The Etiology and
Treatment of Childhood
Jordan W. Smoller, University of Pennsylvania
Childhood is a syndrome which has only recently begun to receive serious attention from
clinicians. The syndrome itself, however, is not at all recent. As early as the 8th
century, the Persian historian Kidnom made references to "short, noisy
creatures," who may well have been what we now call "children." The
treatment of children, however, was unknown until this century, when so-called "child
psychologists" and "child psychiatrists" became common. Despite this
history of clinical neglect, it has been estimated that well over half of all Americans
alive today have experienced childhood directly (Suess, 1983). In fact, the actual numbers
are probably much higher, since these data are based on self-reports which may be subject
to social desirability biases and retrospective distortion.
The growing acceptance of childhood as a distinct phenomenon is reflected in the
proposed inclusion of the syndrome in the upcoming Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of
Mental Disorders, 4th edition, or DSM-IV, of the American Psychiatric Association (1990).
Clinicians are still in disagreement about the significant clinical features of childhood,
but the proposed DSM-IV will almost certainly include the following core features:
Clinical Features of Childhood:
Although the focus of this paper is on the efficacy of conventional treatment of
childhood, the five clinical markers mentioned above merit further discussion for those
unfamiliar with this patient population.
In one of the few existing literature reviews on childhood, Temple- Black (1982) has
noted that childhood is almost always present at birth, although it may go undetected for
years or even remain subclinical indefinitely. This observation has led some investigators
to speculate on a biological contribution to childhood. As one psychologist has put it,
"we may soon be in a position to distinguish organic childhood from functional
childhood" (Rogers, 1979).
This is certainly the most familiar marker of childhood. It is widely known that
children are physically short relative to the population at large. Indeed, common clinical
wisdom suggests that the treatment of the so-called "small child" (or
"tot") is particularly difficult. These children are known to exhibit infantile
behavior and display a startling lack of insight (Tom and Jerry, 1967).
Emotional lability and immaturity
This aspect of childhood is often the only basis for a clinician's diagnosis. As a
result, many otherwise normal adults are misdiagnosed as children and must suffer the
unnecessary social stigma of being labeled a "child" by professionals and
While many children have IQ's with or even above the norm, almost all will manifest
knowledge deficits. Anyone who has known a real child has experienced the frustration of
trying to discuss any topic that requires some general knowledge. Children seem to have
little knowledge about the world they live in. Politics, art, and science -- children are
largely ignorant of these. Perhaps it is because of this ignorance, but the sad fact is
that most children have few friends who are not, themselves, children.
This last identifying feature is perhaps the most unexpected. Folk wisdom is supported
by empirical observation -- children will rarely eat their vegetables (see Popeye, 1957,
Causes of Childhood:
Now that we know what it is, what can we say about the causes of childhood? Recent
years have seen a flurry of theory and speculation from a number of perspectives. Some of
the most prominent are reviewed below.
Emile Durkind was perhaps the first to speculate about sociological causes of
childhood. He points out two key observations about children:
the vast majority of children are unemployed, and;
children represent one of the least educated segments of our society.
In fact, it has been estimated that less than 20% of children have had more than fourth
Clearly, children are an "out-group." Because of their intellectual handicap,
children are even denied the right to vote. From the sociologist's perspective, treatment
should be aimed at helping assimilate children into mainstream society. Unfortunately,
some victims are so incapacitated by their childhood that they are simply not competent to
work. One promising rehabilitation program (Spanky and Alfalfa, 1978) has trained victims
of severe childhood to sell lemonade.
The observation that childhood is usually present from birth has led some to speculate
on a biological contribution. An early investigation by Flintstone and Jetson (1939)
indicated that childhood runs in families. Their survey of over 8,000 American families
revealed that over half contained more than one child. Further investigation revealed that
even most non-child family members had experienced childhood at some point. Cross-cultural
studies (e.g., Mowgli & Din, 1950) indicate that family childhood is even more
prevalent in the Far East. For example, in Indian and Chinese families, as many as three
out of four family members may have childhood.
Impressive evidence of a genetic component of childhood comes from a large-scale twin
study by Brady and Partridge (1972). These authors studied over 106 pairs of twins,
looking at concordance rates for childhood. Among identical or monozygotic twins,
concordance was unusually high (0.92), i.e., when one twin was diagnosed with childhood,
the other twin was almost always a child as well.
A considerable number of psychologically-based theories of the development of childhood
exist. They are too numerous to review here. Among the more familiar models are Seligman's
"learned childishness" model. According to this model, individuals who are
treated like children eventually give up and become children. As a counterpoint to such
theories, some experts have claimed that childhood does not really exist. Szasz (1980) has
called "childhood" an expedient label. In seeking conformity, we handicap those
whom we find unruly or too short to deal with by labeling them "children."
