Children And Watchful Waiting
( Originally Published 1916 )
PARENTS naturally harbor secret ambitions as to the future of the children; we know that, because they sometimes let the secret out. And it is quite natural that they should because they transfer to their children the hopes of their own youth, the hopes that never crystallized into reality. We can therefore understand why the scribblings of Alice should suggest fine writing to the mother, or why Tommy's tinkering with the decrepit alarm-clock should remind the father of that other Thomas, the great inventor.
Not only is it easy to understand why parents dream these dreams—which must appear rather stupid or conceited to spinsters, and to the parents of other children —but it is very desirable that they should continue their dreaming and planning.
Alice, nearly three, very busy scribbling forest and cloud effects on the back of a circular letter, was quite oblivious to the presence and conversation of her mother and a visitor. " Can she write yet? " asked the visitor. " Oh, no," beamed the mother, " we do not wish to hurry her. But she does love to play with pencils and paper, and I think she is going to be an author." The visitor smiled indulgently, and said, " Isn't that interesting!"
But this is what she thought : " Bosh! She is just as likely to become a cheap clerk or a fourth rate stenographer."
Which is quite true only there is no use discouraging parents too early in the game. For entertaining hopes concerning children is about the surest way of guiding our plans and bringing unity into our treatment of the developing personality. The hopes can certainly do no harm—unless they blind us. But that is the real danger.
For if we have nothing to guide us but our hopes, we are just as likely to be moved—or paralyzed—by our fears. It is "natural" for parents to translate the occasional interesting activities of their children into possibilities for achievement. But it is just as "natural" to translate the annoying or unconventional activities into gnawing fear.
We are wonderfully ignorant about the kinds of qualities and capacities that are required in the various occupations. And we are just as ignorant about the possible development of the various characteristics that children show at the successive stages of their growth. We do know that there are misfits in every line of endeavor, and in nearly every family. But usually we do not know the reason in detail—until it is too late—nor what use could have been made of the interests and native abilities of each child.
Charles Darwin tells us in his autobiography of being rebuked by the schoolmaster for wasting his time on such subjects as chemistry. We should explain this by saying that the schoolmaster had no appreciation of a subject of which he was totally ignorant. But he tells us further that he was greatly mortified when his father once said to him, " You care for nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat-catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family." Now Darwin's father was not an ignorant man, and he was not unsympathetic; but his imagination was not equal to interpreting the child's interests and activities in terms other than those of loafing, shooting, and rat-catching.
But if the experience of Darwin should lead anyone to predict a great scientific career for the son of similar proclivities, he must be warned. For the youth of Patrick Henry was characterized by alternating spasms of running wild and hunting in the woods and spells of extreme laziness. " No persuasion could bring him either to read or to work," his biographer writes, " and every omen foretold a life, at best of mediocrity, if not of insignificance." Which only supports the old suspicion that you must not put too much trust in omens.
Again and again, we find cases of children who filled their parents with despair and their teachers with disgust, only to emerge later into men and women of distinction and high social value. A timid youth, backward in school and slow to give any sign of internal fires, develops occasionally into a leader in thought or in action.
Henry Ward Beecher was so bashful and reticent as a boy that he gave the impression, according to his sister, of " stolid stupidity." In addition to this he was a poor writer and speller, and had a " thick utterance." No one would have guessed that this ten-year-old boy was to become a brilliant orator, especially when compared with other children of the family who memorized their lessons readily and recited them with grace and eloquence, in marked contrast to the con-fused and stammering Henry.
John Adams gave no sign of abilities beyond the ordinary until well along in years. And, but for the circumstances of the Civil War, Ulysses S. Grant would have remained an obscure, uninteresting and " unsuccessful " drifter.
On the other hand, many a precocious child seems to stop short in his development long before there is the maturity or the opportunity to begin to accomplish things of importance. In many cases the failure to fulfil the early promises is due to an arrest of development, which is apparently of organic origin. In other cases, however, the child of ability is either discouraged by the lack of appreciation, or an excess of appreciation may remove the stimulus for further effort. But we are not to suppose that every brilliant child will necessarily become a mediocre adult, nor that every backward child is to develop into a genius.
The fact is that the " abilities " of a child are in a state of constant change. At no time may we say of the child that he has exhibited a final manifestation of his possibilities or of his limitations. Furthermore, the individuality of a child need not take the form of specialized fitness for some particular occupation. In-deed, it is probable that only very few children have naturally such specialized fitness. Most children are sufficiently plastic and adaptable to be trained for a large variety of occupations, and it is a mistake to expect of the ordinary child a specialized interest (in a vocational sense) or to feel disappointment when the interest shifts from one line of work to another. Nor is it desirable that children be encouraged too early to specialize their studies in a way that will force a choice of occupation. We must utilize every interest as it appears, for there is no stronger source of motives for applications and exertions and sacrifice. But we must not let the current interests and activities exclude further development.
Another danger of early specialization lies in the fact that through such specialization the child is likely to be shut out from associations and experiences with children of diverse tastes and outlooks, and thus become narrowed in his sympathies and appreciations.
From a practical point of view, it is well to realize that the conditions and requirements in all occupations—the professional and commercial as well as the industrial—are changing very rapidly. This makes it impossible to anticipate very far ahead the special adaptabilities of a given boy or girl. The qualities that made a man a successful family physician a generation ago will not insure his son a satisfactory career in the same calling.
Even if we could gage with a fair degree of accuracy the capacities of children, we should not be in a position to guide most of them very definitely until they are well along in their adolescence. But we have not yet learned to gage the possibilities of growing young organisms. The " inattentive " Isaac Newton, the " dullard " Robert Fulton, the " indolent " James Russell Lowell, the " weak-minded " David Hume, and hundreds of others challenge our methods of estimating the powers and characters of children. These, more than the disappointments we feel in the failure of our children to realize our great expectations, make us question our standards and systems and signs.
In view of the common failure to anticipate the ultimate achievements of children, it would seem much wiser to draw all possible encouragement and stimulus from the positive manifestations, to watch constantly for the best, rather than to fear and despair for the weaknesses.
We must not, however, fall into the too common error of looking to some form of leadership as the sole measure of success in our children's development. In the first place, those peculiar combinations of qualities that make for leadership are simply not present in every child, and we cannot cultivate what is not there. It is therefore unwise to set, our hearts upon the attaining of what is precluded from the start. In the second place, from the very nature of things, it is impossible for all to become leaders. It is therefore unwise to cherish a philosophy of success that condemns most of us to failure in advance. Society does not need every child to become a leader, nor does every child need to become one for his own happiness. We may well expect that the application of more thought and more knowledge to the problems of child training will result in increasing proportions of successful living, but this will come about not necessarily through increasing the proportions of leaders, but through elevating the level of all our lives, by enlarging our appreciations, by re-fining our sensibilities, by expanding our resources.