with a preference for play-acting, may transform themselves into vacuum cleaners and prowl around the floor making ear-splitting noises. But Tony was not the play-acting type and it was not enough for him to know that the switch on the vacuum cleaner controlled the noise. He had to find the noise. A number of investigations were conducted over a period of time. Tiny screws and wheels were removed and lost in this frantic research; and finally this limping monster issued its dying croak and succumbed without giving up its secret.

It was not enough for Tony to know that the electric wall outlets controlled light and that it was dangerous to fool with such things. Warnings only served to increase his need to locate the source of danger and find out "why." With his handy pocket screw driver he imperiled himself again and again by removing the plates from the wall outlets, and when his parents put a stop to this research, his fury was terrible to behold.

In spite of the fact that much of this research was unrewarding and in no way encouraged by the family, this pocket-sized scientist pursued his investigations with undiminished energy. As he grew older the mortality rate on electrical appliances grew less. He was no longer satisfied to take things apart to see how they worked; he wanted to reassemble them and make them work again. The same urgency and drive which earlier had gone into the investigation of mechanical process was now seen in the process of building and recreating.

When Tony was four, you could no longer say that his drive to investigate was motivated primarily by a need to master anxiety (as it was at the age of two). Investigation, discovery, reconstruction, were pleasures in themselves. When he was four and he occasionally removed the motor from his mother's washing machine, he was not motivated by an infantile wish to discover the source of the noise (as in the early investigation of the vacuum cleaner). At four he needed a more powerful motor for an invention he was working on, one that unfortunately was never brought to the final stages because of the unwillingness of a mother to sacrifice the family linen and hygiene to scientific progress.

We can see that a sublimation which may have originated in the process of overcoming childhood fears can become independent, finally, of the original motive. As in Tony's investigations we can see how it becomes an activity that serves a variety of purposes having nothing to do with its original aims. But it can also be demonstrated that such a healthy sublimation can be brought into service as a defense against anxiety when the need arises again. Tony's story provides us with a very good example:

When Tony was four he had an emergency appendectomy and was hospitalized for a two-week period. There could be no, preparation for the hospitalization or for surgery, and we must assume that this was a frightening experience for a little boy. During his convalescence at the hospital relatives and friends brought him many toys, of course. But Tony at four, like Tony at two, did not care much for toys. When an aunt asked him what he would most like to have as a present he said unhesitatingly, "An old alarm clock that doesn't work." His aunt and other relatives presented him with their old alarm docks. And Tony occupied himself during convalescence with the repair of old alarm docks. They worked too!

This interests us. In the first place the dismantling and re-assembling of an alarm clock is a very advanced mechanical task for a four year old. But also the degree to which this activity absorbed the four-year-old boy suggests that it had very great importance to him. We can suspect that the repair of the broken alarm clocks was connected with the recent surgery and the child's anxiety at that critical time. For the child, in great pain and unprepared for the emergency hospitalization and surgery, only knew that something was wrong and that the doctor would make him better, "fix him up," so to speak. Like all small children he must have felt terrified and helpless when ho left his mother and was wheeled into the operating room to have "something" taken out that was hurting him. Now in his convalescence he was overcoming the painful effects of this experience. And what did he do? He took apart the alarm docks and made them work again, just as the doctor fixed him and made him work again. He performed an operation on the alarm docks and succeeded in making them well again. In this way he employed a well-established sublimation, mechanical investigation and construction, to overcome a frightening experience, and it proved to be very successful.

It is worth mentioning that anxiety may have played another role in the repair of the alarm clocks. Until this point Tony had never succeeded in reassembling an alarm dock. This is an ad vanced mechanical skill that is ordinarily beyond the scope of a four year old. His earlier trials had resulted in dismantled clocks and a formidable array of tiny screws and wheels and springs that baffled reconstruction. It is possible that anxiety alter surgery provided such a powerful motive to "fix something," "to make something work" that the little boy could go beyond himself and accomplish something that had never been possible before.

In the years that followed Tony pursued his scientific interests. He continued to imperil his family with his basement inventions. Small explosions unsettled the family from time to time. His long-suffering mother grew accustomed to a washing machine that missed its motor and many times the family washing stagnated until the boy inventor came home from school. In the school years his interest in scientific subjects dwarfed all others. He never had any doubt that he would grow up to be a scientist. It only remained to choose an area in science. This decision was made in college and Tony today is a physicist.


From these examples we can see how the child in the earliest years begins to reveal characteristic ways of dealing with life problems. His creative and intellectual activities have wider aims than pleasure; they also serve to help him overcome the common fears and problems of childhood. Later, these tendencies are strengthened and may even become the basis of vocational choice, as in the case of Tony.

