The Discipline of Children
Right and Wrong Methods of Teaching Boys and Girls to Obey
STEPHEN SMITH, Ph. D., Professor of Psychology in the University of Washington, writing in Munsey’s Magazin relates the following rather amusing incidents with some logical deductions therefrom. The article can scarcely fail to appeal to anyone interested in the ways of children.
The other day I was on the rear platform of a street car when a woman and a small boy alighted. Before the mother could take her customary handhold upon the child, he had circled across the track immediately in front of a car coming at full speed in the opposite direction. There seemed to be no chance for the boy; but we all yelled, the motorman rang his bell, and something gal1 vanized the lad into one last jump. When the car had passed, there he stood gazing after it exhibiting the same interested speculation as that with which a man in the trenches must contemplate the bullet-hole in his hat.
The mother, seeing that fainting was no longer demanded, gathered herself together and charged down upon the boy with upraised umbrella and inarticulate cries of rage. Taking her son thus by surprise, she managed to deliver several well-directed blows upon his head; but as the two disappeared around the corner, the boy seemed to be putting distance between them, doubtless due to his carrying less weight.
The mother had reacted spontaneously, as most of us usually do toward children’s misconduct. If her method of discipline was the correct one in such a case, it was so only because instinct prompted it. Although this was to me a rather striking instance of unsystematic training, it was doubtless unusual only in point of being spectacular.
By observing the training which lower animals give their offspring, and the amount of foresight which they show in other matters, we must conclude that man alone disciplines his young with any conscious purpose of adjusting them to their future. Among mammals, to be sure, the parents often interfere with the instincts of their infants in a way that might be described as the first efforts at training; but this is impulsive, like that of the mother with the umbrella. In man this interference is greatly increased, and the
young are seldom allowed to cut the teeth of their instincts upon situations in which their parents do not play an interested part.
When the race was in its infancy, training must have been dictated, not by any foresight as to its results upon the child when grown up, but rather by the expediency of the moment, as shown by the impulse of the parent to protect the child from immediate dangers or to suppress him when he became a nuisance. No longer living in tree-tops or rock shelters, we have supposedly passed beyond this stage of home education, just as we have more certainly done so in the field of academic training. But, in fact, rock-shelter methods, which are often not without their merits, are to be found in the rough in any nursery.
“Why do you not come when you are called?” you ask.
Willie knows that you do not expect him to answer the question. No child ever has an-
swered it, and it would be spoiled for parents’ use if any child ever did.
Suppose Willie were to say:
“I find, dear father, that the pooled results of prompt obedience to your summons are, on the whole, unsatisfactory. Looking back over the last half-dozen years, I recall but few in-
stances where the sound of my name issuing from the upper window of the old home has not been a harbinger of such ills as facewashings, spelling-lessons, and those tasks which, in the stories of farm life, are denominated ‘chores.’ Being but ten years old, I do not feel all the subtle motives for virtue that actuate you. I am, like Fido, a creature of relatively simple impulses. Your method of training has overlooked this. Try it on Fido, and you will doubtless obtain congruous results.”
But Willie does not say anything of the sort. Silence in this familiar situation is his best ally. You sigh, and Willie sighs; and when you have sent him about his business, you reflect what ungrateful little scamps children are, anyhow.
Why do nine men out of ten, with the “busy” sign hung outside the office door, obediently reach for the phone whenever it rings? Because at the other end there may be an old friend whose voice would be welcome, or a client wishing to settle his bill, or some one about to communicate valuable information.
Usually it is none of these. The great majority of phone calls are annoying. We hang up the receiver with the sense of having almost wholly spoiled several minutes which a short time before seemed available for better things. But the next time the bell rings we pause in our work—facing grimly the possibility of forgetting forever our next idea— and answer docilely. Who has not felt a slight ripple of regret as his secretary says:
“Some one called you a moment ago, sir, but would not leave his number.”
It is the sporting chance that fascinates.
First, then, give a boy some reason to sustain a faltering hope that his summons is not of doleful portent. If he has not quite made up his mind to appear before you in a disappointed mood, with a little finesse you have him at your mercy.
