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The Unfinished Child

( Originally Published 1916 )



THE famous saying, " Give me the first few years of the child's life and I care not who has the rest," has become classic. The importance of these early years in the making of character is shown by the fact that teachers of primary grades and of kindergartens often complain of children being " spoiled " before they come to school age. There is no doubt that many children have acquired at the age of six or seven years undesirable or even vicious habits.

Moreover, many a child has had good habits started in his infancy, and even lofty ideals inculcated before leaving the mother's apron strings. It is therefore a very easy matter to conclude that the character and the talents of the child are fixed, and fixed irrevocably, in the earliest years of life.

But the implication of our classic saying, that the work of training the child or of giving him his " bent," can be finished during these early years, is essentially false. For the child is, a growing " system " of instincts and capacities, and at every stage the further development may be influenced by the surroundings. At every stage it is therefore necessary that he be guided into habits which will be worth while, and that he be protected from influences which may be injurious. It is impossible in three years, or in thirteen years, to provide a training that will insure sound habits for the rest of life. The reason for this is not hard to understand.

At birth the child has but few instincts, and these have to do chiefly with sucking when something is placed in the mouth, and grasping when something is placed in the hand. On the basis of these instincts very little education is possible. In the course of the first year of life the child can learn to go to sleep when placed in a certain position, he can learn to wait for his food, he can learn to handle various objects more or less awkwardly, he can learn to, associate happy or unhappy feelings with various expressions of the face, or with the tones of the voice, and he can learn to follow certain suggestions—such as to refrain from touching particular things, or to lie down, or to clap his hands, and so on. This kind of " obedience " is a good beginning; it lays the foundations for the future, but will not in-sure obedience later. Regular habits of eating and sleeping and playing will be very useful for the time being, and they will serve as a basis for maintaining regularity later. But they will not, if abandoned at this point, insure regularity in the years to come.

In the second year, the child gives evidence of a growing curiosity about the doings of people and about the workings of things. He will imitate movements of animals and machines as well as of human beings. He will learn to walk and he will learn to talk. He will begin to discern between himself and what is not himself. He will come to recognize expressions of approval and of disapproval, and will begin to care. At this time he can learn to walk correctly, and to speak correctly, so far as the vocabulary and the control of the speech organs will let him. But we cannot insure the future gait and the future speech by concentrating our attention on the correct use of the Iocomotor and speech organs during the first few years. Being imitative, it is well the child should have good models ; but the best models now will hardly protect him against bad models later. Being sensitive to approval and disapproval, he will profit from our high standards of conduct—child conduct, of course—for the present and for some time to come; but these standards will not last forever.

From year to year, new instincts will appear. And as each arises, the time will be most favorable for learning to control those activities that are related to the instinct in question. When later the native interests begin to shift from joy in the mere doing of something to satisfaction in the results of the activity, it is time to develop ideas of perseverance and ideals of workmanship and thoroughness. It is absolutely impossible to do this, however, before the seventh or eighth year of the child's life because the child cannot before this time look far enough ahead to understand the relation of present effort to future achievement.

In the same way, it is impossible for a child to learn to cooperate in work or in play with others before he has acquired an interest in carrying undertakings to a conclusion, and before he has acquired certain skill in doing things, and can therefore take part in " team " operations. No matter how solicitous parents and teachers may be with the younger children, the virtues of the team play must be developed when the instincts are ready to be molded into the forms that society considers best.

One of the reasons why children of different ages do not get along well together lies, of course, in the varied experiences they have had. The older children know so much more and understand so much. more. But a much deeper reason lies in the fact that the interests and capacities are so distinct at different ages that these children do not have sufficient in common. It is the fact that the instincts arise in succession that is important in grading the work and play of children, rather than differences in experience, although these are also important. We should not, however, seek to isolate the child in the home, as we segregate children of about the same age in school. A part of the child's education consists in his learning to adjust himself to living with those of different interests and tastes, through the give and take of the home.

We may thus see that it is a serious mistake to assume that careful attention to the details of a child's life for the first few years will, without regard to later circumstances, provide a suitable basis for all the future development. Not only are there innumerable examples of the disaster that comes from later neglect; there are also countless cases of children who were sadly 'neglected during the first few years of life and then came out triumphantly as a result of proper later treatment. In the development of the child every day counts, and must he used to its full capacity, until the personality is a completely formed character that can be relied upon to continue its own development.



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