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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 48/November 1895/Studies in Childhood XII

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 48‎ | November 1895






IN the last chapter we tried to get at those tendencies of child-nature which, though they have a certain moral significance, may in a manner be called spontaneous and independent of the institution of moral training. We will now examine the child's attitude toward the moral government with which he finds himself confronted.

Here, again, we meet with opposite views. Children, say some, are essentially disobedient and lawbreaking. A child as such is a rebel, delighting in nothing so much as in evading and dodging the rule which he finds imposed by others.

The view that children are instinctively obedient and law-abiding has not, I think, been very boldly insisted on. A follower of Rousseau at least, who sees only clumsy interference with natural development in our attempts to govern children, would say that child-nature must resist the artificial and cramping system which the disciplinarian imposes.

It seems, however, to be allowed by some that a certain number of children are docile and disposed to accept authority with its commands. According to them, children are either obedient or disobedient. This is probably the view of many mothers and pedagogues.

Here, too, it is probable that we try to make nature too simple. Even the latter view, in spite of its apparent wish to be discriminating, does not allow for the many-sidedness of the child and for the many different ways in which the instincts of child-nature may vary.

Now it is worth asking whether, if the child were naturally disposed to look on authority as something wholly hostile, he would get morally trained at all. Physically mastered and morally cowed he might, of course, become; but this is not the same thing as being morally induced into a habit of accepting law and obeying it.

In inquiring into this matter we must begin by drawing a distinction. There is first the attitude of a child toward the governor, the parent, or other ruler, and there is his attitude toward law as such. These are by no means the same thing, and a child of three or four begins to illustrate the distinction. He may seem to be lawless, opposed to the very idea of government, when, in reality, lie is merely objecting to a particular ruler and the kind of rule (or, as the child would say, misrule) which he is carrying out.

Let us look a little into the noncompliant, disobedient attitude of children. As we have seen, the very liveliness of a child, the abundance of his vigorous impulses, brings him into conflict with others' wills. The ruler, more particularly, is a great and continual source of crossings and checkings. The child has his natural wishes and propensities. He is full of fun, bent on his harmless tricks, and the mother has to talk seriously to him about being naughty. How can we wonder at his disliking the constraint? He has a number of inconvenient active impulses, such as putting things in disorder, playing with water, and so forth. As we all know, he has a ducklike fondness for dirty puddles. Civilization, which wills that a child should be nicely dressed and clean, intervenes in the shape of the nurse and soon puts a stop to this mode of diversion. The tyro in submission, if sound and robust, kicks against the restraint, yells, slaps the nurse, and so forth.

Such collisions are perfectly normal in the first years of life. We should not care to see a child give up his inclinations at another 's bidding without some little show of resistance. These conflicts are frequent and sharp in proportion to the sanity and vigor of the child. The best children, best from a biological point of view, have, I think, most of the rebel in them. Not infrequently these resistances of young will to old will are accompanied by more emphatic protests in the shape of slapping, pushing, and even biting. The ridiculous inequality in bodily power, however, saves, or ought to save, the contest from becoming a serious physical struggle. The resistance where superior force is used can only resolve itself into a helpless protest, a vain yelling, or other utterance of baffled impulse.

If, instead of physical compulsion, authority is asserted in the shape of a highly disagreeable command, a child, before obedience has grown into a habit, will be likely to disobey. If the nurse, instead of pulling the mite away from the puddle, bids him come away, he may assert his self in an eloquent "I won't," or, less bluntly, "I can't come yet." If he is very much in love with the puddle and has a stout heart, he probably embarks in a tussle of words; "I won't," or, as the child will significantly put it, "I mus'n't," being bandied with "You must," until the nurse has to abandon the "moral" method and to resort, after all, to physical compulsion.

Our sample child has not, we will assume, yet got so far as to recognize and defer to a general rule about cleanliness. Hence it may be said that his opposition is directed against the nurse, as propounding a particular command, and one which at the moment is excessively unpleasant. It is as yet not resistance to law as such, but rather to one specific interference of another's will.

