The Stubborn Scatterbrain
( Originally Published 1916 )
IN certain emergencies, swift, blind obedience is absolutely necessary. But there is never any justification for swift, blind commands. It is the sudden, ill-considered command that is frequently the cause of disobedience and stubbornness on the one hand, and an obstacle to the development of concentration on the other.
The mother of a little scatterbrain listened with resignation to the complaints of the child's teacher that she could not make him " concentrate." The mother knew too well that he would not concentrate. Get him started at any task, and before it is half done he is off wool-gathering or begging to be let off. It was therefore with some astonishment that Tommy's mother observed the boy working a whole Saturday on a set of paper furniture for a doll's house he had started to make for his little sister. So great was his concentration that it was difficult to get him away to his lunch—and impossible to make him go out to play in the park.
How is it that the same child is one day so stubborn that you cannot make him do what you want him to, and on others so shifting that he is acquiring a reputation for lack of concentration?
The stubbornness of the child means his sticking fast to that upon which he has set his mind or his heart—concentration upon his own personal purpose—which is often not apparent to those who would divert him to a new line of action. His stubbornness lies in the fact that what is demanded of him is foreign to his immediate aims. We do not sufficiently realize how our simple requirements may be rude interruptions of his
own work or of his line of thought, and how a sequence r of such interruptions will result in making the child resent all kinds of requests—thus developing an antagonistic attitude of " stubbornness "—or making him feel that there is no use starting anything—thus developing an attitude of dallying and indifference.
To be sure, children have to be called. They never know when it's time to eat or to go to sleep ; and they are often needed to help with errands and other tasks. But when Ethel is busy with her dolls, it is certainly not fair to her at the moment to ask her to stop instantly, and come to bed. For the sake of her feelings, it would be well to suggest to her that it is time to get the dolls ready for bed, before her own bedtime comes. When Stephen is busy whittling a boat, which is a long way from completion, you might set an arbitrary limit for the day's work, so that when it is time for supper, the break will not be too violent. The child hates an interruption in the middle of a thought just as much as you hate an interruption while writing a difficult letter.
But more important than the effect on the momentary feelings, is the effect of such interruptions on the child's later habits of work and play. Jane Addams tells us that she believes that city children have lost so largely the art of playing, because of the constant interruptions to their street games by the traffic; the children get to feel that it is not worth while to start anything serious. Miss Addams describes the games she used to play as a little girl, lasting for hours, being continued sometimes day after day ; and she contrasts with her home the conditions that make such games impossible in the cities today. Is it any wonder that so many children " hang around " without knowing what to do with themselves?
The regular interruptions in the child's activities that are necessitated by meals and bedtime can certainly be anticipated, so that there need ordinarily be no excuse for a swift call that leaves no time for putting away toys or other materials before getting ready for the new duty. It is not the child's fault if he has been allowed to play without warning so that you must have him come this instant, instead of a few minutes later.
Interruptions that are due to the necessity for doing various tasks about the house seem to fall into a different class. Yet most errands can be arranged for in advance. It should not be too difficult in most homes to arrange for certain hours when the child's share of the day's work is to be done. It is only where the child feels that he has a considerable stretch of time to himself that he will be inclined to plan an undertaking that is worth while; and it is only when the child has an opportunity to carry out his undertakings that he will develop the habit of sticking to a task until it is finished. Moreover, a regular daily programme has a beneficial influence on the physical and mental health of the child.
Still, emergencies do arise when the work of the moment must be interrupted and replaced by a task of a different kind. In such cases, the command may be swift, but it need not be blind. We all approach a busy person with a necessary interruption in something of an apologetic mood—unless the person happens to be a child (or perhaps a servant). If we did all of our interrupting in the same mood, we should probably get more cordial responses ; and when children understand our attitude, we shall no doubt get swifter responses.
It is very likely that children differ considerably in their native ability to concentrate on their work and play. But we must make sure that the lack of concentration is not due to the fact that the child is interrupted too frequently or too inconsiderately. We must also be sure that the lack of concentration does not come from the lack of sufficiently interesting occupations.