Parents And The Danger Of Too Little Knowledge
( Originally Published 1916 )
AT the club, Saffron was reading the paper to himself and making comments to all within hearing. Suddenly he sat up and put down the paper. " Was that White's boy," he asked, " that was mixed up in that affair down at the lake?" No one seemed to know. Didn't even know there had been an affair. In that case, Saffron had to read to them. It was the story of a boy who had gone over the edge of a pier, and was pulled out by another boy who happened to be passing. The boy who happened to be passing was young Bob White, and he happened along at a time when he was supposed to be in school. That was the point. Although no one denied that it was eminently proper for him to jump into the water and save the ragged stranger, all were agreed that he had no, business there. He was obviously playing truant.
"If a boy of mine did that," said Saffron, " I'd let him take all the medals and fine speeches that were coming to him, and after the celebration was all over I would take him into the woodshed and give him the worst licking of his young life."
That sounded very heroic and very reasonable. After all, it's wicked to play truant. It was only a lucky chance that the boy came along in time to save the other child—perhaps this one had been a truant also. The chances were even that another time he'd get run over by a fire engine. The boy's place is in the school, and he had no business along the lake front. He needed a lesson that would teach him his place.
It made Saffron quite angry to think of a son of his committing an outrage upon law and morals. And the things he had in mind to do were—well, they were just the expressions of his anger. They were not thought out policies of applying force where it would do the most good. They were the instinctive appeals to violence and had just about as much moral value as Bob's own dereliction.
And Brown, who had not been saying anything, could see that. And so he joined the conversation. He would not approve of truancy. He knew it was a bad thing, and liable to lead to worse things. But there's no use getting excited over it. Didn't we all do the same thing when we were young? Or at least, we were all tempted to. And if we did not yield, it was just our good fortune, or perhaps sheer cowardice, and not our superior virtue. Besides, it's the sort of thing that a child will do just because he is a child. When he gets to be as old as we are, he won't be tempted to go down to the lake. Remember that boys will be boys. Give him a chance to grow up and he'll be all right.
This did not sound so heroic, but it did seem reason-able. After all, a day out of school breathing the fresh air and taking good exercise won't hurt any boy. He could make up his school work just as easily as though he had been absent on account of sickness; and this was better than sickness. Thousands of boys play " hooky " and then grow up to be decent citizens—some of them even become teachers, or ministers. Let him alone, and he'll grow up all right.
Young Blank, whose children had not yet reached the age of truancy, was interested but bewildered. He had expected to lay up a supply of practical wisdom to use in possible emergencies in the future. But he did not find the conflicting counsel very helpful. Evil-doers ought to be punished, of course. Otherwise there would be no premium on doing the right thing. But if a child does what we consider " evil " without malice, should he still be made to suffer—especially when he is very likely to outgrow the instincts that lead to such acts?
The trouble with the angry Saffron was that he had not taken the pains to think out the right and the wrong of children's actions, nor the right and wrong of punishing children. He was just as impulsive as the truant himself, with this difference : Whereas the boy had an uncomfortable feeling that he was doing some-thing that was wrong—because it was disapproved—the man had the assurance that he was in the right. For in the punishment of children he was countenanced by generations of parents and most of his contemporaries.
The trouble with Brown was that whereas he had learned enough to know that the misdeeds of children are in most cases the outward expressions of perfectly healthy instincts, and not evidences of " wickedness," and whereas he knew that most children will outgrow these misdeeds, he had no idea that there was anything to be done about it except to permit the fates to finish the story.
It is well for all of us to know what Brown knew. But that is not enough. Children will outgrow their childish impulses, but what will take their place? One of the ways in which the grown-ups acquired that feeling of righteousness in the presence of childish misdeeds, was through the impressive indignation of their parents on the occasions of their own childish errors. It may be wrong for Saffron to put so much. stress upon the wickedness of truancy; but it is just as wrong to evade the issue and treat it like teething, as some-thing that will pass away of itself. Saffron needed to learn there was something else to do besides whipping children; Brown needed to learn that there was something to do.
When they get to be our age, our boys will not be playing truant or stealing apples from the neighbor's orchard. They will have outgrown the temptation for such things, just as we have, and just as they have already outgrown the desire to play horse with a broomstick.
It is well for parents to know that these instincts, and many others, come up in the course of the child's development, have their little days, and then are gone again. It is well for them to know that Johnnie is not a moral pervert because he does this or that which you and I would not do. It is well for them to know that there is hope for his character in spite of stealing and in spite of lying. If they cannot remember that they did these things themselves when they were young, they will have to accept the assurance of those who have made a special study of the working of children's minds, that all children lie, more or less, for a longer or shorter period. Later, when some of these children grow up to be merchants and judges and parents, they are in turn shocked because Johnnie stole apples or because Mamie told a lie.
But it is also well for parents to know that among the forces that help children get over these impulses to do the thing that you and I do not approve, is just this very fact that we do not approve them, the very vehemence of our disapproval, the lickings, perhaps, as in the case of Saffron, or the heart-to-heart talks, or the appeal of a strong personality that arouses admiration. When we know that these instincts are " natural," we should be saved a great deal of worry; but we should not then leave everything to fate and the school teacher. Our knowledge should go far enough to enable us to make use of the instincts as they arise, far enough to put us on our guard as to what to expect.
I said that Brown represents a transition stage. But you must not take that to show that he has found the golden mean. In reality this transition stage which so many parents have reached is but an opposite extreme from the position of Saffron. The one acts on impulse, giving expression to his disapproval of the son's conduct in the direct, simple way of our primitive ancestors. The other restrains his elemental impulses, and feels a glow of satisfaction in his superior knowledge, the while he does nothing. One does too much of the wrong kind of thing; the other lets nature take her course. The golden mean is found when the superior knowledge not only prevents foolish actions, but guides helpful action. To make use of the fundamentally healthy disapproval of truancy or of stealing, and at the same time to make use of an understanding of the nature of the developing child—that is the problem for all parents.
When a child manifests cruelty toward a bird or a cat, we need not fear that he will become a criminal. Neither need we restrain his cruel impulses by manifesting the residue of our own by whipping him. The young child is probably not really cruel. Someone has said that many of the child's actions that seem cruel to us are merely the expressions of his curiosity about the structure and behavior of animals, in the presence of his ignorance about their feelings or sufferings. To give a child an opportunity to know and to love a pet is a much more effective way of overcoming innate " cruelty," than either to ignore his actions or to punish him. We can utilize his instinct to protect and help what is weaker and what is liked, to fight and overcome the instinct to pull tails or to tease.
At every stage in his development the child has instincts that need to be encouraged and others that need to be suppressed, or transferred to new modes of action. The parent must be constantly on his guard to recognize the manifestations of these instincts, and be always prepared to stimulate, to restrain, and to substitute. To do these things effectively, he must know a great deal more than Brown does. It it better, indeed, that he know nothing at all about these things, and continue to govern his hopeful in the good, old-fashioned way, with all its blunders and heartbreakings, than to know just enough to shrug his shoulders and look the other way. We must know when to let alone, but we must know when not to. In the rearing of children, as in the gathering of mushrooms, a little knowledge may prove to be a dangerous thing.