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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
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Difficulties and Dangers of Child-Study

by Miss A. Woods, Principal of the Maria Grey Training College.
Volume 11, 1900, pgs. 803-813


Lecture delivered to the Brondesbury Branch of the P.N.E.U.

In choosing this subject for our consideration to-night, I have been partly guided by the fact that we are to have lectures from Mr. Earl Barnes in Brondesbury this autumn, and you will hear from him so fully of the methods adopted, and their success, that I think it worth while to consider the subject from the negative rather than the positive side, and to act much in the fashion of a danger signal on a railway line, warning you of possible blocks on the line before the express train comes up.

Now, what do we mean by Child-Study? In one sense, we are, as parents and teachers, always studying children. We try to get at their point of view, to realize the springs of their actions, to enter into their pleasure and pains, joys and sorrows. We consider what kind of treatment will best fit them to take their place in a complex world, seething with contradictions, full of difficulties. We devise punishments that will force the reluctant on to the path of goodness; we invent encouragements to help those whose feet are already in the right way.

The child's health, amusements, instruction, conduct, have been instinctively studied ever since man was man, more or less. But during the last 25 years or so it has dawned upon us more and more that our studies lack system, that we don't get much out of them that will help us in the future. We aim at few or no general laws--in short, we want to make our study more scientific.

As has been well pointed out by others, the spirit of the present day is a scientific one, i.e., we are keenly anxious to systematize, to bring into order, the whole field of knowledge. We must seek for general laws; we must classify; we must get this environment of ours into shape, and, in this search after Truth, the child comes to have an important consideration as part of our environment, and a part that is all the more attractive on account of the uncertainty that has so far existed in our treatment of him, and of his great variety. We want to reduce the child-world to law and order that we may learn to know our way therein.

Now, in the extreme desire to make straight and clear and definite child-life as a part of life in general, we are apt, as some of us think, to overlook in our scientific zeal what may be called the philosophic view. We are so busy seeking for general laws about children's ways and actions that the child as an individual slips out of our reckoning; we think of him. not as this particular A.B., a little self who will have his own special outlook on his surroundings, and who will differ from every single other individual in the whole world, but as a specimen of childhood. The thought of the child is not so much dwelt upon as the exact place he occupies as a type of particular form of childhood. Stress is laid on class membership.

To illustrate my meaning, I will quote the words of a teacher, an eager student of children, who complained to her head-mistress that she could do nothing with M-; she could not classify her. She knew she ought to be able to put her into the class of children who might be described as A I a. 2, or B IV b 5, or C X c. i., but she could not find a place for her. Here we get an extreme case of the scientific method of dealing with children, but though we may smile I think we often need to take care lest we fall into similar errors; and in carrying out the statistical method of child-study now so much in vogue, our thirst for discovery may become so great, that we quite neglect or forget the effects that our plans of research will have on the child as an individual. But more of this by-and-by; for some of you may not have heard of these new American plans for getting at children's minds and discovering all we can about their developing characters. Briefly the plan is this: the same question is put to hundreds of children in different schools throughout the district or county that is being studied, and the answers are all compared, analyzed and tabulated according to a plan fixed upon beforehand; e.g., thousands of children in the London Board Schools were asked to name the point that interested them most in a short story, and it was found that action interested them most, names, next, speech third, then appearance, place and description, time, feeling and moral qualities, the interest in moral qualities being something like thirty times less than that in action.

Now there is, I think, absolutely no doubt that this method of child-study does and will bring to light many interesting facts about children, and facts, too, that will really be of great service to us in many an educational question. From the above experiment, e.g., we learn the importance of making History live in the actions of men and women in the class lessons, and the story-teller will realize the uselessness of tacking on too many moral lessons. Had Mrs. Sherwood tried this experiment, she would have spared herself the trouble of writing a little moral discourse at the end of each chapter of the Fairchild Family, knowing that her readers would skip this, but remain grateful to her for-ever for those thrilling tales of the iniquitous Lucy, Emily and Henry. We remember their adventures and their names, but the kind of country they lived in, if it were ever described, and the sermons and hymns, we have forgotten altogether.

Statistical study always has its advantages undoubtedly, but it has very distinct dangers. It gives us a means of making numerical estimates. It is essentially a mathematical procedure, a quantitative estimate, and it is most important to remember that statistics can never supply the whole of the facts.

There are factors in calculations which are very apt to be left out, and the presence of which may vitiate the whole result. If, e.g., we take statistics in order to decide the health-giving qualities of different places on the Riviera, and find that the death-rate at Alassio is in a given winter double that at San Remo, we might conclude that Alassio was the more unhealthy place, but further enquiry may lead to the discovery that an outbreak of influenza at San Remo has led numbers of sickly people to come to Alassio for change and to die there.

