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Children Being Good And Being Bad

( Originally Published 1916 )



IT is still quite common for people to look upon children as embodiments of one or the other of the two conflicting spirits of right and wrong. Too many of us think that every child is either an angel or a devil, and that our chief concern in life is to adore the children of the first class and to, suppress those of the second.

Every day your child is likely to do something that annoys you, something that you do not wish to have him do, something that it were better that he did not do. But it is very seldom indeed that the child does anything that is really wicked. Yet you are tempted to characterize the annoying acts as "bad," or even to call the child " bad " for performing them.

In the same way the child does many things that please you—plays for an hour, sometimes, without causing a disturbance; or fetches what you ask for without protest or complaint. And then the temptation to call him " good " is very strong.

It is no doubt very largely through the approval or disapproval of elders that the child comes to form desirable habits of conduct, or to avoid habits of a different kind. And it is doubtlessly through such approval and disapproval that the child comes to form his ideas of right and wrong. But there is a real danger in our indiscriminate distribution of adjectives of commendation or condemnation in the course of the day's work.

One thing that modern studies in child nature have taught us is that young children are neither virtuous nor wicked, they are not moral and they are not " immoral." They do many things that are quite acceptable to older people, or even pleasing. They do many other things that are decidedly objectionable. They do still more that are quite indifferent. But whatever they do is, at least at first, without any moral significance.

When a young child is in good health and has found something interesting to do, he will be happy and cheerful—so long as he is undisturbed. If the mother has been particularly anxious to be undisturbed herself, she will appreciate how helpful Willie was in sticking to his own affairs the whole morning. But by telling him that he has been a " good" boy and perhaps re-warding his virtue with a piece of candy or a banana, what will be the effect upon the child? It is well to concentrate one's attention on the task before him—whether it is work or play; but Willie will hardly discover that he is being praised for the virtue of concentration. He is more likely to associate playing trains or building castles and having a good time with the reward of virtue.

On the other hand, when the child does the annoying or even the forbidden thing, what is the effect of calling him " bad " ? " Bad " is likely to acquire the meaning " doing-what-you-like-to-do." And when the child is restless, whether it is because he has not found something interesting to occupy him, or whether it is be-cause his liver is out of order, he is likely enough to get into mischief. Now in most cases the motives or purposes of the child are just as unconscious and just as innocent of evil intent when he is doing something you dislike, as when he is doing something you approve. Our classification of his acts into good and bad has meaning to us in relation to their effects upon our own comfort; but it has no meaning whatever to the child in relation to his own will.

It is for this reason that the quiet, unobtrusive child, lacking often enough in vigor and initiative, may become the intolerable prig without a trace of healthy purpose, of self-directed achievement. Such a child comes to consider himself " good " because he has been praised for doing nothing, in particular, or for being docile and amenable to the direction of other people's wishes.

And it is for this reason too that a child of energetic curiosity, a child with many and varied interests and purposes, becomes bewildered in the moral chaos that condemns him for awkwardness in carrying out perfectly legitimate and essentially good undertakings. To explore and investigate are not in themselves bad. It is unfortunate that you had something in the attic that you did not wish Robert to see. It is unfortunate that the glass slipped out of Jenny's hand when she was trying to repeat a " trick " that she had seen in a newspaper picture. But it is not wicked to explore attics; it is not wicked to experiment with glass tumblers or dinner plates.

Donald and Louise, cousins several times removed, were becoming acquainted for the first time, Donald visiting the city with his mother. They were getting along beautifully, Louise's mother observed. They were playing railroad with the chairs and hassocks.

"Don't move that! " shouted Donald, " you'll get right in front of the train." Louise continued to push the chair against which she was leaning. " Don't do that," repeated Donald, with a little more warmth. The chair moved over about half a yard. Bang! Louise rolled over' as if struck by an automobile. She was struck by Donald.

Up jumped the mothers. " You naughty boy !" came from both, as though they had rehearsed for' the chorus. Louise did not make a, demonstration of severe suffering, so they were able to give all of their attention to the naughty boy. " Who would ever have thought it of him? " asked the girl's mother, not expecting anyone to answer her. And Donald really did not look very vicious, with his pale hair and eyes, and soft voice and shrinking manner. Certainly his mother had never thought him capable of so violent and so ungallant a deed.

But there could be no mistake ; he had pushed Louise over very roughly, very unkindly, almost cruelly. And Louise, standing by her mother's side, a picture of injured innocence, was absorbing the warm sympathy of the elders and gloating in the discomfiture of the naughty boy. Her mother already knew how angelic she was ; and now Donald's mother was finding out.

