From Mouths of Babes, Insights : Psychology: Lois Barclay Murphy has been a star in exploring the emotional life of infants and children. Now 87, she is still hard at work.


In 1938, child psychologist Lois Barclay Murphy and her family drove from New York to California.

At the Kansas border, they took a detour. Their 6-year-old daughter, Midge, knew the story of the Wizard of Oz and refused to enter the state of Kansas. She was not going to be blown away like Dorothy, she told her parents. She would get out of the car if necessary.

“Since we could not truthfully guarantee that there would be no tornado in Kansas, and since it seemed a minor concession to make to a strong-minded child whom we respected, we changed the plan and drove through Nebraska,” Murphy explains in the introduction to one of her many books on child psychology.

Many parents--and child psychologists--might have taken a less understanding approach to a child’s fears. But Murphy has spent her life observing, listening and trying to comprehend what goes on in the minds and hearts of infants, children and adolescents.


“She has been a star in describing the vulnerability of children and the ways in which they can be hurt,” said Lewis Lipsitt, director of the Child Study Center at Brown University.

Murphy was one of the first to document feelings of sympathy in preschoolers.

“The head of the nursery school told me that the study was futile since she felt children that young didn’t have any sympathy,” Murphy recalls.

But Murphy’s study showed that even children as young as 2 could show caring for each other, comfort each other, defend each other from other children or warn each other about danger.


She was also one of the first to measure the vulnerability of infants and young children to early problems. And before the word coping was a buzzword in the child-development literature, she conducted research to examine how some children manage to cope with stressful life circumstances, ranging from serious illnesses to moving.

Now 87 (“I’m an old, old woman,” she said recently, though neither her appearance nor her voice give her age away), Murphy is still hard at work and divides her time between an apartment in Washington and a house she designed in the New Hampshire woods.

She writes regularly for “Zero to Three,” a publication of the National Center for Clinical Infant Programs. She has just finished editing a book of scientific papers by her late husband, Gardner Murphy, also a noted psychologist who chaired Columbia University’s psychology department before becoming director of research at the Menninger Foundation in Topeka.

Her current project is a biography of Gardner, to whom she was married for 53 years. She plans to finish the book next year.


But what has earned her a place in the annals of psychological research is her fundamental belief in the importance of simply listening to children--following their lead rather than imposing adult standards on them.

“Childbearing then is not just a matter of taking care of the baby and the young child--whether with a philosophy of permissiveness or of discipline--but of supporting the child’s efforts to take care of himself,” she wrote with co-author Alice E. Moriarty in the book “Vulnerability, Coping and Growth.”

“We need to try to feel our way into the experience of the child, as the child feels and experiences it,” she said.

Murphy has spent her career investigating this premise. Along the way, she and her husband had a son and adopted a daughter.


“Gardner was a feminist,” she said. “He said before we got married, ‘I want my wife to use her brains, and I don’t want you to spend more than 20 minutes a day on the house.’ I smiled to myself. But I didn’t really work full time until my children were in college.”

She nevertheless managed to produce an extraordinary body of scholarship, including 16 books on child development and scores of papers. She has received numerous awards, including the Dolly Madison award of the National Center for Clinical Infant Programs.

Her work also includes hundreds of black-and-white photographs that show children throughout the world just being themselves.

In Nigeria, she captured a child confidently carrying another boy piggyback. She observed families in Tashkent, Soviet Union, in the 1950s. She studied foundlings in New York City, started and headed the first child-development center at Sarah Lawrence College and helped conduct one of the early landmark studies of infants and preschoolers at the Menninger Foundation.


The daughter of a Methodist-Episcopal minister, Murphy was born in 1902 in Lisbon, Iowa. Her great-grandfather was a pioneer and her grandfather was a state senator.

“I was taught very, very young that as a Barclay with pioneer forebears, I was born to be a pioneer,” she said.

She went to Vassar on scholarship.

“My mother thought Vassar would make me into a lady. I was a mousy little bookworm and didn’t fit the image of what my mother wanted in a daughter. She wanted someone glamorous.”


From Vassar, she moved on to Union Theological Seminary for a master’s degree in theology, planning to teach comparative religion. Her college roommate introduced her to Gardner, who was teaching psychology at Columbia. They married a few years later. In the meantime, she had graduated and was teaching comparative religion at Sarah Lawrence.

She met the head of the Macy Foundation in New York and proposed studying sympathy in preschoolers.

“Do it and send me the bill,” he told her.

The resulting study not only became her doctoral dissertation at Columbia’s Teachers College but was later published as a book and launched her career as a child psychologist. It remains a standard work in psychology.


As she looks back half a century later, what gives Murphy the most pride and satisfaction is the work that she did with the Head Start program for poor children in the 1960s.

Most vivid of all in her memory are those children--and their mothers--who changed, who were able to grow and achieve something they never would have achieved without Head Start.

In particular, she remembers one mother, dirty and disheveled and without hope.

“We put her on a committee on Head Start,” Murphy said. Her appearance began to change. The woman went back to school, got her high-school equivalency certificate and began working.


“In other words,” Murphy said, “she started feeling respected. She saw possibilities.”