A History of Developmental Psychology in Autobiography

By Dennis Thompson; John D. Hogano | Go to book overview
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Paul Mussen

Inevitably we developmental psychologists ask ourselves the fundamental question of our discipline: How did we become who and what we are today? We know there are no completely satisfactory answers, but, given our training and interest, we cannot help speculating, admittedly with biases and defenses. It is easy to list some experiences that surely affected our development, but we cannot rank them in order of importance. And of course we realize that many other factors, unknown, uncomprehended, or forgotten, were (perhaps equally or more) influential. Serendipity or happenstance may have immeasurable consequences, as it did in my case.

Family Background and the Early Years

My parents, Harry and Taube Mussen, were Jews who had emigrated from eastern Europe when they were adolescents (in about 1910) and then lived in Paterson, New Jersey. My father, a prizewinning student in Poland, had to go to work to help support his impoverished family immediately after he arrived in the United States. However, he was a dedicated autodidact, mastered the English language, read prodigiously, acquired a remarkable vocabulary, and published many poems. He was an ardent socialist, and after serving in France in World War I, an outspoken pacifist.

My mother's family was of high status in the Lithuanian shtetl in which she was born and raised, and learning was greatly valued in her childhood home. Although she was already sixteen when she arrived in the United States, she entered elementary school and went to high school and business school. She and my father married in January 1921, and I was born in Paterson on March 21, 1922.

As an only child (and the oldest grandchild) for nine years, I was the main object of attention not only for my parents but also for my devoted grandparents, uncles, and aunts. My life was relatively tranquil and my success in school was a source of pride for the family.

The most vividly remembered discussions at home -- between my parents, between me and my parents, or between my parents and visitors -- were centered on interpersonal and moral issues; prominent topics were sensitivity to others' feel


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