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Childrens Health And Disposition

( Originally Published 1916 )

WHEN grown-ups are unusually irritable, or when they have the blues, sympathetic friends think of nervousness or overwork, or they suggest indigestion or lack of sleep as sufficient explanation. When a child does not behave as well as we are accustomed to expect, we are apt to think he is " naughty " and we sometimes throw up our hands and exclaim " Whatever has gotten into that child ! "

In more recent times, since the physicians and statisticians have gotten together to show us just how far adenoid growths or eyestrain are responsible for mental shortcomings and unsatisfactory conduct, we are more likely to suspect a physical condition behind everything unusual in a child's behavior. But most of us do not know where to look, or how to recognize the trouble when we see it.

A little boy who had a very cheerful disposition—most of the time—gave his mother much concern, and all the relatives and neighbors much annoyance, by having spells of whining and sulking at irregular intervals. Sometimes he would be cheerful and happy for weeks without a break; and sometimes not more than a few days. The family physician had occasion to examine the child during one of his spells and found that he was bilious. On making inquiry into the child's diet, the physician hit upon the idea that the youngster was unable to digest eggs properly, and recommended leaving these out for a while and watching developments. The suspicion was well founded ; and the change in the diet restored the child to his happy disposition.

In another case, one of a pair of twins developed a most annoying case of irritability and was becoming " nasty " when a careful study of his digestion showed that milk did not agree with him. Again a change of diet brought about a most satisfying change in the child's mode of behavior and in his disposition.

A kindergarten teacher was disturbed by the mother of one of her children, who always attributed every irregularity to some abnormality in the health of the child. The kindergartner felt that the mother was demoralizing the child by her own attitude, since she never required any effort or exertion on the part of the little girl. When the mother called for Lucy one day, the teacher complained that she had been naughty again—inattentive and disobedient and as wicked as a little girl in a kindergarten can be—and added, " You cannot say that her health had anything to do with it this time!" with an air of triumph. But the mother happened to know that the child had lost three hours' sleep the night before on account of toothache. This was something that the kindergartner could not know beforehand, and it was something that would in most cases have a very decided effect on the child's behavior.

In the case of a boy who had an attack of malaria and was being drugged to prevent the recurrence of the chills, it developed that the quinine was having a marked effect upon his disposition and the consequent behavior. His periodic spells of " naughtiness " in school led the principal to make an investigation, and he satisfied himself that while the medical treatment was preventing a recurrence of the malaria, it was also having its effect upon the child's nerves. With the reduction of the medicine, and with close watch upon his digestion and sleep, the child's health steadily improved and his outbreaks became rarer and rarer.

One night a girl of two years, who had been a model of regularity, began to call for her nurse after being put to bed. She had a slight " cold in the head," but that did not seem to be serious enough to account for her irritability. The next day she repeated the performance with her afternoon nap, and so for three days. In the meanwhile the mother also contracted a cold, and on retiring placed in her nostrils the drops that had been prescribed for the baby. This medicine irritated her so that she could not fall asleep, and then it occurred to her that the child's unusual behavior might be due to the medicine. The drops were omitted the next time, and the child returned at once to her earlier habits of going to sleep immediately.

Investigators have found many interesting cases of mental backwardness, and even of moral delinquency, that could be traced to unfavorable physical conditions. But where a child seems to be normal in every way and then gets into a spell of sulks or contrariness or other annoying manifestation of unhealthy spirit from time to time, we may be sure that the most likely cause is some derangement in his bodily health.

A few years ago every special case that came before a physician or educator led to a search for eyestrain. Then it was the fashion to look for adenoids or " glands." A little later defective teeth were suspected of being the source of all the trouble. But the fact is that there is no one thing that is the cause of all the trouble. The child's body is a bundle of hundreds of physical elements, and any one of them may bring about derangements in the orderly workings of his nervous system. It may be the liver, or it may be an intestinal parasite; it may be lack of sleep, or it may be ill-fitting shoes. Or it may be a combination of several troubles.

It is useless to search for one cause of all our troubles. We must learn to know our children from as many angles as possible, so as to be able to survey the whole being for the purpose of catching any irregularity as early as possible.

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