The Problem with Magical Thinking

Jane Quinn
July 1, 2001

In a college psychology course, I learned about a phenomenon called “magical thinking” – a cognitive device employed by children of a certain age, before reasoning ability sets in. Most parents encourage this kind of thinking in their young children. Isn’t that what Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy are all about?

These days, it seems to be adults who engage in magical thinking – about children. I occasionally stand back and marvel at our society’s inability to remember what we used to know. For example, we once had a pretty solid grip on the fact that young people need ongoing support and guidance, structure and clear limits, and a rich set of learning opportunities to enhance the odds that they would reach productive adulthood. Lately, however, adults have come to believe that even young children can stay by themselves after school, and have invented terms like “self care” to rationalize individual and societal choices.

Here are a few other examples of the new magical thinking:

  • Abstinence-only education is winning the policy battle over comprehensive sexuality education, while sexual images in the media become more explicit. Then we’re shocked to read a New York Times report about young teens engaging in a range of sexual activities because, in the teens’ words, “It’s fun.”
  • Six-year-olds shoot other six-year-olds, but we can’t seem to come up with any effective gun control measures. Instead, we increase funding for metal detectors and quick fix violence prevention programs in schools.
  • Nearly every state has raised its academic standards for students, but few have made comparable investments in the very resources that have been proven to promote academic achievement: qualified teachers, smaller class size, meaningful parent involvement and extended learning opportunities.
  • Public and private funders continue to invest “seed money” in social programs without sufficient regard to sustaining and expanding the interventions once they have proven their effectiveness.

I could cite a dozen more. What’s going on? In childhood, magical thinking is part of a normal developmental process. It’s a way of making some sense of one’s experiences for a while, before finding a more mature approach. But magical thinking by adults is no basis for social policy. As a society, we need a more mature approach.

To help achieve this goal, youth workers need to engage actively in the political process, which means organizing pro-youth constituencies and perhaps running for office. We need more youth advocates like the late David Liederman, who served as a member of the Massachusetts Legislature and subsequently headed the Child Welfare League of America for many years. We need more social workers like Ruth Messinger, who repeatedly put her pro-youth, pro-education beliefs on the line as Manhattan borough president and as a candidate for New York mayor.

Also needed, in the words of John Gardner, former secretary of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare, is for all youth advocates to “shamelessly promote what works.” In the Internet Age, policy-makers suffer at once from too much and not enough information. What they need is the right information. Youth workers are positioned to provide what’s needed: the hard facts on proven approaches to promoting young people’s learning and development.

We can’t wait to be asked. We must offer to help policy-makers. We need to make connections between research, practice and policy.

One relevant example occurred recently in my home state, when State Assemblyman Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.) asked a group of youth advocates to help him figure out how to use Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) money for after-school programs. He saw the potential for applying this federal funding source to local needs but was wary of the technical challenges. The advocates directed him to thoughtful publications (from the Finance Project and the Center for Law and Social Policy) and to people in other states who had cracked this tough nut.

Those advocates used knowledge and networking – not magic.

Jane Quinn is assistant executive director for community schools at the Children’s Aid Society in New York City. Contact:

Quinn, Jane. "The Problem with Magical Thinking." Youth Today, July/August 2001, p. 54.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.