Popular Science Monthly/Volume 38/April 1891/Training for Character

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I PURPOSE to study now the movements of the child at the earliest age, and on the present occasion, particularly, the appearance and first steps of the growth of the will. In previous lectures we have witnessed the awakening of emotions in the child.[1] We have seen its perceptive faculties developing, new and more complex sensations gradually modifying its simple and ingenuous egoism; and sympathy appearing and rising out of self-love, and transforming it as would a ferment. The child's social nature breaks out long before the end of the first year; it begins by beaming on the nurse and the mother, and then the child smiles at all pleasant and kindly faces. Play, which begins from this time to hold a large place in its life, appears to us in its origin as an essentially social pleasure. At the same time with the affectionate feelings we see arise those of a contrary character, like jealousy, which St. Augustine fixed in the sixth month.

Feelings and passions of a higher order are attributed by some writers to children of this age—the taste for the beautiful, for example. Some would give it to the child at the breast, with reason, if infants' admiration for bright lights and vivid colors is a taste for the beautiful. While this tendency is common to children with many animals, we have a right to see in it a nascent aesthetic feeling. M. Victor Egger has described a case of musical enthusiasm in a child less than six months old. "Lying on a bed, its nurse having already excited it by playing with it, the Marseillaise was sung to it (in a man's voice). It listened, looked up, with throbbing mouth and throat, throwing its arms out from time to time. In the midst of the song it uttered a single sharp cry that almost frightened us. During all this time it exhibited an intense, joyous emotion, but too deep for infantine joy. It might be said that it put itself in unison with what it heard. The song was not repeated. The child's excitement was too great." Whether enthusiasm or not, there was certainly more than a simple sensation in the emotion thus described. It is very certain that a child of that age should be spared such an intoxication, which could not be repeated many times without grave prejudice to the firmness of its nerves and its psychical equilibrium.

I have not perceived at the period we are considering anything resembling the moral feeling which Mr. Darwin and M. B. Perez believe they have found in the nursling; it appears later, largely as a fruit of education. Associations of agreeable or disagreeable ideas which the infant is susceptible of from its first months should not be confounded with rational feelings, like those of order and justice and right and duty.

The movements are next to receive our attention; they are the only possible signs of what is going on in the child. Its affective sensations, its representative sensations, its feelings all the phenomena of its psychic life which we have so far studied—are apparent to us only through their motive manifestations. But what we have been able to say in passing of such and such movements as expressions of consciousness is not enough. The motions deserve a special study in themselves and for themselves, in view of their psychological significance, which is immense, especially when it is considered in connection with their intimate relation to voluntary energy. We shall consider, first, in general, the psychological value of the movements. It has already been thought worthy of remark that movements, or muscular contractions, translate the interior life and give it outward radiance. The obscurity of the fact is relieved if we suppose, with contemporary physiology, that thoughts and feelings, as facts of consciousness, while not undoubtedly reducible to simple movements, are nevertheless based on incipient or asserted movements. On the other hand, M. Féré has shown that all sensation is accompanied by an augmentation or disengagement of muscular force. The force and quality of motive manifestations are undeniably signs of psychical dispositions, either permanent or accidental. We all know that a weak and indecisive step, halting speech, slowness in eating, the physical tendency to dawdle and take twice as long as it needs to do anything, betray in children a general mental, corresponding with the organic inertness. The quality of the habitual motions, as revealed by the attitude, the walk, the play of the features, and the writing are certain signs of the character. While we may be mistaken through inexperience or want of attention, or of method in the interpretation of them, their value to a skilled observer can not be disputed.

Motion, strong, various, fruitful, which delights in itself and enjoys the effort it calls out, is agreeable when there is a superabundance of life, when it sets to work reserves of energy which it has not exhausted. The diversities of our tastes come in a large degree from this. What is beyond the capacity of some, and seems impossible or insupportable to them, charms others, and seems like play to them. There is a profound analogy between being fond of action and the physical, and having movement in the mind and force in the character; but it does not extend to identity.

Besides interpreting the moral condition, motions act upon it in return. This reciprocal influence of movements on states of consciousness is another law of general psychology, of which education should not lose sight for an instant. Not only do what we feel, think, and wish determine our motions and acts, but, inversely, the motions and acts which become habitual, even those which were involuntary in the beginning, determine, to a greater or less extent, in time our ways of feeling, thinking, and wishing. The recurrent action of attitudes, gestures, and acts on the moral condition was pointed out long since by physiognomy. The fact, now trite, that, by giving a certain position to the limbs of a hypnotized person, we put him into a corresponding psychical state, is only an extreme case of this law.

