Conscripted Children


In this age of the child we are justly proud of our ever‑increasing laws prohibiting child labor among the poor. One wonders sometimes if, before this era closes, we shall not have to pass similar laws to protect the children of the well‑to‑do. Affluent parents, naturally enough, are eager to give their sons and daughters all the best opportunities that money can buy, and the excess of their zeal often creates new difficulties. There seems to be some danger that the present system of long hours and accumulated years required in formal schooling may thwart the real mental and spiritual growth of these privileged children just as surely as long days in mines, factories, and sweatshops once thwarted the physical growth of the children of the poor.

As a nation we have become not only education‑conscious but education-mad. Consider the disconsolate father who, as he sits before the fire with catalogues of thirty boys’ schools piled high before him, regrets that his only son can take advantage of but one of these de luxe opportunities which are offered him. That is the case more or less with all of us anxious parents. And to be sure that no child of ours shall miss any of his chances, we have joined eagerly with educators, psychologists, and other parents to organize and develop a standardized programme of living from which, almost from birth to adulthood, our children have no escape.

And what is this programme that has been so carefully devised by specialists? At fifteen months of age, about the time the average child walks alone, we find this small individual entering school life. Brought at nine or ten in the morning to a pre‑school, he is carefully examined for colds and charted for future study. Then, together a group of children of his own age, he is put out to play with toys which psychological tests have shown to be of the proper size, weight, and interest for his tender muscles and awakening mind. Later he is fed a properly balanced meal, prescribed by an expert dietitian, and then put to bed for a definite period of rest and sleep. At a duly appointed hour he is returned to his waiting nurse or mother to be taken home. As he grows older, his toys change to suit his years, his meals become more varied, and his day at the preschool lengthens. This, in essence, is his life for nine, ten, possibly twelve months of the year until at last he reaches regular school age.

When he is six years old he enters the first grade, which is usually a half-day session. The afternoons he spends in the park, under the watchful supervision of a nurse, where limitations of space and lack of suitable materials make normal play practically impossible. By the time he has reached fourth or fifth grade his school day has been extended into the afternoons, and this is followed by an hour or two of organized play. Saturday ‑‑ or what is left of it after the barber, the dentist, and the orthopaedic surgeon have deducted their dues—is usually unscheduled up to this age, but from then on it falls more and more into the hands of boys’ and girls’ clubs, Scout organizations, music teachers, and dancing masters. In short, by the time the child has reached his teens he is likely to be carrying an eight‑ or nine‑hour job practically six days a week.

At this point comes the boarding school for nine months of the year, with almost every hour of the week closely scheduled ‑‑ Sundays as well as Saturdays. Or those who are not sent away to private schools have their lives almost as carefully regimented by the day schools, which have now become all‑day institutions with home work prescribed to fill the evenings. The three months of vacation are, for many children, given over to summer camps. After this, college—and one need not set up any classifications here, for it is now a commonplace of American life that every boy and girl whose parents can afford it must have a college education. This, in brief, is the system which has been laid out for us by child experts and educators generally, and the well-to‑do parents of America have accepted it without question as the normal and natural procedure in the upbringing of their children. Thus, in an era of peace, we are conscripting our children for education just as deliberately as, in time of war, the government conscripted our sons for the army.


At this point I can hear the voices of earnest parents raised in a chorus of protest. ‘Oh,’ they say, ‘if we are conscripting our children for education, we are doing it for their own good.’ Well, perhaps so; but I wonder.

Is it the infant who benefits most from the pre‑school, or is it the mother who can use this free time to relax at bridge or a luncheon, to increase the family income by a halftime job, or to prevent herself from growing rusty by following a course at the university? Is the boarding school or the lengthened school day better for the child, or is it better for the parents who, because of it, can live in a city apartment instead, of a suburban house and be at hand for the theatres, lectures, concerts, and other social events of the winter season? Is the boy (or girl) sent to camp summer after summer for his own advantage, or is he sent because it is the easiest way for parents to escape having to adjust their vacation to suit his needs? Are our young men and women being herded within the gates of the colleges because they have an insatiable thirst for knowledge, or are they sent because it is a sop to parental pride to be able to say, ‘My son? Oh, he’s in Yale.’

Behind the mass movement which has brought about this almost Prussian regimentation of our children there are many parents who have been moved solely by a genuine desire to provide the younger generation with every conceivable advantage in their preparation for life. While granting this, however, one must also admit that the movement could hardly have become so universal if thousands of parents had not been all too willing to shed the responsibilities of parenthood.

Whatever the motive or the justification, it would not be amiss if parents would scrutinize more closely this modern programme of education. It might be well to ask ourselves, for example, just what we are doing to our babies when we put them in a nursery school. Let us remember that the first nine months of every human life are spent in complete isolation; perhaps this is nature’s reminder that the young of the species need a long, slow, individual preparation for independent life. If this is so, it becomes very pertinent to ask whether any child under five should be subjected to group living, even though the group is being supervised by experts. Naturally, he may learn to eat spinach more easily when he sees other children enduring the same affliction, but, even though all the dietitians may rise up to confound me, I suspect that there are more important things for a two- or three‑year‑old than learning to eat spinach.

To subject a child of that age to an experiment in group living is to demand of him one of the major adjustments in life—and this at a time when he has hardly outgrown playing with his own toes. It may be many years before we can know what this new environment has done to his nervous system; but of this much we can be sure in advance: it will mean an earlier maturing of the child and a corresponding shortening of ‘babyhood. It may also be that by demanding conformity to a group at such a tender age we shall establish in his mind the patterns of mob thinking, making it forever impossible for him to become a self‑reliant, individual appraiser of life. The pre‑school is new, and its vogue tremendous. It may, for all I know, have something of definite value to offer us, but of this we cannot be sure until it has stood the acid test of experience. Nevertheless, in characteristic American fashion, we have acclaimed it enthusiastically simply because it is new, or we have complacently accepted it because it has offered the easiest way out of our difficulties.

The other morning I wandered into a pre‑school and stood watching a group of city four‑year-olds romping, twisting, climbing over and under the bare, straight bars of a jungle gym, ‘Aren’t they having a happy time?’ the teacher smiled at me. ‘It’s good for their arms and legs.’ I nodded, but my heart smote me. What a substitute for an apple tree of spring, with the hazard of its curved and bending branches, its swaying, its fragrance, its shaded hiding places, its secret robin’s nest! Yes, the jungle gym is good for arms and legs, but it stops right there.

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