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Children Being Obstinate

( Originally Published 1916 )



WHEN Tommy was three and a half years old, his mother engaged a nurse who did not at once win the affection of the children. Mother hoped that the children would learn to like her, and let her stay. One day Tommy asked for a drink of water, and the girl fetched it; but Tommy refused to say " Thank you " to her. Mother was in the room at the time, and coaxed Tommy to say " Thank you." Tommy replied, " I'll say it to you, but I shan't say it to her."

The mother insisted, but Tommy persisted in his obstinate refusal to acknowledge his gratitude to the young woman who had brought him the water. The mother thought it her duty to force from the child a formal compliance with the demands of decency, and she spent an hour in the struggle with the child. But Tommy did not change his position. Then the mother left him alone in a room, calling him from time to time to say the magic words and be restored to grace. But Tommy was obstinate, and at last fell asleep from exhaustion.

After he woke up, they found him playing with his toys, cheerfully enough. A repetition of the command would no doubt have thrown him into the mental state that held him during the conflict of the two wills. The mother had the good sense, however, not to raise the issue again, for while the child was asleep she had the time to collect her senses and to view the situation more calmly and more rationally.

In every home there are opportunities for such conflicts of wills between parents and children, in which the issue culminates either in a disastrous defeat for the authority of the elders, or in an equally disastrous, because brutal and unreasoning victory of the adult strength. But all students of child nature are agreed that the occasion for such clashes should be studiously avoidedóby the parents, of course, since the children do not know what is happening and the parents should know.

In nearly every case of the kind mentioned, the persistence of the child in his refusal to do what is asked of him is due not to the moral perversity or to the motive that we call obstinacy, but to a certain mental difficulty, a certain obstacle in the child's mind which he cannot himself overcome. In the case of Tommy it was unwise for the mother to struggle for an hour, be-cause the child was obviously not in need of elementary lessons in politeness. He knew enough to say " Thank you " on all suitable occasions; he had in fact already acquired the habit of doing so. His failure to say the desired words in the instance cited was due entirely to a combination of feelings aroused by the personality of the nurse. The struggle was really not to make the child polite, or even to make him obedient ; it was essentially an attempt to make him love someone who was from the first repugnant to him. And we know very well that love will not be compelled.

The father of Lyman Abbott recognized that such obstinacy cannot be altogether a matter of deliberate contrariness, and he compared these fits with what is sometimes observed in lower animals, as the horse. In the case of the horse, he says, " We cannot suppose that peculiar combination of intelligence and ill-temper which we generally consider the sustaining power of the protracted obstinacy on the part of a child. The degree of persistence which is manifested by children in con-tests of this kind is something wonderful, and cannot easily be explained by any of the ordinary theories in respect to the influence of motives on the human mind. A state of cerebral excitement and exaltation is not infrequently produced which seems akin to insanity, and instances have been known in which a child has suffered itself to be beaten to death rather than yield obedience in a very simple command."

Very often a child's failure to do what he is told is due to the paralysis of fear. A girl or boy suddenly interrupted in the flow of thought, or in the imaginative wanderings of play, simply cannot grasp what is wanted of him, and repetitions of the order accompanied as these usually are with loud tones and other manifestations of anger, only make matters worse. Parents frequently have difficulties that lead to " obstinacy " in connection with making children put away their toys after playing. Now some children will put so much energy and interest into their play, that they become quite exhausted before they stop. In this fatigued condition it is not reasonable to ask too much of them. In such cases the parent must anticipate the fatigue point, by suggesting at the beginning of the play, or during the course of it, that the blocks will have to be put away later. It is well, for example, to warn the child that the play must stop in five or ten minutes, and that the toys must then be replaced before supper, or before going out; and the time should be gaged according to what experience has shown to be the child's limit of endurance.

In other matters, also, the idea of anticipating a crisis will be found very helpful. We must learn to know each child well enough to recognize his dangerous spot, whether it be fatigue, or personal likings (or antipathies), or absent-mindedness, or fear, or whatever it may be. In all cases, a conflict of wills is sure to arouse a great deal of feeling, and then it is essential that the parent keep perfectly cool, for nothing is ever gained by having more than one person angry at any one time. If we remember that most of the child's actions or refusals are quite without motive, or at least without conscious motive, and if we keep calm, we shall be less likely to meet obstinacy.



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