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Ch. 4: The Burnt Child Dreads the Slipper

The question of discipline is a serious one to every young mother; and most mothers are young to begin with. She feels the weight of maternal responsibility and the necessity for bringing up her child properly, but has studied nothing whatever on the subject.

What methods of discipline are in general use in the rearing of children? The oldest and commonest of all is that of meeting an error in the child's behaviour with physical pain. We simply hurt the child when he does wrong, in order that he may so learn not to do wrong. A method so common and so old as this ought to be clearly justified or as clearly condemned by its results.

Have we succeeded yet in simplifying and making easy the training of children,—easy for the trainer and for the trained; and have we developed a race of beings with plain, strong, clear perceptions of right and wrong behaviour and an easy and accurate fulfilment of those perceptions?

It must be admitted that we have not; but two claims will be made in excuse: first, that, however unsuccessful, this method of discipline is better than any other; and, second, that the bad behaviour of humanity is due to our inherent depravity, and cannot be ameliorated much even by physical punishment. Some may go further, and say that whatever advance we have made is due to this particular system. Unfortunately, we have almost no exact data from which to compute the value of different methods of child-training.

In horse-training something definite is known. On one of the great stock ranches of the West, for instance, where some phenomenal racers have been bred, the trainers of colts not only forbid any rough handling of the sensitive young animals, but even rough speaking to them. It has been proven that the intelligent and affectionate horse is trained more easily and effectually by gentleness than by severity. But with horses the methods used are open to inspection, and also the results.

With children each family practises alone on its own young ones, and no record is kept beyond the casual observation and hearsay reports of the neighbours. Yet, even so, there is a glimmer of light. The proverbial uncertainty as to "ministers' sons" indicates a tendency to reaction when a child has been too severely restrained; and the almost sure downfall of the "mamma's darling," the too-much-mothered and over-indulged boy, shows the tendency to foolish excesses when a child has not been restrained enough.

Again, our general uncertainty as to methods proves that even the currently accepted "rod" system is not infallible. If it were, we should have peace of mind and uncounted generations of good citizens. As it is, we have the mixed and spotty world we all know so well,—a heavy percentage of acknowledged criminals, a much larger grade of those who just do not break the law, but whose defections from honesty, courage, truth, and honour weigh heavily upon us all. Following that comes the vast mass of "good people," and their behaviour is sometimes more trying than that of the bad ones.

Humanity does gain, but not as fast as so intelligent a race should. In penology something has been learned. Here, dealing with the extreme criminal, we are slowly establishing the facts that arbitrary and severe punishment does not proportionately decrease crime; that crime has causes, which may be removed; and that the individual needs to be treated beforehand, preventively, rather than afterward, retributively. This would seem to throw some light on infant penology. If retributive punishment does not proportionately decrease crime in adult criminals, perhaps it does not decrease "naughtiness" among little children. If there is an arrangement of conditions and a treatment which may prevent the crime, perhaps there may be an arrangement of conditions and a treatment which will prevent the naughtiness.

One point may be clearly established, to begin with; and that is the need of an open court for our helpless little offenders. Whatever else we think of human nature, we know it to be fallible, and that a private individual cannot be expected to administer justice in secret and alone.

Suppose Mr. Jones steals a cow from Mr. Smith, is Mr. Smith capable of being himself both judge and executioner? Does not the very conception of justice involve a third party, some one to hold the scales, to balance, to decide? And, if circumstances compel much power to be invested in an individual for a season, should not that individual be previously instructed from some code of law which many have sanctioned, and afterward be held responsible to public judgment?

A ship captain, for instance, has absolute authority for a while; but his authority rests on law, and, if he breaks that law, he is liable to punishment. Moreover, if he goes too far while in command, he is liable to dangerous mutiny as well. But in domestic discipline the child is absolutely in the power of the parent. There is no appeal. There is no defence. There are no witnesses. The child offends against the parent, and the offended one is both judge and executioner. A number of children may commit exactly the same offence, as, for instance, if six boys all go swimming when forbidden; yet they are liable to six several punishments at the hands of their six several mothers or fathers,—punishments bearing relation to the views, health, and temper of the parent at the time rather than to the nature of the misdeed. The only glimmer of protection which the child gets from an enlightened community is in the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children,—a small, feeble body, acting in few localities, and intervening only to save the child from the parent when gross physical cruelty is practised. That in many cases parents are even violently cruel to little children gives reason to believe that many others are a little cruel; and that still more, while not cruel, are unwise.

