The Crabbing of Youth by Age


THE young of the human species, in their helplessness, are subjected to three major external influences — parents, education, and environment. To the adult mind the three appear so intertwined and related that they can hardly be disentangled and their different contributions evaluated. To the rising generation, however, they represent three distinct entities, each of which must be individually dealt with and combated, if existence is to remain endurable. There are no methods too fantastic to be employed. The harried young try active and passive resistance; they evade, they ignore, they capitulate; but they always and everywhere act upon the assumption that the adult world is an enemy attempting to run them down, as a hound his quarry.

We parents, on the other hand, see ourselves as their salvation, the only certain safeguard against the temptations of their turbulent natures. To be sure, we do think there are just criticisms to be lodged against their environment and the influences exerted by educational institutions; but, so far as our functions as parents are concerned, we do not admit that any exception can be taken to the working of a relation so obviously essential and preordained.

Yet where can you find a teacher, a juvenile-court judge, a moralist, a preacher, who does not find the parents guilty of every delinquency in the lay or legal calendar? Why are we, so zealous, so devoted, held up to obloquy for the way in which we discharge our biological obligation? Is there a reason?

Parentage is an old institution, but the individual parents come fresh to the task. They take up their responsibilities, oblivious of the fact that, from the incidence of the process of reproduction, they were destined to repeat the blunders of their protoplasmic ancestors. They are unmindful of the infant mortality among the paramecia, the offspring-devouring habits of some of the reptiles, the selfish greed of the cock, the cuckoo’s shunting of its maternal duties upon the shoulders of some narrowly domestic member of the bird species. These things are easily forgotten in the exuberant conviction that they are attacking age-old problems in entirely new ways. Unless they could forget the trite ‘There is nothing new under the sun,’ life for fathers and mothers would lose much of its piquancy.

We welcome these children who come to us, and cherish in our secret hearts the certainty that we are going to demonstrate to the world how admirably the next generation may be prepared to carry on our civilization. We necessarily break with the members of the older generation in t he process, for they have a penchant for having their ideas, which are obviously oldfashioned, carried out instead. We disagree as to infant feeding, outdoor clothing, rocking-habits, tonics, bedtime, and pacifiers. We are inclined to think it sufficiently incriminating to an idea to prove that it was held by our parents. We urge grandmother to take up committee work, and leave us free to read the very latest books on the influence of table-talk on the young, the danger of the suppressed complex, and new ways of learning without studying. Our consciences are very much alive. We take courses on child-psychology; we scan eagerly the woman’s and the children’s pages of the papers and magazines; we discuss our grave problems in our mothers’ clubs. We are determined that these marvelous new children shall be related to their world in an entirely new way. But the laborious years bring their disillusionment.

Our first fallacy is a belief in the supremacy of our influence. Since we are the only avenue through which those particular children could gain entrance into life, why is it not inevitable that we should determine their reactions to life? We are convinced that these little creatures are given to us to mould as we will. We are occasionally beset by a flashing suspicion that they may have been completed at birth, and that all we can add is a few finishing touches. Then we read a book on the spiritual effect of rhythmic dancing, or the transforming influence of project-work in the kindergarten, and brush the horrid fear aside.

The biology of the situation is somewhat disconcerting. Parenthood seems so anomalous a function, so difficult of definition or demarcation. The fish completes her maternal duties when she lays the fertilized eggs. She may then wander off, care-free, to devote herself to the development of her own personality. She has no further relation to her offspring except through a possible casual devouring of some of them in the minnow stage. The more elaborate care given by the bird or the mammal to its young is not so much evidence of the emergence of parental enthusiasm on the part of the adult as of the survival value of that care as an accompaniment of a helpless and prolonged infancy. The young of such species must be fed and sheltered and protected until they are able to care for themselves.

What happens when we come to man? Among primitive savages the child, whose labor is forfeit to his parents, is cared for until the age of puberty, when the boy, recognized as a man, must shift for himself, and the girl is disposed of by marriage.

With the development of civilization, the concept of the relation of parent to child takes on new elaborations. The idea of a duty owed by the parent to the child appears. The state takes cognizance of this concept by imposing legal penalties upon the parent for the non-fulfillment of his duty to the child.

The parent of conscience recognizes not only the responsibility prescribed by the law, but a more complete responsibility to be terminated only by death itself. The law recognizes explicitly such primary needs as food, clothing, and shelter, and by implication and judicial decisions the more subtle wants of a child in our modern complex society. The law lags behind, to be sure, but serves as an indicator of the moral attitudes of our civilization.

The legal minimum we do not find it hard to accede to. A natural impulse inspires us to care for the grosser needs of our children; and if our enthusiasm should chance to flag, there is the pressure of the societies for the protection of children to keep us up to the mark.

But a situation inevitably arises from which those exemplary organizations are unable to protect either the children or us.

