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The Child And Delegated Authority

( Originally Published 1916 )



IF we are to deal effectively with children, whether at home or in school, whether at work or at play, we ought to understand their attitude toward authority. A study of this attitude was made a number of years ago, in this country and in England, under the direction of Earl Barnes, a pioneer in exploring the souls of children through their answers to questions. Large numbers of children were asked to write their answers to the questions in the following story :

"Johnny's mother was going out, so she told him to look after his sister Mamie. After the mother was gone, Mamie began to scratch the table; Johnny told her to stop, but she went on scratching it. Should Johnny have punished her, or should he have waited and told his mother? "

It is interesting to note that although children love to exercise authority, most of the children who answered the question decided that Johnny should not punish Mamie. Of course we should expect the younger children in the various groups to allow their sympathy with Mamie to color their decisions ; the memory of abuses suffered at the hands of older brothers and sisters would undoubtedly play a role here. But the older children, many of whom had been in Johnny's position, also agreed in about four-fifths of the cases that punishment should be reserved for the parents.

The reasons that the children give for their decisions are even more significant. On the side of punishment by Johnny, one girl said " It would not be right to let her do wrong when she was placed in his charge." This means that authority goes necessarily with responsibility, and that seemed to be the view of most of those who gave any reason for having Johnny inflict punishment on his sister.

But the reasons given by the children on the other side are just as significant. One boy wrote, " I think he should have waited and told his mother because his mother was boss of them both." And a girl of the same age (fourteen years) wrote, " It was not right for him to punish his sister without his parent's telling him to do so." These answers imply a certain feeling upon the part of the children that the authority delegated to Johnny was not " plenary " but was limited perhaps to preventing serious injury to the younger child.

In order to test this further, another group of children was asked a similar question, but playing with fire was substituted for scratching the table.

A comparatively small proportion of the children, and chiefly among the older ones, can find any means for meeting the emergency presented by these hypothetical cases other than a resort to " punishment." One boy in a group of forty-two children in England thought that it would have been Johnny's duty to put the fire out; about six per cent. of the children suggested that Johnny should stop Mamie in her lawless career and then report to the mother for further action.

The last type of solution would seem to be the most logical, if we take into consideration both the limits of delegated authority and the responsibilities that go with it. Those children who would wait and tell mother would apparently evade the responsibility with which they were charged. On the other hand, those who would punish the younger child, would exceed the authority delegated to them.

The problem is to get a clear recognition of the extent of responsibility and at the same time a realization of the limits of the authority. This the children can, learn, if we are fairly consistent in our own delegations of authority.

The child often feels a conflict of authority between the home and the school; yet most younger children have the feeling that the parent is the ultimate source of authority, and would follow the home orders where these come in conflict with school orders. As the children grow older they come to recognize that there are special fields in which the teacher is supreme and others in which the parents are supreme. They are then likely to be seriously distressed if they receive orders from home with regards to books or other school matters that are not in harmony with the school regulations; or if they receive directions from teachers with respect to dress, food, sleep, or other matters that are' supposed to be the exclusive concern of the home. By recognizing this feeling of specialized authority, we shall be able to avoid friction.

Another source of difficulty in the matter of authority arises in connection with the hasty conduct of nurses or governesses. A person placed in charge of a child acts upon the authority of the parent, not upon her own authority. In this position she has the responsibility for guarding the child against injury and against gross violations of the recognized proprieties. She is not authorized, however, to chastise the child for any misconduct; the responsibility and the authority for punishment rest with the parent.

The position of an elder brother or sister, or of a nurse, in relation to the discipline of a younger child, is very much like that of the police. Force must be used only where necessary, and only to the extent of preventing serious damage. When it comes to passing judgment and executing judgment for wrong done, the responsibility goes back to the parent. The police must arrest or stop wrongdoing; the judge and executioner must be given the case to deal with as seems best.

In delegating authority to other members of the household, whether children or hired helpers, we must be sure also to support these in the exercise of their authority. If it is a rule, for example, that Johnny is not to " punish " Mamie for impudence or disobedience, we must follow up his complaints consistently and justly. Mamie is not to be allowed to take advantage of Johnny, or of her nurse. Every complaint against her should be treated as though the offense had been committed in the presence of her parents. Thus can delegated authority be made effective without the danger of misuse.



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