When we understand the importance of imagination and intellect for mental health we can draw certain inferences for child rearing. What we do to promote the creative and intellectual problem solving abilities of the child will also promote the child's mental health, that is, if we also take care not to make excessive or unreasonable demands upon the child. In encouraging the child's tendencies we need, also, to be sure that they are his tendencies and not our own. Suppose Jan's parents had found her play-acting tedious or discouraged it as a "retreat" into fantasy. And suppose her father, an engineer, had tried to induce her to solve her problems through a purely investigatory approach like Tony's. It might not have worked at all because this child's tendencies were not like those of Tony. Her intelligence, which was very good, was not of the same type. Presented with the problem of a roaring vacuum cleaner she would not have cared in the least about the mechanical aspects of its noise making. If her father had tried to show her where the noise came from, she would have been bored. But if someone were to invite her to play vacuum cleaner and had allowed her to crawl all over the floor roaring threateningly, she might have liked that just flue. As for Tony, the opposite conditions prevailed. He did not care about toys and did not customarily recreate events through imaginative play. If his parents had found his scientific investigations intolerable (which they very nearly were, at times) and had tried to shift his interests to conventional toys and imaginative play they might have had small success and would have deprived Tony of his own best measures for overcoming the problems and fears of early childhood. And the world would have lost a good scientist.

A critical friend speaks up: "You praise the human faculties of reason, imagination and conscience as factors that promote mental health. It would be easy to argue that the most rational of all men can be neurotic, that artists and other highly imaginative people are often quite screwy and that those who have acquired the strictest consciences may be the most susceptible to emotional disturbances. The history of the race also makes a sour comment on your views. For as man has advanced culturally and his celebrated faculties of reason, imagination and conscience have moved apace, we find him more and more disposed toward mental illness. And at this very moment in history his victorious reason, his science, offers him the means of destroying himself and the planet he inhabits and neither reason nor imagination nor conscience has yet produced an idea that may prevent him from doing so."

And I say: "If you want to play this cynical game I can go further. Only man is susceptible to neurosis. All these frustration experiments with animals in laboratories have produced nothing like a human neurosis. The chimpanzee, the dog, the mouse produce anxiety when the human experimenters expose them to danger situations. They may, indeed, become immobilized and helpless with repeated frustration, or they may produce muscular spasms that can be likened to human tics, or they may become stuporous in a way that resembles catatonia in the human. But they do not acquire neuroses. For the human neurosis is characterized by anxiety attached to ideas and the animal is incapable of having an idea. The human neurosis is the product of a conflict between drives and conscience and an animal does not own a conscience. The cynic can conclude from this scientific demonstration that man can avoid neurosis by returning to the trees."

But let's go back to the beginning of this argument. If reason, imagination and conscience do not, as you say, prevent a rational man, a creative man and a moral man from acquiring a neurosis, this does not constitute an indictment of the highest human faculties. While the chimpanzee possesses none of these faculties and lives in harmony with his nature we do not aspire to his mode of living, and he provides no models for human conduct. The two aspects of man's nature, tho biological and the mental, are in conflict from the earliest period of life, and the harmony of man must be established in accordance with man's nature and not the nature of the chimpanzee. It is not the mental aspect of man that creates neurosis but the failure, at times of extreme stress, of the higher mental processes in bringing the primitive aspect of man under its control. It is as absurd to blame the higher mental faculties for man's neuroses as to blame the heart, the lungs or the digestive tract because they subject man to disease. Like these vital organs, the higher mental faculties work for health and the harmony of the whole person and normally carry on a valiant fight against disease and disharmony.

It has been fashionable in the past two generations to speak of the "costs" of civilization, the "tolls" exacted by civilization in mental disturbance. This has led to the mistaken view that we should abandon some of our civilized aims in order to reduce the costs to the individual. Because excessive guilt was found to be a factor in the etiology of neurosis, it was assumed erroneously, that a child should be reared without producing any guilt feelings in him. Because thwarted aggression was also a factor in neurotic symptom formation, it was mistakenly believed that aggression in the child should never be thwarted. Because re-pressed urges were regularly found in the analysis of neurotic symptoms, a philosophy of child rearing sprang up which sought to prevent "repressions" from taking place.