The plasticity of the child is hardly less. By causing it to perform a certain motion and habitually preventing it from making the opposite one, we act in a wonderful degree on its feelings and ideas. Is not making it talk, eat, and move in a more lively way a means of shaking off the inertness of which we just spoke? Hence the possibility of that moral training, which should not be confounded with moral education proper, for it is in one sense the opposite, but which is, nevertheless, not unrelated to it; for there is mechanism, one part of training, at the beginning in all education. It is thus important to study the motions of the little child—first, in order to interpret them correctly as signs, and thereby to read in its consciousness; and, second, to know how to regulate them practically, to favor or repress them according to circumstances, and in this way to act upon the child's character. Let us try, then, to retrace in outline the progress of the faculty of motion in the child till it learns how to walk, dwelling preferably upon the movements the more direct relation of which with the will gives them a special importance. The general truth prevails through the whole subject that motions which become voluntary begin by not being so; that intentional activity, the nascent will, does but gain possession of acts which were at first not willed. We are about to inquire how this takes place.

Involuntary motions appear to be of four kinds—automatic, reflex, instinctive, and imitative. The motions which I call automatic are not inspired or guided by any representation, but proceed exclusively from the energy accumulated from nutrition in the nervous centers. They occur when that energy is disengaged outwardly by the motor nerves without peripheric excitation of the sensitive nerves, and of course without a mental representation, of which the subject is not yet capable. These uncoördinated movements, including motions before and just after birth, the first motions of the eyelids, eyes, hands, arms, and legs, and all sorts of grimaces, have in themselves but little psychological interest; but they are the ones of which the will gains the most complete possession. The more indeterminate and characterless they are in their origin, the more conscious energy, awaking in them, will be able to make them its own. The case is different with the motions of the next two categories; regulated and limited by nature, the will will never absolutely dispose of them or resist them without difficulty. It would be no small effort for it to prevent reflex actions and contend against the instincts.

The reflexes are motions which are produced instantaneously and mechanically after certain peripheral impressions; of such is sneezing, the first act of the infant in coming into the world, and coughing. Although they fall more or less under consciousness, in that it is informed of them as they occur or immediately afterward, they are not produced by mental representations, nor are they in any degree at first dependent on the will. By its inevitable and mechanical character, the reflex is the contrary of the voluntary act. Yet we may say that it also is after its way a kind of matter for the will. One of the first exercises imposed by education, one of its most laborious apprenticeships, is to control the reflexes and prevent their being produced. Except for the little that the will may gain upon them, or rather upon the conditions under which they are produced, the reflexes remain substantially the same through life, with the difference, which Preyer seems to have well established, that they are slower in the new-born child than they afterward become.

The instinctive motions resemble the reflexes; they have to a certain point their mechanical character, and are produced only as in consequence of certain determined impressions. Thus, the young chick does not perform the motion of scratching on the carpet, but begins it at once on the gravel walk, as if the feeling of grains of sand was necessary and enough to set the mechanism in motion. But there is a great difference between instinct and the reflex; it is not only that instinct is more complicated and its complex motion is composed of co-ordinated movements; but it is connected with a mental disposition, and is dependent on a psychical representation and tendency, or an image and a feeling.

Some philosophers, reserving the name of instinct for the remarkable industries of some species of animals, like bees and the beaver, deny that man has instincts. But how can we dispute that true and indestructible instincts preside over the functions by which individual life and the life of the species are preserved? The truth is that, while instinct is all with certain animals, with others, more perfectible and higher in the scale by that fact, a very large part is left to the intelligent activity that can adapt itself to circumstances. This is at the maximum in man; and in the adult and cultivated man of the higher races the part of mechanism is reduced very nearly to nothing. But in the child instinct exercises all its rights, till education deranges and modifies it. The instinctive character—that is, partly psychical and not purely reflexive—of the movements composing the action of sucking, appears by the fact that the hungry child will suck at his finger as well as at the breast, while, if he is not hungry, he will refuse even the breast. It is also by instinct that he laughs when we excite him by playing with him, or even by tickling him, for, if he is in a bad humor or a stranger tries the experiment, he may cry instead of laugh. The instinctive reaction depends essentially on the psychic condition at the moment. Nevertheless, this does not prevent instinct being a hereditary mechanism, over which the will has directly very little influence. It can affect it only by disposing at its desire, when it can, the circumstances that call the instinct into exercise.

