Impudence True And False
( Originally Published 1916 )
ONE does not need to be very old to recall the days when all children were well behaved and respectful to their elders. And those of us who are too young to remember the good old days can get from European visitors the assurance that American children are, on the whole, altogether too free in their speech. Indeed, our visitors from abroad are more frequently shocked by the " impudence " of our children than they are impressed by the height of our buildings.
It must be admitted that our children are rather out-spoken. In our reaction against the crushing restraints of puritanism, we have no doubt gone too far. And in rejecting the old standards of human and child con-duct we have too frequently failed to establish definite standards of our own. But we are not compelled to choose between disrespect and lawlessness on the one hand, and repression and hypocrisy on the other. Children must have freedom; but they can and should be taught to speak in a respectful and mannerly fashion.
A great deal of what older people resent as " impudence " is really not offensive in spirit. But when the shocking word is spoken, it is not always accompanied by its own explanation. It is necessary for older people to understand what goes on in the child's mind, instead of waiting for the child to make the explanation.
There are three common sources of " impudence " that we can learn to understand, and to treat. Children unconsciously imitate the tones and expressions that they hear at home, or among their associates. Of a child that is often scolded and reproved in coarse terms, we should not expect the use of gentle and refined speech in situations that call forth his critical or resentful spirit. We are outraged on hearing a young Miss say to her father, " You were crazy to go out without your umbrella ; you might have seen it would rain." But it should not take us long to find out that the child is using the friendly and conventional language of her own home. There is no question of disrespect or insolence. We learn that the girl does not " mean " to be offensive. But it is clear that she cannot cultivate reverence while she continues to speak in this manner to her parents. What is at first but an inelegant use of language comes in time to be an unwholesome attitude toward other people. There are then two things we may do in such a case. We may either establish the rule that the child must use only certain kinds of expressions and tones in addressing older people, and must avoid others. This would insure the preservation of the outward forms. Or we may furnish the child with the kinds of models that we should not fear to have copied. We must decide for ourselves which method we are to prefer : the arbitrary separation of the child's notion of conduct into that which is to be permitted to elders but forbidden to children, and that which is permitted to all; or the cultivation of a wholesome atmosphere of considerateness and respect for others.
When the offensive word or grimace is the genuine expression of a hateful mood, we have a different problem. Under the older ideas of bringing up children, the chief emphasis was laid on repressing the outward manifestations of the objectionable feelings. Now, while it is true that to a certain extent the feelings can be smothered, as their expression is restrained, there was no positive effort to cultivate friendly and reverent emotions. The result of this policy shows itself too frequently in indifference, in hypocrisy, and in some kind of " explosion." Running away from home is an explosion of this kind, being in a large proportion of cases set off by an emotional disturbance for which the child had no suitable means of expression. Where the steam cannot be let off, something is likely to break loose violently.
Of course we do not wish our children to have " bad emotions." But beyond the point where they can be safely suppressed, it is better that we know just what the children feel. Occasional expressions of ill will or of irreverence may be taken as the occasion for a clearing up of the moral atmosphere. Talking a situation over with the child will often bring to the surface lingering shreds of spite or bitterness. These gnawing and growing sources of estrangement can be discovered usually only where the children are fairly free to give expression to their feelings, restrained only by what they learn of genuine respect and courtesy.
In many cases what appears as disrespect or worse, is merely an indication of ignorance, or crudeness. This was illustrated by a little boy of four, whose violent jumping on a rickety chair was interrupted by his cautious grandmother. When the old lady's back was turned, the child whispered to his brother, " Don't you wish she was dead? " This was a scandalous thing to hear, and under other circumstances a child saying anything like that would have been mercilessly chastized. But in this case, as in many others, there was neither malice in the child's feelings nor understanding in his mind. In all good faith he wished the disturbing grandmother beyond good and evil. A child needs in a case of this kind, not reproof or punishment, but enlightenment. He must learn the remoter meanings and implications of the words he uses, and he must learn to speak with discrimination.
Whether the undesirable modes of expression that we commonly call impudence are the results of imitating bad models, or the results of unrestrained freedom of expression, our remedies are not to be sought in enforced silence. It is well for us to know first of all what the sources of the impudence are, and then to deal with these. We cannot always regulate in advance the language and manners of the associates of our children, but we can do a great deal to make the home impressions what they ought to be. And it is better for us to know just what the children think and feel, and improve their thoughts and feelings, than to foster hatred and hypocrisy under the cloak of decorum.