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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 48/December 1895/Studies in Childhood XIII

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 48‎ | December 1895






IN the previous chapters we studied the child as the antagonist of law. It is evident, however, that his relation to law presents another aspect. Thus a good deal of the early criticism of parental government, so far from implying rejection of all rule, plainly implies its acceptance. Some of the earliest and bitterest protests against interference are directed against what looks to the child exceptional or irregular. He is allowed, for example, for some time to use a pair of scissors as a plaything, and is then suddenly deprived of it, his mother having now first discovered the unsuitability of the plaything. In such a case the passionate outburst, the long, bitter protest, attest the sense of injustice, the violation of custom and unwritten law. Again, the keen, resentful opposition of the child to the look of anything like unfairness and partiality in parental government shows that he has a jealous feeling of regard for the universality and the inviolateness of law. Much, too, of the criticism dealt with above reveals a fundamental acknowledgment of law—at least for the purposes of the argument. Thus the very attempt to establish an excuse, a justification, may be said to be a tacit admission that if the action had been done as alleged it would have been naughty and deserving of punishment. In truth, the small person's challengings of the modus operandi of his mother's rule just because they are often in a true sense ethical, clearly start from the assumption of rules, and of the distinction of right and wrong.

This of itself shows that there are compliant as well as non-compliant tendencies in the child toward law and toward authority so far as this is lawful. We may now pass to other parts of a child's behavior which help to make more clear the existence of such law-abiding impulses.

And here we may set out with those reactions of something like remorse which often follow disobedience and punishment in the first tender years. These may at the outset be little more than physical reactions due to the exhaustion of the passionate outburst. But they soon begin to show traces of other feelings. A child in disgrace, before he has a clear moral feeling of shame, suffers through a sense of estrangement, of loneliness, of self-restriction. If the habitual relation between mother and child is a loving and happy one, the situation becomes exceedingly painful. The pride and obstinacy notwithstanding, the culprit feels that he is cut off from more than one half of his life, that his beautiful world is laid in ruins. The same little boy who said, "I'd be a worser mother," when four years and nine months old remarked to his mother that if he could say what he liked to God 'twould be, "Love me when I'm naughty." I think one can hardly conceive of a more eloquent testimony to the suffering of the child in the lonesome, loveless state of punishment.

Is there any analogue of our sense of remorse in this early suffering? The question of an instinctive moral sense in children is a perplexing one, and I do not propose to discuss it now. I would only venture to suggest that in these poignant griefs of child-life there seem to be signs of a consciousness of violated instincts. This is, no doubt, in part the smarting of a loving heart on remembering its unloving action. But there may be more than this. A child of four or five is, I conceive, quite capable of reflecting at such a time that in his fit of naughtiness he has broken with his normal orderly self, that he has set at defiance that which he customarily honors and obeys.

What, it may be asked, are these instincts? In their earliest discernible form they seem to me to be respect for rule, for a regular manner of proceeding as opposed to an irregular. A child, so I understand the little sphinx, is at once the subject of ever-changing caprices—whence the delight in playful defiance of all rule and order—and the reverer of custom, precedent, rule. And, as I conceive, this reverence for precedent and rule is the deeper and stronger, holding full sway in his serious moments.

If this view is correct, the suffering of naughty children is not, as has been said by some, wholly the result of the externals of discipline, punishment, and the loss of the agreeable things which follow good behavior, though this is commonly an element; nor is it merely the sense of loneliness and lovelessness though that is probably a large slice of it; but it contains the germ of something nearer a true remorse, viz., a sense of normal feelings and dispositions set at naught and contradicted.

And now we may ask what evidence there is for the existence of this respect for order and regularity other than that afforded by the childish protests against apparent inconsistencies in the administration of discipline.

Mr. Walter Bagehot tells us that the great initial difficulty in the formation of communities was the fixing of custom. However this be in the case of primitive communities, it seems to me indisputable that in the case of a child brought up in normal surroundings there is a clearly observable instinct to fall in with a common mode of behavior.

This respect for custom is related to the imitative instincts of the child. He does what he sees others do, and so tends to fall in with their manner of life. We all know that these small people take their cue from their elders as to what is allowable. Hence, one difficulty of moral training. A little boy when two years and one month old had happened to see his mother tear a piece of calico. The next day he was discovered to have taken the sheet from the bed and made a rent in it. When scolded, he replied in his childish German, "Mamma mach 'put"—i. e., macht caput (breaks the calico). It is well when the misleading effect of "example" is so little serious as it was in this case.

