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Children - Mice At Play

( Originally Published 1916 )



As we look about among our acquaintances, we may see that in some households the absence of the mother, even for a day, is sure to result in a great deal of irregularity—to say the least—in the conduct of the children. In other homes, on the contrary, almost any adult in charge would find the children going on about their games and other activities as though nothing unusual had occurred.

The difference between these two types of homes does not show so much a difference between children, as one between the viewpoints or habits of parents. In some cases parents rule with a high hand, and the children have constantly in their presence a feeling of restraint. To the child, what may be done and what may not be done are altogether arbitrary matters, determined by the authority of parent or teacher. That is to say, " right " and " wrong " are somehow vaguely synonymous with permitted and forbidden. Whenever, therefore, a prohibition is removed, there will be the impulse to try the forbidden experience; and where the absence of parents withdraws the restraints, children will take advantage of their absence to indulge in what they are usually forbidden. Whoever is left in authority when the parents are away, whether she be a friend, a relative, or a servant, is sure to find a strong tendency to break out.

Many years ago the school reader contained a story entitled " Mice at Play," which described the naughty antics of a houseful of children during the temporary absence of their parents. All sorts of forbidden deeds were indulged in, mysterious cupboards were explored, and the pantry was raided. This nearly forgotten tale was brought forcibly to my memory recently by a friend whose sister had to leave her children for a few days. My friend telephoned to her sister's house to find out how the children were getting on, and was assured by the maid that they were very well. And with much emphasis the maid added the further item that the children were also very good. It was the stress that the maid laid upon this fact that the children were very good, although the parents were away, that made such an impression.

Now, what is the matter with those children who are just as " good" when the cat's away as they are at other times? You might think there is something uncanny about such children. But really, they are quite normal and full of fun. I know them myself and can say that they have the same instincts for play and mischief as other children.

It appears that there are many people who expect, as a matter of course, that children will be " naughty " when the restraining influence of the parents is removed. No doubt the proverb "When the cat's away the mice will play " had its origin in the fact that the presence of parents or of other adults was a severe restraint upon the activities of the children. And no doubt this fact is to many a sufficient argument for the constant exercise of some restraint in the form of " discipline." Yet it should not be difficult to see that for practical purposes just the opposite point of view is likely to lead to more effective results.

The mother must learn to suppress her own instinct to say "don't " every time one of the children starts to, do something that is not on her programme. The children have the impulse to do a thousand things that seem foolish to you and me ; but most of them are quite harmless and need not be stopped unless the adults are very selfish and irritable. There is no harm done when Mary Jane skips and hops into the next room, instead of walking decorously, after being sent to fetch some-thing. Nor is it a very serious thing for Bobby to use the wash-basket as a boat—on the dining-room floor.

I do not mean to say that children should feel free to use everything about the house without permission. But if permission is given to use everything that can be used without harm, or to displace things that can easily be replaced, they are not likely to feel the temptation to do these things when your back is turned. In fact, the fewer the forbidden acts, the fewer temptations there will be.

The problem is by no means confined to the home. It has its counterpart in the school, in industry, and in government. Many a teacher who prides herself on her " discipline," can show visitors any day perfect order on the part of her. pupils. The work proceeds with mechanical regularity; every child seems to know his place—and keeps it. There are no unnecessary movements or sounds. But the same children, once out of sight of the teacher, are declared by other teachers in the school to be the most unruly and the most unreliable. What then avails all this discipline if it can be made to " function " only in the presence of a police force?

And so, working with more mature people, under somewhat different conditions of temptation and motive, the manager whose shops or offices produce high records of " efficiency," as long only as he keeps his hands firmly on the machinery of administration. For the time being, the mother, the teacher, the manager may be satisfied with the results. Sooner or later, however, the over-restrained and the over-managed may be expected to be separated from the machinery of discipline. Then the inevitable result is chaos. For the order and unity of the regulated lives, instead of being the result of growth in self-control and self-direction, were but the temporary impress of outward necessity.

We have too often treated the expanding force of growing children as we treat the expanding force of a kettleful of steam. The latter may be made to work properly only as it is confined to fixed channels—and when the lid comes off, all escapes. The child, on the contrary, is an organism quite as capable of becoming a self-directing and purposeful personality as is the parent or policeman who undertakes to " discipline " him. And this he becomes not through restraint and suppression, but through guidance and spontaneity.

The child must have an abundance of spontaneous action, because only thus can he try out his various possibilities in relation to things and people. Only thus can he get the opportunity to select and evaluate the activities that are worth while, to reject what is not worth while, what is injurious, what leads to pain and sorrow. And it is through such selection and rejection that he comes at last to be the master of his thoughts and conduct.

It is true, on the other hand, that the child needs guidance, for if left quite to himself, his random and spontaneous actions would soon lead to his undoing. But guidance must be something more than the mother's habit of saying " Don't do that ! " The dependence of the child upon the mother should be for leadership and counsel, and not for constant admonition of the terrors of the law.

The removal of the usual head of a group should not result in an outbreak of suppressed feelings. On the contrary, there should be an increased sense of responsibilty, a keen desire on the part of each to do his part fittingly under the novel conditions.

The difference between the two points of view is very much like that between an absolute monarchy in the hands of a tyrant, and a well-governed democracy. In the former, the slightest relaxation of vigilance on the part of the repressive forces gives occasion for a violent outbreak. In the latter, the populace does not look upon the government as an enemy to be resisted or an authority to be overthrown, but rather as a part of its own machinery for carrying out its wishes.



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