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Children And Substitutes For Fighting

( Originally Published 1916 )



THERE are three possible attitudes toward the instincts of children. At one extreme we find the rather crude naturalism which assumes that whatever is " natural " must be right; this leads to indifference and indulgence. At the other extreme is the somewhat less crude but equally arbitrary puritanism which suspects every desire and impulse of being satanic in origin; this leads to suppression and sterility. Then there is a more or less rational eclecticism that chooses to encourage some impulses and to suppress others. When we take into account the teachings of modern psychology and biology, we shall make our selections and adapt our methods more effectively. Today we do not simply repress or indulge; we try to utilize the driving forces of the growing child to forward our own ideals of what a child should be. We take the child as we find him, and try to make him a little stronger here, and to rub off a little there.

In the matter of fighting, it is particularly difficult to form balanced judgments and to develop sane plans. With our usual habit of emphasizing one aspect of a problem to the exclusion of all others, we either fix our attention on the injuries resulting from conflict, and become extreme pacifists, or we fix the attention upon the need for resisting aggression, for defending our " rights ", and become belligerent. In one case we make fighting an end in itself, in the other case we make the avoidance of fighting the goal of effort. With the child, however, fighting means more than defense, and it need not always mean that ; it means something different from the consequences to person and property. It is almost entirely a matter of exertion, or overcoming difficulties, of conquest—or defeat—sometimes, but even then chiefly as incidental to the conflict.

Our problem is therefore to make full use of youth's eagerness to exert effort, to sacrifice, to devote itself. But we must guard, on the one hand, against drawing upon the anti-social and inhuman motives ; and on the other hand, against allowing the exertions to result in injuries, whether personal or economical.

In childhood, playing soldier means, usually, merely parading or hunting, or stalking. Presently, however, the children become interested in each other as members of groups. Because of this interest it becomes possible for us to cultivate an attitude of exclusiveness or antagonism toward all who are not members of the immediate group. In extreme cases this attitude ends in anti-social group action, and at best it ends in a rather narrow kind of nationalism or " patriotism ". But it is also possible to make use of the social interests and impulses in cultivating an ever widening consciousness of identity with other people. In the first case we have a perpetual source of antagonism or animosity toward strangers and foreigners. In the latter case there is the opportunity to direct the fighting instinct against the enemies of the race, the obstructions to human welfare.

But even before the child becomes interested in team plays or group action of any kind, we utilize essentially the same interest in conflict when we encourage rivalry, whether at home or in school, through prize contests and spelling matches, and in athletics we have races of various kinds. In these the individual is encouraged to put forth his best efforts, not for the purpose of cultivating his own abilities, but for the purpose of excelling some other particular child.

The bread-baking contests and the dress-making competitions for girls, like the corn-raising or shop contests for boys, utilize the same motives of rivalry as we find in the ordinary athletic contests or street fights. But the form of the conflict and the material consequences are in no way objectionable.

When the older children are organized for team play, we begin to get the kinds of sacrifice that the group always demands of the individual, and in many respects the more vigorous forms of athletic sports are quite the equivalent of good fighting, so far as the participants are concerned. The motives are still those of rivalry, but the prospective gain of victory is now no longer for the individual, but for the group. And when boys all but exhaust themselves for the " glory of the school," the moral results are of the highest kind.

We go a step farther when the corn-clubs conquer insects and fungi, and control the soil and the seasons for the glory of their county or district, for soon the interest may be extended from the mere " beating " of the rivals to the increased contribution to the corn-crib at home. The same kinds of results morally are obtained when we utilize the group rivalries in a " clean-up contest." The girls will make their streets and yards and porches as attractive as possible, at first for the purpose of making a better showing than those of the next street. Presently, however, the interest may be directed so as to center upon the chasing of Dirt as the villain of the drama.

Now the older children can be led to abandon the group rivalries as they had already outgrown the individual rivalries, and the object of attack can now be made some impersonal enemy, rather than some particular person or group. There is enough to fight for and to fight against. The fundamental differences between extreme pacifists and extreme advocates of war as a means for solving human problems, are probably " temperamental," but they do not concern the principle of the right or wrong of fighting. These differences center about the values of life and life relations, and about the best way of attaining various major ends. All fairly healthy children are fighters, in the narrower sense, at some time in their development. Some continue through life to resort to force as a means of settling disputes, or of obtaining what is desired. Others abandon physical force in dealing with their neighbors and friends, but continue to use it in relation to more remote groups and individuals. It would seem that there are also differences as to the objects for which people would use force; some would justify " fighting for a principle," but would condemn fighting for material gain—and others would just reverse this attitude. But in the end it is a question of how far we have evolved in our sympathies, in our imagination, in our self-control.

Boys and girls who have learned to cooperate in various kinds of group contests need not abandon the fighting motives and the powerful organizing influences that these motives exert upon our activities, as they grow older. But they must be taught to select more and more worthy enemies, as well as more and more worthy causes. Disease still remains to be conquered, for example, and the best physicians and nurses approach their work in the spirit of the soldier. Still more imagination, still wider sympathy are required to attack the enemy, Disease, through the refined instruments of research of a modern scientific institute. Here all the fighting instinct is directed toward the solving of complex problems, toward the conquering of obscure yet formidable obstacles. Here the element of rivalry is at a minimum, for the contest is with impersonal forces. Here the motives are of the loftiest, for the beneficiary of the struggle is no narrow group, but the whole race. Here the stimulus to effort is far removed from such emotions as anger, envy, or hatred.

In similar ways, vast engineering and economic and social problems furnish worthy foes for the fighting instincts of our boys and girls. It is necessary to reconcile our loftiest sentiments with the inescapable fact that all life is struggle. We can shift the plane of the struggle from that of personal or group aggrandizement at the expense of others ; we can shift the motives of the struggle from fear and hatred; we can shift. the methods of the struggle from brute force and cunning. But to live is to fight, and we must teach our children to make the best fight possible.



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