There is no society for the prevention of over-indulgence to children, for instance; yet this is a frequent injury to our young people. Whatever the views of the separate parents, and whatever their standard of justice, a great improvement would be made if there were some publicity and community of action in their methods. A hundred men together can decide upon and carry out a higher course of action than they could be trusted to follow severally. Our beautiful growth in justice and equity (for grown people) has always required this openness and union. Many a mother, tired and cross with her housework, does things to her child which she would be ashamed to retail to a cool and unprejudiced circle of friends. And many another mother consistently and conscientiously inflicts punishments which she would learn to be ashamed of if she heard them discussed by her respected associates with a consensus of disapproval.

In the ordinary contact of neighbourly life, some little development of this sort goes on: a few sporadic Mothers' Clubs lead to more concerted discussions; and to-day the Mothers' Congress, lately become the Parents' Congress, and other bodies, together with a growing field of literature on the subject, is leading to far wider and deeper thought, and some experiment. But the field is as wide as the world, and very little is yet accomplished. We have swung wide from the stern severity of earlier times, so that American children are notoriously "indulged"; but merely to leave off a wrong method, without introducing a better one, is not all that can be hoped.

The discipline of life lies before us all. The more carefully and wisely we teach and train our children, the less they and others need suffer afterward. But there does seem to be some grave deficiency in our method of domestic discipline. Here is little Albert being educated. He is not going to school yet. He is "not old enough." That is, he is not old enough to be taught anything systematically by persons whose business it is to teach; but he is old enough to be learning the a, b, c of life at the hands of those with whom he chances to be. A child learns every day. That cannot be helped. What he learns, and how, we can largely dictate; but we cannot keep his brain shut until he gets to school, and then open it for three or four hours a day only. What does little Albert learn? Put yourself in his place for a little while. Here are new sensations coming to him momently, through the eager nerves of sense. Here is a new brain, fresh to receive impressions, store them, and act upon them. The pleasure of perceiving is keen, the pleasure of his limited but growing reflection is keen, and the pleasure of action is best of all. Life is full of interest. All the innumerable facts which form our smooth background of behaviour, in the knowledge of which we avoid the water and the fire and go down hill circumspectly, are to him fresh discoveries and revelations. He has to prove them and put them together, and see how they work. The feelings with which we have learned to associate certain facts and actions do not exist to him. He knows nothing of "should" or "should not," except as he learns it by personal trial or through the reaction of other persons upon him.

This open state of mind we early destroy by labelling certain acts as good and others as bad; and, since we do not see our way to exhibiting the goodness or badness to the baby brain in natural colours, we paint them in sharp black and white, with no shading. He has to gather his sense of relatively good and bad from the degree of our praise and punishment; and strange, indeed, are his impressions.

The loving and cuddling which delight his baby soul are associated with so many different acts, and in such varying proportion, that he does not clearly gather whether it is more virtuous to kiss mamma or to pull grandpa's whiskers; and it takes him some time to learn which dress he must not hug. But, if the good things confuse him, the bad ones are far more complex and uncertain.

Little Albert is, we will say, investigating his mother's work-basket. A tall object stands before him. He just bumped his head against it, and it wiggled. He felt it wiggle. He reaches forth an inquiring hand, and finds graspable wicker legs within reach. To grasp and to pull are natural to the human hand and arm. To shake was early taught him. Things were put in his hands, the shaking of which produced an agreeable noise and admiration from the beloved ones. So he shakes this new object; and, to his delight, something rattles. He puts forth his strength, and, lo! the tall, shakable object falls prostrate before him, and scatters into a sprawling shower of little things that clink and roll. Excellent! Lovely! Have not persons built up tall creations of vari-colored blocks, and taught baby to knock them down and rejoice in their scattering!

