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The Impulses And Desire Of The Child

( Originally Published 1923 )

The Impulses and Desires of the Child.—We commonly think of "education" as consisting entirely or chiefly of the establishment of ideas; and we think of ideas in turn as embodied in phrases and sentences. We want the child to memorize not only the correct answers to the many questions that may arise, but also the rules and formulas with which we attempt to describe correct conduct. But at bottom education consists of modifying the manner in which natural stimuli affect the child, and in which the natural impulses of the child express themselves in action.

The child is born with many impulses—food-taking and crying, grasping and manipulating, exploring and wondering. Sooner or later he starts to do something that is not fit, something that may cause him injury, or something that may annoy other folks, like parents. The reaction of the adult, the parent, or it may be an older brother or sister, is usually to exclaim or to act "Don't !" In other words, the impulsive action, whether it be to crawl out of his crib or to put the watch in his mouth, is at once blocked by the impulsive action of an older person.

There are, of course, many impulses with which we do not interfere, at Ieast not for a long time. The child is permitted to pass urine and to empty his bowels, he is allowed to grasp and shake his rattle, and to put various objects in his mouth. He may seize father's nose, and he may kick off his coverings if it is warm enough in the room. But there are many things which he may not do, and the number of these increases as he grows older, and has more opportunities or temptations to do them.

Gradually the child has come to do certain things that yield pleasure, to get satisfaction from the presence and activities of mother and father. He comes to associate the smile and certain sounds with approval, but other sounds and other gestures or expressions with disapproval. He gets the habit of doing certain things, but he also gets the habit of avoiding certain others. That is to say, certain actions have been inhibited or blocked, and the corresponding impulses have become repressed. In this way he has acquired regularity in taking food, in sleeping, and in emptying his bladder and bowels. He has learned perhaps to anticipate with pleasure his daily bath or his father's play. He has ' learned also by these same processes to retain the contents of his bladder and rectum for a considerable period, something of which he was not at first capable. He has learned to wait for his food, a few moments, then several minutes, and eventually an hour or more. He has learned that some things may be freely taken and handled, while others must not be touched.

At first, the child performs many random, movements, or movements in response to various stimuli. Gradually he comes to act in a way that suggests a search for pleasure or satisfaction. At first grasping anything at all or shaking anything at all is satisfying, later he seeks the rattle and shakes it for the noise it makes. He has apparently now the satisfaction of producing results through his activity. In the same way he grows in the ability to produce effects and to enjoy the producing of effects. Striking the spoon against the cup or the table produces a pleasant effect, a satisfaction. Tearing a piece of paper produces effects, and that is satisfying. Perhaps pulling a cat's tail produces no more than a strange sound, and that is satisfying; but it may produce a strange, sudden, frightening pain, and that, on the contrary, is not satisfying. At any rate, impulses have become modified in their manifestations, some have been encouraged, others have been repressed. The child has learned that certain ways of behaving bring pleasure or satisfaction, while other modes of behaving bring pain and suffering.

During the first four or five years there is nothing in the child's conduct to suggest moral qualities. What he does is determined by the pains or pleasures that have accompanied the spontaneous outbursts of feeling, the spontaneous expression of his impulses. But in addition to the physical pains which accompanied some of these expressions he has experienced at times both physical restraint, and, increasingly, manifestations of disapproval. Mother or father has taught him that certain sounds are warnings of danger. "Don't" means put the brakes on what you are about to do, under penalty of some-thing very disagreeable. Certain other sounds come to mean the same thing. Certain facial expressions, certain gestures mean the same thing. And as language develops, the forbidden, the undesirable, the improper actions or impulses become classified and labelled.

So it comes about that in the fifth or sixth year the child has associated with certain actions and with the feelings which lead to those actions, or with the feelings which result from those actions, the words "good" and "bad," "nice" and "nasty," and so on. He has established moral classes, and the standards of the adult world have become imposed upon him to that extent. This does not mean that he does only what is called right, that he avoids always what is called nasty or bad. The impulses with which he was born are still there, in some form, even those that have been repressed. Their manifestation having been sufficiently penalized, they do not show themselves, but they have not been destroyed.

