Children - Cultivating Indirection
( Originally Published 1916 )
HELEN and Martin had to be reproved several times in the course of the meal. This was very mortifying, since there was company at the table. Martin was teasing Helen in a very exasperating undertone. Mother suggested to Helen that she better treat her brother " with silent contempt." This advice seemed to be effective, and things were quiet for a while. Presently, however, Martin chirped up, " Mother, she is treating me with silent contempt over the table, but she is kicking me under the table."
For some reason that has not yet been made perfectly clear, the conduct of Helen, above and below the table, seems to be characteristic of girls of nearly all ages. This does not mean that boys would never resort to such tactics, nor that all girls do. But in general girls do that sort of thing more than boys.
When boys have a difference they seem to be unhappy until the matter is settled definitely one way or the other. In their youth they will take to fists, as the simplest and most direct method for settling differences. Gradually, when they have the opportunity, they learn to use other methods. The normal evolution of a boy is from the savage who fights with his fists—yes, and feet and teeth, too—to the statesman who fights with diplomacy.
With a girl it is different. It is very seldom that a girl is allowed to give expression to her impulses in the fighting line—that is, where parents and teachers and governesses are always on the lookout to preserve the proprieties. We think it is unladylike for a little girl to fight, if not positively wicked; so we do not let her discharge her emotions through those particular channels. And what is the result? Does this enforced restraint of impluse bring about a calmer judgment, a more detached disinterested view of life, a deeper sympathy for the affairs of others?
Those who have made a special study of the characteristics of boys and girls have observed that in general girls are more submissive than boys ; the latter are inclined to be more masterful. Here is no doubt a real difference. But girls are much more submissive than they need to be. In addition to the native tendency to yield, there has been imposed upon the growing girl the conventional requirement that she yield on all occasions, proper and improper. As a result, probably, of the many restraints that the girl feels about her, she almost instinctively resorts to indirect methods for obtaining her ends.
When two little girls in the park the other day were forcibly separated by their attendants and taken to opposite sides of a drive, they did not forget their grievances or differences instantly, nor did they cast off the desire to inflict injury upon each other. But as they were out of reach of each other's arms, they began to contort their faces and tongues, and to deliver certain cabalistic signs to each other that apparently had the effect of making each one feel that she was being avenged in some mysterious way. Now it is a fair question to ask whether—leaving aside the matter of torn clothes or soiled hands—it would not be better for these little girls to have it out with their fists and be done with it, than to be separated with rankling bosoms, to be obliged to resort to such slow and ineffective methods of relieving their feelings as the weak muscles of the face and tongue could supply. And the worst of it is that the feelings are never satisfied and the children carry about with them the rags and tatters of unsettled quarrels and disputes, without even being aware of what makes them feel like cats.
What has been said about fighting in regard to boys is in a large measure equally true of girls. To prohibit fighting altogether is not only a violation of the child's nature, but it exposes him—or her—to the abuses of companions. It is the children who do not fight that enable others to become bullies. On the other hand, it is only by fighting and feeling defeat that the child comes to realize the responsibility of power. And the girl needs the lessons to be learned from these experiences no less than the boy.
There is the further likelihood that if girls were permitted greater freedom of physical action in giving expression to their displeasure, they would be more frank in dealing with each other, and they would more quickly eliminate backbiting and hair-pulling from their offensive armaments.
But you must not consider this a plea for the encouragement of militancy among girls. No child needs to be encouraged to fight. The most that any of them needs is an opportunity. The point is that while boys are for the most part permitted to make use of what opportunities come their way, the girls are almost universally suppressed to the point of appearing in-different " over the table "—but nature will have her way, and so they adopt sly, underhand methods " under the table."
It is fair to suppose, from what we know of the way the child's mind develops, that only by indulging in her native impulses to fight as her brother fights, will the girl truly learn that the fist is not the best instrument for settling differences. As it is she learns that the fist is not the accepted weapon, but she does not learn a good, direct way of doing the work. If girls are to Iearn to do their share of work in cooperation with their fellows, and if they are to learn to play fair in the serious battles of life, they must have a chance to fight frankly and heartily and aboveboard.