Grading The Child's Temptations
( Originally Published 1916 )
IN the books we read, many of the interesting incidents turn on the more or less ingenious and more or less successful contrivances of the young people to escape or circumvent the prohibitions or orders of the older people. The circus is to come to town next week, and Billy is explicitly told that he is not to attend ; yet somehow Billy manages to be there when the clown tumbles off the elephant's back—and somehow the stern and righteous parents fail to know about it until too late. Caroline was very anxious to go to the dance they were going to have at Cobb's, and said so. But her mother was equally anxious that she should not go—for reasons of her own—and also said so. But on the night of the dance Caroline was there, while her parents supposed she was spending the night with her friend Jenny, and had forgotten all about the dance.
This sort of thing happens so frequently in real life that even those who never read any books can multiply instances. What I am most curious about in this connection is not explained either in the books or in the ordinary conversation of the people we meet. Just what is it that parents have in mind when they lay down their orders, in direct and obvious opposition to the wishes of the children? Do they feel satisfied that the issuing of an order is sufficient to bring about the desired result? Do they expect the children to accept the word of authority and immediately dismiss their own longings and yearnings?
To make a child do something that is contrary to his liking, you have but to employ sufficient coercion—and he will go through the motions. But unless he comes to like it, the temptation will always be to shirk or evade the imposed task. It is therefore unwise to leave a child too long to himself with the responsibility of completing the unpleasant duties. And it is unfair, when he falls down, to upbraid him for his failure. The younger the child, the more difficult it is for him to keep before his mind the desirability of doing the unpleasant. And the more difficult is it for him to keep in mind the penalty of failure. What we require of children should be adapted to their growing ability to bear responsibility.
This, it seems, is what the parents of the Billies and the Carolines have overlooked. They have issued their forbiddings and then turned to other affairs ; the children, however, do not forget the heart's desires. The embargo is merely an obstacle to be overcome; if teasing will not lift the embargo, then the blockade must be run. It would be a good plan for the parents to keep a calendar and then prepare themselves to meet critical periods in advance. Billy's father, for example, fearing the demoralizing effects of the circus, whether wisely or not, should have arranged for some other event to absorb the interests and energies and the time that went normally to the circus. In like manner, Caroline's mother should have anticipated the night of the dance with provisions for a different way of spending the time. There are many ways of substituting one interest for another; but ignoring the wishes of children or forbidding their satisfaction will either tempt to intrigue and disobedience, or arouse resentment and bitterness.
Four-year-old Richard, about to leave after a visit with his mother, was given two candies for himself and two to take home to his brother. He promptly disposed of his own, and the others were wrapped and placed in his pocket. Later in the day, when the brother came home, he was informed that Richard had some candy for him; but when Richard was questioned, he declared that " they all melted away." Of course they had not melted away, except in his mouth ; the story simply indicated the limit of his resources in inventing an explanation for their disappearance that would not react too severely upon himself. He had to admit, finally, that he had eaten them, and he then showed the appropriate kind and amount of remorse. While it was proper to intrust the child with the can-dies to take home to his brother, it was really too much to expect him to remain their custodian, unwatched, for two hours. The confidence in the child was not pro-portioned to his ability to resist the temptation, and was therefore misplaced. The candies should have been taken from him after he came home; he had fulfilled his duty in bringing them home without invading their integrity. A child of seven or eight could easily have carried the burden of temptation for a longer period, but for the younger child it is usually too much.
Elizabeth, when she was eight years old, developed an unusual appetite for sugar, and was constantly at the sugar bowl. The mother at last resorted to a locked cupboard, where she unostentatiously placed the sugar bowl, beyond the reach of temptation. Some of her friends criticised this action, on the theory that she was thus weakening Elizabeth's will. But the mother was probably right. Nothing is to be gained by intrusting the child with a duty that she is unable to meet; and nothing is gained by exposing her to excessive temptation. While it is true that the will is strengthened by overcoming temptations, it is equally true that it suffers when compelled to yield too often. Too much trust is virtually too much temptation. Confidence in a child, like responsibility, should be proportioned to the child's ability to use it properly.
Mrs. Annie Winsor Allen well says in her Home, School and Vacation: " Life is full of temptations. We should not unnecessarily multiply them by asking of a child more self-restraint than he has yet fully learned. It is fair to trust a child of ten not to run away, but it is not fair to trust a child of three. It is not fair to leave ` yellow journals round and then tell a child of any age that you trust him not to read them. The temptation is too strong and constant."