But mamma, to whom this group of surfaces, textures, colours, movements, and sounds, means much besides infantile instruction, asserts that he is "naughty," and treats him with severity. "If you do that again," says irate mamma, "I'll whip you!" If Albert has not already been whipped, the new word means nothing. How is an unwhipped child to know what whipping means? She might save her breath. The lesson is not taught by words. But if she promptly whips him, and does so inevitably when he repeats the offence, he does learn a definite lesson; namely, that the act of pulling over a work-basket results in a species of physical pain, via mamma.

Then the unprejudiced young brain makes its deduction,—"The pulling over of things causes physical pain, named whipping." This much being established, he acts on the information. Presently he learns, with some little confusion, that going out of the gate without leave is also productive of whipping,—dissimilar acts, but the same result,—and lays this up with the other,—"Pulling over things and going out of gates are two causes with the same result,—whipping."

Then comes another case. He begins to investigate that endless wonder and attraction, the fire. If ever cause and effect were neatly and forcibly related, it is in this useful and dangerous element. So simple and sure is its instructive and deterrent action that we have built a proverb on it,—"The burnt child dreads the fire."

But the mother of Albert has a better plan than mother Nature. She interposes with her usual arbitrary consequence,—"If you play with fire, I will whip you," and Albert learns anew that this third cause still produces the same unpleasant result; and he makes his record,—"Pulling things over, going out of gates, playing with fire, result in whipping." And he acts accordingly. Then one day he makes a new and startling discovery. Led by some special temptation, he slips out of the gate and safely back again, unseen of any. No whipping follows. Then his astonished but accurate brain hastily revises the previous information, and adds a glaring new clause,—"It is not just going out of gates that makes a whipping come: it is being seen!" This is covertly tried on the other deeds with the same result. "Aha! Aha!" clicks the little recording machine inside. "Now I know! Whipping does not come from those things: it comes from mamma; and, if she doesn't see me, it doesn't come! Whipping is the result of being seen!" Of course, a little child does not actually say this to himself in so many words; but he does get this impression very clearly, as may be seen from his ensuing behaviour.

The principle in question, in considering this usual method of discipline, is whether it is better to associate a child's idea of consequences with the act itself or with an individual, and conditioned upon the chance of discovery. Our general habit is to make the result of the child's deed contingent upon the parental knowledge and displeasure rather than upon the deed itself. As in this hackneyed instance of the fire, instead of teaching the child by mild and cautious experiment that fire burns, we teach him that fire whips. The baby who is taught not to play with fire by the application of a rearward slipper does not understand the nature of the glittering attraction any better than before; and, as soon as he learns that whippings are contingent upon personal observation, he fondly imagines that, if he can play with fire without being seen, no pain will follow.

Thus the danger we seek to avert is not averted. He is still liable to be burned through ignorance. We have denied the true lesson as to the nature of fire, and taught a false one of arbitrary but uncertain punishment. Even if the child is preternaturally obedient and never does the things we tell him not to do, he does not learn the lesson. He is no wiser than before. We have saved him from danger and also from knowledge. If he is disobedient, he runs the same risk as if we had told him nothing, with the added danger of acting alone and nervously. Whereas, if he were taught the simple lesson that fire burns, under our careful supervision to see that the burn was not serious, then he would know the actual nature of fire, and dread it with sure reason, far more than he dreads the uncertain slipper.

This has been dwelt upon so fully by previous writers that there would seem small need of further mention; but still our mothers do not read or do not understand, and still our babies are confronted with arbitrary punishment instead of natural consequence. The worst result of this system is in its effect on the moral sense. We have a world full of people who are partially restrained from evil by the fear of arbitrary punishment, and who do evil when they imagine they can do so without discovery. Never having been taught to attach the evil consequence to the evil act, but instead to find it a remote contingency hinging on another person's observation, we grow up in the same attitude of mind, afraid not of stealing, but of the policeman.

If there is no slipper, why not tip over the work-basket: if there is no policeman, why not steal? Back of slipper and police we hold up to the infant mind a still more remote contingency of eternal punishment; but this has to be wholly imagined, and is so distant, to a child's mind, as to have little weight. It has little weight with grown persons even, and, necessarily, less with a child.

