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Ch. 3: Two and Two Together

"If not trained to obedience, what shall the child be trained to?" naturally demands the outraged parent. To inculcate that first of virtues has taken so much time and effort that we have overlooked the subsequent qualities which require our help, and feel rather at sea when this sheet anchor is taken from us.

But it is not so hard a problem, when honestly faced. A child has a body and a mind to be nourished, sheltered, protected, allowed to grow, and judiciously trained.

We are here considering the brain training; but that is safely comparable to—is, indeed, part of—the body training, for the brain as much as the lungs or liver is an organ of the body. In training the little body, our main line of duty is to furnish proper food, to insure proper rest, and to allow and encourage proper exercise. Exactly this is wanted to promote right brain growth. We do not wish to overstimulate the brain, to develope it at the expense of other organs; but we do wish to insure its full natural growth and to promote its natural activities by a wise selection of the highest qualities for preferred use. And we need more knowledge of the various brain functions than is commonly possessed by those in charge of young children.

The office of the brain we are here considering is to receive, retain, and collate impressions, and, in retaining them, to hold their original force as far as possible, so that the ultimate act, coming from a previous impression, may have the force of the original impulse. The human creature does not originate nervous energy; but he does secrete it, so to speak, from the impact of natural forces. He has a storage battery of power we call the will. By this high faculty we see a well-developed human being working steadily for a desired object, without any present stimulus directed to that end, even in opposition to prevent stimulus tending to oppose that end. This width of perception, length of retention, storage of force, and power of steady, self-determined action distinguish the advanced human brain.

Early forms of life had no brains to speak of. They received impressions and transmitted them in expressions without check or discrimination. With the development of more complex organisms and their more complex activities came the accompanying complexity of brain, which could co-ordinate those activities to the best advantage. Action is the main line of growth. Conditions press upon all life, but life is modified through its own action under given conditions. And the relative wisdom and success of different acts depend on the brain power of the organism.

The superiority of races lies in better adaptation to condition. In human life, in the long competition among nations, classes, and individuals, superiority still lies in the same development. Power to receive and retain more wide, deep, and subtle impression; power to more accurately and judiciously collate these impressions; power to act steadily on these stored and selected impulses rather than on immediate impulses,—this it is which marks our line of advance.

The education of the child should be such as to develope these distinguishing human faculties. The universe, speaking loudly, lies around every creature. Little by little we learn to hear, to understand, to act accordingly. And this we should teach the child, to recognise more accurately the laws about him and to act upon them.

A very little child does this in his narrow range exactly as does the adult in wider fields. He receives impressions, such as are allowed to reach him. He stores and collates those impressions with increasing vigour and accuracy from day to day; and he acts on the sum of those impressions with growing power. Naturally, his range of impression is limited, his power of retention is limited, his ability to relate the impression retained is limited; and his action is at first far more open to immediate outside stimulus, and less responsive to the inner will-force, than that of an adult. That is the condition of childhood. It is for us to gently, delicately, steadily surround the child with such conditions as shall promote this orderly sequence of brain function rather than to forcibly develope and retain his more primitive methods.

Before going further, let us look at the average mental workings of the human creature, and see if it seems to us in smooth running order. We have made enormous progress in brain development, and we manifest wide differences in brain power. But clearly discernible through all the progress and all the difference is this large fault in our mental machinery,—a peculiar discrepancy between the sum of our knowledge and the sum of our behaviour. Man being conscious and intelligent, it would seem that to teach him the desirability of a given course of action would be sufficient. That it is not sufficient, every mother, every teacher, every preacher, every discoverer, inventor, reformer, knows full well.

Instruction may be poured in by the ton: it comes out in action by the ounce. You may teach and preach and pray for two thousand years, and very imperfectly Christianise a small portion of the human race. You may exhort and command and reiterate; and yet the sinner, whether infant or adult, remains obdurate. No wonder we imagined an active Enemy striving to oppose us, so difficult was good behaviour in spite of all our efforts. It has never occurred to us that we were pursuing an entirely erroneous method. We uttered like parrots the pregnant proverb, "Example is better than precept," learning nothing by it.

What does that simple saying mean? That one learns better by observation than by instruction, especially when instruction is coupled with command. This being a clearly established fact, why have we not profited by it? Because our brains, all of our brains from the beginning of time, have been blurred and blinded and weakened by the same mistake in infant education.

What is this mistake? What is it we have done so patiently and faithfully all these years to every one of the human race which has injured the natural working of the brain? This: we have systematically checked in our children acts which were the natural sequence of their observation and inference; and enforced acts which, to the child's mind, had no reason. Thus we have carefully trained a world of people to the habit of acting without understanding, and also of understanding without acting. Because we were unable even to entirely subvert natural brain processes, because our children must needs do some things of their own motion and not in obedience to us, therefore some power of judgment and self-government has grown in humanity. But because we have been so largely successful in our dealings with the helpless little brain is there so little power of judgment and self-government among us.

