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Ideals, Standards, and Attitudes

( Originally Published 1923 )

Ideals, Standards, and Attitudes.—What the child "learns" comes to him from many sources; and the division into physical habits, knowledge, ideas, attitudes, and so on, while convenient, is altogether arbitrary. Doing and thinking and feeling are so closely related and so thoroughly intertwined that every modification in the child's behavior is a modification of the whole child, and not merely of the particular act or idea. So a discussion of knowledge attainments inevitably reaches over into a consideration of tastes and standards, of attitudes and ideals.

The habits acquired early in life—whether habits of action or of thinking-become relatively more fixed than those learned later. The early acquisitions, like the first settlers in a community, tend to become the standards, in the sense that all later arrivals must somehow be made to harmonize with the first comers. The things we have "always" believed are actually and arrogantly true; new thoughts that do not fit in with these beliefs are at least under suspicion. The acts we have always performed are "right"; new forms of conduct must not differ too much from our old habits. The people we have always liked, the landscapes with which we are familiar, the songs we have always heard, are beautiful, what is new is strange, and what is strange is queer, and what is queer has upon it the burden of proving that it is to be permitted or tolerated. So the early knowledge, the early routine of the child, are important as setting the standards by which life will be largely guided in the later years.

In the foregoing sections there are several suggestions concerning the formation of standards and ideals incidental to learning important ideas about the relations of the sexes in the home and in society at large, and about the relation between children and parents, and between personalities in general. The child gradually acquires his ideals of proper conduct, including ideals of his own standards, in the same way as he acquires his habits of courtesy and consideration. Selfdcontrol, for example, upon which we expect to place so much weight in the later years, has its beginnings very early, when the child learns to suspend crying for food for a few minutes after receiving a recognizable assurance that food is on the way; when he learns to accept the spoon as a substitute for the moon ; when he learns to control his bladder; when he learns to subdue his voice because someone is ill or sleeping. The acquisition of any or of all of these controls will not, to be sure, give him a general mastery of all impulses; but out of varied experiences in control, may gradually emerge first the concept of deferring or diverting his impulses, and eventually the ideal of mastering or controlling his impulses. The child will be helped by the sympathy and patience of the parent who recognizes his difficulties and gets him to find a way out. In the main, self-control must first be a technique and only later an ideal. It will not help much to begin early the preaching of self-control; but between six and eight years of age the child should be able to get the idea and to cultivate the ideal, as adding to his satisfactions with life and to his pride in himself. Satisfaction in self-indulgence must be replaced by an equally deep satisfaction in living up to the ideal.

If we are to expect later an effective sex-control and a self-guidance with respect to sex, the infantile attitude of self-indulgence must be replaced with respect to all of the primitive impulses and satisfactions. It is, only so that the child can come to have an attitude toward all of his desires and likings that is not crudely immediate, direct, and self-considering.

Almost as soon as the child is old enough to sit up to his meals, while still in the high chair, he may begin to learn the satisfactions that can surround a meal quite aside from those which come from the eating. Waiting until all are ready, taking one's turn, yielding precedence to others, and so on, can be sullenly endured as imposed necessity, or as incomprehensible duty or propriety; or they can be joyfully accepted as part of the great game of living happily with other people. The conversation, the opportunity to relate his own experiences, to ask questions and to hear interesting tales, the good cheer and smiling faces are quite as much a part of the event, as the taste and flavor and texture of the food. And from such experiences grow standards and ideals of propriety in social relations and intercourse. From the satisfaction experienced in connection with helping mother or father may grow satisfaction in service and eventually the ideal of service as one of the tests of worthy conduct. From the satisfactions experienced in connection with approval for the trivial efforts and achievements, will grow the habits of industry and effort, and eventually the corresponding ideals.

It is in these ways that the child comes to extend his interests and satisfactions progressively to more remote, more inclusive, and more enduring ideals of conduct.

Much of the effort to establish in young people high standards of conduct by means of didactic instruction and preaching notoriously ends in failure. The failure is probably due in large part to the fact that the method brings about a distinct cleavage between thinking and feeling, and between thinking and doing. It is a comparatively simple matter to get children to repeat the words of the negative and positive rules of conduct, which we ask them to memorize in the expectation that knowing these principles will automatically insure conduct in harmony with them. We can even get children to understand the "reasons" for the various rules, and to give their intellectual assent, and yet fail in the end. What is needed is to get the desires, the emotional part of the personality, into complete harmony with the standards, the intellectual part. From the fifth or sixth year, and in many cases earlier, it is possible to get the child to check up constantly on his likes and dislikes, his desires and aversions, to see whether they are in accord with what he acknowledges to be best, or desirable, or worthy. This does not mean, of course, that the child is to be made a prig, or that all of his spontaneity is to be destroyed by an ingrown conscience. His ideals should grow out of experience and extend to new problems as fast as the growing intelligence will permit. The feelings and satisfactions must support his convictions, and experience and knowledge must serve to guide his. desire; in this way his conduct comes to be in harmony with both, and annoying or injurious conflicts are to be avoided.

It is, therefore, not by the nagging and preachy iteration of our adult ideals, nor yet by appeals to authority that the child should come to a harmonious adjustment between his impulses and desires on the one hand, and the standards and ideals growing out of experience and required by civilized living on the other. It is through the constant practice in forms of conduct and feeling which yield satisfaction that the child comes into an effective working adjustment, as this process alone establishes reliable habits and attitudes. This process, intelligently, guided in the early years, does not of itself constitute sex education; but it lays the foundation for those ideals and controls without which it becomes extremely difficult, if not impossible, to establish right sex ideals and controls later.

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