The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Repressed Initiative in Children

by G. R. Wilson, M.B.
Volume 7, 1896, pgs. 81-89

[George R. Wilson was Assistant Physician of the Royal Asylum, Morningside, Edinburgh.]

By this time it will, I trust, be clear to you that to study the human mind in never so confined an aspect is to touch upon the whole of human life. That is one of the permanent interests of Psychology--the science of the mind--that the whole of our experience seems to be represented in any one department of it; so that, if we abstract any function or faculty, and restrict our attention to that as a unit or subject, we still find ourselves thinking about nearly everything. In other words, if we choose to consider, let us say, the memory or the will, we find that we can express the whole of our character--feeling, thinking and acting--in terms of memory or in terms of will. There is a peculiar danger, then, lurking in this fascinating manner assumed by psychological subjects, which is apt to seduce us into thinking that we have laid bare the whole mystery, when in reality we have only concentrated light on a very fragmentary corner. Do not imagine therefore that in an hour, or in twenty hours, we can get a true view of the child mind. Nay, let us rather say that we cannot even know a part of mind; because in a very true sense, mind has no parts. Mind is indivisible. We see it in a thousand aspects, no one of which may be thought of apart from the rest. What we call will is the mind acting; it is still the mind. What we call memory is the mind remembering; it is still the mind. What we call initiative is the mind willing in a peculiar way; it is still the mind.

Now the mind in its initiative activity is peculiarly charming, so much so that some students of thought are tempted to say that only here is a man's true personality revealed. Nine times out of ten we do what we are bid, what is suggested to us, what we are impelled to by the conditions of our life, but at the tenth, our soul flashes out--spontaneous, unaccountable, supremely free. Only in such activities then is there any moral worth; only in initiative can we be said to realize ourselves.

I may not pause to show the foolishness of this view. But we may take it as an evidence of the fascination, the suggestiveness, the impressiveness, of the initiative aspect of character.

I would take a much less transcendental view of initiative. I wish to regard it rather as an activity which resists and survives the two great tendencies of mind to habit and to imitation. And I think we would do well to pause for a moment to consider this definition.

Initiative is an activity of mind which resists and survives habit and imitation. I hope you realize how much that implies. I hope that you realize that we are almost invariably the slaves to habit and to imitation; that we almost never break with the traditions of our past, unless it be to follow the example of our fellows. Tradition and convention, these are the two prime forces in character. To them we respond with an almost certain instinct, the instinct, as of machines, to repeat ourselves; and the instinct, as of sheep, to follow the lead. In the nursery, habit and imitation are sedulously cultivated. We rely upon imitation when we show children what to do and how to do it; and we rely upon habit to establish, in character, acts frequently repeated. The advantages are obvious. Knowing so much as we do of good and evil, true and false, we can lead children in the way they should go, and we think it a mercy that they take after us so readily. Before they know where they are, children have been lead into habits of manner and of speech and even of thought, and we think it a mercy that it is not easy for them to be false to the traditions of infancy and childhood. Our faith is that by-and-by, when the mind awakens to the import of life, youth will approve what he finds himself doing, and that the habit of right conduct will not be without its effect in disposing the mind to a sense of goodness.

So far as it goes this method is obviously successful. Did we carry it out faithfully, the generations would be blessed. Nothing could be better for most men and women, than that they should do what the saints of this world do, believe what its sages believe. Nothing could be better than that they should be hemmed in to goodness by the impassable fences of tradition and convention. It is a good thing for most young women that they dare not and cannot be outré [unconventional], and a good thing for most young men that they are stuck fast to the stool which their fathers made them sit on. We must not, however, blind ourselves to the possibilities which we forswear by this traditional method of training. As it is, we see a few girls and boys to whom it does not appeal, who in their youth show themselves fit to realize life on their own account, and who, in maturer years, make great contribution to the colour and interest, to the enterprise and progress of life. Perhaps there are many more such, if we gave them a chance. And, on the other hand, we see scores who make no advance, who feel nothing, think nothing, which they have not been taught, who do not transcend circumstance because they have been brought up to acquiesce, who are adrift at sea, a peril to themselves and other craft, if the steering gear be out of order and they called upon to take the helm.

In general, we may say that the aim in the method of educating children which prevails, is to teach each child certain virtues and repress certain vices, to teach him a certain amount of knowledge and to repress loose thinking. The result on the whole is that we achieve a conventional and law-abiding standard of morality and miss a good deal of moral enthusiasm; we achieve a certain aptitude in various professions and trades, and miss a good deal of the enthusiasm of learning. Put shortly, the evil of our conventional method is that it hampers spontaneous activities of the mind.

