Housekeeping, in the sense of administering the work of the household, has been raised almost to a science. The same is true of the feeding of children. But the training of children still lags behind, so far as most of us are concerned, in the stage occupied by housekeeping and farming a generation or two ago. There has, indeed, been developed a considerable mass of exact knowledge about the nature of the child, and about the laws of his development; but this knowledge has been for most parents a closed book. It is not what the scientists know, but what the people apply, that marks our progress.
“Child-study” has been considered something with which young normal-school students have to struggle before they begin their real struggle with bad boys. But mothers have been expected to know, through some divine instinct, just how to handle their own children, without any special study or preparation. That the divine instinct has not taught them properly to feed the young infant and the growing child we have learned but slowly and at great cost in human life and suffering, but we have learned it. Our next lesson should be to realize that our instincts cannot be relied upon when it comes to understanding the child’s mind, the meaning of his various activities, and how best to guide his mental and moral development.
Mistakes that parents and teachers make in dealing with the child’s mind are not often fatal. Nor can you always trace the evil effects of such mistakes in the later character of the child. But there can be no doubt that many of the heartbreaks, misunderstandings, and estrangements between parents and children are due to mistakes that could have been avoided by a knowledge of the nature of the child’s mind.
There are, fortunately, many parents who arrive at an understanding of the nature of the child through sympathetic insight, through quick observation, through the application of sound sense and the results of experience to the problems that arise. It is not necessary that all of us approach the child in the attitude of the professional scientist; indeed, it is neither possible for us to do so, nor is it desirable that we should. But it is both possible and desirable that we make use of the experience and observations of others, that we apply the results of scientific experiments, that we reënforce our instincts with all available help. We need not fall into the all-too-common error of placing common-sense and practical insight in opposition to the method of the scientists. Everyone in this country appreciates the wonderful and valuable services of Luther Burbank, and no one doubts that if his method could be extended the whole nation would benefit in an economic way. Yet Burbank has been unable to teach the rest of us how to apply his shrewd “common-sense” and his keen intuition for the improvement of useful and ornamental plants. It was necessary for scientists to study what he had done in order to make available for the whole world those principles that make his practice really productive of desirable results. In the same way, it is well for every parent and every teacher everyone who has to do with children to supplement good sense and observation with the results of scientific study.
On the other hand, there is no universal formula for the bringing up of children, one that can be applied to all children everywhere and always, any more than there is a universal formula for fertilizing soil or curing disease or feeding babies. Yet there are certain general laws of child development and certain general principles of child training which have been derived from scientific studies of children, and which agree with the best thought and experience of those who learned to know their children without the help of science. These general laws and principles may be profitably learned and used in bringing up the rising generation.
Too many people and especially too many parents think of the child as merely a small man or woman. This is far from a true conception of the child. Just as the physical organs of the child work in a manner different from what we find in the adult, so the mind of the child works along in a way peculiar to its stage of development. If a physician should use the same formulas for treating children’s ailments as he uses with adults, simply reducing the size of the dose, we should consider his methods rather crude. If a parent should feed an infant the same materials that she supplied to the rest of the family, only in smaller quantities, we should consider her too ignorant to be entrusted with the care of the child. And for similar reasons, we must learn that the behaviour of the child must be judged according to standards different from those we apply to an adult. The same act represents different motives in a child and in an adult or in the same child at different ages.
Moreover, each child is different from every other child in the whole world. The law has recognized that a given act committed by two different persons may really be two entirely different acts, from a moral point of view. How much more important is it for the parent or the teacher to recognize that each child must be treated in accordance with his own nature!
It is the duty of every mother to know the nature of her child, in order that she may assist in the development of all of his possibilities. Child Study is a new science, but old enough to give us great help through what the experts have found out about “child nature.” But the experts do not know your child; they have studied the problems of childhood, and their results you can use in learning to know your child. Your problem is always an individual problem; the problem of the scientist is a general one. From the general results, however, you may get suggestions for the solution of your individual problem.
We all know the mother who complains that her boys did not turn out just the way she wanted them to—although they are very good boys. After they have grown up she suddenly realizes one day how far they are from her in spirit. She could have avoided the disillusion by recognizing early enough that the interests and instincts of her boys were healthy ones, notwithstanding they were so different from her own. She would have been more to the boys, and they more to her, if, instead of wasting her energy in trying to make them “like herself,” she had tried to develop their tastes and inclinations to their full possibilities.
