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Character Formation

( Originally Published 1924 )

MANY people still have a feeling that character can be formed only by disagreeable experiences and that, on the other hand, work that is done with interest and pleasure, and discipline that is cooperative rather than simply authoritative, are softening to character instead of creative of strength.

There seems to be a confusion here between the thing that is difficult and the thing that is disagreeable. It is true that one gains strength by overcoming difficulties. It is not true that one necessarily becomes strong by doing that which is simply disagreeable, particularly if the reason for doing it comes not from one's self but from outside force, so that as a consequence it leaves only a determination to avoid that kind of thing in the future.

Many strong characters, it is granted, have come through bitter experiences with increased strength. Very often, however, they have come through with a dourness that is unfortunate both for them and for their companions. The increase in strength that may have come from such conditions seems to be rather from the effort to overcome difficulty than from the unpleasantness. It is not always the bitter medicine that cures the disease !

There is no doubt, nevertheless, that young people should be taught to take pleasure in striving with difficulties and in overcoming them. School work, or any other kind of activity, that can be carried on without effort soon loses both interest and value. The school or teacher, therefore, that wishes to keep the interest of the pupils must of necessity see that they have tasks commensurate with their abilities — ones that seem to them worth doing and that really try the strength of each. These tasks may be both mental and moral, for moral situations requiring self-control, self-sacrifice, moral stamina and moral leadership are frequent in school life. If a pupil becomes accustomed to effort, takes pleasure in achieving, and does it all with a happy, interested, cooperative spirit, he will be having the kind of experience that leads to mental and moral development, and character formation will unquestionably come from it.

There will, naturally, be some duties and obligations that are not pleasant; but if they seem necessary and logical and the child has the strength necessary for them, they will be undertaken with a will.

Many of the tasks that are undertaken with interest, and are carried through because they seem worth while, contain more drudgery and other disagreeable features than any teacher would plan for a pupil. They are done nevertheless, and are done with a will, because they do seem worth while. On the other hand, meaningless drudgery, carried through because one is ordered to do it, arouses resentment and makes a child neither more ready nor more willing to undertake things for himself.

If it were only possible in disciplinary situations — which need not often arise — always to "make the punishment fit the crime, " there would be less rebellion against that phase of authority also, and cooperation would be greatly improved. Impersonal consequences are excellent teachers, and it is difficult to resent them.

I have known a boy who cheated in examination to be called before a committee of his student-mates and told that he had definitely injured the school and Iowered its morale. He was asked what he could do to counteract the injury he had done, and after some discussion he offered to go before the whole student-body, confess his fault and give his word of honor never to be unfair again while in the school. This was accepted °and the boy went through with the pro-gramme. It was the most difficult and the bitterest task he had ever undertaken, but it was a perfectly logical attempt to undo the harm he himself had done. He did it like a man, and the impression upon him, as well as upon those who heard him, was great enough to be of value beyond calculation. Several years later the boy's father said that this experience had been of more help to his son than any other he had ever had.

Pupils who cause unnecessary work in school, either by carelessly leaving their belongings around to be picked up, by being unpunctual at their appointments, or by other such lapses, may be asked to work for the school after each such offense in order in some degree to compensate for the trouble they have made. This also is recognized as logical, and pupils do it willingly even though they have to give up pleasures that would have occupied the time so used. Clearing the stones off the campus has proved a practical — and healthful — occupation of this kind.

Such examples might be multiplied; this is sufficient to bring out the point that logical consequences are sometimes extremely disagreeable, but that meeting such consequences does not arouse antagonism, and has real value. It is a foretaste of many such situations likely to occur in after life, whereas punishment by an individual is not.

Perhaps the greatest advance that could be made in moral training would be a change of adult view-point that would abolish such words as "naughty," "bad," and "immoral." It is true that there occasion-ally are children whom such words seem to fit. I myself, however, have never known a normal child that some other explanation did not fit more truly. I say "normal" because such habits as those of lying or stealing, when complicated by low mentality or physical abnormality, present different and more difficult problems which I shall not discuss here.

When children are "bad," it is most frequently a fault of training, which is either of the wrong kind, or inadequate.