Till the end of four months, I believe, the child makes no motions that are not automatic, reflexive, or instinctive. From the fifth month, perhaps, certainly in the sixth and seventh months, imitative motions appear, the nature of which is obscure, but which are of signal importance in the point of view of psychogenesis and education. It is hardly necessary to say that I am speaking of unconscious motions instinctively imitated, not of conscious and voluntary imitation, which will come much later.

Preyer seems to me to be under a mistake when he supposes imitation to be essentially voluntary. To my mind there is no will without an expressed intention. Where is the intention, the reflecting consciousness, when an infant, hearing another one crying, begins to cry by contagion, or when a child of seven months, seeing me tapping the table or the window with my fingers, executes a poorly imitative scratching with his fingers? Nurses teach children at this age to say good-by with a motion of the hand, which their wards imitate at sight. I was recently told of a boy twelve months old on a railway train, who, when his father, to quiet him, snapped his fingers in his face, immediately imitated the motion, to the surprise of all. Rubbing my hands one day at the table, partly because of the cold, partly in idleness, I saw a little girl three years old stop eating to rub her hands too. The same child, when twenty months old, seeing an image of a crying child, by an unconscious imitation opened her own mouth. Children laugh when they see people laughing, yawn, sing, cough, spit, snuff the candle, light a paper at the fire, and pretend to read and write, long before they comprehend any of those acts. One of their greatest pleasures is to imitate the cries of animals, either spontaneously or after another. Their plays are nearly all imitations of adult life. When they hear a story that engages them, we can see them taking on, one after another, the expressions of the characters; and when they begin to speak, they repeat all they hear, including oaths and other bad words, which it horrifies us to hear from them. It is hardly correct to see in this aptitude of children to imitate a sign of inferiority, as Delaunay did. It is rather a promise of intelligence. What is called the child's docility results largely from these endowments. It learns everything, at first, by imitation—to speak, write, and sing. Unconscious imitation accounts for many facts—for the fact, among others, that in a family of several children the younger ones are often more advanced than their elders were at the same age. But this more than half animal plasticity is not really intelligence, although it announces it; and it is truly unfortunate if age comes upon one without giving him something better than this simian and parrot-like disposition.

These imitative motions, at first wholly involuntary, are the ones which the will will take hold of to make them its own or to suppress them. Habit, however, renders them indelible. Hence it is never too soon to watch against them. As Preyer well says, everything that could lead its imitative tendency into dangerous ways should be removed from the child. The first duty of education is to look after the surroundings of children, who can not grow up healthy except in a wholesome medium. To comprehend the weakness of the will against imitation re-enforced by habit, we have only to recollect the struggle we have had against the tendency to do what we have been accustomed to do. Usually reason accommodates itself to the situation. Anticipated and led on, it does what is easiest. It seeks, and always finds when it seeks, reasons in favor of inveterate acts, and invents sophisms to justify them.

Voluntary motions are the intentional ones, or those which depend essentially upon conscious thoughts and feelings, representations and emotions. The will appears at a relatively late stage of the general development, when the senses have furnished a rich provision of images and the consciousness of a considerable number of feelings. Not till then can there be at the same time the conception of various possible motions, foresight of what should result, comparison, preference, and choice, or a relatively clear acquiescence in certain acts to the exclusion of others.

There is no sign of will so long as the child performs only unconscious, automatic, reflexive, instinctive, or imitative motions independently of its previously acquired ideas and pre-existing affections. Will begins when a thought properly so called becomes motive in itself, or in the desire accompanying it; when a movement known to be possible is anticipated with its results, and is accomplished intentionally. Not that every detail of the matter is understood, for even adults are not thus acquainted with the inner mechanism of their movements; but it should be represented in advance, preconceived as a whole, and determined originally by the thought of the new that it will introduce into the consciousness of the subject. Observers seem agreed that there can be nothing of this kind before the fourth month. Will appears when the child, for example, associates the thought of an object to be taken with that of making a motion to take it. It is, as it were, revealed to itself when after awkward and fruitless attempts the child meets a sudden success, discovers his power, and gains confidence in himself. From this time on the will gathers force with the number of such associations as they are more and more frequently repeated, and with the number of such efforts becoming more and more sure and successful.

