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Childrens Interest And Discipline

( Originally Published 1916 )

IN order to get a task well done, it need not all be drudgery. If there is interest at the start, and satisfaction of some kind at the finish, the child will learn soon enough to put up with a great deal of effort and drudgery in overcoming obstacles. Whether it is learning to sew, or making a wagon, the child will make the most rapid progress and produce the best results, in proportion as there is a motive that appeals to the taste, or ambition, or desires of the child. In other words, the work will be effective according to the interest that the child can maintain during its progress.

We all realize the value of concentration and application on the part of the child. The real issue seems to be this : Should application and effort be obtained through fear, or compulsion, or should they be obtained through stimulation of a real concern of the child for the results of the task, or an interest in the process?

As he was about to leave for a summer in the country, his teacher informed eight-year-old Leonard that he had been " promoted," and told him that he would not have to " study " during his vacation. Leonard was happy and so was his mother, for she did dread the thought of having a child " make up " school work when he should be playing. But toward the end of the vacation, there was an occasion for writing a letter-grandfather was to have a birthday—and Leonard exhausted his ingenuity and his mother's patience finding excuses and delays. When he did at last sit down to write the letter, the mother was both chagrined and worried. The child squirmed about in his seat, showing great discomfort. He made many false motions, omitted letters from common words (he was an unusually good speller), and omitted strokes from many letters. The mother was ashamed to send off the letter; and she was afraid that the boy would be demoted after returning to school. She therefore resolved to use the remaining days of the vacation for retrieving the lost art, and planned a daily exercise in writing.

There was resolution, so the plan was carried out—but it was a torture to both mother and child. This lasted for several days, and the progress made was far from encouraging. But one afternoon Leonard and some of his young friends were playing " auction " on the porch, they having witnessed a real auction of household effects a day or two earlier. Leonard was the clerk, and made a record of all the sales, writing the names of the purchasers, the articles, and the prices. When the mother saw the list she found it hard to realize that it had been made by the same child that suffered such agonies over his writing. The work was neat, the names were all spelled correctly, and there was no sign of effort or discomfort.

This observation made the mother suspect that the child could be led faster than he could be driven, and she looked about for " motives " to make writing interesting. She got him to write out the items when she sent him on an errand, she asked him to help her record purchases at the store, and when it came time to pack up for returning to the city, she had him list the drugs and toys and clothes that were to be left in the country. In all of this writing there was marked improvement; there was no irritation and there was considerable practice making for fluency.

The incident emphasizes the conflict raging among psychologists and educators, between those who espouse the principle of " discipline," and those who advocate the idea of " interest." So many of us have a feeling that there is danger in sugar-coating the bitter pills which a child must swallow. This is akin to the feeling that what we naturally like to do, or what comes easy, must be somehow wrong, and that there is inherent virtue in doing what is difficult. It seems obvious that a child should learn to do the hard, disagree-able task, just because it has to be done. In later life we must do many things that are not interesting; we must do them because circumstances compel the doing. Should not the child therefore be trained to meet difficulties as a matter of course?

Those who fear that training a child through appeals to the interest " weakens the character " are very much like people who think it is necessary for a child to have measles and other " children's diseases " in order to attain a state of health. It is true that surviving measles and smallpox will make one immune to these diseases. But it is hardly wise to expose every child to these diseases for that reason. In the first place, immunity is not necessary, where we can make sure of preventing infection. But resistance to disease may be obtained more pleasantly and just as effectively by proper care for the nutrition and breathing and cleanliness of the body. The same principles would seem to apply to the moral health of the child.

There is no doubt that many a child is " spoiled " by being pampered. We make a game of dressing or of eating, or of putting things in order, or of writing. There is the danger that when the child is older he will fail to do these things, because the dependence upon the game is too strong. This means that we may legitimately use the game as a motive for the child's activity until he has acquired a new skill; but that after the skill is acquired we must supply a new motive for applying it. Under the " discipline " system the corresponding danger is that after the child has learned to do something—under compulsion—he will evade the doing whenever the pressure is relieved. Whichever system is followed, it is necessary at last to find internal motives for conduct, and this does not appear to be more difficult where the interest is made to play its part.

On the other hand, where the child's interests bear their share of the burden of training, we avoid a certain hardness or sourness and we strengthen the bonds of sympathy between our children and ourselves.

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