Or, if we set to work to find out how many children in London slums have seen the sea, we might put the question to thousands of children, "Did you ever see the sea?" and receive the answer, "Yes," from 45%, and so naturally conclude that London people went freely for holidays. But the wise investigator will go further and ask, "When and where did you see it?" and receive the reply, "Please, teacher, in the magic lantern last winter," so that our 45% may be reduced to 5%. [A magic lantern was an early type of slide projector.]

In these instances our erroneous conclusion has been due to suppression of facts, and this may arise from two causes, either from sheer ignorance of our subject, or intellectual or emotional bias. We must have a width of knowledge in order to work the statistical method well. We must understand children very fairly well [sic] to start with, and to do this we ought to have been at some time of our lives, at any rate, very intimate with some individual children, and be able to look at things from the child's as well as the adult's standpoint, e.g., when we were studying children's sense of property we put the following question to hundreds of children, "Tommy Parker went fishing with two companions. He found a shilling in a ditch. Had you been Tommy, what would you have done with it?"

We considered all the aspects in which a child might regard the question, and thought we had made an exhaustive enumeration when we said, he would either want to find the owner and give it back, or leave it where it was, take it home, consult parents or others, spend it, share it, but we none of us thought of the child in whom the idea of the ditch mastered all others and who replied, "wash it."

The steady advance of knowledge shows us how easily we may be misled in our statistics; e.g., a hundred years ago, if we had taken statistics as to the number of mentally defective children, we should have included many, whom we now no longer regard as defective in brain power, but suffering from bad eye-sight or slight deafness. As another instance, suppose we set the question to children, "Are you ever afraid of anything? If so, of what?" and receive the answer, "Never," from 60% of the children, we should conclude that childhood is a very fearless time of life, but were it not for our ignorance, we should know that this answer, "Never," was in some cases a fib; in some, put to oblige us; and in others, because it was held to be the only possible answer that could be given. The quality of the answer comes in and interferes with its quantitative value, and, do what we will, quality can never be expressed in terms of quantity.

We suppress facts however, not only because of our partial ignorance, but also because of bias. We are all only too apt to see what we want to see. If we start off, let us say, to estimate the differences between boys and girls under five, we shall be very ready to notice all the little girls who like dolls, and pay no attention to those who do not care for them. We shall ignore the fact that many little boys would have liked dolls but have never had them offered to them. If we want to find differences, they will develop under our eyes; if we want to prove that there is no difference we shall be inclined to emphasize all the resemblances that attract our attention. "Men mark where they hit, not where they miss," says Bacon, and Locke warns us that we should not allow our natural tempers and passions to influence our judgments, for, says he, "Truth is all simple, all pure, and will bear no mixture of anything else with it. To think of everything just as it is in itself is a proper business of the understanding, though it be not that which we always employ it to."

In putting what seems a perfectly fair question, we are almost unconsciously biased by a predilection, e.g., in trying to find out whether blue or pink is the favourite colour of children under ten, the enquirer, who is anxious to convince the world that the majority of children under ten need the tranquillizing influence of blue, puts the question in the form, "Do you like the colour blue or pink better," and in consequence numbers of children at once write down blue, simply because it happens to come first. So much wisdom and knowledge is required in dealing with these questions, and, it might be added, so much power of interpretation, that it is lamentable to find some of our American friends ready to trust investigation to any untrained, unqualified observer who happens to come along. It is sometimes said that at least the untrained can collect facts for the expert to interpret; but it is a question whether they do not often collect fancies instead. As an instance of the need of power of interpretation, I may mention that many of us gave in our reminiscences of the sense of property as children to Mr. Earl Barnes, without realizing that these revealed in a remarkable way the fact that it is the expansion of self that makes property of such value to a child.

Some observers, too, are content to allow general conclusions to be drawn from insufficient instances, e.g., the question, "What character you have known, or read, or heard about do you wish to be like, and why?" was put to one board-school, and a large majority of answers came in favour of being like characters met with a daily life, e.g., mothers, companions, relations, teachers, but when the question was put to another board-school, there was a large percentage in favour of historical heroes. Enquiry led to the discovery that in the one school, history was a subject specially studied, and in the other it was not; and I should expect that biblical characters would play a large part if the questions were put in a Sunday school. The number of instances ought to be enormous and drawn from all classes and countries and localities before we can venture to lay down any laws about childhood in general.

Another error into which the amateur is very ready to fall is his tendency to apply to the individual the statistical law which can only be made use of in dealing with classes.

We conclude, for example, from a series of questions given to thousands of children that judicious praise is a real help and stimulant to work and proceed to praise X., who goes home and says, "Mother, I do wish they wouldn't say at school, 'You have done this nicely, X.' It hurts."