How much happier is the home in which the mother understands the children and knows how to treat each according to his disposition, instead of treating all by some arbitrary rule! As a mother of three children said one day, “With Mary, just a hint of what I wish is sufficient to secure results. With John, I have to give a definite order and insist that he obey. With Robert, I get the best results by explaining and appealing to his reason.” How much trouble she saves herself—and the children—by having found this much out!
A mother who knows that what we commonly call the “spirit of destruction” in a child is the same as the constructive impulse will not be so much grieved when her baby takes the alarm clock apart as the mother who looks upon this deed as an indication of depravity or wickedness.
Some of the directions in which the parents may profit from what the specialists have worked out may be suggested. There is the question of punishment, for example. How many of us have thought out a satisfactory philosophy of punishment? In our personal relations with our children we all too frequently cling to the theory of punishment that justifies us in “paying back” for the trouble we have been caused—if, indeed, we do any more than vent our temper at the annoyance. It is not viciousness on our part; it is merely ignorance. But the time is rapidly approaching when there will be no excuse for ignorance, even if it is not yet time to say that preventable ignorance is vicious. How many mothers, for example, realize that the desire on the part of the child to touch, to do—to get into mischief—is a fundamental characteristic of childhood and not an indication of perversity in her particular Johnny or Mary? How many know that these instincts are the most useful and the most usable traits that the child has; that the checking of these impulses may mean the destruction of individual qualities of great importance in the formation of character? How many know how wisely to direct these instincts without thwarting them?
How many mothers—good housewives—know anything at all about the imagination, that crowning glory of the human mind? They admire the poet’s flights of fancy; but when, on being asked where his brother is, Harry, says, “He went off in a great, great, big airship,” they feel the call of duty to punish him for his lies! Many of us have realized in a helpless sort of way that there is a need for expert knowledge in these matters, and have comfortably shifted the responsibility to the teacher. Parents are often heard to say, when a troublesome youngster is under discussion, “Just wait until he begins to go to school.” It is not wise to wait. There is much to be done before the school can be thought of, or even before the kindergarten age is reached. Indeed, a child is never too young to profit from the application of thought and knowledge to his treatment.
Of course, the training value of the school’s work is not to be underestimated. The social intercourse that the child experiences there, the regularity of hours, the teacher’s personality, all have their favourable influence in the moulding of the child’s character. But neither must we overestimate the powers of the school. The school has the child but a few hours a day, for barely more than half the year; the classes are unconscionably large. We all hope that the classes will be made smaller, but they never can be small enough, within our own times, for the purpose of really effective moral training. The relations between teacher and pupil can never be as intimate as are those of parent and child. The teacher knows the child, as a rule, only as a member of a group and under special circumstances; the parents alone have the opportunity to know closely the individual peculiarities of the child; they alone can know him in health and in sickness, in joy and in sorrow, in his strength and in his weakness. The parents can watch their child from day to day, year after year; whereas the teacher sees the child for a comparatively short period of his development, and then passes him on to another.
The time was—and for most of our children still is—when the teacher had to know nothing but her “subjects”; the nature of the child was to her as great a mystery as it is to the ordinary person who never learned anything about it. She was supposed to deal with the “average” child that does not exist and to attempt the futile task of drawing the laggard up to this arbitrary average and of holding the genius down to it. The effort is being made to have the teacher recognize the individuality of each child, but the mother is still expected to confine her ministrations to his individual digestion. In a dozen different ways the effective methods in the treatment of children, at home or in school, in the church or on the playground, depend upon knowledge and understanding, as is the case in all practical activities. Instincts alone are never sufficient to tell us what to do, notwithstanding the fact that so much really valuable work has been achieved in the past without any special training.
It may be true that in the past the instincts of the child adopted him to the needs of life. It may also be true that the instincts of adults adapted them in the past to their proper treatment of children. We should realize, however, that the conditions of modern life are so complex that few of us know just what to do under given conditions unless we have made a special effort to find out. And this is just as true of the treatment of children as it is of the care of the health, or of the building of bridges. It is for this reason that the results of child study are important to all who have to do with children—whether as teachers or as parents, whether as club leaders or as directors of institutions, whether as social workers or as loving uncles and aunts.
It is impossible to guarantee to anyone that a study of child nature will enable him or her to train children into models of good behaviour. Knowledge alone does not always produce the desired results; nevertheless, an understanding of the child should enable those who have to deal with him to assume an attitude that will reduce in a great measure their annoyance at the various awkward and inconsiderate and mischievous acts of the youngsters. Such a study should make possible a closer intimacy with the child. And, finally, it should make possible a longer continuance of that intimacy with the child, which is so helpful for those in authority as well as for the child himself.