Popular Science Monthly/Volume 31/October 1887/The Savagery of Boyhood


THE following train of reflection was suggested to me by reading, among a number of compositions by my pupils, this blood-curdling narrative:

"Not long ago, when one of the boys went up to bed, he was standing close to the window, undressing himself, and a little bird came fluttering around the window on the outside. At first we thought it was a bat, but after a while we came to the conclusion that it was a little bird. Then we opened the window and let it in. It seemed to be crippled or very cold, and it could not fly very well, although it would keep out of our reach. We tried to catch it by running after it, but we soon got tired of that, and we began to throw our hats at it. Sometimes we would strike it with a hat, but that didn't do much good, until the bird was tired of flying, and it got under a bed, and we caught it. Then we went up the hall, and wrung its head off. After we had wrung its head off, we got the wings, and threw the rest of the bird out of the window.J. F. T."

My twelve-year-old Procrustes has brought out his deed in all its stark brutality, and evidently he is not ashamed of it. His language, so entirely devoid of all compunction, is sufficient evidence on this point; but I can strengthen the testimony by my experience that a boy never puts into his composition any idea the propriety of which he questions in the least. As every one knows who has many dealings with children, they are remarkably shy about letting their feelings be known to grown people, and they will scarcely ever deliberately express a thought before their elders which they think may be disapproved of. Consequently, I feel very sure that the young savage just quoted saw nothing evil in his act, and that his unawakened conscience gave him no pang as he recalled the heartless butchery of the bewildered guest against whom he had violated the laws of hospitality. On the contrary, there is a tone about his words as of savage complacency—the complacency of the Dyak who recounts his successes in the head-hunt, and gloats over his barbarities as they rise bloody before his mind's eye.

Ruthless as Procrustes appears to be, it is highly probable that his barbarous state of mind is not in any great degree exceptional, but may rather be taken as a fair example of the mental and moral condition of most of the healthy boys of his time of life now growing up in this country. At first sight, this may seem far too disparaging an opinion of the moral nature of boys; and unquestionably it is a lower view than that reflected in the juvenile magazines and Sunday-school books. Yet some consideration, I think, will show that it is nearly correct.

Almost every father whose family contains two or three healthy boys under the age of fifteen, certainly every teacher in a boys' school, unless he altogether fails to reach the hearts of the youngsters around him, must feel, after reading a volume or two of current children's literature, that his own boys lack the tender sympathy, the overflowing compassion, which it is now the fashion to impute to the heroes of juvenile fiction. Those persons who are not in a position to come in contact with the children of to-day need only to recall to memory the scenes of their own childhood in order to find repeated episodes in which a suffering kitten or puppy was the central and unpitied figure. The callousness of the children of one's own circle will be made evident after a few minutes spent in such clarifying (though, to sensitive people, rather annoying) introspection; and what is true of one circle in this regard is approximately true of all. My own conviction is, that healthy boys under fifteen feel very little compassion for any suffering but that of their near relatives, their close friends, and occasionally their pet animals. Not only do they evince little compassion, but they often show more than an entire apathy, even an actual pleasure, at the sight of pain inflicted upon animals; and some, with whom we need not now concern ourselves, take a delight that to grown people seems almost fiendish in tormenting their weaker playfellows.

Of course, there are to be found instances, as rare as they are delightful, of highly sympathetic children; but such are to be discriminated from the ordinary run of boys. The children who habitually show this spirit are to be reckoned as moral prodigies, far above the common level; and they are no more to be compared in point of morality with ordinary healthy boys than in point of intellectual power John Stuart Mill, reading Lucan and Plato in his eighth year, is to be compared with the primary pupils struggling through the mysteries of "carrying" and "borrowing." Boys of fourteen who share our feeling of pain at the useless shooting of a bluebird, who have no instinctive impulse to maim a ground-squirrel by a well-aimed shot from a sling, are examples of moral precocity. Like intellectual precocity, this may be very enjoyable to the family in which it occurs; but the probability is, that it is the accompaniment of some unhealthy state, which may be entirely unobserved by the child's admiring but undiscriminating friends. On the subject of intellectual precocity, thanks to the able and tireless efforts of the apostles of the "new education," many people now have sound notions, and the more sensible mothers and fathers among us no longer desire to model their boys after the pattern of the young Macaulay or Pascal. Indeed, not a few of them have come to so enlightened a state that they actually feel some wholesome alarm lest their "intellectual early risers," as Professor Huxley has wittily said, should "be conceited all the forenoon of life and stupid all the afternoon." But, while the judicious have thus become satisfied to see a child's mental powers rise slowly and healthily from the first faint glimmer of intelligence to whatever degree of vigor and brilliancy his endowment may enable them to reach, yet very many people whom we can not class among the Boeotians, and who count most of the authors of children's literature among their number, seem confidently to expect a boy's moral nature, long before his legs have outgrown his knickerbockers, to burst forth with almost the fervor of Mr. Bergh's ebullient conscience. Doubtless they are inexpressibly shocked when they learn, as in the course of things they soon must, that the humane inpulse is as soundly dormant in the breast of their ten-year-old offspring as in the bosom of a Fuegian or a Guacho.

