Your Child And The Average
( Originally Published 1916 )
WHILE visiting a large factory employing hundreds of girls, I became interested in a very ingenious system for keeping records and for maintaining standards of speed. Each girl was going through a few simple motions, making a very small fraction of a part of the factory's product. Every hour the record of her out-put was sent to the chief of the division. If her output fell below a certain figure for two consecutive hours, she was quietly informed that her work had fallen below her " average" or below the average for her department. Then the girl would speed up her work, and begin cultivating nervous prostration, dropping out of the factory in a few days or weeks ; or she would "make good" and help raise the " average " for the department. The manager told me with some pride that in less than a year he had been able to raise the " average" output for all departments more than fifty per cent. through these methods. He did not tell me, however, that he had taken pains to explain to the girls just what the " average" is.
A little thought will show anyone who understands the elements of arithmetic that this manager perpetrated a cruel fraud upon the girls every time he called attention to the output falling below the " average." The average is a figure that results from combining the lowest and the highest with all the others, and our everyday experience would lead us to expect that about as many individuals would rise above the average, as drop below it—no more and no fewer. But the young worker feels a certain stigma attaching to the grade " below average " and either does not understand enough or has not assurance enough to reply that it is impossible for all to be average or better. " Average " assumes below as well as above, and within certain limits it is quite as " normal " to be below the average as above.
It is the failure to recognize the meaning of " aver-age" that leads to much of the failure in the training of children, whether in school or at home, as well as to many injustices in all of our relations. In school, the teacher attempts to apply certain rules of pedagogy, based on generalizations about the " average." Too frequently she attempts to make her idea of the average fit every single child in the class. She knows the aver-age distance between the printed page and the eye, and she may insist on every child maintaining the same distance, notwithstanding the fact that no two pair of eyes are exactly alike. She realizes she cannot maintain a uniform distance between the blackboard and the eyes, so she usually does nothing about. that, although she might, for example, seat her children so that each would have the most favorable location with regard to his own eyesight. She knows the average time required for completing a given task in number work; she frequently insists that every child finish within the given time, and she frequently suspects slovenliness or inaccuracy in the child that takes less than the allotted time.
A similar failure to apply common sense is shown when teachers apply their rules and their programmes—based as these are on " average " experiences—to all children without discrimination. And the same failure is frequently found among parents. From the parent who becomes worried because her child does not weigh as much as the " average" for his age, to the parent who finds out the " right " amount of time that a child should give to his home lessons or his piano practice, and then insists upon the " average " number of minutes, no more and no less, are found all the anxious and eager mothers, deluded by a formula.
When the teacher reports to you that your Margaret's handwriting is not up to the average, you rather resent the complaint. Of course her handwriting is below the average; you always knew that Margaret was not very strong in hand control; and you are satisfied that Margaret more than holds her own in other kinds of effort. But you yourself are constantly applying " average " standards to Margaret's conduct at home, with this disadvantage; whereas the school's standards are derived from large numbers, the home standards are usually based on comparatively few experiences. You will compare Margaret's behavior with Georgiana's, or with that of some restricted group ; but at home, as in school, it is necessary to recognize that one child may be able to do what many others cannot do, or that one may fail where many others succeed.
In many families, the first child establishes the rules and expectations for the others. If the later children exceed the expectations, or easily adapt themselves to the routine which they find awaiting them, all is well. But if they fall short, the parents are likely to feel aggrieved, and to make frantic efforts to force the children up to the standard. Ernest was never afraid; why should any of the other children ever be afraid? Ernest slept from six to six when he was less than three months old; why should not the other children do the same? But if Ernest, the oldest, had been afraid, would you frighten the others into being afraid also? Or if Ernest had broken your sleep at five every morning, would you wake the others at five, although they were quite willing to sleep until after six?
Records are of value in industry and in government, and in school and in the home. And the averages de-rived from records are important. It is valuable to know what may be expected of groups, according to age, or sex, or training, or according to any other classification. But each individual must in the end be studied and treated for his own levels of capacity, or limitations. Averages show us, in general, what many have in common; but every child is " different" and his differences demand consideration.