Next, teach him to regard prompt compliance with your request as a sort of firedrill—an exercise which results in neither satisfaction nor annoyance to him, and the only ostensible purpose of which is to give him the opportunity of showing speed. A little training of this sort will break many a long-standing habit of slow obedience.
A man whose business is to train animals for the stage once confided to me his method of working out the tricks which his pets were later to perform, and on account of which he has for years maintained profitable relations with the box-office. For a couple of weeks, or perhaps a month, after he has received a new dog, or monkey, or whatever it may be, he makes no effort to train it. He watches it, with a pad of paper and a pencil in his hand. He plays with it, and he takes notes. He records every spontaneous, natural act of the animal that might serve as a basis of a trick. This gives him his ideas, and he encourages and recombines the creature’s instinctive behavior until finally it is “performing.”
I do not know whether the man is a parent or not, but, if so, he is probably a satisfactory one. We cannot successfully train any animal, whether it is a child or a performing seal, without knowing its instincts and using them in the process.
One day, in the psychological laboratory of a university which has played an important part in developing the science of animal behavior, one of the instructors pointed to a book by Bostock on the training of wild animals, and remarked that in that volume there was contained a description of all the methods which a person engaged in the education of children would find necessary. His statement, of course, was not strictly true. Had he said
that here were the rules of a certain part of child-training, he would have been correct.
There are at least three principles of the education of animals which also apply to the teaching humans. One is spoken of above— the necessity of working in the direction of instinctive development.
A second is to make discipline invariable, so that the child or animal may not hope that to-day there may be an exception to the rule. In this connection a word is in place as to the viciousness of allowing children to develop the habit of teasing for indulgences, begging that rules be rescinded, or that prohibitions but just now announced be retracted.
There are, to be sure, in every family too many children. In other words, there is an absence of system. And this brings us to the third principle of animal-training—that the wiser animal will maintain the minimum of discipline, the very last that he can get along with. To be forever told what to do gets on the nerves of even a lower animal, so we need hardly feel surprised when we find children rebellious toward their parents’ meticulous and itemized control.
We train an animal to form certain fixed habits. We feel that our training is successful in proportion to his following these habits blindly. But the child is a totally different organism. We must give him such training that he will be able to react in new and appropriate ways to novel situations. He is an animal with a big brain. He should be encouraged to reason, to be original, to make judgments for himself, and to defend them.
Last spring a woman brought her boy to my office to ask advice as to the means of overcoming his sullenness and making him more dependable in performing his little duties about the house, which he sometimes neglected. The mother had a long talk with me, and I had a long talk with the boy; and I became pretty certain that what he needed was the chance to act occasionally on his own initiative. His every movement was thought out for him by his mother, who was a fiery little woman with marked executive ability and a complete set of rules for keeping children in the straight and narrow path.
Her volubility gave me no opportunity of scoring my point, and when she had left I felt that I was the only person who had gained much information from the interview; but a month later she came back. It seemed that we had worked a miracle in the boy’s reformation. He did his work with joyous abandon, and no longer had spells of sullenness. Indeed, he had taken entire charge of the house ever since her last visit, as she, good lady, had been taken down with appendicitis, and was only now able to be up and about. What suggestion had we given the boy? Had we hypnotized him ? At any rate, she came to thank us.
Now, how can you tell such a person to go back and have some more appendicitis for her boy’s own good ?
We observe with some astonishment that many well-behaved children amount to very little when grown up, and that many boisterous and unruly youngesters, about whom we grimly prophesied much evil, take the lead and become interesting and successful men. The reason for this may be that the lad who in childhood is trained to give his parents no uneasiness often has most of his imagination and originality trained out of him in the process; whereas the boy whose parents fail to suppress him frequently develops useful selfreliance and resourcefulness. When a child gives his parents no trouble, it is usually a sign either that the parents are very unintelligent or that the child is ill.
Our problem in training a boy is to find out how this young animal’s originality and
capacity for reasoning may be developed at minimum inconvenience to the rest of the household. Without some inconvenience it can never be done. The solution seems to be so to divide things that in some matters the child has almost entire responsibility, and may there work out his destiny unmolested, while in other matters he will be exposed to suggestion, and may seek advice without feeling bound to follow it, and in still others he will be trained to absolute obedience.
