Children And The Passing Ideals
( Originally Published 1916 )
EVERY normal child is bound to shock his elders by giving voice to ideals that those elders have already outgrown. The latter are shocked only because they have forgotten that they ever entertained similar ideals themselves. If they could only think back to the days when they longed for the careers of pirates or Indian squaws they would recognize that these comparatively crude ideals nevertheless represent real reachings towards the best and highest.
It is important for parents to guard against imposing ready-made ideals upon their children, regardless of fit. The ideals of the child, if they are to be of any use in life, are to be his ideals, the outgrowths of his experiences and thinking, the developments of his personality. Moreover, our ideals must be as fluid and as expansive as life itself. It is therefore out of the question to set up any finality as the aim of the child's ambitions.
While eating his lunch with his mother one day, Georgie remarked, apropos of nothing in particular, that he wished to be like Sir Galahad. Mother was delighted, but of course she did not show it too forcibly; and later she told father, and he was delighted, too. But father could not contain his joy so easily, and casually observed, the following Sunday, that he knew where there was a nice picture of Sir Galahad, that might be suitable for Georgie's room. This was just to draw the boy out, you understand.
Georgie was delighted with father's suggestion; but he volunteered nothing further. Father was at last driven to asking rather bluntly what Georgie admired so in the famous knight. " Oh," explained the boy, " I wish I could be like Sir Galahad and wear armor and go around and fight people and kill'em! "
This was really shocking; and both parents were at a complete loss. Here they had been cherishing the satisfying delusion that their hopeful was fired by lofty ideals ; and suddenly they realized that Georgie was just as barbarous and cruel as—as other boys of his age. It was more than disappointing.
When the young son of a certain minister announced that he intended to be a policeman, the mother tried to hide her chagrin in recognition of the fact that every individual has his limitations ; and she tried to resign herself with the reflection that a policeman may be a useful member of society. But the father was wiser—this time. He encouraged Donald to emulate all the virtues of a policeman that the child was old enough to appreciate. The mother had feared that this would get Donald fixed in the resolve ; the father simply sought to take advantage of the temporary interest to establish all the good habits that the situation would allow.
We know why parents feel more pride and satisfaction when the child's ambition turns toward the professions or finance than when it turns toward the more violent forms of human activity. But there is really something uncanny about the child who jumps—in his mind, that is—from his building blocks to being bank president or mayor, without ever dreaming of being a motorman or jockey or conductor or hunter. Should your son declare his intention of becoming a judge, you would no doubt be sufficiently pleased to show it, and your neighbors would not be long in finding it out. But should he set his heart on becoming a miner or a bricklayer, you would probably discourage his further confidences, and take pains to hide his ambitions from all your friends.
But unless you know just what it is, that is so attractive to him in the career of the judge or of the miner, you are really not in a position to do very much that is helpful. If the judge means to the child sitting on a bench and doing nothing, and living in a fine house with many attendants, the ideal is of very little moral value. If being a bricklayer means being active and procuring visible results it has great possibilities for moral development.
In any case, the young person's ideals are not to be laughed away ; the sneer will do more than you intend. However unworthy the childish ambition may at first seem, it is more important to preserve the ability to dream dreams, it is more important to preserve faith in ideals, than it is to correct values. Perhaps your child is capable of aspiring to something loftier than the career of traveling showman; but to sneer the show-man out of his life is not to substitute your ideal of service—it is to discourage all attempts to look into the future.
Every ideal that the child can formulate, no matter how simple, may be made to serve a useful purpose. There are virtues in every line of activity, and whether the model for the time be a savage chief or a school-teacher, whether it be a sailor or a trained nurse, the fact that the child's imagination has been touched must be used for fixing right habits, and for developing principles of action.
There is little danger that these childish ideals will restrict the girl or boy in his development. They are rather to be looked upon as the means whereby the child acquires the habit of thinking of life's problems in terms of the ideal. And this habit is worth so much that it offsets any disadvantages that may appear for the time being.
As children become older, their ambitions will be influenced by more and more practical considerations—such as questions of income and social standing associated with each occupation; but while they may, let them dream dreams.