Observe, too, that our most intelligent progress is made in those arts, trades, professions, sciences, wherein little children are not trained; and that our most palpable deficiencies are in the morals, manners, and general personal relations of life, wherein little children are trained. The things we are compelled to do in obedience we make no progress in. They are either obeyed or disobeyed, but are not understood and improved upon: they stand like the customs of China. The things we learn by understanding and practising are open to further knowledge and growth.

A normal human act, as distinguished from the instinctive behaviour of lower animals or from mere excito-motary reaction, involves always these three stages,—impression, judgment, expression. These are not separate, but are orderly steps in the great main fact of life,—action. It is all a part of that transmission of energy which appears to be the business of the universe.

The sun's heat pours upon the earth, and passes through whatever substance it strikes, coming out transformed variously, according to the nature of the substance. Man receives his complement of energy, like every other creature,—physical stimulus from food and fire, psychical stimulus from its less known sources; and these impressions tend to flow through him into expression as naturally as, though with more complexity than, in other creatures.

The song of the skylark and Shelley's "Skylark" show this wide difference in the amount and quality of transmission, yet are both expressions of the same impressions, plus those wider impressions to which the poet's organism was open.

The distinctive power of man is that of connected action. Our immense capacity for receiving and retaining impressions gives us that world-stock of stored information and its arrested stimulus which we call knowledge. But wisdom, the higher word, refers to our capacity for considering what we know,—handling and balancing the information in stock, and so acting judiciously from the best impression or group of impressions, instead of indiscriminately from the latest or from any that happens to be uppermost.

This power, in cases of immediate danger, we call "presence of mind." Similarly, when otherwise intelligent persons do visibly foolish things, we call it "absence of mind." The brain, as an organ, is present in both cases; but in the former it is connected with action, in the latter the connection is broken. The word "thoughtless," as applied to so large a share of our walk and conversation, describes this same absence of the mind from the place where it is wanted.

In training the brain of the child, first importance lies in cultivating this connection between the mind and the behaviour. As with eye or hand, we should induce frequent repetition of the desired motions, that the habit of right action be formed. If the child is steadily encouraged to act in this natural connection, in orderly sequence of feeling, thought, and action, he would grow into constant "presence of mind" in his behaviour. Habits work in all directions; and a habit of thoughtful behaviour is as easy to form, really easier, than a habit of obedience,—easier, because it would be the natural function of the brain to govern behaviour if we did not so laboriously contradict it. We have preferred submission to intelligence, and have got neither,—not intelligence because we have so violently discouraged it, and not submission because the healthy upward forces of human brain growth will not submit. Those races where the children are most absolutely subservient, as with the Chinese and Hindu, where parents are fairly worshipped and blindly obeyed, are not races of free and progressive thought and healthy activity.

The potential attitude of mind involved in our method is shown in that perfect expression of "childish faith,"—"It's so because mamma says so; and, if mamma says so, 'tis so if 'tain't so." That position makes it very easy for mamma as long as "childish faith" endures; but how does it help the man she has reared in this idyllic falsehood? The painful truth is that we have used childish weaknesses to make our government easy for us, instead of cultivating the powers that shall make life easy to them. A child's limitless credulity is the open door of imposition, and is ruthlessly taken advantage of by mother and father, nurse and older companion generally.

As a feature in brain-training, this, of course, works absolute harm. It prolongs the infant weakness of the racial brain, keeps us credulous and open to all imposture, hinders our true growth. What we should do is to help the child to question and find out,—teach him to learn, not to believe. He does learn, of course. We cannot shut out the workings of natural laws from him altogether. Gradually he discovers that fire is hot and water wet, that stone is hard to fall on, and that there are "pins in pussy's toes." His brain is always being healthily acted upon by facts, his power of discrimination he practises as best he may, and his behaviour follows inevitably.

Given such a child, with such and such an inheritance of constitution and tendency, submit him to certain impressions, and he behaves accordingly. He has felt. He has thought. He is about to do. Here comes in our universal error. We concern ourselves almost wholly with what the child does, and ignore what he feels and thinks. We check the behaviour which is the logical result of his feeling and thinking, and substitute another and different behaviour for his adoption.

