Children - No Two Alike
( Originally Published 1916 )
IF we were only consistent in our theory as to what we may expect of children, perhaps parents would more quickly come to understand the little animals for whose up-bringing they are responsible. But when it suits our purposes to assume absolute equality of ability, we do not hesitate to say to George, " I know you can learn to spell because Mrs. Johnson's boy is a very good speller, and he is three months younger than you are." On the other hand, we do not hesitate to boast—when the occasion presents itself—that our George won two medals in athletics and made the handsomest book-rack in the school shop, and that it is now on the principal's desk in the office, where all visitors can see it, and that it has George's name on it, too ! Does it never occur to us that only the fastest runner can win the medal for running, and that it is impossible for all the boys to be fastest runners?
When Mrs. Hall dropped in on her neighbor one afternoon, she could not help but admire the zeal and thoroughness with which Lily was cleaning up the china closet, and the neatness with which she then replaced the contents. And when she got home she could not resist the impulse to give expression to her admiration in the presence of her own daughter, in a tone that carried something more than a suspicion of reproach for Myra's own deficiencies in the direction of certain kinds of household work. It is no secret to anyone except Lily and Myra that only the week before Mrs. Morgan was saying, " I don't see why my girl should be behind that Myra in school. She's every bit as smart, but I suppose she doesn't try."
Why should you expect your daughter to have all the capacities and talents of your neighbor's daughter? And why should you expect your younger son to have all the capacities and talents of your older son? But if you know that each child is quite unique in his combination of abilities and limitations, what right have you to reproach. one with letting Nellie get ahead of her in music, while you reproach Nellie for not coming up to the other's standard in sewing or cooking?
Our easy transition from praise to blame for conditions that are for the most part entirely beyond the control of the children may have several unexpected and quite undesirable results. To praise George for his superior handwork, or Harry for his superior spelling is likely to make the boy unduly conceited. Praise in due measure for effort and industry has its uses in stimulating further effort until the habit of industry is fixed. But praise for a native interest or aptitude is as misplaced as praise for good looks or long hair.
On the other hand, to reproach a child by emphasizing his failure to approach a standard set by his neighbor or cousin, is not going to encourage him to try harder. It is more likely to engender a dislike or positive hatred for the unconscious model of virtue or achievement. Each one of us may recall some pet aversion to a perfectly innocent and harmless child brought about by the constant reference to Nellie or Harry as examples worthy of emulation in the very things that came hardest to us.
Let us first of all recognize that no two children can do exactly the same kinds of work in exactly the same way. Instead of adopting as our guide the abstract " average child " that occupied the attention and solicitude of educators but a few years ago, let us recognize that this average child does not exist; but that instead the world is full of a multitude of diverse little personalities, each with his own set of native interests and skills and tastes and awkwardnesses, with his own range of appreciations and his own blind spots. Let us make it our business to understand the few children in whose development and welfare we are most concerned, recognizing their talents and weaknesses. Then we shall be in a position to guide them most helpfully.
If we get away from the superstitious belief that all individuals can do all things that any one can do, we shall change our expectations and reduce our disappointments. We need not on that account lower our standards. On the contrary, we shall then be in a position to set standards that are reasonable, and standards that will in many cases be in advance of what we are accustomed to expect of our children.
There is George's spelling, for example, or Myra's housework. While spelling is a very desirable accomplishment, it is by no means an essential to happy and effective living, or to good citizenship. Moreover, it is quite within the limits of the probable that the teacher who failed to teach George spelling has overlooked the one way through which alone he could possibly learn, the art. George should be encouraged to learn to spell for a variety of good reasons; but the fact that Harry is a good speller is not one of the reasons—that fact is quite irrelevant. It is an impertinence to mention it. George should be encouraged to learn to spell, in a variety of ways; but a comparison with Harry's superiority in this direction is not one of the legitimate ways. George should be encouraged—as Myra should be encouraged—to do somewhat better today than he did yesterday or last week, and this, whether it be in spelling or in cleaning house.
We should cultivate in our children an interest in developing all of their abilities for all they are worth, and not merely to equal the attainments of a rival. The standard should he the best that a given child can do, in every way, not as good as certain others can do in some ways.