But, when all the circumstances are considered, it will perhaps appear that moral precocity is no more to be desired than intellectual precocity, because the existence of either indicates that the development of the child in which it appears is abnormal. An early appearance of the sympathies depends upon an early development of mental functions, which properly are dormant until later in life; and precocious emotion is an unnatural state, produced by an unnatural and therefore unhealthy development of the brain. Consider for a moment what the seat of the emotions—the brain—is. Like all the other organs of the body, the brain grows from a few simple cells, and reaches its fullness and complexity as the organ of mind after passing through numerous simpler conditions. Like the other portions of the wonderful machine in which each of us lives, moves, and has being, the brain is subject to the all-embracing law of animal existence, which declares the development of the individual to be an epitome of the development of his race. By way of illustration, it is well to note the well-established and now familiar fact that man in his prenatal life goes through several stages, in which he may be successively described as a moner, an ascidian, a fish, a reptile, and a mammal. The entire series of forms through which he passes is so varied that a description of his embryonic existence is almost an epitome of the animal kingdom. And after the appearance in the world of the infant poet or sculptor, he bears in his countenance the marks of his descent from savage ancestors, whose low and ugly forehead, flat nose, and cavernous nostrils are reproduced in his infantile lineaments.

The brain, being merely one of the bodily organs, shares in the growth of the whole organism, and must consequently be weak and undeveloped in its early stages. It becomes stronger only by slow degrees, and in the healthy child it is, as we should expect when we consider his ancestry, the mind of a savage. The civilized child, like the adult savage, has no abstract ideas, and his words number only a few hundreds. One of the writers quoted by Lubbock, in speaking of the intellects of savages, says, "A short conversation wearies them, particularly if questions are asked that require efforts of thought or memory." Such a description, as every teacher knows, is most applicable to our own children, and illustrates how closely their mental state approaches that of the savage. An extremely close observer, Mr. Francis Galton, in reference to some of the lower tribes of Africans, makes the striking remark that "the motives of an adult barbarian are very similar to those of a civilized child."

These facts being granted, it is most instructive to notice how our every-day experience of children's ways points to analogies to the emotions of savages. How complete and how savage is that disregard for filth against which the careful housewife has daily to struggle to accomplish the "shining morning face" she sends away to school! With what a barbarous gluttony does the boy gorge himself with cake, like the Eskimo who forced his wife to stuff him with blubber until he fell down unconscious!

Turn now from these unpleasant traits to that of cruelty, with which we began this discussion. Cruelty seems to be a fundamental fact in the nature of children; but, when we recall the course and the law of man's development, we find nothing depressing in the existence of this savage quality in our boys. As one of the inevitable accompaniments of the savage state, we should expect to find heartlessness among children. "There can be no doubt," says Sir John Lubbock, perhaps the highest authority on the subject of the qualities of barbarians—"there can be no doubt that, as an almost universal rule, savages are cruel." Their moral code permits, if it does not inculcate, revenge and murder; and no stigma whatever is attached to a deed so unnatural to our eyes as maternal infanticide. The stories of inhumanity with which modern travelers fill their volumes, if true of the savages of to-day, will serve to characterize the savages of the past; and there is no fact better established than that the savages of times gone by numbered among themselves our own ancestors. During countless thousands of years, from the unknown date when the Miocene drifts covered the valleys of Western Europe, and buried the war-axes of the inhabitants who hunted beasts and men through the forest, to a time which, in comparison with that date, is as near as yesterday, the ancestors of the present civilized races roamed about as hungry, ill-clad savages. Their daily need of food was supplied by means of the suffering they inflicted upon cave-bears and musk-oxen, and sometimes they slew and ate their fellow-men, and cleft their bones for marrow. The shedding of blood, as the almost inseparable accompaniment of the satisfaction of the most imperious of all desires, hunger, must have become, according to the well-known principle of the association of ideas, in itself a pleasure. Like the savages of to-day, those fierce progenitors of ours must have delighted in the torture of captured enemies. Thus, during long ages, compassion was unknown, and it appears to have been lately acquired by the now dominant races. Indeed, even among so highly cultivated a people as the Romans, it remained almost unknown until comparatively recent times—say fifteen hundred years ago—in proof of which may be noted their heartless fondness for the bloody sports of the arena.

The emotion of pity, then, appeared late in the history of the race; and, in view of the law of our development, which carries us along the path our ancestors have trod, how can we expect our boys to be anything else but cruel? How far is it judicious to go, in trying to alter the natural course of a child's mental growth by imposing upon him ideas which in due course he will not share until later? This last question is inviting, but we will not go into its solution at present, contenting ourselves with observing that because a boy shows no compunction at giving pain to a captive bird, or calmly lacerates the feelings of a family of squirrels, merely to give himself a few soon-neglected pets, is no reason for expecting him to grow up a monster of cruelty. And we will further venture to suggest that much of the immorality of boys is a necessary consequence of their descent, as a corollary of which follows the aphorism of my witty friend, "A good boy is diseased."