The Mind And Character Of The Child
( Originally Published 1916 )
MANY a bright child absorbs the teachings offered him and develops a character that is very far from satisfactory; while among less " gifted" children are evolved useful and lovable spirits that amply compensate for the relatively feeble intellects. This is all common knowledge; yet we continue to be puzzled about it without making any efforts to clear up our understanding. Or we continue to think and to act as though the development of the intellect were of itself sufficient to insure suitable training of the character.
If we think of character in lowest terms, we shall find that it has to do with the way a person behaves in relation to others. Now for most people, this behavior has very little to do with his learning or with his reason. We all know of comparatively ignorant people who have really high characters. They are honest in their dealings with their fellows, they are kindly, they are industrious, they are reliable in every way, without knowing much of the great outside world, without knowing anything of history or literature, without having any taste in music or art.
On the other hand, every college has its share of graduates who are scamps. Every art center has its exquisite profligates. Every profession has its learned quacks and hypocrites.
The fact is that while knowledge may be converted into power, it is in itself very far from being a substitute for wisdom. And still more remote is it from character. We know that children can acquire knowledge; the important question for us is, can they develop character?
When we compare an infant with an older child and with an adult, we may see that the lack of " character " on the part of the infant means that the child has not yet developed fixed habits in regard to certain things, whereas the older person has. You do not know just what the child will do under given circumstances, while you do know what the grown-up will do. It is the mass of habits that make up the foundation of the character which the child acquires. Habits of courteous speech, for example, may be mere imitations of other people's speech, and very different from what the child would use if neglected in this regard. Yet, as it becomes a habit, it constitutes a distinctive part of the person's character. The same is true of habits pertaining to all of our conduct as it affects others, whether it is merely turning to the right when passing, or stepping aside for an older person. It is through these little tricks of deference and politeness that a child learns respect, and it is from this that he develops an appreciation of the qualities that we wish him to look up to.
It is possible to train every normal child into certain common habits of courtesy and table manners, if we only begin early enough with the right models for them to imitate, and keep it up persistently. A slouching gait is hard to remedy; but rather easy to prevent. It is safe to say that a child may be made to acquire almost any habit that a human being can observe in another. The important question is to select the habits that are worth while, for the character we have in mind.
And that suggests the second element that enters into the " character " that can be trained or cultivated. The comparison between young children and adults shows us that another difference in their characters lies in the comparative instability of the child's likes or dislikes, and of his standards of right and wrong. Beginning with nearly direct imitation of what he sees his parents do, he comes in a few years to imagine himself doing things that he hears of others doing. When he begins to read about the exploits of great heroes, he projects himself into the characters of history or legend, and for the time being he lives in the character that is uppermost in his interest. In this way, he absorbs from his immediate surroundings and from his reading and associates the ideals and principles that will give stability and color to his conduct-that is, his character.
How do these acquired or cultivated ideals, these so-called attitudes, give color to the character? They do this by determining largely the choice a person makes in solving a problem of conduct. Shall I do the easiest thing, or shall I do the " right " thing, whether it is easy or difficult? Shall I do the thing that will bring the quickest returns or shall I consider remoter results? Shall I do the thing that is best for the greatest number, or shall I sacrifice all considerations to my own gain or convenience? Shall I advertise my gifts before the world, or shall I conceal my pride from the eyes of men?
Of course, none of us ever asks himself these questions; and of course we do not want the children to ask themselves these questions. But it is precisely such questions that are answered when we make our moral decisions. They are answered not by argument or debate, but by our habitual attitudes toward life values and life problems. And these habits, like our other habits, are largely the result of training. When we see a person with little or no intellectual training, but with a high character, we must recognize either that in the development of the child a rigid conformity to a. certain type of conduct had been required until the habits were fixed, or that there had been held up high ideals that have become realized in conduct.
It is of course true that children differ very much from one another not only in the readiness with which they form habits, but also in the readiness with which they can form active ideals. Nevertheless, the problem for the parent is very largely that of cultivating the habits. The character finally consists of the habits of thought, the habits of action, the habits of feeling or attitude.
Let us remember, however, that we do not cultivate habits by repeating rules and proverbs. There must be first of all good models for the child to imitate. Then there must be a preponderance of stimulation to do the " right " things, as against the temptation to do the undesirable. There must be experience in give and take—at work and at play. And there must be a prevailing atmosphere in which all things are recognized to have their relative values.
The rest belongs to the fates.