There is, we must realize, a good deal in the mind of a child which requires careful watching, a good deal which would be dangerous were it fully expressed, and allowed to dominate. Such passions--because in the usual man only passions are ultimately fatal--such passions, however, as we know, can become the fertilizers of the highest enthusiasms. What the child mind needs, then, is direction. And how can we direct the mind until we have seen what the mind has in store? We wish no revolutionary scheme, we only wish a more suitable adaptation of the methods we already know. All I ask for is, that while you exercise the supervision you know to be wise, you should allow, in very early years, the fullest possible expansion of the child in every conceivable way. Experience will show in each case how to apply direction eventually. And meanwhile you will see in every child--I say deliberately in every child--a great deal of activity which is original, neither traditional nor conventional; and it is, as I have said, these spontaneous activities which give richness and zest to life. It is not a fatuous optimism, I believe, which suggests that the generations would find life richer if children learned to feel their own way to truth; if they learned too, that delight in goodness which only conflict fully gives. It is not idle to suppose that if the youth were left free to think, the man would have a keener sense of truth and a stronger hate of pretence. It is not credulous to hope that from the conflict of free feelings and passions in early years, there would emerge, under experience, a highly tempered sentiment which would survive--and survive with much gusto--the buffetings of life.

"Tall talk" like this, as it is justly called, is easy. When we come to closer quarters with our subject, many difficulties are apparent.

Let us first consider a few aspects of physical development, a few cases in point of repressed initiative. And it seems to me that the most suggestive way in which we can point to acts of repression is by putting to ourselves a few conundrums. We have been so well taught in the conventional school that we go through life from first to last and never know the reason why, and all the time we are feeding our children on "chestnuts," whose truth or appropriateness we have never ourselves questioned.

I have been asked by a witty friend, in this connection, whether I would advocate that children should be free to exercise their climbing propensities ad lib., trusting that an early death would teach them the folly of it. I am not so far from doing so. We are, I believe, far too cautious of life. From a general point of view, the quality of life is of much more importance than its quantity. And, but for the prohibitory timidity, so well fostered in us by our mothers and nurses, most of us, I believe, would rather live merrily and die young than exist in dull-gray safety to a dotard old age. This instance of repression--repression of risky activities--is really worth much thought. I see that a military authority the other day expressed the opinion, which I can well believe to be correct, that the timidity of middle-class mothers was the chief obstacle to the development of our army. And I think it is not unjust to believe that the decadence of the Spartan feeling of women, concerning bodily risks to husbands and sons, has cost the world much true heroism and courage. We have reached a stage, a stage of stupid, short-sighted idealism in this regard, when physical excellence is but little thought of; or perhaps, more truly, a stage in which it is only beginning again to be better appreciated. Immunity from accident is after all a very poor achievement. What is more, it is not your cautious man who escapes. Accidents will happen, and we lose more than we gain by our fear of them. Two things, I think, are needful--to know what is unsafe, and to be so prepared as to lessen the effects of accident. My first query then would be: why do you teach children to be afraid to be hurt and to be killed? I cannot resist putting it on record that I have this winter met a young athlete, both of whose shoulders "went out," as he put it, on the slightest provocation; he had both collar-bones broken (and mended); a rigid elbow, a broken wrist, and a brain quite frequently concussed. He was still, as Americans would say, quite an elegant gentleman, and moreover a most pleasant companion and a conspicuously successful engineer. Whole bones are not a sine qua non. The more accidents children encounter within limits--and they will meet with many if you allow them--the less harm will come of them. A friend of mine, well brought up in muscles, ran full pace, in a city fog, against an advancing cab-horse. It was the cab-horse that was hurt. It is safer to learn to fall lightly than never to climb; safer to be able to ward off a blow than never to fight; safer to be able to struggle and run than never to walk into danger. It is better that your children should be romps than that they should be hobbledehoys; better that they should go through life halt or maimed than that their whole body should be clothed in indolence; better that they should die young than that they should grow up cowards. It seems to me therefore that, at the appropriate age, and under moderate supervision, children should be allowed--girls as well as boys, girls more than boys--to run, struggle and fight, climb and fall, dive and swim, hammer and dig as much as they choose. They will, if not repressed, perform nearly every movement of which the human body is capable, and some that seem impossible; they will, if not repressed, exercise nearly every muscle, from the scalp to the sole; and it all adds to vitality. With a little thought we might arrange, I think, to direct these spontaneous activities until the child had added discretion to valour. A child learns very soon that contact with hard things is sore, and that the momentum of his falling mass and consequent soreness, is in proportion to the height it started from. And only by experience can one really learn what is safe and what is unsafe; only by exercise can one acquire a safe skill.

It were easy to enlarge upon the good which, in the later life of the individual--to say nothing of posterity--would repay a free indulgence of the appetite for muscular activity;--the confidence and grit which proficiency in muscles gives; the freshness in thought which follows healthy movement; the rest to the mind--and surely rest is one of the greatest needs in modern life--which manipulative pursuits insure; the abiding joy to the eye which there is in looking upon comely men and women--their living colour, their expressive figures, their strong poses, and their easy movements.

And here I must interpolate the remark that we admit fallacy when we speak of physical development, or of muscular exercises, as apart from the rest of character. We may not abstract the muscular activities of the mind as if we could regard them at all justly by themselves. A child walking is still a child, however much we may wish to regard him as a thing of muscles. Nothing that we learn is isolated in our character, but is knit to the rest of us. Every movement I acquire becomes a part of me, enters into me. We are so built and organized that every muscular activity in which we indulge is represented in our thought, in our feeling, and in our will. And so we may not despise muscular life as if it had no rational or moral import; nor may we think lightly of robbing character of the contribution which it acquires from muscular excellence.