Any given child may be one of those who does not come under the general tendency, and it will always be our duty as parents and teachers to see to it that that particular child is not forced into the treatment that would suit all the rest.

So far we have considered the difficulties which may be called intellectual, but the danger of the moral effect that we may have at any rate on some children by our experiments, is still more serious.

In the first place, unless our questions are more judiciously framed, they will tend to make the child self-conscious and introspective. We may long as psychologists for the abnormal child who will be able to look within and give us accurate accounts of his mental processes from the age of three, and so throw light on many difficult problems, but we none of us wish to have this child in our own families. The children we want to have there are happy, healthy creatures, very trustful, not over-critical, full of interests, ready to enter fully into life as it comes, but not morbidly anxious to investigate either their own characters or those of their relations. We would rather not have the little girl who remarked, "I like to have a great many different governesses, because I want to watch their ways," or the child who cried bitterly over the hardness of her heart. Now, some of the questions that have been put by Mr. Stanley Hall and his followers are of a nature calculated to produce a morbid prying by our children into their own characters, e.g., "Write an account of your own early or present fears." Here the child is at once set off on a new line of inquiry. If a fearful child, he knows quite well, perhaps only too well, what he is afraid of. There is always the possibility that there may be a robber up the lane behind the house. It is well to get into bed with all speed lest your legs should be caught in a horrid grip as you are jumping in; in the darkness of night, no one knows what lions and tigers may be lurking round; raspberry bushes are exactly the places under which snakes love to lie coiled; if you don't behave properly the policeman may carry you to prison; and the conduct of elders is an uncertain quantity--there is never a day on which you are quite certain that you may not do something deserving of punishment (as R. L. Stevenson remarks). With such a question before the child, he begins to consider what is he meant to be afraid of. It can't possibly be these fears to which he knows himself to be subject that he is expected to fear. Grown-up people tell him so often he ought not to be afraid of anything but doing wrong. He would not for worlds say what a horrid cold shudder goes down his back when he sees that awful picture of the devil like a great bat, tempting Job, in the family Bible, because his elder brother and sister always chuckle with glee when they come to it, and were he to write down his fear, they would tease him about it. He fears the picture far more than doing wrong. And not for the life of him would he admit that when he is sent on messages across the common (because he is supposed to be such a fearless little chap), he would give every treasure he possesses to have a companion. Accordingly, he writes down only fears he thinks he is expected to have, and we are not admitted into his confidence. Or, if a fearless child, the form of the question makes him think he is expected to fear something, and so, with a child's readiness to oblige, he just puts down anything that comes into his head, and begins to wonder whether he isn't really afraid of something after all.

But we may render the child self-conscious in other ways besides questioning him. If we leave about the books written concerning children, the syllabuses of lectures, we set him reflecting on himself. He sees a notice of lectures on the aesthetic child, the religious child, the practical child, etc., and begins to wonder, "which kind am I?" and if he understands the terms and is of an imaginative turn, he may decide to pose in one character or the other. It is most difficult to be careful here, as personal experience taught me the other day. In my zeal to advertise the coming University Extension lectures, I said, "Put up a notice in the waiting room for parents to see," quite forgetting that parents bring children with them, until reminded of the fact by one of the students whom I had earnestly exhorted that very morning on no account to let children know they were being observed! It is a mistake surely to have a children's page in the Parents' Review, for it naturally attracts children to the book, and they will get hold of the bright red magazine and read, not only their page, but their parents'. [Note: This is "detachable by cutting the thread." See first page of Aunt Mai's Budget.- ED.] But leaving books about is a mild error compared to allowing children to be present at lectures about themselves. Only think what harm might be done to the children who were present when a lecturer was discussing children's ideas about religion and the audience were laughing heartily over the children's ideas of God! If once a child were to find that any remark he had made on religious subjects had been made public, it would be enough to make him reserved for life on any topic bearing in the least upon those religious feelings which, even to a little child, are often among the most powerful influences of his life.

Self-consciousness is not, however, the only result to be dreaded if careless questions are put to children. There is also the danger of making the little people very critical concerning their elders and the way they are treated. One question suggested was, "Record any punishment you have had given to you and say whether you think it was just or not." The child may have thrilled with indignation at the injustice of his treatment, or he may have accepted it cheerfully as part of the day's work, but with such a question before him, he can scarcely fail to turn his thoughts more than ever to his parents' or teacher's action, and consider them critically. The confidence and trust of children in their elders is very beautiful, and we do not want to take the bloom off it. In the story of Rebekah, the children were at first charmed with her kindness to the camels, etc.; but when she told Jacob to deceive his father, they said, "We thought she was nice, but now she's horrid." The teacher said, "I suppose she was like ourselves, sometimes nice and sometimes horrid. Do you know anyone who is always nice?" Whereupon the children said, "Of course we do!!" in a tone which suggested mothers, and implied that grown-up people were apt to ask very foolish questions. We may not wish children to believe what is false about grown-up people, but there is no occasion to lead them into the critical attitude.