Freud, indeed, spoke of "the costs" of civilization and regarded neurosis as part of the price we pay for civilization, but he never said that this price was too high to pay for civilization and he never meant that we should abandon our civilized aims. He, himself, was the most civilized of men and bore the heritage of his civilization with pride and a deep sense of his own obligation to serve its highest aims. He valued morality for its own sake and for himself. The essence of his theory of neurosis is that biological man and moral man are essentially in conflict and that under certain circumstances this conflict may produce a neurosis. (Under happier circumstances this same conflict may produce the highest cultural achievements.) The essence of his psychoanalytic therapy was the restoration of harmony between the biological self and the moral self, and he would have regarded it as a bad therapy indeed if the moral side of man were not strengthened in this process. Never did Freud subscribe to the theory attributed to him that liberation of forbidden impulses would cure man of his mental ills. The permission of analytic therapy is the permission to speak of the dangerous and forbidden thoughts; it is not the permission to act them. The process enables the patient to bring the forbidden impulses under the control of the higher mental processes of reason and judgment, a process which automatically strengthens the moral side of man by partially freeing it from its primitive and irrational sources.

The question remains for us as it was for Freud: Can we progress toward a higher civilization, a higher morality without exacting a greater price from the human ego than it can pay? If we understand that neurosis need not be the price for moral achievement, that human drives can be controlled without imperiling the human psyche, then, hopefully, our growing knowledge of human psychology may lead the way to a new achievement in civilization. It may lead also to the further evolution of the moral side of man, a progress which is momentarily in jeopardy because of the degree of human suffering and loss of vitality that has accompanied our limping pace from the Stone Age to the Second World War.

But we are speaking of children and child-rearing here. Our aims are very modest ones. We are speaking about a single child in whom the hopes of his parents and our culture are embodied. Our knowledge of the child has expanded most hopefully in the past fifty years. We do not know and we cannot say how this knowledge will serve the moral evolution of man in the centuries to come. Our problem is to find out how a child who is to be reared in our culture today can achieve the necessary harmony between his drives and his conscience and between his ego and his society, serving the best interests of his society without succumbing to illness.

But, in fact, we do not yet know all the necessary answers to such vital questions. The problems of child-rearing which we will deal with in these pages can only be dealt with on the level of our present knowledge, a psychology of the child which is large but incomplete in vital areas. If we are willing to accept the limitations of a young science and to proceed with very modest aims and expectations in applying this knowledge to child-rearing, we can justify the existence of such a book as this one. We will try to bring together some of the more important discoveries in child development and child psychology to see in what way our present knowledge can promote the mental health of children.

Copyright © 1959 by Selma H. Frailberg

Copyright renewed © 1987 by Louis Fraiberg and Lisa Fraiberg

About The Author

Selma H. Fraiberg was Professor of Child Psychoanalysis and Director of the Infant-Parent Program of San Francisco General Hospital, University of California School of Medicine. Her articles were published widely in professional and popular magazines.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Scribner (December 9, 1996)
  • Length: 320 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780684825502

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Raves and Reviews

“Timeless… its blend of wit, knowledge, and practical advice has made this book a perennial favorite of parents, educators, and anyone who has ever been an intrepid voyager in the bewitching kingdom of early childhood.” —The Washington Times

“Unsurpassed in its clarity, reliability, and humanity.” The New York Times Book Review

“An expert with a gift for writing describes how children mature from birth to six years old … [Fraiberg] discusses theories and facts about feeding, talking, sex education, fantasy, self-control, fear, and other subjects in practical terms of daily living.” Parents' Magazine

“The Magic Years is far and aboe the best description of this early development period.” Mental Health Bulletin

“Timeless… its blend of wit, knowledge, and practical advice has made this book a perennial favorite of parents, educators, and anyone who has ever been an intrepid voyager in the bewitching kingdom of early childhood.” —The Washington Times

“Unsurpassed in its clarity, reliability, and humanity.” The New York Times Book Review

“An expert with a gift for writing describes how children mature from birth to six years old … [Fraiberg] discusses theories and facts about feeding, talking, sex education, fantasy, self-control, fear, and other subjects in practical terms of daily living.” Parents Magazine

“The Magic Years is far and aboe the best description of this early development period.” Mental Health Bulletin

“Timeless… its blend of wit, knowledge, and practical advice has made this book a perennial favorite of parents, educators, and anyone who has ever been an intrepid voyager in the bewitching kingdom of early childhood.” —The Washington Times

“Unsurpassed in its clarity, reliability, and humanity.” The New York Times Book Review

“An expert with a gift for writing describes how children mature from birth to six years old … [Fraiberg] discusses theories and facts about feeding, talking, sex education, fantasy, self-control, fear, and other subjects in practical terms of daily living.” Parents Magazine

“The Magic Years is far and aboe the best description of this early development period.” Mental Health Bulletin

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