There is in children an initiative in construction which is scarcely afforded the expression it deserves.

Constructiveness--building and framing and fashioning all sorts of grotesques and images--is very characteristic of childhood. Why do we give children toys? Chiefly, of course, because we had them. The idea is, I suppose, to amuse the child-mind. So far as I have seen, however, the ordinary toys must be carefully manipulated by the parents so as to engage the attention of children. I may be wrong, but I am inclined to think toys are a snare and a delusion. At all events, if we stopped the importation of ready-made toys into the nursery and playground we should be releasing a much repressed activity, this constructive activity of which I speak. Boys who are put down on a lawn prepared by the gardener, and who are provided with cane-handled bats and what-not fresh from London, may be very superior, and are considered by the envious to have great opportunities; but they do not relish their game of cricket by a long way so much as their neighbours down the street, who have wrought out their own cricket set from a tea box and a herring barrel, and have boiled down their father's snow-shoes mixed with cork into a playable ball. In our garden at home, I remember we had a ready-made summer-house, a most complete affair, windproof and rainproof, the gift of the architect. But in our estimation it was of no account compared with the log-huts and mud-cabins, tents, caves, and snow-houses, which our own heads devised and our own hands built. But the loss of charm in ready-made articles does not constitute my point; it is the repression of constructiveness that I deplore. By allowing girls and boys to make anything and everything which their hands are disposed to make, you develop in them a dexterity--that "handiness" which housewives love--which is in itself no little gain. But, still more, you develop in some degree a constructive ability in the mind, including that general belief in the possibilities of things which says that there is nothing that cannot be devised, nothing that cannot be made to fit--a constructive ability which will express itself, in many cases, in the constructive and organizing method in dealing with facts and ideas and people and resources, as well as in the affairs of wood and stone. I must pander, too, to that ambition of many women to be the mother of a genius, though, for my part, I think most geniuses add more to the difficulty of living than they take from it, and suggest that if you withhold from girls and boys the opportunity and material to satisfy their constructive desires, you may be nipping the bud of an Edison or a Lord Kelvin [the physicist].

Give your girls and boys, then, all the rags and paper, wood, stone, mortar, paint, and putty, and anything else they need, and let them make for themselves everything they wish to make, from idols to pocket handkerchiefs. Amongst other things, give your boys needles and thread, and do not have them going to the girls to have things stitched.

Then, just en passant, why do you make children shake hands always with the right hand? There is really no reason, you know, why we should not shake hands with our feet, if we wish to, except that it is not usual, and that our fathers did not do it. I merely ask that question to introduce the subject of ambi-dexterity. As you know, the large majority of us use the right hand about ten times more frequently, and ten times more skillfully, than the left. A few accomplishments, which come later in life, must be learned by the right hand alone, but extremely few. Now this is, to some extent, a case of repression. The uselessness of this left organ is very largely the result of early neglect. Monkeys use the left hand freely as a rule, and so do very young children. Probably there is an inherited one-sidedness in the brain which manifests itself gradually in youth. But that is no reason why we should exaggerate the defect by our lopsided stupidity in putting a premium on the right hand. I may further state as a simple suggestion, without taking time to explain the why and wherefore, that fatal apoplexy in later years would probably be less frequent did we encourage ambi-dexterity.

Why do we begin so early to make a distinction between girls and boys in physical development? Here I am convinced we have a case of cruel repression, a repression which is far reaching in its effects. Public opinion on the subject is growing, and I need, therefore, say the less about it. But I still see mothers of very advanced views on the question of the health of girls, putting young children of the tenderer sex into hopelessly impossible clothes, and adding to these physical restraints all manner of needless injunctions against this, that, and the other form of muscular activity. If you give girls liberty, always under modified but uninterfering supervision if possible, to indulge their muscular activities along with boys not too much stronger than themselves, they will romp and tumble, struggle and fight as boys do. I know you will tell me, as I have heard you tell your girls a hundred times, that little girls should not do as boys do, that they should not turn somersaults, nor roll like donkeys on thistles, nor hang by their knees on trees, nor play leap-frog, nor ride astride on the pony. These may seem unnecessary accomplishments, but I think there is a danger of too much order and artificiality in arranged exercises for boys and girls. There is a confidence and nerve which comes from the conscious possession of a certain amount of brute force and general muscular proficiency, and these are developed most readily from the natural rough-and-tumble movements of the young human animal.

These two restrictions then I wish to see removed. I wish less--much less--difference in the clothing of girls and boys. You have all thought about that, I know. But here is a restriction which only some of you have thought about, a restriction which greatly hampers and represses the muscular activities of some youngsters. That is the prevailing custom whereby each household has a nursery of its own into which all its children are turned, from the eight-year-old boy to the three-year-old girl. Now as long as that obtains, so long will the smaller, the weaker children be repressed and restrained. You cannot have freedom in movements, exercises and games, until you devise or fall in with some co-operative nursery, in which the children for physical development are sized and classified as they are for mental training.

(To be continued.)

Proofread by LNL, Apr. 2021