In addition to this effect of others' doings in making things allowable in the child's eyes, there is the binding influence of a repeated regular manner of proceeding. This is the might of "custom" in the full sense of the term, the force which underlies all a child's conceptions of "right." In spite of the difficulties of moral training, of drilling children into orderly habits—and I do not lose sight of these—it may confidently be said that a child has an inbred respect for what is customary and has the appearance of a rule of life. Nor is this, I believe, altogether a reflection, by imitation, of others' orderly ways and of the system of rules which are imposed on him by others. I am quite ready to admit that the institution of social life, the regular procession of the daily doings of the house, aided by the system of parental discipline, has much to do with fixing the idea of orderliness or regularity in the child's mind. Yet I believe the facts point to something more, to an innate disposition to follow precedent and rule which precedes education, and is one of the forces to which education can appeal. This disposition has its roots in habit, which is apparently a law of all life; but it is more than the blind impulse of habit, since it is reflective and rational and implies a recognition of the universal.

The first crude manifestations of this disposition to make rules to rationalize life by subjecting it to a general method, is seen in those actions which seem little more than the working of habit, the insistence on the customary lines of procedure at meals and such like. A mother writes that her boy, when five years old, was quite a stickler for punctilious order in these matters. His cup and spoon had to be put in precisely the right place; the sequences of the day, as the lesson before the walk, the walk before bed, had to be rigorously observed. Any breach of the customary was apt to be resented as a sort of impiety. This may be an extreme instance, but my observation leads me to say that such punctiliousness is not uncommon. What is more, I have seen it developing itself where the system of parental government was by no means characterized by severe insistence on such minutiæ of order. And this would seem to show that it can not wholly be set down to the influence of such government. It seems rather to be a spontaneous extension of the realm of rule or law.

This impulse to extend rule appears more plainly in many of the little ceremonial observances of the child. Very charmingly is this respect for rule exhibited in relation to his animals, dolls, and other pets. Not only are they required to do things in a proper orderly manner, but people have to treat them with due deference.

"Every night," writes a mother of her boy, aged two years and seven months, "after I have kissed and shaken hands with him, I have to kiss his 'boy,' that is his doll, who sleeps with him, and to shake its two hands; also to shake the four hoofs of a tiny horse which lies at the foot of his cot. When all this has been gone through he stands up and entreats 'more tata please, more tata'—i. e., 'kiss me again and say more good nights.' These customs of his with regard to kissing are peculiar to himself: he kisses his 'boy' (doll), also pictures of horses, dogs, cocks, and hens, and he puts his head against us to he kissed; but he will only shake hands and will not kiss people himself; he reserves his kisses for what he seems to feel inferior things. We kiss our boy, he kisses his; but he insists upon being shaken hands with for his part. If other children come to play, he gives them toys, watches them with delight, tries to give them rides on his 'go-go's,' but does not kiss them; though he will stroke their hair, he does not return their kisses. It seems to me that he regards it as an action to be reserved for an inferior thing."

I have quoted at length this careful bit of maternal observation because it seems to indicate so clearly a spontaneous extension of a custom. The practice of the mother and father in kissing him was generalized into a rule of ceremony in the treatment of all inferiors.

This subject of childish ceremonial is a curious one and deserves a more careful study. It is hardly less interesting than the origin and survival of ceremonial as elucidated by Mr. Herbert Spencer and others. The respect for orderly procedure on all serious occasions, and especially at church, is as exacting as that of any savage tribe. Punch illustrated this some years ago by a picture of a little girl asking her mamma if Mr. So-and-so was not a very wicked man because he didn't "smell his hat" when he came into his pew.

This jealous regard for ceremony and the proprieties of behavior is seen in the enforcement of rules of politeness by children, who will extend them far beyond the scope intended by the parent. A delightful instance of this fell under my own observation as I was walking on Hampstead Heath. It was a spring day and the fat buds of the (Chestnut were bursting into magnificent green plumes. Two well-dressed "misses," aged, I should say, about nine and eleven, were taking their correct morning walk. The elder called the attention of the younger to one of the trees, pointing to it. The younger exclaimed in a highly shocked tone, "O Maud (or was it 'Mabel'?), you know you shouldn't point!" The notion of perpetrating a rudeness on the chestnut tree was funny enough. But the incident is instructive as illustrating the childish tendency to stretch and generalize rules to the utmost.