Wrong training is most likely to be wrong because it is extreme. It is either indulgent or repressive. The first gives a child an extravagant idea of his own importance, fails to impress him with any respect for authority, and ends by leaving him selfish and inconsiderate, if nothing worse. An indulged child usually means selfish or lazy parents, unwilling to sacrifice themselves to train him. Such parents frequently put themselves in ridiculous positions by their weakness in face of their children's insistence. One father asked the headmaster of a school to excuse his boy for several days in order that he might take a pleasure trip. The headmaster refused definitely and finally. The father then expressed his gratification at the refusal, saying that he knew the boy ought not to go, but he had to promise him to ask for the excuse !

Mothers quite frequently acknowledge that their children do not obey them, and prove it when they ask for obedience before others. I have known a mother, when she called at school for her children each day, to ask a teacher to tell them to go home with her, as the children would not leave the play-ground at her own request. Another mother, in discussing the bedtime of her six-year-old daughter who was showing nervous symptoms from too little sleep, said, "But what can I do? She won't go to bed."

Repressive discipline, on the other hand, makes a child dread authority, breeds rebellion, and stimulates antagonism and deceit. It is the refuge of the overworked mother with a houseful of children, as well as of overconscientious parents, ignorant of a child's natural reactions. It is unfortunately a very common type of school discipline.

It may be too self-evident to be needed, but the fact will bear mentioning that nagging, scolding, a sharpened voice, the loss of patience or temper, are not only entirely ineffective weapons for character-training, but are definitely harmful. Sarcasm, too, is valuable only when used by a friend in such a way as to leave no sting in the wound — and that is not easy.

The greatest danger to those who try to train children wisely is that patience or faith may fail under the strain — for there is often strain and trouble when children, knowingly or unknowingly, try them-selves out against custom or authority or people, even their best loved, — and that much that has been gained will be lost through reversion to the methods of weakness, which include angry repression as well as discouraged yielding.

Firm, but sympathetic and understanding, discipline, on the contrary, is respected by children, and can be used to develop self-control, which is normally a valuable and harmless form of repression, and to bring the child into harmony with his surroundings.

Inadequate training seems to me to fail in accomplishing one or more of three things, all of which are necessary for successful character-building.

The first is educating the child in standards of social and moral conduct.

The second, giving him a cooperative attitude toward those standards. This, of course, may easily be prevented by wrong as well as inadequate training.

The third, building up the strength to carry into effect his willingness to live up to the standards.

The one thing that is most often overlooked by both parents and schools is the ignorance of the child in regard to adult laws and standards. It has taken the race many thousands of years to formulate, even as roughly as it has formulated it, the present code of social and moral behavior. It is very easy to expect children to know this code before it has made even a vague impression upon them.

The failure of a growing child to distinguish between truth and imagination, or to appreciate the importance of ownership, are common examples of this. This results from ignorance, not from "badness." It is of the greatest importance that all of those who come in contact with children shall work together to build up consistently their understanding, not only of what is moral, but also of what is fine and idealistic. This cannot be done entirely by precept, but is influenced tremendously by personal example and by the child's own experiences in formulating his own standards and those by which he and his comrades live together.

I have known children as young as seven years of age to discover the need of cooperation in community living. A class of this age had been imagining them-selves tree-dwellers and had then passed on to the study of the cave-dwelling period. One day the difference in manner of life impressed them strongly and they said, in their discussion, that if one couldn't get along with the others it wouldn't be so bad if he was a tree-dweller because he could go away in a tree by himself and could do no harm to the rest; but if he was a cave-dweller he couldn't very well live with the others unless he behaved himself and could get along with them.

And the moral followed fast on the heels of this discovery. For, they said to the teacher, " If any of us cannot live with the others the way we ought to, won't we have to go back and be tree-dwellers again instead of being cave-dwellers?" Arid she seized the suggestion and answered, "Yes"; and so these children of only seven years judged themselves and each other the rest of the year, attaining cavedwellership and eventually membership in its " fire clan" only as they proved their willingness to be good citizens of their group.

This was a very definite lesson in standards and codes, and was all the more valuable because it was spontaneous and was formulated and carried on from the experience of the group.

On the other hand, I have known a boy to become a thief, simply because other boys forced him to steal at the age when he should have been learning the importance of property rights. He was educated for stealing instead of against it. Fortunately it was possible to cure him completely — but not by punishing and blaming him. He had to be reeducated, with a mind directed away from anything that would arouse antagonism and the desire to deceive.