Now it is a direct insult to the brain to try to make the body do something which the brain does not authorise. It is a physical shock: it causes a sort of mental nausea. There are many subconscious activities which go on without our recognition; but to call on the body to consciously go through certain motions, undirected by previous mental processes, is an affront to any healthy brain. It is sharply distasteful to us, because it is against the natural working of the machinery. The vigorous functional activity of the young brain cries out against it; and the child says, "Why?" "Why" is an articulate sound to express the groping of the brain for relation, for consistency. We have so brow-beaten and controverted this natural tendency, so forced young growing brains to accept the inconsistent, that consistency has become so rare in human conduct as to be called "a jewel." Yet the desire for consistency is one of the most inherent and essential of our mental appetites. It is the logical tendency, the power to "put two and two together," the one great force that holds our acts in sequence and makes human society possible.

We demand consistency in others, and scoff at the lack of it, even in early youth. "What yer talkin' about, anyway?" we cry. "There's no sense in that!" We expect consistency of ourselves, too. It is funny, though painful, to see the ordinary warped brain trying to square its own conduct with its own ideals. Square they must, somehow, however strained and thin is our patchwork connection. We check the child's act, the natural sequence of his feeling and thought, so incessantly as to give plenty of basis for that pathetic tale of the little girl who said her name was Mary. "And what is your last name?" "Don't," said she. "Mary Don't." By doing this, we constantly send back upon the brain its own impulses, and accustom it to such continual discouragement of natural initiative that it gradually ceases to govern the individual behaviour. In highest success, this produces the heavy child, whining, "What shall I do now?" always hanging about, fit subject for any other will to work on; and the heavy adult, victim of ennui, and needing constant outside stimulus to "pass away the time."

The slowness, the inertia, the opaque conservatism, and the openness to any sort of external pressure, easiest, of course, on the down side,—which so blocks the path of humanity,—largely come back to that poor child's surname, Mary Don't. It is thoroughly beaten into us when young, and for the rest of life we mostly "Don't." But beyond the paralysing "Don't!" checking the natural movement of the organism, comes a galvanising "Do!" shocking it into unnatural activity. We tell the child to perform a certain action toward which his own feeling and thought have made no stir whatever. "Why?" he demands. And we state as reason our authority, and add an immediate heaven or hell arrangement of our own making to facilitate his performance. He does it. Hell is very near. He does it many, many times. He becomes habituated to a course of behaviour which comes to its expression not through his own previous impression and judgment, but through ours; that is, he is acting from another person's feeling and thinking. We have asserted our authority just before his act, between it and his thought. We have made a cleft which widens to a chasm between what he feels and thinks and what he does. Into that chasm pours to waste an immeasurable amount of human energy. The struggles of the dethroned mind to get possession of its own body again, as the young man or woman grows to personal freedom, ought to strike remorse and shame to the parental heart. They do not, because the devoted parent knows no more of these simple psychic processes than the Goths knew of the priceless manuscripts they destroyed so cheerfully. With the slow, late kindling of the freed mind, under the stimulus perhaps of noble thoughts from others, or just the inner force of human upgrowth, the youth tries to take the rudder, and steer straight. But the rudder chains are stretched to useless slackness or rusted and broken. He feels nobly. He thinks nobly. He starts to do nobly, but his inner pressure meets no quick response in outer act. The connection is broken. The habit of "don't" is strong upon him. Following each upward impulse which says, "Do!" is that automatic check, artificial, but heavily driven in, which has so thoroughly and effectually taught the brain to stop at thinking, not to do what it thought. What he felt and thought was not allowed to govern his action these fifteen years past. Why should it now? It takes years of conscientious work to re-establish this original line of smooth connection, and the mended place is never so strong as it would have been if it had not been broken.

Also, the work of those who seek to educate our later youth, and of those who are forever pouring out their lives to lead the world a little higher, is rendered million-fold more difficult by this same gulf, this terrible line of cleavage which strikes so deep to the roots of life, and leaves our beautiful feelings and wise thoughts to mount sky-high in magnificent culture, while our action, which is life's real test, grovels slowly along, scarce moved by all our fine ideas.

A more general discourager of our racial advancement than this method of brain-training we could hardly have invented. It is universal in its application, and grinds down steadily on all our people during the most impressionable years of life. That we grow as we do in spite of it is splendid proof of the beneficent forces of our unconscious life, always stronger than our conscious efforts; and that our American children grow more freely, and so have more power of initiative and self-government, is the best work of our democracy.