At the same time we may detect in some of this early resistance to authority something of the true rebel nature—that is to say, the love of lawlessness, and, what is worse perhaps, the obstinate recklessness of the lawbreaker. The very behavior of a child when another will crosses and blocks the line of his activity is suggestive of this. The yelling and other disorderly proceedings, do not they speak of the temper of the rioter, of the rowdy? And then, the fierce persistence in disobedience under rebuke, and the wild, wicked determination to face everything rather than obey, are not these marks of an almost Satanic fierceness of revolt? The thoroughly naughty child sticks at nothing. Thus a little offender of four, when he was reminded by his sister, two years older, that he would be shut out from heaven, retorted impiously, "I don't care," adding, "Uncle won't go; I'll stay with him."[1]

The fierce and noisy utterance of the disobedient and law-resisting temper is eminently impressive. Yet it is not the only utterance. If we observe children who may be said to show, on the whole, an outward submission to authority we shall discover signs of secret dissatisfaction and antagonism. The conflict with rule has not wholly ceased; it has simply changed its manner of proceeding, physical assault and riotous shouts of defiance being now exchanged for dialectic attack.

A curious chapter in the psychology of the child which still has to be written is the account of the various devices by which the astute little novice called upon to wear the yoke of authority seeks to smooth its chafing asperities. These devices may, perhaps, be summed up under the head of "trying it on."

One of the simplest and most obvious of these contrivances is the extempore invention of an excuse for not instantly obeying a particular command. A child soon finds out that to say "I won't," when he is bidden to do something, is indiscreet as well as vulgar. He wants to have his own way without resorting to a gross breach of good manners, so he replies insinuatingly, "I's very sorry, but I's so busy," or in some such conciliatory words. This field of invention offers a fine opportunity for the imaginative child. A small boy of three years and nine months received from his nurse the familiar order, "Come here!" He at once replied, "I can't, nurse; I's looking for a flea," and he pretended to be much engrossed in the momentous business of hunting for this quarry in the blanket of his cot. The little trickster is such a lover of fun that he is pretty certain to betray his ruse in a case like this, and our small flea-catcher, we are told, laughed mischievously as he proffered his excuse. Such sly fabrications may be just as naughty as the uninspired excuses of a stupidly sulky child, but it is hard to be quite as much put out by them.

These excuses often show a fine range of inventive activity. How manifold, for example, are the reasons, more or less fictitious, which a boy, when told to make less noise, is able to urge in favor of noncompliance! Here, of course, all the great matters of the play world, the need of getting his "gee-gee" on, of giving his orders to his soldiers, and so forth, come in between the prohibition and compliance. And disobedience in such cases has its excuses; for to the child his play-world, even though in a manner modeled on the pattern of our common world, is apart and sacred; and the conventional restraints as to noise and such like, borrowed from the every-day world, seem to him to be quite out of place in this free and private domain of his own.

We all know the child's aptness in "easing" the pressure of commands and prohibitions. If, for example, he is told to keep perfectly quiet because mother or father wants to sleep, he will prettily plead for the reservation of whispering ever so softly. If he is bidden not to ask for things at the table, he will resort to sly indirect reminders of what he wants, as when a boy of five years and a half whispered audibly, "I hope somebody will offer me some more soup," or when a girl of three years and a half, with still greater childish tact, observed on seeing the elder folk eating cake, "I not asking." This last may be compared with a story told by Rousseau of a little girl of six years who, having eaten of all the dishes but one, artfully indicated the fact by pointing in turn to all the dishes, saying, "I have eaten that," but carefully passing by the untasted one.[2]

When more difficult duties come to be enforced and the neophyte in the higher morality is bidden to be considerate for others, and even to sacrifice his own comfort for theirs, he is apt to manifest a good deal of skill in adjusting the counsel of perfection to young weakness. Here is an amusing example: A little boy, Edgar by name, aged five years and three quarters, was going out to take tea with some little girls. The mother, as is usual on such occasions, primed him with special directions as to behavior, saying, "Remember to give way to them, like father does to me." To which Edgar, after thinking a brief instant replied; "Oh, but not all at once. You have to persuade him."

