The Boy's Taste For Society
( Originally Published 1916 )
THERE'S no accounting for taste, as everyone knows, so that it is very seldom indeed that. the friends of the bride can tell what she ever saw in that fellow. And it is probably for similar reasons that Mrs. Jones can never tell what in the world her son can see in that Smith boy, with whom he goes almost constantly. The loving mother, anxious to have her boy advance and improve himself in every way, and realizing how powerful an influence is exerted by one's associates, counsels the son to associate only with those from whom he can most profit. For example, he should associate only with boys that are older and wiser and " nicer " than he is. But if Johnny has any brains left, he wonders whether, if that is sound advice, all the boys ought to follow it, and whether the older and superior boys of his acquaintance should in that case associate with him.
The fact is that in the formation of friendships among children, as in the formation of less lasting associations, the individual is very rarely either calculating for advantages, or excluding as a prig. Children get together and form groups, or " gangs " among boys, on a purely instinctive basis, and the good or harm of such associations depends very largely upon the opportunities and temptations and guidance of the group rather than upon the " goodness " or "badness " of any particular individuals in it.
The boy who a short time ago was content to play games with one or two others, or to carry on many of his activities by himself at home, has become a changed person. The activities and the opportunities of the home no longer interest him ; they are too restricted in scope, and they are not of the kind that are related to the gang.
A young boy may neglect school and go fishing alone; after he has reached the gang stage it is no longer fun to go fishing, except in company. A young boy may be a good fighter and love to fight; but after he has reached the gang stage he fights only according to the moral code of the gang—that is, he fights with the gang against other gangs ; or he represents his gang in fighting a boy from another gang; or he will fight a member of his own gang " just for fun," in perfect good humor, or in defense of his right, or in defense of the gang honor.
The games of the gang period are almost exclusively games that involve group action or " team play. Baseball has its powerful hold on the boys just because of this appeal to the coherence and the unity of the group. Golf will never be popular in the sense in which football and baseball are popular, because in golf each player works for his own advancement; and this can never be tolerated by a loyal member of a gang. Indeed, although the boys are instinctively hero-worshipers, they will never let anyone who seeks to promote his own glory attain to a prominent place in group activities. They instinctively suspect such a person; they are all for devotion and sacrifice and loyalty to the little community that embraces them.
Many mothers recognize readily enough that at this period the association of the boy with others of his age in the informal yet rigidly disciplinary gang calls for the exercise of certain fine moral qualities. But they deplore the fact that the aims of the gang are not sufficiently high, or that the group itself is perhaps not a sufficiently worthy object for the sacrifices and devotions of the boy. And here is where the parents are likely to make a serious mistake. They are likely either to ignore the spirit of association and cooperation that is now coming to the front in the soul of the child, insisting upon a continuation of individual improvement through individual treatment, or they may attempt to fight against the gang as a mischievous institution, without offering anything to take its place.
Both methods are bound to fail. We should instead recognize the strong instincts that are back of the gang, and then try to direct them into channels that will lead to a desirable application of the spirit and energy that now go to waste—or worse—in the random assemblage of the street or village.
The first great need of every gang is a habitation. If the boys have not a tent in the woods, a rude shanty, an abandoned outhouse, an attic, a cellar or a dugout, then a street corner or a park entrance must serve. The boys really have no choice ; if you offer them a better meeting place, they will abandon the street corner. If you drive them from the home, you will drive them to the street. The parent that can provide a suitable meeting place for the gang has overcome the first great difficulty of this period. There must be a place where the boys can keep their traps and tackle, their balls and bats and other paraphernalia for games, their books of adventures and pictures of star pitchers or favorite air-man. There must be a place where the boys will feel so much at home that they need not talk in a whisper or put on company manners.
Not all households can supply meeting places for the boy and his friends. But every household can supply the second great need. That is a sympathetic attitude toward the interests of the group. We must recognize that it is just as legitimate for the boys to go to the fields with sandwiches and baseball outfits as it is for the adults to go to the theater or to a card party. It is just as legitimate for the boys to rehearse for a performance of Captain Kidd or Robin Hood as it is for adults to talk politics or go to a vestry meeting. The parents who can enter into sympathetic interest in the enterprises of the gang will do much toward keeping the boys of the gang interested in the enterprises of the home.
We cannot solve the problem of the boy's moral training in the social virtues by keeping him in the solitary confinement of the home, or of companions we select for him. If the gang is not good enough for my boy, I must improve the whole gang, by giving it a chance to work out its salvation under wholesome conditions.