One of the most valuable ways of formulating standards is through free discussion where parents and children, or teachers and pupils, take up moral or social laws in their simplest terms and measure living by them. In a discussion of honesty, a group of one hundred and fifty or more pupils threshed out such questions as whether it was honest to avoid paying one's street car fare if the conductor failed to collect it; what kinds of help were justifiable in doing home work; and other practical everyday applications. They showed a fine idealism, and although some had failed to make clear distinctions in the past, the group drew the lines in such fashion that even the least educated among them had a better idea of what honesty meant and why it was important.

Such a group one day discussed gambling in relation to various games "for keeps" that had crept into the school body. They started by quoting their parents, — the father who always bet a ball on each hole in his golf match, or the mother who insisted on a stake at whist, — but when the discussion was brought down to a basis of the happiness and advantage of the school group they soon saw their way clearly and voted to abolish all such games for the future.

Standards, even when formed, are of little value unless there is an inclination to live up to them. The manner in which parents and teachers help to form these standards and their way of enforcing them has much to do with this attitude, for it either antagonizes the children, or it invites and gets cooperation. The child will not resent sympathetic and understanding authority; but if there is felt an arbitrariness, an unwillingness to explain, or an unreasonableness in not giving the child a full chance to express his viewpoint, — even though that expression must often wait until after obedience has been given, — there will be built up in him, by resentment or a feeling of competition, a disregard of authority and a desire to evade or overcome it.

The most valuable of all the ways of bringing about this cooperative spirit in school is that of actually using the pupils in formulating their own agreements for conduct and work. When they have planned and tried out the best ways in which they can live their days, they have a different attitude toward such regulations as arise from those plans.

Unfortunately this pupil-participation has been called "self-government," and so has given many a false idea of its scope. Children certainly 'cannot be self-governing, because they have neither the experience nor the strength for absolute self-dependence.

"Cooperative government," on the other hand, in which all have a part, is both practical and successful. Such a system may vary widely in different schools. In very large bodies of pupils it needs more organization than in comparatively small groups, where over-mechanizing is sometimes a cause of failure. It should always be natural and sincere, and should be the outgrowth of genuine good feeling and helpfulness among all connected with the school.

When it fulfills these requirements it is, without question, the best way to bring about the right attitude toward authority and law. One high-school girl, writing about her experience with such a cooperative system, said, " It has taught me, not by force or threats, to respect authority."

The strength that enables one to live up to standards can come only from what is inherent in one's self and in the experience one has gone through. It is therefore most important that children should have opportunities to judge and to decide, and even to make mistakes. They should, of course, be sufficiently guided so that they do not go too far wrong, for if they make mistakes too often, there is grave danger of harmful habit-formation. We should not, however, expect more from children than we ever succeed in getting from adults. As a matter of fact, we often do just this. It is quite common for those parents and teachers who complain most bitterly about the lapses of children to be themselves just as careless, tardy, and thoughtless as those whom they criticize.

In this strength-building also the wholesome cooperation between children and their parents and teachers, with a minimum of superimposed authority and a maximum of friendship and teamwork, is the best solution.

I have known class after class, after living under conditions of cooperation, to prove its effect on them by their ability to care for themselves when no teacher was present. Recently a class of nine-year-old children carried on its work for a week while the teacher was sick. The day's programme was posted each morning, and the children organized the work and used the time as conscientiously as any teacher could have wished.

The school of the present is becoming, and the school of the future undoubtedly will be, a genuine democracy. It seems to me likely to have two fundamental laws: one, to be businesslike in one's own undertakings; the other, to be considerate and helpful to all of those who are in one's community. Principal, teachers, and pupils will be equally concerned in having these laws kept, in interpreting them, and in working together for the best good of their communities and for the happiness and development of each individual.

The result of such conditions on the attitude of children was well expressed by the pupils of a school recently when they petitioned the principal, asking that school should not be closed at the end of the year, as they would rather be in school than not. They were working hard, but they were working in cordial comradeship, with interest in what they were doing, and with a real sense of responsibility and of achievement, and they were sorry to give up such a life even for the summer months.

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