A like astuteness will show itself in meeting accusation. The various ways in which a child will seek to evade the point in such cases are truly marvelous, and show the childish intelligence at its ablest.

Sometimes the dreary "talking to," with its well-known deep accusatory tone, its familiar pleadings, "How can you be so naughty?" and the rest, is daringly ignored. After keeping up an excellent appearance of listening, the small culprit proceeds in the most artless way to talk about something more agreeable. This is trying, but is not the worst. The deepest depth of maternal humiliation is reached when a carefully prepared and solemnly delivered homily is rewarded by a tu quoque in the shape of a correction of something in the delivery which offends the child's sense of propriety. This befell one mother who, after talking seriously to her little boy about some fault, was met with this remark: "Mamma, when you talk you don't move your upper jaw."

It is, of course, difficult to say how far a child's interruptions, and what look like turnings of the conversation when receiving rebuke, are the result of deliberate plotting. We know it is hard to hold the young thoughts long on any subject, and the homily makes a heavy demand in this respect, and its theme is apt to seem dull to a child's lively brain. The thoughts will be sure to wander then, and the rude interruptions and digressions may, after all, be but the natural play of the young mind. I fear, however, that design often has a hand here. The first digression to which the weak disciplinarian succumbed may have been the result of a spontaneous movement of child-thought; but its success enables the observant child to try it on a second time with artful aim.

In cases in which no attempt is made to ignore the accusation, the small wits are busy discovering palliatives and exculpations. Here we have the many ruses, often crude enough, by which the little culprit tries to shake off moral responsibility, to deny the authorship of the action found fault with. The blame is put on anybody or anything. When he breaks something, say a cup, and is scolded, he saves himself by saying it was because the cup wasn't made strong enough, or because the maid put it too near the edge of the table. There are clear indications of fatalistic thought in these childish disclaimers. Things were so conditioned that he could not help doing what he did. This fatalism betrays itself in the childish ruses already referred to by which the ego tries to screen itself shabbily by throwing responsibility on to the bodily agents. This device is sometimes hit upon very early. A wee child of two, when told not to cry, gasped out, "Elsie cry—not Elsie cry—tears cry—naughty tears." This, it must be allowed, is more plausible than C——'s lame attempt to put off responsibility on his hands; for our tears are in a sense apart from us, and in the first years are wholly beyond control.

The fatalistic form of exculpation meets us later on under the familiar form, "God made me like that." A boy of three was blamed for leaving his crusts, and his conduct contrasted with that of his model papa. Whereupon he observed with a touch of metaphysical precocity, "Yes, but papa you see God had made you and me different."

These denials of authorship occur when a charge is brought home and no clear justification of the action is forthcoming. In many cases the shrewd intelligence of the child, which is never so acute as in this art of moral self-defense, discovers justificatory reasons. In such a case the attitude is a very different one. It is no longer the helpless hand-lifted attitude of the irresponsible one, but the bold, steady-eyed attitude of one who is prepared to defend his action.

Sometimes these justifications are pitiful examples of quibbling. A boy has been rough with his baby brother. His mother chides him, telling him he might hurt baby. He then asks his mother, "Isn't he my own brother?" and on his mother admitting so incontestable a proposition, exclaims triumphantly, "Well, you said I could do what I liked with my own things." The idea of the precious baby being a boy's own to do what he likes with is so remote from older people's conceptions that it is hard for us to credit the boy with misunderstanding. We ought, perhaps, to set him down as a depraved little sophist, and destined— But predictions happily lie outside our métier.

In some cases these justifications have a dreadful look of being after-thoughts invented for the express purpose of self-protection and knowingly put forward as fibs. Yet there is need of a wise discrimination here. Take, for example, the following from the Worcester Collection: A boy of three was told by his mother to stay and mind his baby sister while she went downstairs. On going up again some time after, she met him on the stairs. Being asked why he had left the baby, he said there was a bumblebee in the room, and he was afraid he would get stung if he stayed there. His mother asked him if he wasn't afraid his little sister would get stung. He said "Yes," but added that if he stayed in the room the bee might sting them both, and then she would have two to take care of. Now, with every wish to be charitable I can not bring myself to think that this small boy had really gone through that subtle process of disinterested calculation before vacating the room in favor of the bumblebee—if indeed there was a bumblebee. To be caught in the act and questioned is, I suspect, a situation particularly productive of such specious fibbing.

One other illustration of this keen childish dialectic when face to face with the accuser deserves to be touched on. The sharp little wits have something of a lawyer's quickness in detecting a flaw in the indictment. Any exaggeration into which, a feeling of indignation happens to betray the accuser is instantly pounced upon. If, for example, a child is scolded for pulling kitty's ears and making her cry, it is enough for the little stickler for accuracy to be able to say: "I wasn't pulling kitty's ears, I was only pulling one of her ears." This ability to deny the charge in its initial form gives the child a great advantage, and robs the accusation in its amended form of much of its sting. Whence, by the way, one may infer that wisdom in managing children shows itself in nothing more than in a scrupulous exactness in the use of words.

While there are these isolated attacks on various points of the daily discipline, we see now and again a bolder line of action in the shape of a general protest against its severity. Children have been known to urge that the punishments inflicted on them are ineffectual; and although their opinion on such a matter is hardly disinterested, it is sometimes pertinent enough. An American boy, aged five years and ten months, began to cry because he was forbidden to go into the yard to play, and was threatened by his mother with a whipping. Whereupon he observed, "Well now, mamma, that will only make me cry more."

These childish protests are, as we know, wont to be met by the commonplaces about the affection which prompts the correction. But the child finds it hard to swallow these subtleties. For him love is caressing him and doing everything for his present enjoyment; and here is the mother who says she loves him, and often acts as if she did, transforming herself into an ogre to torment him and make him miserable. He may accept her assurance that she scolds and chastises him because she is a good mother; only he is apt to wish that she were a shade less good. A boy of four had one morning to remain in bed till ten o'clock as a punishment for misbehavior. He proceeded to address his mother on this wise: "If I had any little children I'd be a worse mother than you—I'd be quite a bad mother. I'd let my children get up directly I had done my breakfast, at any rate."

If, on the other hand, the mother puts forward her own comfort as the ground of the restraint, she may be met by this kind of thing: "I wish you'd be a little more self-sacrificing and let me make a noise."

Enough has been said to illustrate the ways in which the natural child kicks against the imposition of restraints on his free activity. He begins by showing himself an open foe to authority. For a long time after, while making a certain show of submission, he harbors in his breast something of the rebel's spirit. He does his best to avoid the most galling parts of the daily discipline, and displays an admirable ingenuity in devising excuses for apparent acts of insubordination. Where candor is permitted he is apt to prove himself an exceedingly acute critic of the system which is imposed on him.

All this, moreover, seems to show that a child objects not only to the particular administration under which he happens to live, but to all law, as implying restraints on free activity. Thus, from the child's point of view, so far as we have yet examined it, punishment as such is a thing which ought not to be.

So strong and deep-reaching is this antagonism to law and its restraints apt to be that the childish longing to be "big" is, I believe, grounded on the expectation of liberty. To be big means to the child more than anything else to be rid of all this imposition of commands, to be able to do what one likes without interference from others. This longing may grow intense in the breast of a quite small child. "Do you know," asked a little fellow of four years, "what I shall do when I'm a big man? I'll go to a shop and buy a bun and pick out all the currants." This funny story is characteristic of the movements of young desire. The small prohibition not to pick out the currants is one that may chafe to soreness a child's sensibility.


  1. My correspondent, discreetly perhaps, does not explain why the uncle was selected as fellow-outcast.
  2. Émile, livre v, quoted by Perez, L'Art et la Poesie chez l'Enfant, p. 127. Rousseau uses this story in order to show that girls are more artful than boys.