"But what else can we do?" will ask the appalled parents. Without authority they feel no grip upon the child, and see themselves exposed to infant tyranny, and the infant growing up neglected and untrained. This shows how little progress we have made in child-culture, how little grasp we have of the real processes of education. Any parent, no matter how ignorant, is wiser than a baby and larger. Therefore, any parent can direct a child's action and enforce it, to some extent. But to understand how to modify the child's action by such processes as shall keep it still his own, to alter his act by first altering his feeling and thought and so keeping the healthy sequence unbroken, that is a far more subtle and difficult task. A typical instance of this difference in method may be illustrated in that common and always difficult task, teaching a child table manners. Here is a case in which there is no instinct in the child to be appealed to. The noise, clumsiness, and carelessness to which we object are not at all unpleasant to him. In what way can we reach the child's range of reasoning, and convince him of the desirability of this artificial code of ours? We can, of course, state that it displeases us, and appeal to his good will not to give us pain. This is rational enough; but consideration for others, based on a mere statement of distaste,—a distaste he cannot sympathise with,—is a rather weak force with most children. It is a pity to over-strain this delicate feeling. It should be softly tested from time to time, and used enough to encourage a healthy growth; but to continually appeal to a sympathy none too strong is often to strain and weaken it. In table manners it seldom works well. The alleged distress of the parent requires too much imagination, the desired self-control has too slight a basis.

But there is a far safer and better way. Carefully work out in your own mind the real reason why you wish the child to conform to this particular code of table ethics. It is not wholly on the ground of displeasing you by the immediate acts. The main reason why they displease you, and why you are so concerned about the matter, is that this is the accepted standard among the people with whom you associate and with whom you expect the child to associate; and, if he does not conform to this code, he will be excluded from desirable society.

Reasons why table manners exist at all, or are what they are, require further study; but the point at issue is not why it is customary to eat with the fork instead of the knife, but why your child should do so. When he gets to the point of analysing these details, and asks why he should fold his napkin in one case and leave it crumpled in another, you will of course be prepared with the real reasons. Meanwhile the real reason why the child should learn not to do these undesirable things is that such manners, if pursued, will deprive him of desirable society.

We usually content ourselves with an oral statement to this effect: "Nobody will want to eat with you if you do so!" Right here let a word be said to those who are afraid of over-stimulating a child's brain by a more rational method of training. Training by observation and deduction is far easier to a young brain than training by oral statements. To take into the mind by ear a statement of fact, and to hold that statement in memory and preserve its force to check a natural action, is a difficult feat for an adult. But to see that such a thing has such a consequence, and "take warning" by that, is the "early method," the natural method, the quickest, easiest, surest way. So, instead of saying to the child, "If you behave so, people will not want to eat with you," we should let him see that this is the case, and feel the lack.

His most desirable society is usually that of his parents; and his first entrance upon that plane should be fairly conditioned upon his learning to play the game as they do. No compulsion, no penalties, no thought of "naughtiness," merely that, if he wants to eat with them, why, that is the way they eat, and he must do so, too. If he will not, exit the desirable society. By very gradual steps,—not by long, tiresome grown-up meals, but by a graduated series of exercises that should recognise the physical difficulty of co-ordinating the young faculties on this elaborate "manual of arms,"—a child could learn the whole performance in a reasonable time, and lose neither nervous force nor clearness of perception in the process.

As we do these things now, pulling this string and that, appealing to feelings half developed, urging reasons which find no recognition, using compulsion which to the child's mind is arbitrary and unjust, we may superinduce a tolerable system of table manners, but we have more or less injured the instrument in so doing. A typewriter could, perhaps, be worked with a hammer; but it would not improve the machine. We have had far more consideration for "the machinery of the household" than for the machinery of a child's mind, and yet the real foundation claim of the home is that it is necessary to rear children in. If the ordinary conditions of household life are unsuitable to convey the instruction we desire, it is for us to so arrange those conditions as to make them suitable.

There are cases, many cases, in a child-time, where we cannot command the conditions necessary for this method of instruction, where the child must act from our suggestion with no previous or accompanying reasoning. This makes it all the more necessary that such reasoning should be open to him when we can command it. Moreover, the ordinary events in a young life are not surprises to the parent. We know in advance the things that are so unexpected to the child. Why should we not be at some pains to prepare him for these experiences? The given acts of each day are not the crucial points we make of them. What is important is that the child shall gradually establish a rational and connected scheme of life and method of action, his young faculties improving as he uses them, life growing easier and plainer to him from year to year. It is for the parent, the educator, the brain-trainer, to study out details of method and delicate applications. The main purpose is that the child's conduct shall be his own,—his own chosen course of action, adopted by him through the use of his own faculties, not forced upon him by immediate external pressure.

It is our business to make plain to him the desirability of the behaviour we wish produced, carefully establishing from day to day his perceptions of the use and beauty of life, and his proven confidence in us as interpreters. The young brain should be regularly practised in the first easy steps of sequential reasoning, arguing from the interesting causes we so carefully provide to the pleasant or not too painful effects we so honestly let it feel, always putting two and two together as it advances in the art and practice of human conduct. Then it will grow into a strong, clear, active, mature brain, capable of relating the facts of life with a wider and juster vision than has been ours, and acting unflinchingly from its own best judgment, as we have striven to do in vain these many years.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman