The Day Of The Child
( Originally Published 1916 )
This has been called the day of the child. Within two decades various reform movements have forced the attention of the public upon the child. Whether it is the care of infants, health supervision, and preventive hygiene, or playgrounds, child labor, and improved schooling facilities, the conservation and the amelioration of child life seem to be the central concern of thousands of people working together in societies and committees. Not alone parents and teachers, who may be said to have a direct and professional interest in the welfare of children; but editors and publicists, scientists and statesmen, are giving to the child an amount of thought that would justify the conclusion that the child is either the most important factor or the most perplexing problem in modern life. From a political no less than from a humanitarian or sentimental point of view, we are realizing the importance of providing for all the children adequate opportunities for fullest development.
More than ever before are efforts being made to help children in all possible ways, to direct their physical and spiritual growth according to the laws of their nature on the one hand, and according to their deepest interests on the other. It is a mistake, however, to suppose that everything which is being done and advocated represents a distinct addition to the service in the interests of children.
In the first place, there is more " publicity " in these matters now, so that we hear relatively more about each thing that is done. An alderman was complaining at his club about the annoyance caused him by delegations of citizens coming to petition for various things. He said that a delegation from a mothers' club had come the day before to urge the establishment of a play-ground ; then a charity organization had petitioned for a playground; then a ministers' association had done the same thing. Fifteen distinct delegations, he said, had petitioned for playgrounds. " But what can a city of this size do with all those playgrounds? " asked a visitor. " Oh," said the alderman, " they all want the same playground." And it is much the same way with what we hear about child welfare.
In the second place, much of what is nowadays urged for the welfare of children is in the nature of a substitute to take the place of some advantage of which the children have been deprived. In the cities, especially, where most of the thinking and fretting and talking about the child takes place, he seems to be " always in the way," to use the words of the sentimental song. Our city houses are not surrounded by trees and open lots for climbing and romping—they have not even attics to use on rainy days as playrooms and work-shops. We have to think of the children's play because they have been robbed of the chance to play by the encroachments of the growing cities. " When we were young "' the cities had no playgrounds, nor did they need any. Today we are called upon to supply them, because our children cannot get along without them.
Organized play seems toy older people an absurd contradiction in terms, for the thought of play suggests freedom and abandon. But play is free only in the sense that it is not carried on under compulsion. As children grow older they instinctively desire play in the form of games that involve considerable organization and team work. But the modern child has lost the art of play. If you should try to regulate the play of children who have all outdoors, and unbroken traditions of children's games, and the enthusiasm of the carefree youngsters of certain rural and semi rural districts, your interference would probably not be wholesome. But to neglect the children who "hang around " because they don't know what to do with themselves, and would have no opportunity to do it if they did know, is certainly not meeting their needs. The traditions that carried the rules of the games and the spirit of the games, have somehow been broken, and children need again to be taught what to play and how to play.
Workshops in schools and in homes seem to many people rather artificial. But they do not realize that, a generation or two ago, nearly everybody had an opportunity to become, acquainted with various kinds of tools and materials through direct contact and trial. Theoretically we realize the educative value of these experiences with materials and forces, but practically we neglect the children's needs and then wonder that they grow up indifferent to work, or even hostile to it.
To bring twigs and butterflies and tadpoles into a schoolroom or into the home as a means of becoming acquainted with " nature " does seem rather stilted. Certainly the children who live in the country do not need to have this done for them. But the children in the cities must either get their " nature " by way of samples and occasional excursions, or not get it at all.
The great organized efforts being made to further the welfare of children do, indeed, often urge upon the public new activities for the benefit of babies and of older children. Pure milk and fresh air for tenement babies, for example, are new things in the history of the world. Yet from another point of view, these too are largely substitutes for what practically every child formerly had as a matter of course. The conditions of crowded living bring a lack of air and a super-abundance of disease germs, and thus make the new methods of treating children necessary. But still they are substitutes, and not altogether new additions to the burden of looking after children.
At the same time we must recognize that our knowledge of the factors influencing child life—on the mental and moral sides, as well as on the physical side—has increased so rapidly during the past generation, that it would really be stupid of us not to make use of some of this knowledge.
And it is not difficult to get some measure of the value of this knowledge in a practical way. In the matter of health, we like to believe that the old times were also the good times. But wherever there are reliable records we can see that children are sick less than was formerly the case, and the death rates have been cut down in a most startling manner. The gain is to be seen on the mental and moral sides as well. Scientific principles applied to the play and work of children, the best knowledge applied to the more formal education of children, all bring returns that would have been thought impossible a short time ago. With all this knowledge, the parent is called upon to do more and to keep more in mind, so that the child occupies a larger place in our everyday thought.
This is the day of hope and promise. Having built up a civilization of steam-heated flats with kitchenettes we are at last forced to take notice that our architects were bachelors and made no provisions for the precious—though sometimes inconvenient—little dears. And this is true not only of our houses, but of all our modern arrangements.
We must give a great deal of serious thought to the problem of providing for our children artificial conditions that will compensate so far as possible for the opportunities of which they have been deprived. The educational toys and playground apparatus have to a very large extent not been added to what children had before, but have for the most part been devised to take the place of what our civilization has taken from the child. And to know their needs, we must study the children as thoroughly and as systematically at least as the dog fancier studies the animals with which he is most concerned.
Children are getting more, much more, than they have ever had before, but not so much as we think we are giving them, and perhaps, in view of all that is known, not as much as they need.