The mental processes involved in receiving by ear an image of a thing never seen, of visualising it by imagination and then remembering the vision, and finally of bringing forward that remembered vision to act as check to a present and actual temptation, are most difficult. But where a consequence is instant and clear,—when baby tries to grab the parrot, and the parrot bites,—that baby, without being promised a whipping or being whipped, will thereafter religiously avoid all parrots.

A baby soon learns to shun certain things for reasons of his own. What he dislikes and fears he will not touch. It is no effort for the young mind to observe and remember a prompt natural consequence. We do make some clumsy attempts in this direction, as when we tie up, in an ill-tasting rag, the thumb too often sucked. If thumb-sucking is a really bad habit and a general one, we should long since have invented a neat and harmless wash, purchasable in small bottles at the drug store, of which a few applications would sicken the unhappy suckling of that thumb most effectually. But thumb-sucking we do not consider as wrong, merely as undesirable. When the child does what we call wrong, we think he should be "punished." Our ideas of domestic discipline are still of the crudely savage era; while in social discipline, in penology, we have become tolerably civilised.

Some will say that the child is like a savage, and is most open to the treatment current at that time in our history. It is true that the child passes through the same phases in personal development that the race passed long ago, and that he is open to the kind of instruction which would affect a primitive-minded adult. But this means (if we are seeking to benefit the child), not the behaviour of one savage to another, but such behaviour as would elevate the savage. One of the most simple and useful elements in primitive discipline is retaliation. It is Nature's law of reaction in conscious form.

To retaliate in kind is primitive justice. If we observe the code of ethics in use among children, it resolves itself into two simple principles: that of instant and equal retaliation; or, when that fails, the dread ultimatum which no child can resist,—"I won't play!" A child who is considered "mean" and disagreeable by his fellows meets the simple and effectual treatment of snubbing, neglect, ostracism.

These two principles may be applied in domestic discipline gently, accurately, fairly, and without ill-feeling; and their effect is admirable. "What is the difference between this and the other method?" will be asked. "Is not this also descending to the plane of childishness, of savagery, to which you were just now objecting?" Here is the difference.

To apply a brutal and arbitrary punishment to the person of the offender is what savages do, and what we do, to the child. To receive a just and accurate retaliation is what child and savage understand, are restrained and instructed by. We should treat the child in methods applicable by the savage, not with the behaviour of savages. For instance, you are playing with a little child. The little child is rude to you. You put him down, and go away. This is a gentle reaction, which, being repeated, he soon learns to associate with the behaviour you dislike. "When I do this," observes the infant mind, "the play stops. I like to play. Therefore, I will not do the thing that stops it."

This is simple observation, and involves no ill-feeling. He learns to modify his conduct to a desired end, which is the lesson of life. In this case you treat him by a method of retaliation quite perceptible to a savage, and appealing to the sense of justice without arousing antagonism. But, if you are playing with the little one, he is rude to you, and you spank him, he is conscious of a personal assault which does arouse antagonism. It is not only what a savage could understand, but what a savage would have done. It arouses savage feelings, and helps keep the child a savage. Also, it helps keep the race a savage; for the child who grows up under the treatment common in that era finds it difficult to behave in a manner suitable to civilisation.

Discipline is part of life; and, if met early and accepted, all life becomes easier. But the discipline which the real world gives us is based on inexorable law, not on personal whim. We make the child's idea of right and wrong rest on some person's feeling, not on the nature of the act. He is trained to behave on a level of primitive despotism, and cannot successfully adjust himself to a free democracy. This is why our American children, who get less of the old-fashioned discipline, make better citizens than the more submissive races who were kept severely down in youth, and are unable to keep themselves down in later life.

There is a painful paucity of ideas on child-training in most families, as clearly shown in the too common confession, "I'm sure I don't know what to do with that child!" or, "What would you do with such a child as that?"

