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Escalona, S.K. Corman, H.H. (1974). Early Life Experience and the Development of Competence. Int. R. Psycho-Anal., 1:151-168.

(1974). International Review of Psycho-Analysis, 1:151-168

Early Life Experience and the Development of Competence

S. K. Escalona and H. H. Corman


Two infants and their families were studied during the first two years of life. The research plan combined detailed extensive observations of the children in their own milieu with an elaborate system of coding, scoring, and computer processing of the narrative data. Based on the frequency with which each observable behavioural event occurred, and the context in which it was observed, quantitative measures of stable patterns of experience were obtained.

It proved that among the aspects of early experience that were significantly different for the two children were the following: The affective quality of social interactions; the degree to which mothers (and other persons in the family) tended to accommodate to and conversely intrude upon and direct the child's ongoing behaviour; and the relative frequency with which certain specific social inputs, such as 'facilitating', 'making requests', 'showing' and 'giving things', etc., were provided. They also included the circumstance that the sensory modalities employed by the respective mothers differed in the emphasis lent to the distance versus the near receptor systems; the degree to which mothers drew attention to and utilized inanimate (thing aspects) of the environment and the degree to which they allowed the child to move about in space unhindered.

The children's contribution to experience patterns, arising partly in response to environmental differences, included among others: the degree to which the distance receptors were employed in self-initiated perceptual activity; the degree to which they attended and engaged with the inanimate environment; the proportion of their behaviour that was self-initiated as contrasted to reactive and accommodating actions in the social as well as the perceptual sphere; the relative prominence of resistant and negating social behaviours; the relative prominence of assertive structuring behaviour they showed; the preferred patterns of autoerotic behaviour and the models chosen for imitative behaviour.

At the age of two years these children showed totally unlike characteristics and adaptive styles, which were formally assessed. Against the background of a clinical descriptive account of the two families and

of the development of each child, the latter including the fact that one developed far more rapidly than the other in the cognitive realm, whereas the other progressed more rapidly in the interpersonal and communicator sphere, we attempted to relate the overt specific and quantitative experience differences to the difference in development outcome. This integration utilized the theoretical framework of ego-psychoanalytic developmental theory, and led to a number of clinical and theoretical suggestions. These concern the manner in which clinical and research observation of young children and their relationships to others can be made more precise and can include aspects of behaviour not usually attended to at present. It is proposed also that overt, but not consciously controlled, aspects of mother's behaviour reflect central features of personality organization and, hence, provide access to information ordinarily obtained only through in-depth interviews. Substantively, it is proposed that maternal behaviour style in interaction with built-in response capacities and dispositions of the infant's part, set the stage for and thus, in part, determine all aspects of early ego development. The relative importance and cathexis of the outer world versus the own body, the relative importance of thing aspects of the environment and the like, are related to the differentiation of the self as a bounded entity; to the vicissitudes of the mother-child relationship; to the articulation and early psychic representation of a sense of self as an active agent, a sense of competence, which is regarded as the kernel of early personality and cognitive development.

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