The domain of prayer well illustrates the same tendency. The child envisages God as a very, very grand person, and naturally therefore extends to him all the courtesies he knows of. Thus he must be addressed politely with the due forms, "Please," "If you please," and so forth. The German child shrinks from using the familiar form "Du" in his prayers. As one maiden of seven well put it in reply to a question why she used "Sie" in her prayers: "Ich werde doch den lieben Gott nicht Du nennen: ich kenne ihn ja gar nicht." Again, a child feels that he must not worry or bore God (children generally find out that some people look on them as bores), or treat him with any kind of disrespect. C—— objected to his sister's remaining so long at her prayers, apparently on the ground that, as God knew what she had to say, her much talking would be likely to bore him. An American boy of four on one occasion refused to say his prayers, explaining: "Why, they're old. God has heard them so many times that they are old to him too. Why, he knows them as well as I do myself." On the other hand, God must not be kept waiting. "O mamma," said a little boy of three years and eight months (the same that was so insistent about the kissing and hand-shaking), "how long you have kept me awake for you! God has been wondering so whenever I was going to say my prayers." All the words must be nicely said to him. A little boy aged four years and nine months once stopped in the middle of a prayer and asked his mother, "Oh, how do you spell that word?" The question is curious as suggesting that the child may have envisaged his silent communications to the far-off King as a letter. In any case it showed painstaking and the wish not to offend by slovenliness of address.

Not only do children of themselves extend the scope and empire of rule; they show a disposition to make rules for themselves. If a child that is told to do a thing on a single occasion only is found repeating the action on other occasions, this seems to show the germ of a law-making impulse. A little boy of two years and one month was once told to give a lot of old toys to the children of the gardener. Some time after, on receiving some new toys. he put away his old ones as before for the less fortunate children. Every careful observer of children knows that they are apt to proceed this way, to erect particular actions and suggestions into precedents. This tendency gives something of the amusing priggishness to the ways of childhood.

There is little doubt, I think, that this respect for proper orderly behavior, for precedent and general rule, forms a vital element in the child's submission to parental law. In fixing our attention on occasional acts of disobedience and lawlessness we are apt to overlook the ease, the absence of friction with which normal children, if only decently trained, fall in with the larger part of our observances and ordinances.

That the instinct for order does assist moral discipline may be seen in the fact that children are apt to pay enormous deference to our rules. Nothing is more suggestive here than the talk of children among themselves, the emphasis they are wont to lay on the "must" and "must not." The truth is that children have a tremendous belief in law: a rule is apt to present itself to their imagination as a thing supremely sacred and awful before which it prostrates itself.

This recognition of the absolute imperativeness of a rule properly laid down by the recognized authority is seen in children's jealous insistence on the observance of the rule in their own case and in that of others. As has been observed by Preyer, a child of two years and eight months will follow out the prohibitions of the mother when he falls into other hands, sternly protesting, for example, against the nurse giving him the forbidden knife at table. Very proper children rather like to instruct their aunts and other ignorant persons as to the right way of dealing with them, and will rejoice in the opportunity of setting them right even when it means a deprivation for themselves. The self-denying ordinance, "Mamma doesn't let me have many sweets," is by no means beyond the powers of such a child. One can see here, no doubt, traces of a childish sense of self-importance, a feeling of the much-waited-on little sovereign for what befits his supreme worth. Yet, allowing for such elements, there seems to me to be in this behavior a residue of genuine respect for parental law.

These carryings out of the parental behest when intrusted to other hands are instructive as suggesting that the child feels the constraining force of the command when its author is no longer present to enforce it. Perhaps a clearer evidence of respect for the law as such, apart from its particular enforcement by the parent, is supplied by children's way of extending the rules laid down for their own behavior to that of others. This point has already been illustrated in the tendency to universalize the observances of courtesy and the like. No trait is better marked in the normal child than the impulse to subject others to his own disciplinary system. In truth, children are for the most part particularly alert disciplinarians. With what amusing severity are they wont to lay down the law to their dolls, and their animal playmates, subjecting-them to precisely the same prohibitions and punishments as those to which they themselves are subject! Nor do they stop here. They enforce the duties just as courageously on their human elders. A mite of eighteen months went up to her elder sister who was crying, and with perfect mimicry of the nurse's corrective manner said, "Hush, hush! papa!" pointing at the same time to the door. The little girl M——, when twenty-two months old, was disappointed because a certain Mr. G—— did not call. In the evening she said, "Mr. D—— not did turn was very naughty. Mr. D—— have to be whipped." So natural and inevitable to the intelligence of a child does it seem that the system of restraints, rebukes, punishments under which he lives should have universal validity.

