IPT Book Reviews

Title: Knowing Children: Experiments in Conversation and Cognition  Positive Review Positive Review
Author: Michael Siegal
Publisher: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., Publishers 1991

Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
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$32.50 (c); $19.95 (p)


American developmental psychology is built on the back of thousands of controlled research studies with relatively high levels of statistical sophistication but almost entirely dependent on conversations in which adults ask children questions.  In 154 pages Siegal calls into question much of that research on the basis of the claim that adults and children have different conversational skills, knowledge, and experience. Children's answers to questions therefore may not show what their cognitive capacities are but rather only demonstrate the disparate conversation abilities.

In Chapter 1 Siegal challenges Piagetian concepts and maintains children have more cognitive capacity than they are credited with when Piagetian model research is interpreted to show they lack abstract conceptual ability.  Chapter 2 presents data suggesting that children also know more about numbers and measurement than research based on asking children questions appears to show.  Chapter 3 deals with concepts of causality and Siegal again suggests children are more aware of causal connections than current developmental research indicates.  Chapter 4 examines the research on distinguishing between appearance and reality.  Chapter 5 covers understanding persons and Chapter 6 deals with children's awareness of and response to authority.  The final chapter gives a model for knowing children and concludes that with the present emphasis on research data that comes from asking children questions we are getting only a fractional and incomplete picture of the cognitive abilities of children.


Throughout this slim volume Siegal gives many examples and illustrations of how children are asked questions that may elicit answers inaccurately showing the level of understanding of the child.  He emphasizes again and again that repeated questioning gives a message to children which may lead them to answer with what they think the adult wants.  Children may give insincere answers to avoid repeated questioning.  They may think they should give "cute" answers instead of right ones.  They may have the idea that adults are trustworthy and powerful and right and therefore if the adult seems to be asking foolish questions, the adult is right and they need to answer.  They may also have different concepts of words and therefore be giving an answer to an entirely different question than the one the adult thinks was asked.

While Siegal's claim that children's less developed conversational skills, knowledge and limited experience may limit an adult's ability to accurately assess cognitive capacities is certainly plausible, the significance of this may be less than what Siegal claims.  Our understanding of intelligence and cognitive capabilities recognizes the role that both language and experience shape its development and expression.  Native intelligence is, in fact, the primary determinant of language development to the extent that language represents the higher order association of symbols (the spoken or written word, for example) with, at a very concrete level, objects and actions.  When language is used to express concepts which are not grounded in physical objects or observable actions, a higher order cognitive capacity is illuminated.  Our understanding of children's language and cognitive development suggests that indeed language usually exceeds comprehension.  Children are capable of using language and employing it appropriately without necessary fully appreciating the meaning associated with that language.

Siegal is correct in suggesting that, in the absence of fully developed language systems, that children develop their own conceptualizations and organizing principles which undergird their cognitive status.  However, such structures, to the extent they represent the child's construction of the world, may not necessarily reflect reality.  Nevertheless, his basic point is that adults do not know how to get accurate information from children because, they are essentially operating from two different constructions of reality and the real world.

Siegel has a brief section on the child as a witness and hints at what would appear to be a major contribution of this book.  Child witnesses are approached to give legally relevant information almost entirely on the basis of conversations with adults.  Children are interviewed by adults asking them questions.  This is what goes into the courtroom.  All of Siegal's criticisms of the question-asking methods of researchers are directly applicable to what is done in interrogations of children in the justice and child protection systems.  The same argument Siegal uses to call into question the developmental research also calls child interrogations into question.  The problem may not be that children cannot give adequate and accurate information but rather that adults do not know how to let them provide it.

Adults who are willing to learn how to communicate with children better have much to learn from this book about having conversations with children that may produce a more accurate adult understanding of what the child actually knows.  Anybody who holds conversations with children with the intent of seeking information from them can benefit from reading this book.  This includes parents, teachers, law enforcement, judges, child protection workers, and attorneys.  Anybody who uses children's talking to adults as the basis for making decisions should read this book or run the risk of incorrectly understanding children's talk and making an elaborate but erroneous decision.

Reviewed by Ralph Underwager, Institute for Psychological Therapies, Northfield, Minnesota.

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