Donald's mother had always supposed that her child was an angel, too, and she could not understand what had happened to change him. A vestige of primitive superstition popped into her head, and she reflected that having been " too good " for so long, he was about to even things up by giving the devil the upper hand for a while. Louise's mother did not need to wonder at all. She knew that her child was one of the angelic kind; and now she saw that Donald was one of the other kind.

The fact is that Donald was just as angelic as Louise, and just as angelic as he had ever been. Louise explained that she had only moved the chair, yet Donald had not only told her—at least twice—not to do so, but he had very good reason on his side. "She put that pile of wood right in front of where the train was coming, and it would have been wrecked, and all the people killed." Any boy who would hesitate to use violence in such an emergency is not quite enough of a boy for the practical affairs of life.

When all the facts in the case are considered, one is tempted to suspect that Louise was actuated by the imp of perversity and that Donald was moved by a finer spirit. However, his conduct was unbecoming a gentleman, and Louise had only moved the chair.

In the judgments we pass upon the conduct of children, the problem is always to separate the formal side of every act from the fundamental movements of thought and feeling that go on beneath the surface and determine the activities almost, if not quite, automatically.

Much of the young child's conduct is imitative.

When a boy goes through the motions of lighting a pipe and puffing clouds of smoke toward the ceiling, you must not believe that he has begun his descent to perdition, no matter what you think of smoking in general, or of your curtains in particular. On the other hand, when a little girl begs for pennies to give to the blind beggar or to the grind-organ man, you have no warrant for assuming that she is a natural born philanthropist, no matter what your views are on charity.

Much of the young child's conduct results from purely instinctive impulses. So every child will lie under suitable provocation, without thereby indicating a streak of untruthfulness; or Louise may do just what she is told not to do without yielding altogether to the demon of unrighteousness.

The child who gets into trouble because he does not know what to do with himself, is perhaps aware that things are not just right with him. But he certainly does not know what ails him, or how to remedy the situation. It is distinctly the duty of the parent (or of the person who has charge of the child) to diagnose the source of the " badness " to provide a remedy. In the same way when the improper conduct is due to physical discomfort, the child cannot be expected to discover the cause of the irritation. We must make sure that the child is in good health, and that he is provided with an opportunity to do interesting things that are worth while.

If the children under these circumstances behave themselves acceptably we must take their conduct as a matter of course and not praise them for what they cannot help, any more than we may blame them for what they cannot help. We may urge them to greater exertion, or we may caution them to be more careful; but good and bad are not the qualities of their ordinary everyday acts, no matter how pleasing or displeasing the consequences may be to our feelings, or how disastrous they may be.

A mother once asked me, " Do you believe in the spiritual interpretation of child nature, or in the scientific interpretation? " This question assumes that there is a conflict between scientific truth and spiritual truth. It is a mistake to think that assuming " spiritual " qualities that are not there is a spiritual explanation of children's conduct. The scientists have shown that the ability to choose one's actions, and the consciousness of purpose and of consequences, develop very slowly in the child's mind. Until there is consciousness of right and wrong, and until the child is quite able to choose what he does and what he does not do, it is useless to speak of the moral quality of his acts, no matter what their actual consequences may be, or how they harmonize with our notion of what ought to be done.

In ascribing goodness or badness to the doings that have not in themselves any moral qualities, we are not only confusing the child in his own searchings for the right and wrong; we are also defeating the larger purpose of every parent by disarming ourselves against the day when something is done that really is good or bad—something that calls for a definite stand, for unequivocal condemnation or enthusiastic approval.

In acquiring the habit of classifying every act that pleases or displeases us through its consequences as good or bad, we are in the further danger of transfer-ring these qualities to the child. Now we do not wish the young child to get the notion that he is bad, for it is a short step in human logic from being bad to being irresponsible. Once assure the child that he is bad, and he will be certain that there is no use trying. But a moral snob, content with his own " goodness," is no less undesirable.

To say that a child's conduct is unmoral does not take from him the possibility of spiritual development. On the contrary, the assumption that the child is a moral being would seem to leave nothing for growth. The sense of righteousness and the feeling of guilt are not born in the child; they have to be achieved through trial and suffering.

We must reserve our praise and blame for conduct that involves good will or purposefulness. We may admire skill in action or soundness of judgment, but we must not condemn instincts, however much we may wish to modify their manifestations.



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