If we may not use the ever-ready slipper, the shrill, abusive voice, the dark closet, or threat of withheld meal, what remains to us in the line of discipline? What is to be done to the naughty child? We need here some knowledge of what naughtiness really is. The child is a growing group of faculties, the comparative development of which makes him a good or bad member of society. His behaviour has, first, the limitations of his age, and, second, of his personality.

A child is naturally more timid than a grown person, and a given child may be afflicted with more timidity than is natural to his age. Acts which indicate such a condition show need of training and discipline. A certain amount of selfishness is natural to childhood: acts indicating unusual selfishness call for correction.

So with the whole field of childish behaviour: whatever acts show evil tendencies need checking; but the acts natural to every child only show that he is a child,—which is not "naughty"! If we considered the field beforehand, asked ourselves what we expected during this day or this year in the behaviour of such a child, and were not displeased when he behaved within those lines, much unnecessary pain and trouble would be saved to both parties. Then, when things really indicative of evil were done, we should carefully examine and test the character so manifested, and begin to apply the suitable discipline.

For example, it is natural to childhood to be inconsiderate of others. The intense little ego, full of strong new sensations, has small sympathy for the sensations of his associates. The baby may love the kitten, and yet hurt it cruelly because he does not know how kittens feel. This is not naughty, and needs only the positive training which shall hasten his natural growth in extension of sympathy. To show him the right methods of handling the pet, and especially of not handling it; to teach him to enjoy watching the kitten's natural activities and to respect its preferences,—all that is education, and needs no "discipline." But, if the child shows a pleasure in hurting the kitten after he knows it hurts, then you have real evil to deal with. A character is indicated which may grow to callous indifference to the feelings of others, and even to their actual injury. These acts are "wrong"; and wise, strong measures are necessary.

There are two main lines on which to work. One is to take extra measures to cultivate sympathy, using nature study, and to examine and care for such pronounced cases of suffering as must arouse even the most dominant interest. The too-callous child might be taken to a children's hospital, and helped to minister to the needs of the small sufferers. His pets, meanwhile, should be large and strong creatures, which he would depend on more or less, and his enjoying their company made absolutely contingent on right treatment. Special attention should also be paid to all such acts as showed consideration of others,—to encourage and reward them.

Again, if a child shows a too violent or sullen temper, or is distinctly sly and untrustworthy, these are serious indications, and need careful and thorough treatment.

But the great majority of acts for which children are punished are not at all evil. "Carelessness," for instance, is incident to the young brain,—essential to it. The power always to properly co-relate and remember is an adult power, and not always strong in the adult. We need, of course, to encourage a growing carefulness, but not to expect it nor punish its natural lack.

Clumsiness is also incidental to the young nerve connections. The baby drops things continually, the child frequently: the adult will hold an object even while the mind is otherwise engaged, the habit of the flexo-motor nerves being well established. Enterprising experiment is not only natural to childhood, but a positive virtue. That is the quality which leads the world onward, and the lack of it is a Chinese wall against progress. One enormous field of what we call naughtiness in our little ones lies in offences against things.

First and foremost, clothes. Wetting, soiling, and tearing clothes,—what a sea of tears have been shed, what wails and sobs, what heavy and useless punishments inflicted, because of injured clothing! Yet almost every accident to clothing comes from the interaction of two facts: first, the perfectly natural clumsiness and carelessness of childhood; and, second, our interminable folly in dressing a child in unchildish garments, and placing him in unchildish conditions. There is no naughtiness involved except in the parent, who shows a stupidity abnormal to her age. Children are frequently reproached for wearing out their shoes. What does the intelligent parent expect? Is the child to sit in a chair, lie down, or ride the bicycle continually? If the child is seen to cut his shoes with knives or grind them on a grindstone, that may be discouraged as malicious mischief; but the inevitable stubbing and scuffing of the eager, restless, ungoverned little feet should have been foreseen and allowed for. We do strive to buy the heaviest possible mass of iron-shod leather for our boys, and then we scold them for being noisy.

To surround a growing creature with artificial difficulties, to fail to understand or allow for the natural difficulties of his age, and then to punish with arbitrary retribution the behaviour which is sure to appear, this is not the kind of discipline which makes wise, strong, self-governing citizens.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman