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Physical Care And Personal Habits

( Originally Published 1923 )

We have in modern times acquired new appreciations of the value of health as a habit of life ; and we have learned that early conditions and experiences in very many cases bring about serious derangements of health. It is necessary to give the child a right start at the very beginning and this is just as true of the health of mind, of the emotions, and of the reproductive system, as it is of the digestive system or the blood.

Informed people everywhere now recognize the great value of an early and periodic examination of the entire body, as a means of discovering weak spots and of anticipating deteriorations or other serious developments. Along with the other organs and systems of the body, the child's genital organs should be examined by a competent physician for any abnormalities. As soon after birth as practicable, circumcision or other surgical steps, that may be necessary should be taken. These are sometimes needed to remove adhesions, to prevent the accumulation of secretions, to prevent irritation or congestion and other abnormal conditions. Everything should be done to avoid a state that will unnecessarily influence the child, whether consciously or unconsciously.

The child's clothing must be so constructed as to allow perfect freedom of movement, without binding or rubbing any parts unnecessarily. Nor should the clothing be such as to encourage the child to place his hands upon the organs of the pelvic region. Moreover, some thought must be given to the design and form of the inner and outer garments, as well as to cleanliness, to avoid centering the attention of one's own child and of other children too much upon his organs. Excessive decoration on the undergarments, arrangement of openings which make access difficult when necessary for urination, etc., ill-matched fastenings, and so on, are here included.

Much of what the child "learns" in the way of good form or correct standard practice comes to him not as the result of didactic instruction, but incidentally as the result of the routine in which he is placed. And many of the habits which are not directly of a sexual nature, have an important bearing on the later attitudes, habits, and controls that are sexual.

Among the important health habits which should be established before school age, are those of prompt attention to the functions of urination and defecation. Indeed, the regular emptying of the bowels at a fairly fixed time is one of the very first things a child needs to learn. While the mother should be convinced of the importance of these matters, and should convince the child of their importance, it is well to avoid excessive emphasis or to associate any suggestion of fear with the process of learning. The matter-of-fact dealing with these processes and organs should protect the child from getting the impression that these things are shameful or nasty.

The cleanliness of the parts should be taught at first by keeping them clean, and then by teaching the child to keep them clean. Here again, cleanliness should be acquired as a matter of course and not over-emphasized in the mind of the child. The parts are not to be handled except for cleaning; and they are not to be kept in mind. The pelvic organs will arouse curiosities, as will other things that come to the child's attention and they are to be dealt with precisely as are other phenomena, and not be emphasized either by being stressed or avoided. The matter of sleep is of sufficient importance to warrant some attention to its conditions from the first: Soft beds, such as feather-beds or pillows are not needed or desirable even for new-born babies. Suitable mattresses with light covers, graded to the seasons and climate are much better than soft and hot beds. It is well for the child to sleep by himself from the first. In this way, he learns to go to sleep and to get the necessary rest without being stimulated and distracted by the sensations obtained from his companion; and without depending upon these sensations to make going to bed attractive. Sleeping with another will arouse Unduly sensual pleasures of warmth and contact, which the child may come to seek for their own sake.

The sole use of the bed for a healthy child is for sleeping. Its relation to the child should not be prejudiced by using it as an instrument of punishment. That means that under no circumstance should the child be sent to bed merely to get him out of the way, or to penalize him for misconduct. Sleep is too precious to be disparaged by discrediting the bed. Moreover, sending the child to bed in a resentful mood, especially if no occupation is provided for him, will cause him to find his compensation and occupation exploring his own body.

When he is old enough to get out of bed alone, he should learn to get out promptly upon awaking. Occasionally a child will awake too early and his getting up will not only annoy others but deprive him of some possible additional sleep. But in general the child in his sixth year will be able to recognize an exceptionally early awakening and go back to sleep. In any case, he should have at hand toys or work material with which to occupy himself upon waking. It is important to avoid the habit of dawdling in bed after it is time to get up, because this encourages both day-dreaming and playing with the genitals. With a little judgment the mother should be able to get the child to sleep continuously to a fixed hour every morning.

An important element in the child's mental health is the free expression of his emotions in the early years. Anger or irritation needs to come to the surface, quite as much as pleasure and approval. Hate is quite as legitimate a feeling as love; and jealousy, sorrow, fear, should be disclosed if they are present. To prevent the manifestation of these emotions by penalizing them is not to prevent their arising in the breast of the child. And it is a necessary part of our own education, in learning to understand the child, to see what emotions are aroused by his various experiences and how they show themselves. We need to know which emotions are the more common, and which tend to become habitual. We are not helped by the concealment. On the contrary, through the forced repression the child becomes secredtive, sulky, resentful, or depressed. Through the frank expression of the child's feelings, the parent becomes acquainted with both the emotional reactions of the child and the form which the expressions take. He learns to "read" the child, to recognize emotions that are to be modified or discouraged, as well as those that are to be cultivated. It is only by such recognition and understanding that the parent can help the child to guide his feelings into useful forms of expression or into intelligent control. This is an essential part of character formation, of which, in turn, sex education is a part. The child cannot attain to intelligent and constructive self-mastery over these emotions until he has learned to recognize them, their various shades and degrees, their excitants, and their manifestations.

The most continuous and significant index of the child's moods and feelings, as well as the surest outlet for his strains, is found in his play. Play becomes therefore an indispensable element of healthy living and a very valuable means of education.

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