Now the achievements of life as well as the satisfactions of life come from the fulfillment of the impulses. That children and older folks often attain to suffering and disaster by following their impulses is indeed true. But it is only by following impulses that anything at all is to be attained. What we must always remember in considering the child is that the impulses which lead to all that is worth while as well as to all the suffering have not in themselves any moral qualities. Impulses as such are neither good nor bad, neither constructive nor destructive. And all the impulses are capable of being put to constructive as well as to destructive work, all are capable of contributing to a richer life as well as to suffering and degradation.

The child, for example, may be tearing up bits of cloth ; we tolerate that, for it amuses him, keeps him quiet while we are engrossed with other affairs ; and he is doing no harm, for the rags are otherwise worthless. But some day he lays hands on a pretty piece of silk, or on an important paper that was blown off the table, and he proceeds to do serious injury by following precisely the same impulses. His impulse is no more vicious in the one case than in the other. Or the child has been accustomed to coming to his mother to have his clothes unbuttoned for toilet purposes. One day he comes while mother is conversing with a caller, and mother is embarrassed; but to the child the presence of the caller makes no new situation; it is as though sister or aunt were there. Or the child has been asking what makes thunder, where do oranges come from, or what makes the bees fly around the flowers, and all is well; but one day he asks, following the same impulse, "Where did I come from?" and asking questions suddenly becomes wicked.

In the child's play we are often able to recognize the presence of many impulses that normally require an outlet, but that are not regularly provided for. Much of the play is simply romping, using the muscles of the body more or less at random, and deriving satisfaction from the corresponding sensations. Some of the play comes to be of a manipulative kind, in which the satisfaction comes from new sensations, from becoming acquainted with the properties of materials and objects. Again, some of the play represents the satisfaction of producing effects upon the materials and objects of the surroundings. This would include the seemingly wanton destruction of materials—tearing, breaking, pulling to pieces—as well as such constructive efforts as block building, rearranging objects, clay modelling and drawing, making holes in the sand, and so on. Other games indicate greater degrees of social interest, and the development of kindly feelings toward others. Games with dolls, imitation of the social activities of elders, caring for pets, play at housekeeping, and similar forms of play illustrate this group. The form which the play takes will of course be influenced by what is going on all around, by what is approved and disapproved by the community; but the inner drive is always something native to the child. When these drives are given an outlet, the child will be active, inventive, constructive. When these drives are obstructed, the child will be passive, forced back upon himself, unresponsive.

Perfectly free outlets for the impulses cannot be tolerated. But repression also has its dangers. The repression of curiosity, for example, by discrediting or penalizing the child's question whether it is "Where do babies come from?" or "What makes thunder?" often leads to estrangement between parent and child, often to the loss of confidence in the parent's wisdom or sincerity. The refusal to answer the child's question candidly, or its evasion, may mean to the child one of several different things. It may mean, "It is wicked to ask questions, it is bad to know too much"; with the result that knowledge, understanding, the search for truth become thoroughly and permanently disparaged. Or it may mean, "That is a wicked subject, it is bad to think about it," with the possible result that sex or some other aspect of nature is forever degraded to the realm of the vile and disgraceful. But it may also mean, "Mother doesn't know, and is ashamed to acknowledge her ignorance," with the result that the parent has assumed the cloak of hypocrisy, and all her later homilies and preachments are subject to suspicion. The curiosity of the child may not be thus quickly destroyed; it may be diverted to other objects, or the child may find his own methods of satisfying it. He may go to other sources for information. He may continue to ask his parents questions about a thousand other subjects, not because he wants to know about these, but because his questioning continues to leave him unsatisfied, and he asks again and again. He may divert his curiosity to other problems and become a veritable scientist in his passion for finding out. Or he may become a "Peeping Tom," prying into forbidden spaces, seeking out more or less irrelevant secrets because a secret has been made of something he very much wanted to know, where he could see no reason for secrecy.

The task of the parent is to guide the impulses into suitable channels, the impulses related to sex as well as all other.



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