What The Child Thinks He Wants
( Originally Published 1916 )
WHEN the baby cries for the moon, you do not give him what he wants. You silence his demand by offering him a napkin ring or a jack-in-the-box. When he wants the gas-flame, you seek to divert his attention by dangling a ball before his eyes. This kind of treatment is all very well for the baby; but how long are you going to keep it up?
Of course you cannot explain to the baby the in-accessibility of the moon, or the danger that lurks in the pretty flame; you divert his attention from the object of his desire because that is all you can do. Moreover, that is enough for the baby; for his interests and desires cling closely to that which is immediately before his senses. But this method works so well with the very young child, that we are very apt to continue to practice it even when the child is old enough to be reached by other methods.
In the course of the child's development a stage is reached wherein he is quite able to know apart that upon which he has set his heart, and that which you have substituted for it. At this time you must stop offering substitutes. The child is now old enough to know that some things are not to be had, and that crying will not bring them. To offer such a child a substitute for that which he has requested is an insult to his intelligence, for it is as good as saying to him,
"You really don't know what you want; you don't want to turn the wheel of that sewing machine now, you want a piece of cake." More than that, it is demoralizing to his will, for it says to him, " Of course you know what you want, but one wish is as good as another, and you may as well wish what I have decided to give you." It is the child's ability to hold before his mind that upon which he has set his heart which is to make the will at the foundation of his character. And your substitute seeks to destroy this ability.
And yet, what's to be done when the thing the child wants is not to be had? Shall we let him cry and tease until he is exhausted, fixing in his mind the certainty that mother is indifferent to his wishes? Or shall we teach him as early as may be that a first refusal is final, and let it go at that?
The child is placed in an environment wherein most things tempt his curiosity or his instinct to " do something " or " try something " with them; and wherein, at the same time, most of these things must not be touched or handled. When Janet wishes to use the baby as a doll, she must be told firmly that this is simply out of the question. In the meanwhile, how-ever, she must have something to do, and the person in charge must find the opportunity for her. Now we must be on our guard against suggesting that playing with the tea set or stringing beads is just as good as playing with the baby, or that the new activity will do instead of the desired one. The attitude to assume is this: we thought we wanted to use the baby as a doll; we find that this is simply impossible; we must there-fore find something else to interest us, or to occupy our idle energies.
This may seem to many mothers like quibbling. But we must remember that the child is very keen to detect any uncertainty, any tendency to yield, on the part of those with whom he has to deal. If anything in your voice or in your manner can remotely suggest that you are bargaining with the child, that you are offering a compromise, you lose, even though you may succeed in saving the baby from the ruthless hands of Janet.
There are some children who ask for things that they do not care very much about—things to have, or per-mission to do or to go. But they do care very much about having their requests denied. A child will some-times cry on being denied his request, and keep on crying until he has actually forgotten what it was that he wanted. He has a vague feeling of dissatisfaction, a feeling that things are not just right. What he needs is something to do, something that will interest him and drive away that uncomfortable feeling. When you suggest an activity to a child in this state, you are not offering a substitute for that which he asked to have ; you are substituting an opportunity to be active and happy for the misery whose cause he himself does not know.
We must be clear in our minds as to what kinds of objects and what kinds of activities we are to allow the children. When a new question comes up, it is better to deliberate than to reverse your own first decision. When Johnny asks whether he may go out again, you are tempted to say, " No, because it's so near dinner time." He points out that there is still a quarter of an hour of golden time ; you concede to the logic of figures and he goes. How much better to consider at once how much time there is, and grant the reasonable request graciously, instead of making a concession under the child's pressure.
Three little girls are bathing in a lake. The mother, on the shore, looks at her watch and calls to her children to come out of the water. " It's so pleasant in the water; mayn't we stay just a little longer?" The mother yields five minutes, and at once the bar-gaining begins, ending in a compromise of ten minutes. Now the mother ought either to have made her children learn that when she calls it is time to come; or she should have learned that her children do not come when they are called. On top of this she should make up her mind just how much longer it would really be proper for the girls to stay in the water, and give them notice of the time at their disposal; and this should be in the form of an ultimatum, permitting of no extension or compromise of any kind.
We all know that it is not well for children to get always everything they request ; but it is much better for them to get what they want when they ask for it than to let them acquire the habit of getting what they want by nagging and bargaining. It is harder for the mother to think and make a final decision than it is to bargain; but it is worth while for her to do the difficult thing.