Treatment of Childhood:
Efforts to treat childhood are as old as the syndrome itself. Only in modern times,
however, have humane and systematic treatment protocols been applied. In part, this
increased attention to the problem may be due to the sheer number of individuals suffering
from childhood. Government statistics (DHHS) reveal that there are more children alive
today than at any time in our history. To paraphrase P.T. Barnum: "There's a child
born every minute."
The overwhelming number of children has made government intervention inevitable. The
nineteenth century saw the institution of what remains the largest single program for the
treatment of childhood -- so-called "public schools." Under this colossal
program, individuals are placed into treatment groups based on the severity of their
condition. For example, those most severely afflicted may be placed in a
"kindergarten" program. Patients at this level are typically short, unruly,
emotionally immature, and intellectually deficient. Given this type of individual, therapy
is essentially one of patient management and of helping the child master basic skills
Unfortunately, the "school" system has been largely ineffective. Not only is
the program a massive tax burden, but it has failed even to slow down the rising incidence
Faced with this failure and the growing epidemic of childhood, mental health
professionals are devoting increasing attention to the treatment of childhood. Given a
theoretical framework by Freud's landmark treatises on childhood, child psychiatrists and
psychologists claimed great successes in their clinical interventions.
By the 1950's, however, the clinicians' optimism had waned. Even after years of costly
analysis, many victims remained children. The following case (taken from Gumbie &
Poke, 1957) is typical.
Billy J., age 8, was brought to treatment by his parents. Billy's affliction was
painfully obvious. He stood only 4'3" high and weighed a scant 70 lbs., despite the
fact that he ate voraciously. Billy presented a variety of troubling symptoms. His voice
was noticeably high for a man. He displayed legume anorexia, and, according to his
parents, often refused to bathe. His intellectual functioning was also below normal -- he
had little general knowledge and could barely write a structured sentence. Social skills
were also deficient. He often spoke inappropriately and exhibited "whining
behavior." His sexual experience was non-existent. Indeed, Billy considered women
"icky." His parents reported that his condition had been present from birth,
improving gradually after he was placed in a school at age 5. The diagnosis was
"primary childhood." After years of painstaking treatment, Billy improved
gradually. At age 11, his height and weight have increased, his social skills are broader,
and he is now functional enough to hold down a "paper route."
After years of this kind of frustration, startling new evidence has come to light which
suggests that the prognosis in cases of childhood may not be all gloom. A critical review
by Fudd (1972) noted that studies of the childhood syndrome tend to lack careful
follow-up. Acting on this observation, Moe, Larrie, and Kirly (1974) began a large-scale
longitudinal study. These investigators studied two groups. The first group consisted of
34 children currently engaged in a long-term conventional treatment program. The second
was a group of 42 children receiving no treatment. All subjects had been diagnosed as
children at least 4 years previously, with a mean duration of childhood of 6.4 years.
At the end of one year, the results confirmed the clinical wisdom that childhood is a
refractory disorder -- virtually all symptoms persisted and the treatment group was only
slightly better off than the controls.
The results, however, of a careful 10-year follow-up were startling. The investigators
(Moe, Larrie, Kirly, & Shemp, 1984) assessed the original cohort on a variety of
measures. General knowledge and emotional maturity were assessed with standard measures.
Height was assessed by the "metric system" (see Ruler, 1923), and legume
appetite by the Vegetable Appetite Test (VAT) designed by Popeye (1968). Moe et al. found
that subjects improved uniformly on all measures. Indeed, in most cases, the subjects
appeared to be symptom-free. Moe et al. report a spontaneous remission rate of 95%, a
finding which is certain to revolutionize the clinical approach to childhood.
These recent results suggests that the prognosis for victims of childhood may not be so
bad as we have feared. We must not, however, become too complacent. Despite its apparently
high spontaneous remission rate, childhood remains one of the most serious and rapidly
growing disorders facing mental health professional today. And, beyond the psychological
pain it brings, childhood has recently been linked to a number of physical disorders.
Twenty years ago, Howdi, Doodi, and Beauzeau (1965) demonstrated a six-fold increased risk
of chicken pox, measles, and mumps among children as compared with normal controls. Later,
Barby and Kenn (1971) linked childhood to an elevated risk of accidents -- compared with
normal adults, victims of childhood were much more likely to scrape their knees, lose
their teeth, and fall off their bikes. Clearly, much more research is needed before we can
give any real hope to the millions of victims wracked by this insidious disorder.
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