The will presenting the double aspect of a choice between a number of possible acts and of ends to be sought, and of a conscious effort to use the means by which the object is to be reached, its growth is also double. It becomes more worthy of attention as the consciousness, growing richer in ideas and feelings, obtains a larger choice of ends and means, and as the active energy becomes capable of stronger and more consecutive effort.

As the faculty of voluntary motion is developed, movements which were at first fortuitous, unconscious, and ignorant of objects, executed without intentional direction or prevision, mechanically or upon chance impressions of the senses, are taken notice of, become gradually more closely associated with the perceptions, executed with increasing ease and accuracy, and more and more the effect of an express will or conscious energy, which knows what it is doing and does what it wants to. This energy, although it takes on a new name, does not invent a single new movement and creates nothing. The power of attention is an essential factor, perhaps the principal one, and makes of an energy in the beginning dispersed a concentrated and intentional energy. We can not determine to what point attention is at any age the condition of a rich mental and moral development. But when the child, having taken notice of its incoherent and awkward movements, begins the effort to co-ordinate them in view of precise ends; when, for example, it moves symmetrically both arms to embrace or both hands to take; when, inversely, it isolates movements formerly associated, stepping on one foot to push the ball with the other, striking with one hand the dish which it is holding in the other—it is already performing an act of the will.

There is a kind of struggle for existence among the thousand vague movements of the eyes, arms, hands, feet, and head. Those which are useless or injurious are eliminated. Those which are advantageous, that procure a physical or moral satisfaction, are repeated, predominate, and are accomplished in better style. From involuntary they become voluntary, while many, again, escape the will to become habitual. Preyer gives a minute description of the various motions of the child and their progress, which we can retrace daily in its general features, in the attitudes and motions of the head, for a long time directed very awkwardly, even in taking the breast; the motions of prehension, apparently more natural and often easier to the child than the act of letting go, when it has a hold; the gradual way in which it learns to sit down and remain seated, to creep, to get along on its knees, to rise upon its feet, to stand, to let go of the support, and to walk.

It is a law of some of the motions we are talking of that exercise perfects them; we can, therefore, to a certain degree, hasten their development. But we must be very careful how we do this, for every premature exercise is accompanied by dangers; all precocity is paid for in bad money. The precept, follow Nature, is especially pertinent in the earlier years. Then, more than ever, Nature takes her revenge if we try to hurry her and do violence to her. No artificial excitations. They are rarely necessary, and are dangerous.

People sometimes ask, At what age can we seat a child in a chair; when put him on his legs; how old must he be before we teach him to walk? The answers are easy. He must not be made to sit till he has spontaneously sat up in his bed and has been able to hold his seat. This sometimes happens in the sixth or seventh month, sometimes later. The sitting position is not without danger, even when he takes it himself; imposed prematurely upon him, it tires the backbone and may interfere with the growth, so the child should never be taught to stand or to walk. That is his affair, not ours. Place him on a carpet in a healthy room or in the open air, and let him play in freedom, roll, try to go ahead on his hands and feet, or go backward, which he will do more successfully at first, it all gradually strengthens and hardens him. Some day he will manage to get upon his knees, another day to go forward upon them, and then to raise himself up against the chairs. He thus learns to do all he can, as fast as he can, and no more.

But, they say, he will be longer in learning to walk if he is left to go on his knees or his hands and feet indefinitely. What difference does it make if, exploring the world in this way, he becomes acquainted with things, learns to estimate distances, strengthens his legs and back, prepares himself, in short, to walk better when he gets to walking? The important thing is, not whether he walks now or then; but that he learn to guide himself, to help himself, and to have confidence in himself. I hold, without exaggeration, that education of the character is going on at the same time with training in locomotion, and that the way one learns to walk is not without moral importance. From different points of view, but for reasons identical at the bottom, hygienists and moralists agree in disapproving of leading-strings. In a moral and physical sense, the pre-eminent educating agent is liberty, natural activity, unfolding itself without constraint under a discreet surveillance that is limited to removing grave changes and preventing real faults. The necessity of such surveillance is otherwise evident from the fact that the body of the child, on account of its extreme suppleness, takes every sort of wrinkle, if we may speak thus, with equal facility. Vigilance at every moment is all that can prevent it from contracting every kind of vicious habit; the great point is to reconcile such vigilance with the liberty which its spontaneous development demands.