This judicial bent of the child is a curious one, and often develops a priggish fondness for setting others morally straight. Small boys have to endure much in this way from the hands of slightly older sisters proficient in matters of law and delighting to enforce the moralities. But sometimes the sisters lapse into naughtiness and then the small boys have their chance. They too can on such occasions be priggish if not downright hypocritical. A little boy had been quarreling with his sister, named Muriel, just before going to bed. When he was undressed he knelt down to say his prayers, Muriel sitting near and listening. He prayed (audibly) in this wise: "Please, God, make Muriel a good girl," then looked up and said in an angry voice, "Do you hear that, Muriel?" and after this digression resumed his petition. I believe fathers, on reading family prayers, have been known to apply portions of Scripture in this personal manner to particular members of the family; and it is even possible that extempore prayers have been invented, as by this little prig of a boy, for the purpose of administering a sort of back-handed moral blow to an erring neighbor.

This mania for correction shows itself too in relation to the authorities themselves. A collection of rebukes and expositions of moral precept supplied by children to their erring parents would be amusing and suggestive. As was illustrated above, a child is especially keen to spy fault in his governors when they are themselves administering authority. Here is another example: A boy of two—the moral instruction of parents by the child begins betimes—would not go to sleep when bidden to do so by his father and mother. At length the father, losing patience, addressed him with a man's fierce emphasis. This mode of admonition, so far from cowing the child, simply offended his sense of propriety, for he rejoined, "You souldn't souldn't Assum" (i.e., "Arthur," the father's name), "you sould speak nicely."

The lengths to which a child with the impulse of moral correction strong in him will sometimes go are quite appalling. One evening a little girl of six had been repeating the Lord's prayer. When she had finished she looked up and said, "I don't like that prayer, you ought not to ask for bread, and all that greediness, you ought only to ask for goodness!" There is probably in this an imitative reproduction of something the child had had said to herself by her mother or had overheard. Yet allowing for this, one can not but recognize a quite alarming degree of precocious moral priggishness.

We may now turn to what my readers will probably regard as still clearer evidence of a law-fearing instinct in children, viz., their voluntary submission to its commands. We are apt to think of these little ones as doing right only under external compulsion. But although a child of four may be far from attaining to the state of "autonomy of will," or self-legislation spoken of by the philosopher, he may show a germ of such free adoption of law. It is possible that we see the first faint traces of this in a small child's way of giving orders to, rebuking, and praising himself. The little girl M——, when twenty months old, would, when left by her mother alone in a room, say to herself, "Tay dar" (stay there). About the same time, after being naughty and squealing "like a railway whistle," she would after each squeal say in a deep voice, "Be dood, Babba" (her name). At the age of twenty-two months she had been in the garden and misbehaving by treading on the box border, so that she had to be carried away by her mother. She had to confess her fault, wanted to go into the garden again, and promised, "Baba will not be naughty adain." When she was out she looked at the box, saying, "If oo (you) do dat I shall have to take oo in, Babba." Here, no doubt, we see quaint mimicries of the external control; but they seem to me to indicate a movement in the direction of self-control.

Very instructive here is the way in which children will voluntarily come and submit themselves to our discipline. The little girl M——, when less than two years old, would go to her mother, confess some piece of naughtiness, and suggest the punishment. A little boy aged two years and four months, was deprived of a pencil from Thursday to Sunday for scribbling on the wall paper. His punishment was, however, tempered by permission to draw when taken downstairs. On Saturday he had finished a picture downstairs which pleased him. When his nurse fetched him, she wanted to look at the drawing, but the boy strongly objected. saying, "No Nana (name for nurse) look at it till Sunday." And sure enough, when Sunday came and the pencil was restored to him, he promptly showed nurse his picture. This is an excellent observation full of suggestion as to the way in which a child's mind works. Among other things it seems to show pretty plainly that the little fellow looked on the nursery and all its belongings, including the nurse, during these three days as a place of disgrace, into which the privileges of the artist were not to enter. He was allowed the indulgence of drawing downstairs, but he had no right to exhibit his workmanship to the nurse, who was inseparably associated in his mind with the forbidden nursery drawing. Thus a process of genuine child-thought led to a self-instituted extension of the punishment.