In proportioning these degrees of responsibility, it is easy to err in either direction. Too much “natural” education is as bad as too much blind obedience.
Not long ago I was visiting some friends whose three-year old boy is the subject of a certain system of training of which his parents had read in a book. They showed me the book. The idea was that you must allow a child complete freedom of action, so that he may learn from the teaching of experience. In this way, it was argued, his individuality would be best and most fully developed.
Certainly, my young friend’s individuality showed no indication of being dwarfed. It happened that I had recently bought a hat—a thing I rarely do—and something told me to hang my new head-gear on the topmost part of the hat-rack. After the boy had discovered in what packet I had candy—by the way, never take candy to children; it makes them look forward to your visits for the sake of the candy, and not on account of your personal charm—he wandered off, pushing the rugs about with his father’s walking-stick. And now he saw my hat.
He stood transfixed, while his little mind worked rapidly; and soon the right idea was milled out. As my hat came to earth, I rose to salvage it; but his mother stopped me, saying:
“Now don’t interfere with Johnny; he has some thought in his mind which we must let him develop for himself.”
This proved to be true. He sat on the floor and poked his father’s stick through the crown of my hat—a result which he contemplated with much satisfaction.
Up to this point his parents’ system was fairly good; but here they failed, in that they
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were not willing to let the situation work itself out to its “natural” conclusion. A world including hats usually comprises owners as well; but this boy, who was encouraged to learn of the world of inanimate things by handling them, and by noting the results, was entirely protected from any acquaintance with the reaction of the average hat-owner when his hat had been threaded on a walking-stick.
This suggests one of the shortcomings of some of these systems of education by natural sanction. They overlook the fact that the reaction of society is a part of the child’s environment.
One of the most worthless principles given us by amateur educators, yet one that has wide acceptance, is that we should answer as many of a child’s questions as possible That a child should thus be trained to depend upon others for the thinking which he ought to do for himself is absurd. We should ask him more leading questions than we do, and answer fewer trivial ones. When he cannot answer a question for himself, or when his question shows that he has given the matter some thought, he should be encouraged to discuss the explanation with his parents.
To explain to a youngster why he is to carry out our directions in matters of routine obedience is the first step in “spoiling” him. Always make him understand, to be sure, that we shall be glad to make clear the reasons for our request after he has complied with it.
Praise him, but with infinite tact, for the spontaneous actions which you wish to make habitaal. Publicly disapprove, but with utmost subtlety, of the impulses you wish to discourage. But in order to make your approval or scorn have any weight with him, maintain his confidence in your honesty and your intelligence. This can be done in one way only—by being honest and intelligent. When you have established a sympathetic understanding with a child, you may then conspire with him in good behavior, or in generous acts, or in hard work, or in constructive thinking—in all behavior, indeed, which you wish to develop in him.
If a boy or girl has, in childhood, developed habits of original thought, nicely tempered by the perception of what sort of behavior is on various occasions appropriate, there comes a time in early adolescence when any intellectual awakening is possible. By this awakening is meant the beginning of a love for the game of criticism, the birth of a lust after truth for its own sake, which is essential to all adult intellectuality.
Such an intellectual rebirth is dependent upon strife. If there are no dragons of dogmatism to be slain, the sword-arm withers, and the feet fall into step with the common crowd along the road of tradition. Thus, paradoxical as it may sound, many a child’s salvation lies in the fact that he has learned false doctrines; for in fighting his way out from intellectual darkness, he receives his baptism of blood and acquires a taste for the conflict of wits.
A generation ago it was the matter of standpat biology as opposed to the doctrine of evolution which served some of us as a casus belli. Or perhaps it was resistance to some such grim monster as the Roundhead religion of other days that generated within us the spark of a healthy skepticism. At any rate, let us shed a tear of thanks upon the grave of whatever moral game-warden it happened to be who preserved for us our dragon.
There seems small danger, however, that we shall deprive a child of a necessary battleground by rearing him in an enlightened home, granting that there is such a thing; for, once he is started along the path of intellectual adventure, there are always enough enemies ahead to keep his good sword bright.