Uncontrolled Child Influences
( Originally Published 1916 )
IT was a blood-curdling yell that came from the nursery and paralyzed everybody for a moment. And with the sobbing that succeeded immediately, the mother started for the children's room, the rest following apprehensively. Howard had hold of one end of the clothesline, the other end being tangled up about the neck and arms of weeping and protesting Louise. Between sobs the girl complained that brother had nearly choked her. And when there was a chance to get an additional word in, the boy explained that they had only been playing, and that he had not meant to hurt sister.
The children were soon disentangled, and duly admonished not to play such dangerous games again. Howard was penitent and downcast; and Louise cast about for sympathy. But mother had to come out with the question that she had kept back with difficulty through the whole affair. What ever made the child think of doing such an awful thing?
"Why, mother," said Howard, sensing a possible vindication in the historic sequence, " we were playing what we saw at the moving pictures."
This was more disquieting than ever, since it aroused suspicion of secret attendance upon the forbidden amusement parlors. Mother and father had agreed that the children were not to see any moving pictures, except such as had been strictly censored, first by the regular agencies, and then by some member of the family. And so far as mother knew, the children had actually attended only three or four moving picture shows, of a perfectly harmless kind, and always in the company of some other member of the household.
She therefore asked at once, " When did you see anything like that at the moving pictures? "
"This afternoon, on the corner of the avenue," came the reply.
That looked bad, for mother knew that the children were supposed to be in the park with the maid during the afternoon. Who took them to the show? Where did they get the money? Who gave them permission to go? For a minute the exposure of a scandalous plot was imminent. But there was nothing to it. The children had never gone to the moving picture show without the approval of the parents, and the ones they had witnessed stood out distinctly and innocuously in their memories. What Howard had seen was merely the array of posters in front of the picture parlor, and there was nothing in law or morals to prevent a boy drinking deep from this fountain of inspiration.
Now that she came to think of it, Mrs. Heath had noticed those posters, and had often remarked how fortunate they had been in keeping the children away from the undoubtedly demoralizing influences of the performances that those posters were attempting to suggest. But it had never occurred to her that the posters suggested quite enough to the imagination of the children, so that the actual performance was entirely superfluous. Indeed, with the censorship that is being maintained through the cooperation of private agencies with the manufacturers of the movie films, the reels presented in most moving picture parlors are comparatively free from danger; whereas the posters are in most cases more lurid and more suggestive than the pictures inside.
Within a few weeks Howard and Louise, and thou-sands of other children whose careful parents keep them away from the demoralizing effects of crude melodrama, were able to gloat on highly colored pictures representing :
A man choking a woman, the latter holding a dagger. A woman choking a man, the latter holding a revolver.
A lynching party leading a man with a rope about his neck.
A veiled figure pushing a man from the edge of a precipice.
Masked men sawing the timbers on a railroad bridge. A woman pouring the contents of a suspicious-looking bottle into a glass of liquor.
And many others equally suggestive of violence and fraud and deceit. Where there is a " change of bill every day " you get a large assortment of suggestions in a given time ; but in all cases you get enough to stir the imagination of active youngsters.
Mrs. Heath, like so many other careful mothers, had tried hard to protect her children against the many degrading influences that every large city holds. She had tried the method of exclusion in relation to the home. By keeping improper books and pictures out of the house, and by keeping the children away from improper picture shows, she had hoped to solve the problem—for her own children.
Now she realized that the forces acting upon the development of children cannot be controlled by house rules, or kept out by doors and shutters. Offensive comic supplements, so called, may be kept out of the house; but that does not insure the children against becoming acquainted with them the next day in the park or school. Objectionable theatrical performances or moving pictures are fortunately confined to restricted habitats ; but the poster flaunts its crude or insidious suggestions where none can escape them.
It is futile to search for someone to blame for the comic supplement or for the vicious posters. We are all to blame, and we are none to blame. We cannot today think of improving our conditions by isolating ourselves from others. Whatever we have of civilization is a product of the integration of populations and of the exchange of ideas and services. But as we do come to live in more closely integrated groups for the advantages we may derive from our neighbors, we expose ourselves also to a variety of more or less injurious influences.
On the physical side, it is living in cities and communicating with strangers that has made possible the advance of medical science; and it is living in close touch with others that, makes possible epidemics of infectious disease. When we come to a realization of the nature of such diseases, we shall no longer attempt to protect our own children by some process of separation from the community; we shall at the same time realize that the problem is not that of the particular home, but one for the whole community to attack. Or rather, the home problem cannot be solved except in cooperation with other homes. We see this in connection with the protection of our children's food supply against sophistication or against the introduction of injurious materials, or against possible contamination. We see this in connection with our children's physical safety in the street, or in travel. We see it in connection with the physical conditions that surround them while in school.
On the mental and on the moral sides, no less than on the physical, it becomes increasingly difficult, if not eventually impossible, for the home to solve its own problems, except in joint effort with others. The conditions that surround the play of children no longer permit us to mind our own business in the hope that all will be well, unless we are in a position to establish for our children an artificial environment under constant supervision of reliable people. Not one family in a thousand is in a position to do this, even if it were thought desirable. In education, we cannot conduct our scientific experiments upon which the effectiveness of our school must in the end rest, except with the cooperation of thousands of homes through public or endowed agencies,
The moral influences of the stores, as they show themselves in the display of merchandise, in the " raffles " for trifles dear to the heart of the child, in the gambling devices frequently associated with slot machines for selling chewing gum or candy, are beyond the control of the individual family. The tone of the newspapers and of the magazines, the amusements offered by the theaters and the commercial dance halls, etc., must either be avoided at the cost to the child of valuable social and emotional experiences or they must be controlled by the good sense of the community ex-pressed through some joint enterprise in regulation. People do not manufacture and sell obscene postal cards for the deliberate purpose of corrupting your child, but for the same reason that. other people manufacture and sell cheap jewelry or expensive engravings. It is a part of the commercial life of the day, and our effort to protect the children against these and other untoward influences must be directed to the roots of the evils and not to the blossoms.
This is the day of the child. We are becoming pain-fully conscious of the shortcomings in the opportunities we are providing the child for his full and healthy development. We find in the home an increasing number of problems, related to the child, that call for our serious attention. But again and again we come upon the significant fact that with all our efforts confined to the home, we are permitting outside influences to counteract all that we are trying to do. We are awaking to the complexity of our own relations in the community into which we are training our children, and of the far reach of even the lesser factors of modern life. When we see clearly that in the rearing of children it is impossible for the parent to solve his problems by himself, the day of the child will be full upon us.