A month later this child "pulled down a picture in the nursery"—the nursery walls seem to have had a fell attraction for him by standing on a sofa and tugging till the wire broke. He was alone at the time and very much frightened, though not hurt. He was soothed and told to leave the picture alone in future, but was not in any way rebuked. He seemed, however, to think that some punishment was necessary, for he presently asked whether he was going to have a certain favorite frock on that afternoon. He was told "No" (the reason being that the day was wet or something similar), and he said immediately, "Cause Neil pulled picture down?" Here, I think, we have unmistakable evidence of an expectation of punishment as the fit and proper sequel in a case which, although it did not exactly resemble those already branded by punishment, was felt in a vague way to be disorderly and naughty.

Such stories of expectation of punishment are capped by instances of punishment actually inflicted by the child on himself. I believe it is not uncommon for a child, when possessed by a sense of having been naughty, to object to having nice things at table, on the ground that previously on a like occasion he was deprived of them. But the most curious instance of this moral rigor toward self which I have met with is the following: A girl of nine had been naughty, and was very sorry for her misbehavior. She was noticed coming to her lesson limping, and remarked that she felt very uncomfortable. Being asked by her governess what was the matter with her, she said, "It was very naughty of me to disobey you, so I put my right shoe on to my left foot and my left shoe on to my right foot."

The facts here briefly illustrated seem to me to show that there is in the child from the first a rudiment of true law-abidingness. And this is a force of the greatest consequence to the disciplinarian. It is something which takes side in the child's breast with the reasonable governor and the laws which he or she administers. It secures ready compliance with a large part of the discipline enforced. When the impulse urging toward license has been too strong, and disobedience ensues, this same instinct comes to the aid of order and good conduct by inflicting pains which are the beginning of what we call remorse.

By and by other forces will assist. The affectionate child will reflect on the misery his disobedience causes his mother. A boy of four years and nine months must, one supposes, have woke up to this fact when he remarked to his mother: "Did you choose to be a mother? I think it must be rather tiresome." The day when the child first becomes capable of thus putting himself into his mother's place and realizing, if only for an instant, the trouble he has brought on her, is an all-important one in his moral development.

As our illustrations have suggested, and as every thoughtful parent knows well enough, the problem of moral training in the first years is full of difficulty. Yet our study surely suggests that it is not so hopeless a problem as we are sometimes weakly disposed to think. Perhaps a word or two on this may not inappropriately close this essay.

I will readily concede that the difficulty of inculcating in children a sweet and cheerful obedience arises partly from the nature of the child. There are trying children, just as there are trying dogs that howl and make themselves disagreeable for no discoverable reason but their inherent "cussedness." There are, I doubt not, conscientious, painstaking mothers, who have been baffled by having to manage what appears to be the utterly unmanageable.

Yet I think that we ought to be very slow to pronounce any child unmanageable. I know full well that in the case of these small growing things there are all kinds of hidden physical commotions which breed caprices, ruffle the temper, and make them the opposite of docile. The peevish child who will do nothing, will listen to no suggestion, is assuredly a difficult thing to deal with. But such moodiness and cross-grainedness springing from bodily disturbances will be allowed for by the discerning mother, who will be too wise to bring the severer measures of discipline to bear on a child when subject to its malign influence. Waiving these disturbing factors, however, I should say that a good part, certainly more than one half, of the difficulty of training children is due to our clumsy, bungling modes of going to work.

Sensible persons know that there is a good and a bad way of approaching a child. The wrong ways of trying to constrain children are, alas! numerous. I am not writing an "advice to parents," and am not called on therefore to deal with the much-disputed question of the Tightness and the wrongness of corporal punishments. Slaps may be needful in the early stages, even though they do lead to little tussles; a mother assures me that these battles with her several children have all fallen between the ages of sixteen months and two years. It is, however, conceivable that such fights might be avoided altogether; yet a man should be chary of dogmatizing on this delicate matter.

