Children And Nervous Days
( Originally Published 1916 )
Is it not most exasperating that the children are so naughty and irritating just the day you expect company? Of course no one expects the children to be perfect all the time; they have their blue days, just the same as adults. But it's just our luck that the children are "naughty " on the very days when we have most to do !
When you have to apologize to visitors, and explain that Herbert " is not always like that," you hardly expect your friends to believe all you say. You expect them to accept your explanations with several grains of salt. You say you don't know " what has gotten into that child ! " And you really don't know. The cynical guest will think to herself, "If it isn't one thing, it's another," and she will shake her head and try to look sympathetic, and she will thank goodness that her children are not like yours, although they are.
But an experienced mother ought to understand that something will get into children, once in a while, and it is most likely to do so just when she is expecting company, or just when she is exceptionally busy. Are the little imps then deliberately annoying you because they know that company is coming, or because they like to irritate you? Not at all. They do not need to know what's going to happen; they do not even need to know that you are very busy. The trouble is first of all with the mother.
You will notice that the same kind of annoyances will come from the baby, on those very trying days—from the baby that is too; young to know anything about company or being busy or being annoyed. If you will watch yourself the next time that you expect to have an unusually busy day, you will perhaps find out how it is that the children come to be so naughty. You will notice that you are perhaps a little more fussy than usual, in the morning; you are in a hurry to get breakfast out of the way. Instead of giving all of your attention to the children while at their meal, or when one of them asks you a question, your mind is in the middle of the afternoon, thinking of how the curtains look, or of some detail that will need to be looked after when you go to do the marketing. As a result, the child repeats his request for a muffin or his question about whether he can go to Charlie's house after school; and in two seconds the child's voice has become peevish and you come back to the immediate present to find that something is not quite right.
So far as the children are concerned, this is the beginning of the whole trouble. Your thoughts are elsewhere and the children do not get from you the accustomed attention. You are impatient with them, because you are so eager to get at the important tasks of the day. You are short in your answers, because you are anxious to make a good impression on the visitors, or you are anxious to have the day's work finished before father comes home from his work. In your absent look, in your short answers, in your impatience, you quite upset the children. Even under ordinary conditions an unusual bit of excitement will upset them ; when your excitement lasts all day, the children cannot help but feel it.
A man who sent his family away to the country for the summer, because he believes that that is the best place for children, took a week-end off and managed to spend two days and a night with them. Now of all the nights during that summer, this was the one night when the baby cried and made sleep impossible. The infant was not naughty, she was not sick, she did not understand that anything unusual was going on ; but she cried that night, so that the father's expensive little vacation was spoiled, and he went back to his work in a little worse condition than he had left it.
Can you blame the baby? Every nursing mother knows that excitement is poison for the baby. The physicians explain the trouble by saying that the wastes given off by the nerves during great excitement get into the blood and eventually reach the milk in the mother's breast. The baby cried all night not be-cause father was there, but because mother was excited. In this case the excitement was all of the pleasurable kind ; they were all glad to have father with them. But the effect on the baby was the same as though it had been war news.
This little experience, which can be duplicated many times from nearly every household, shows how our excitements affect the whole body in ways of which we are not aware at the time. And we show our excitement in a hundred ways of which we are not aware, but to which the children are very sensitive. It may be the expression on the face, it may be the tone of the voice, it may be jerky movements of the hands, or it may be something else. But when you are excited, you cannot very well hide it ; and however you may show it, it must affect the children. You transfer your uneasiness and lack of self-control to them, and neither you nor they can tell what the trouble is.
It sometimes happens that a mother can manage all the household arrangements without in the least losing her composure, and that the child will then behave in an unusual way when company comes. In such cases we must look out for a certain incompatibility between the child and the guest. Some people uniformly upset the equanimity of children. There is something fussy about their manner, something in their expression, or something in the voice, from which children instinctively shrink. High-strung children are especially sensitive to the lack of calm in the spirit of strangers, and you can depend upon such children to disgrace you when certain visitors arrive.
But do not blame the children. It is our business to shield them from our own disconcerting moods, and from visitors that have an unhappy effect upon them, until they are old enough to learn how to master their own moods.