John Locke's Ideas About Child Development

John Locke (1632 – 1704) was a British philosopher, teacher and physician whose writings on political thought influenced enlightenment thinkers including Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

His theories challenging political authority, specifically “The Divine Right of Kings,” strongly influenced Thomas Jefferson and our own Declaration of Independence. Locke’s “Some Thoughts Concerning Education” is a short treatise focusing on reason and wide-ranging experience as the keys to moral maturation.

The Blank Slate

In his “Essay Concerning Human Understanding,” Locke introduced his idea that the human mind at birth is “white paper void of all characters, without any ideas.” Education is achieved through sensory exposure to objects and beings and not necessarily through formal schooling.

For Locke, the young child is at once the most vulnerable to bad health and moral influence but also the most open to understanding and experience. Locke sees children as individuals with distinct temperaments, but emphasizes the role of nurturing, active parents and tutors in the development of a “virtuous mind.”

Healthy Children

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In the first pages of “Some Thoughts Concerning Education,” Locke asserts that the growth of a healthy mind begins with a healthy body. No modern parent would argue that claim though they may question Locke’s methods. In Locke’s mind, children must endure hardship in order to steel themselves for the severity of life’s turns. Locke specifically warns parents against dressing children in warm, constricting clothing.

He suggests exposing children to cold temperatures and bathing their feet in cold water so they will grow accustomed to wet shoes and boots. A bland diet of much bread and very little meat or fruit is Locke’s prescription for healthy bones and body.

Authority and Discipline

In an age where corporal punishment was the norm, Locke wrote, “children who have been the most chastised seldom make the best men.” He believed that behavior in children should be motivated by the “esteem or disgrace” they receive from their parents. Children should not be physically punished nor should they receive rewards in the way of sweets or toys.

He believed that children should not be warned off bad deeds until they actually commit one. Then they would see the disapproval of their parent and be so horrified they would not repeat the act. Only in the case of outright “rebellion or obstinacy” does Locke approve physical punishment.


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From a child’s earliest years, Locke would seek to teach that child the virtue of self-denial. Just when most parents feel compelled to indulge their infants and toddlers, Locke would let them learn that they cannot always have what they want. Restraint and will power are essential character traits for a growing child. Locke warns that a spoiled child will become a willful, selfish adult. In the middle sections of his treatise, Locke emphatically urges families to school their children at home themselves or with a tutor. Only in that way can children be taught according to their “temperaments.” In a formal school or boarding school children lose their individuality and can easily learn bad manners. To those parents who argued that children would see nothing of the outside world if they stayed mainly at home, Locke countered that they should bring interesting people into their residence to engage the children in conversation and learning.