What is beyond doubt is that the slovenly discipline—if indeed discipline it is to be called—which consists in alternations of gushing fondness with almost savage severity, or fits of government and restraint interpolated between long periods of neglect and laisser faire, is precisely what develops the rebellious and law-resisting propensities. But discipline can be bad without being a stupid pretense. Everything in the shape of inconsistency, saying one thing at One time, another thing at another, or treating one child in one fashion, another in another, tends to undermine the pillars of authority. Young eyes are quick to note these little contradictions, and they sorely resent them. It is astonishing how careless disciplinarians can show themselves before these astute little critics. It is the commonest thing to tell a child to behave like his elders, forgetting that this, if indeed a rule at all, can only be one of very limited application. Here is a suggestive example of the effect of this sort of teaching sent me by a mother: "At three years and six months, when some visitors were present, she was told not to talk at dinner time. 'Why me no talk? Papa talks.' 'Yes, but papa is grown up and you are only a little girl; you can't do just like grown-up people.' She was silent for some time, but when I told her ten minutes later to sit nicely with her hands on her lap like her cousins, she replied, with a very humorous smile, 'Me tan't (can't) sit like grown-up people, me is only a little girl.'"

We can fail and make children disloyal instead of loyal subjects by unduly magnifying our office, by insisting too much on our authority. Children who are over-ruled, who have no taste of being left unmolested and free to do what they like, can hardly be expected to submit graciously. Another way of carrying parental control to excess is by exacting displays of virtue which are beyond the moral capabilities of the child. A lady sends me this reminiscence of her childhood: She had been promised sixpence when she could play her scales without fault, and succeeded in the exploit on her sixth birthday. The sixpence was given to her, but soon after her mother suggested that she should spend the sixpence in fruit to give to her (the mother's) invalid friend. This was offending the sense of justice, for if the child, is jealous of anything as her very own, it is surely the reward she has earned; and was, moreover, a foolish attempt to call forth generosity where generosity was wholly out of place. An even worse example is that recorded by Ruskin: When a child, he was expected to come down to dessert and crack nuts for the grand older folk while peremptorily forbidden to eat any. Such refined cruelties of government deserve to be defeated in their objects. Much of our ill success in governing children would probably turn out to be attributable to unwisdom in assigning tasks, and more particularly in making exactions which wound that sensitive fiber of a child's heart, the sense of justice.

Parents are, I fear, apt to forget that generosity and the other liberal virtues owe their worth to their spontaneity. They may be suggested and encouraged but can not be exacted. On the other hand, a parent can not be more foolish than to discourage a spontaneous out-going of good impulse, as if nothing were good but what emanated from a spirit of obedience. In a pretty and touching little American work, Beckonings from Little Hands, the writer describes the remorse of a father who after his child's death recalled the little fellow's first crude endeavor to help him by bringing fuel, an endeavor which, alas! he had met with something like a rebuff.

The right method of training which develops and strengthens by bracing exercise the instinct of obedience can not easily be summarized, for it is the outcome of the highest wisdom. I may, however, be permitted to indicate one or two of its main features.

Informed at the outset by a fine moral feeling and a practical tact as to what ought to be expected, the wise mother is concerned before everything to make her laws appear as much a matter of course as the daily sequences of the home life, as unquestionable axioms of behavior; and this not by a foolish vehemence of inculcation, but by a quiet, skillful inweaving of them into the order of the child's world. To expect the right thing, as though the wrong thing were an impossibility, rather than to be always pointing out the wrong thing and threatening consequences; to make all her words and all her own actions support this view of the inevitableness of law; to meet any indications of a disobedient spirit first with misunderstanding and later with amazement—this is surely the first and fundamental matter.

The effectiveness of this discipline depends on the simple psychological principle that difficult actions tend to realize themselves in the measure in which the ideas of them become clear and persistent. Get a child steadily to follow out in thought an act to which he is disinclined and you have more than half mastered the disinclination. The quiet daily insistence of the wise rule of the nursery proceeds by setting up and maintaining the ideas of dutiful actions, and so excluding the thought of disobedient actions.

It has recently been pointed out that in this moral control of the child through suggestion of right actions we have something closely analogous to the action of suggestion upon the hypnotized subject. The mother—the right sort of mother—has on the child's mind something of the subduing influence of the Nancy doctor: she induces ideas of particular actions, gives them force and persistence, so that the young mind is possessed by them, and they work themselves out into fulfillment as occasion arises.