The progress of voluntary motions reaches its goal when they are willed, so to speak, in all their parts, going to their clearly conceived end by the simplest ways, with the greatest precision and accuracy. Then there is no more fortuitous or indeterminate motion, no more expenditure of useless force. Such a triumph of reflective activity may be observed, for example, in the accurate designer. Those know how much time and pains it takes to reach that point who, trying to teach children to write, have seen them at seven or eight, or more, years old, twist themselves, make faces, stick out their tongue, pucker their lips, and make ten useless movements to one useful one. This brings us back to the important fact that inhibition of noxious or useless acts, of automatic motions having no necessary relation to the willed act, is an essential element of the progress of mobility.

This is equally the case in the progress of the will generally. In morals, too, when the act consists as much in the inner resolution as in the motion that carries it out, while the will may begin by being a hardly conscious effort of desire tending toward its object, it will end by being to a large extent the contrary—or a conscious and intentional restraint, a spontaneous inhibition. I say spontaneous; but a long time will pass before the child becomes capable of controlling himself, of spontaneously resisting his impulses and desires; he will have to be helped in it at first.

It is the office of education to put the first check upon some of these impulses to the advantage of others, to oppose thought to thought, tendency to tendency, and fear to desire. That is why the subjection of children to a firm discipline is always the beginning of education. To resist them is to hold them up. To bend them to a rule, as broad as you please, but inflexible as to what it prohibits, to prevent their doing what ought not to be done, to exact from them only what is necessary, but exact it firmly, is to prepare them to govern themselves.

But, so far as the inhibition is not the child's own act, it is not an act of the will. It does not become that till after having been imposed often from without, and, having thereby become less painful, it is appreciated by the child itself for its results, and the will becomes the possessor of it. This is the reason that while the earliest discipline should be firm, it must nevertheless be broad and liberal, and become more and more so as the reasoning faculty is developed. I call broad and at the same time firm a discipline which, without yielding anything to caprice, or to the unregulated and tyrannical demands of the child, purposely avoids loading him down with prescriptions and prohibitions, and leaves him as much elbow-room as possible in order to accustom him to frank action and the free exercise of his faculties under his own responsibility. It must not be forgotten that, while the inhibition imposed upon him is a means, voluntary inhibition is the end. The purpose is to initiate him into self-restraint and self-government, and he can be prepared for it only by being exercised in it.

Preyer is not quite clear in marking the distinction between not wishing and wishing not. We define two distinct species of inhibition; one voluntary, and the other really willful. The first takes place when a child under restraint and watch abstains against his own inclination from doing what is prohibited—for example, when he stops crying when interrupted by a stranger, or when in the garden he draws back from a trespass he is about to make upon the turf at the sight of the watchman. There is in those acts what may be called a simple non-wishing, for the thing that counteracts the temptation is something outside of the child's will. But when the child, free and alone, finds spontaneously in his own thoughts and feelings a counterpoise to his temptations, there occurs an inhibition of a new kind, which is not simply a non-will but a positive and meritorious will. Moral education consists essentially in gradually substituting this kind of inhibition for the other, the empire of reason for that of constraint.

It does not really begin so long as we only guard, watch, and prevent. Innocence thus obtained has only a provisional and preparatory value with the child, and none with adults. Some young people have been brought up in this way, under conditions of complete surveillance, kept in leading-strings till they were twenty years old. This is better than nothing, in so far as the object is to prevent their making fools of themselves; but their parents are mistaken if they believe they have been well trained; they have not been trained at all. They are like the cat that withholds its paw from the tempting dish as long as it sees the stick, but which is secretly eager to get its chin in.

That person alone is morally trained who can watch and conduct himself; who, as Montaigne says, "has enough in his own eyes to keep him in office." Education ought gradually to lead children to this point, prudently risking a little, loading them from the beginning with as few restraints as possible and loosening these little by little, making only reasonable demands and explaining the reasons for them as fast as they can be comprehended. I do not hesitate to measure the value of an education according to the degree in which it has sought to teach the child from the cradle to help himself and govern himself to make men who shall be characters.—Translated for The Popular Science Monthly from the Revue Scientifique.

  1. This lecture is a part of M. Marion's course on the science of education, delivered at the Literary Faculty of Paris. The lecturer's special subject in 1889 was the psychology of the child, and the present lecture was the tenth of the year. Having in previous years treated of education in general, its objects and means, of the great biological, psychological, and moral laws which rule in it, and of the great departments comprehended in it, M. Marion finally comes to the connected subject of the psychical development of the child, attending first to the description of it as it takes place in fact and spontaneously, but pointing out, as he goes, what it ought to be, how it should be directed, and how it is often disturbed.