Again, the child may be rendered very indignant by the prying questions he is asked, and be led into deceitfulness. A schoolboy who was asked some rather searching questions about his actions, when being prepared for confirmation, was overheard to say, "I didn't think he'd any business to ask me, so I just said so-and-so."

As I have remarked elsewhere, "Many a child shrinks from giving up to the elder his inward imaginings, his wild fancies, his view of life and his surroundings, and our cross-examinations may pain and distress him, disturb and alter the very contents we wish to reach, and, perhaps even lead him to deceive himself and us rather than give up his most cherished inward possessions or be supposed to be incapable of giving a reason."

You will remember Wordsworth's injudicious father [Anecdote for Fathers], who questions his child "in very idleness":--

          "Now tell me, had ye rather be,'
          I said, and took him by the arm,
          'On Kilne's smooth shore on the green sea,
          Or here at Liswyn Farm?'"

The little boy, probably for the sake of something to say, replies that he would rather be at Kilne. His father, fired by an ardent desire to get at the contents of Edward's mind, persists in his question:--

          "There surely must some reason be
          Why you would change sweet Liswyn Farm
          For Kilne by the green sea."

The child either does not wish to give his reason, or he has none, or he is unable to express himself, so, with many blushes he says, "I cannot tell, I do not know"; but he is not to be let off thus. Five times his urgent father enquires: "Why, Edward, tell me why." The hapless child knows not what to do, but his eye catches sight of a weather-cock, which saves the situation, and he blurts out:--

          "At Kilne there is no weathercock,
          And that's the reason why."

Often and often, if we are not absolutely careful in child investigation, we shall be treated to "weathercock" reasons.

Our investigations and enquiries may have the effect, if we are not very careful, of making the child shut himself up completely. He may hate to express his inmost feelings, or indeed he may be unable to express them, and this very effort to do so may tend to destroy the delicate dreamy relations he holds with nature. "What is your favourite tree, an oak or an elm, a beech or a birch, a lime or a sycamore? And say why you like best the one you choose?"--is a question put to the luckless little Londoner who cannot have a peaceful fortnight in the country without an examination at the end of it, and how can the poor child explain in words what he feels in regard to trees? It would be a hard task enough for us! Why does he like cowslips better than primroses? It may be because he has more affinity for them, and closer fellow-feeling, but how can a child express this? He is lead into the dull statement which seems the kind of answer required--"The oak, because ships are made from it what defends England." To be suddenly tied down and obliged to choose out of four beautiful trees, each of which the child likes in a different way, is a task really beyond his powers, and he writes answers for the sake of saying, something like Wordsworth's little Edward.

For ourselves, there is a moral danger too. Lost in our theories, we may forget the daily need of practice. We talk wisely of the great importance of making children obey. "It is cruelty to a child not to help him to become a self-controlled man," we say. "There should never be any deviation from the laws laid down," but we go home to our nurseries and our classrooms, and our yea is not yea, but nay, or our nay becomes yea. To-day the child may do X, to-morrow he may do Y, and so his little moral world becomes a chaos, and whilst we are earnestly collecting statistics, taking monthly measurements, reading all the child-literature pouring in on the world, narrating delightful anecdotes of child-life, we are overlooking the fact that the child at our door is steadily imbibing the atmosphere with which we surround him, and taking in the conduct of Father and Mother, and Teacher, the nagging, and discontent, the impatience and irritability, and is making it his own as surely as the plant takes in the gases it requires from the air.

Let us do our utmost to find out all we can about child-life certainly, but let us make daily use of our knowledge. If our treatment of our children is no better for our studies, we might as well have left those studies alone, and let us remember that there is one thing we neglect sadly in these modern days, and that is leaving the child alone far more than we do. The result of the study of children in general is to bring home to us the points of likeness--universal points of resemblance; the study of the individual child helps to make us realize the vast variety. Here is one child unlike every other child in the world now, or that was ever born into the world, and unless we can sometimes let him be, to work upon the ideas with which we and his environment have supplied him, we shall be doing what we can to lessen the development of what is original in him. We are too much afraid of letting the child be. Our sense of responsibility weighs heavily upon us. We grow to feel that every word spoken, every deed done in the child's presence, might be a power for evil, and indeed it is well that we should feel our responsibilities, but do not let us forget that there is good in the child's nature, good that must finally triumph, as many of us believe, and that our meddling, interfering ways may, after all, hinder rather than help him, and a judicious "letting alone" is one of the best means of letting the self, which is so precious, find expression.


Proofread May 2011, LNL