The Young Miser
( Originally Published 1916 )
WHENEVER, we are especially apprehensive lest a child develop a certain unlovely trait, we are told to stop it in infancy. Bute sometimes it seems necessary to develop the trait in infancy, to make sure that it does not crop out later in life. This is perhaps on the theory that every dog has his day, if not sooner, then later. For example, it would seem that about the only way to prevent a person from becoming an old miser is by giving him a chance to be a young miser.
The collecting instinct appears in the child at about seven or eight years of age, and shows itself in number-less ways. The saving of buttons and pins may give way to the collecting of sea-shells or cigarette pictures. The little girl saves scraps of ribbon and lace quite as much because her instinct to collect is developing as because the ribbons and laces appeal to her sense of beauty.
At first there is not much consciousness in the process. The little boy will gather in pebbles and bits of colored glass without much discrimination. It is just the primal instinct to appropriate whatever is not too securely fastened to be carried off. And the little boy's pocket is notorious for the variety of its contents not merely because he has a great variety of interests and must be prepared for many different kinds of emergencies. In large part his pocket's contents reflect the scenes of his most recent experiences; the pocket contains samples of what has come within the boy's reach.
For a while this unconscious impulse to pocket what is touched and to touch what is seen may be a source of great annoyance to the other inhabitants of the house. It may help you at times to locate the missing tape-measure or the key to the bathroom ; but it is a nuisance nevertheless. However, there soon comes a time when this instinct to gather expands into a conscious purpose to make a collection. If we have patiently and wisely allowed the child to pass through the shapeless appropriation of nothing in particular, we shall find it easier to make use of the later stage to good purpose. For with the desire to make collections comes an opportunity to cultivate system and orderliness, that is hardly exceeded by anything found in the home or the school.
To make a collection means to have a fairly definite idea of species and genera and orders. If it's " transfers " that make up the collection, they can be sorted by colors and sizes and carlines; they can be arranged in chronological order, or in alphabetical order; they can be bundled by tens and by hundreds or by dozens and gross. If we are collecting " coupons " that come with soap or with cereals, we have similar opportunities to sort and classify and arrange. Later, when we come to collect postage stamps, the opportunities for classification are just as great, although they are apparently restricted by the traditional conventions of the game. And the parent will be interested to note that all of this gathering and classifying implies a place for every-thing and everything in its place—a much more forceful implication here than ever came from precept or example or moral stories about the child that missed the chance to go to a picnic because the cap could not be found.
Gathering street-car transfers and coupons is an inexpensive pastime, and is generally not noticed by parents. When noticed it is likely to seem trivial and wasteful of precious time that might be put to better use, and is accordingly apt to receive discouragement. When it comes to cigarette pictures, parents will question the good taste of the pictures ; when it comes to picture postals and postage stamps, they will balk at the expense. Nevertheless, we shall find it worth while to encourage, if only passively, this impulse to make a collection and to develop it intensively. Let the child gather according to his interests, according to the best taste of the surroundings, according to the material that is most promising. In the country there is the opportunity to collect leaves of all the kinds of trees or shrubs ; or to collect flowers or flying seeds or insects. If we discourage the collection of birds' nests or eggs, or of skins of animals, it is not because these things take up more space in the house, or cost more money to get and to preserve, but because they involve cruelty that the child can understand. At the seashore, one can gather sea-weeds and mount them neatly on white cardboard squares, or sea-shells or other queer flotsam cast up by the tides.
In time one's interest in collecting butterflies as curios may disappear entirely, or give way to a scientific interest. In time one's interest in picture postals may disappear entirely or give way to an interest in etchings or oil paintings. Whatever happens, however, may be considered in the nature of a safety-valve, if the collecting interest has really had its opportunity. For this is where the miser comes in.
Sooner or later every young person, and especially every boy, will be confronted with the need to gather the symbols of material wealth—money will come to be considered not only very desirable, but even necessary. If the child begins to concentrate his collecting interests on money, he will have every opportunity to develop this interest as the main concern of his life. And that is what we mean by a miser, one whose interest is in the accumulation of money for its own sake, as we say, one who is concerned with having more, but not with using. This is the childish instinct to gather directed towards coins and bills—instead of buttons and transfers.
The misery of the miser lies in the narrowness of his interests, not in the nature of the instinct which he indulges. To save children from becoming misers, we must broaden the interests through which these instincts may find their outlet.