In order that this effect of "obsession," of a full occupation of consciousness with the right idea may result, certain precautions are necessary. As every parent knows, a child may be led by a prohibition to do the very thing he is bidden not to do. We have seen how readily a child's mind moves from an affirmation to a corresponding negation, and conversely. The contradictoriness of a child, his passion for saying the opposite of what you say, shows the same odd manner of working of the young mind. Wanting to do what he is told not to do is another effect of this "contrary suggestion," as it has been called, aided, of course, by the child's dislike of all constraint.[1] If we want to avoid this effect we must first of all acquire the difficult secret of personal influence, of the masterfulness which does not repel; and secondly, reduce our prohibitions with their contrary suggestions to a minimum.

The action in moral training of this influence of a quasi-hypnotic suggestion becomes more clearly marked when difficulties occur; when some outbreak of willful resistance has to be recognized and met, or some new and relatively arduous feat of obedience has to be initiated. Here I find that intelligent mothers have found their way to methods closely resembling those of the hypnotist. "When R—— is naughty and in a passion" (writes a lady friend of her child, aged three years and three months), "I need only suggest to him that he is some one else, say a friend of his, and he will take it up at once; he will pretend to be the other child, and at last go and call himself, now a good boy, back again." This mode of suggestion, by helping the higher self to detach itself from and control the lower, might, one suspects, be much more widely employed in the moral training of children. Suggestion may work through the emotions. Merely to say, "Mother would like you to do this," is to set up an idea in the child's consciousness by help of the sustaining force of his affection. "If [writes a lady] there was anything L—— particularly wished not to do, his mother had only to say, 'Dobbin [a sort of canonized toy horse already referred to] would like you to do this/ and it was done without a murmur."

We have another analogue to hypnotic suggestion when a mother prepares her child some time beforehand for a difficult duty, telling him that she expects him to perform it. A mother writes that her boy, when about the age of two years and three months more particularly, was inclined to burst into loud but short fits of crying. "I have found [she says] they are often checked by telling him beforehand what would be expected of him, and exacting a promise that he would do the thing cheerfully. I have seen his face flush up ready to cry when he remembered his promise and controlled himself." This reminds one forcibly of the commands suggested by the hypnotizer to be carried into effect when the subject wakes.

Much more, perhaps, might be done in this direction by choosing the right moment for setting up the persistent ideas in the child's consciousness. I know a lady who got into the way of giving moral exhortation to her somewhat headstrong girl at night before the child fell asleep, and found this very effectual. It is possible that we may be able to apply this idea of preparatory and premonitory suggestion in new and surprising ways to difficult and refractory children.[2]

One other way in which the wise mother will win the child over to duty is by developing his consciousness of freedom and power. A mother, who was herself a well-known writer for children, has recorded in some notes on her children that when one of her little girls was disinclined to accede to her wish she used to say to her, "Oh, yes, I think when you have remembered how pleasant it is to oblige others you will do it." "I will think about it, mamma," the child would reply, laughing, and then go and hide her head behind a sofa pillow, which she called her thinking corner." In half a minute she would come out and say, "Oh, yes, mamma, I have thought about it and I will do it." This strikes me as an admirable combination of regulative suggestion with exercise of the young will in moral decision. It gave the child the consciousness of using her own will, and yet maintained the needed measure of guidance and control.

As the moral consciousness develops and new problems arise, new openings for such suggestive guidance occur. How valuable, for example, is the mother's encouragement of the weakly child shrinking from a difficult self-repressive action when she says with inspiring voice, "You can do it if you try." Thus, pilotlike. she conducts the little navigator out into the open main of duty where he will have to steer himself.

I have tried to show that the moral training of children is not beyond human powers. It has its strong supports in child-nature, and these, where there are wisdom and method on the ruler's side, will secure success. I have not said that the mother's task is easy. So far from thinking this, I hold that a mother who bravely faces the problem, neither abandoning the wayward will to its own devices nor, hardly less weakly, handing over the task of disciplining it to a paid substitute, and who by well-considered and steadfast effort succeeds in approaching the perfection I have hinted at, combining the wise ruler with the tender and compassionate parent, is among the few members of our species who are entitled to its reverence.


  1. On the nature of this contrary suggestion, see Mark Baldwin, Mental Development in the Child and the Race, p. 145.
  2. The bearings of (hypnotic) suggestion on moral education have been discussed by Guyau, Education and Heredity (English translation), chap. i. Compare also Prayer, op. cit., o. 267 f., and Compayré, op. cit., p. 262.