The instant we accept the responsibility, and begin to perform our natural and socially recognized duty, a period of adult domination and juvenile subordination inevitably follows. We give and they perforce accept, whether it be oatmeal for breakfast, rubbers in wet weather, or academic education for the motor-minded. We become firm or helpless or tyrannical, according to our natures. The children react as positively with rebellion or acquiescence or self-assertion — all alike defense reactions to our hortatory stimuli.

An impartial observer, from some sphere where the race is perpetuated without the intermediation of parents, might have predicted it. The adult is naturally conservative, pessimistic, slow to experiment. He has learned the finiteness of human capacity; he knows through bitter experience the things that cannot be accomplished. The dignity and nobility of adult life lie in its uncomplaining acceptance of inevitable limitations. The quiet saints among the elders of our race are those who make a virtue of necessity and pluck victory from ostensible defeat. Serenity, poise, a mellow philosophy are the earmarks of a beautiful maturity.

These attitudes are antipathetical to every characteristic reaction of youth. They are calculated to raise nothing less than a flame of opposition from the young. The adolescent is rash, optimistic, venturesome. He is sure on all subjects within his ken, and perfectly willing to experiment on any subject without his ken. He neither can, nor desires to, profit by the experience of others. He wants to discover for himself whether the ‘ paint ’ sign on life is genuine. He wants to taste the soap, and is willing to run the chance of being very sick afterward. He will not take the word of another for any of the intoxicating possibilities the world holds out before him.

These natural incompatibilities are forced into juxtaposition with the recognized authority of the parent on the one hand and the enforced submission of the child on the other. The marvel is that we adjust ourselves to the situation so amicably, and that our interactions are so fundamentally blameless.

Of course, we are immensely helped by the fact that we love each other. Mutual affection must have been originally devised to meet just such emergencies. In times of domestic stress it stands us in good stead.

But, in spite of loving each other, those contradictions persist to afflict our common lives. On the whole, we are probably more difficult to bear with than our children; for, while their vocabulary resounds with ‘I want,’ ours is rigid with ‘Don’t.’ We are the great inhibitors of the race, the unresting enemies of initiative. My young daughter had the good fortune to spend a summer at an art school, away from the family. She entered a new world, the world of the free play of mind on mind. With the other art students, she discussed immortality, the place of woman in modern civilization, the relation between liberty and license. Had she ventured, in the safe shelter of home, to embark on the arguments for a life beyond the grave, some conscientious adult would have interrupted with promptings as to a superfluity of food in the mouth, or with reminders of the excellent hearing of everyone in the room.

The old ideal, that children should stay at home until they go out to establish homes of their own, is still dominant in agrarian civilizations, where neither the factory greed for workers nor the movement for the emancipation of woman has made inroads on the patriarchal organization of society; but the revolt against this ideal, so dear to the parental heart, is in keeping with the whole trend of thought in the western world. Contradictory as it may seem, with the development of communistic and socialistic currents of thought has come an intensified cult of individualism.

These fluctuations of social theory are undoubtedly, all alike, responses to pressures; the capitalistic or monarchical on the one hand and the personal or familial on the other. Even far-away China is feeling the repercussions of this fresh assertion of the right of the individual to his life, and, here and there, brides are being taken into separate homes, instead of into the ancestral dovecot presided over by the grandmother.

Does it indicate merely a swing of the pendulum, or is it significant of an emerging need in our civilization?

The Russian peasant is tied to his commune, his mir, his noisome hut. He lives and thinks as his forefathers did before him. But he is defenseless against change. He perishes in the presence of innovation. Protoplasm, so capable of adjustment to new demands put upon it, has become, in his case, so insensitive as to lose its primary rapidity of response. He dies by the million, when a quick adjustment to the needs of a new world might have saved him.

Modern civilization insists above all things upon capacity for change. Only so can those who live by mutation be saved from mutation.

The revolt of our children against home-rule appears thus as part of a larger movement, of a race insurance against the menace of civilization. We would guard their every step. They reach out instead for the stimulus of competition with their peers; they feel the urge to try themselves out in strange environments; they yearn to taste the full flavor of their own personalities. The protections we throw about them may be necessary; but not until that overlordship ceases, do their natures have their flowering.

When we see the predetermined capacities, reactions, preferences they show at this time; when we feel the dynamic quality of the whole cycle of their responses; when we realize the unhesitating nature of their decisions, we begin to have a fellow feeling for the parent fish. We suspect that our parenthood is about on a par with that of our piscatorial sisters. They accepted the finality of the egg-laying. We have encouraged ourselves to believe that the major part of our work consists of moulding and influencing our offspring after they have hatched. It may be that all we can hope to do, more than our fellow fish, is to refrain from devouring our young.

There are a few humble activities we can allow ourselves. The realm of habit is our chief domain, and many of the fiercest domestic battles are fought out on its debatable grounds. We struggle to inculcate courtesy, cleanliness, self-control, inoffensive tablemanners, the graces of social life. Our success is seldom noticeable in our own homes; but delightful reports come to us from other homes, where the virtues, shunned under the parental roof, are practised as if second nature to the performer. But why should we expect to reap what we sow?

Away down the river,
A hundred miles or more,
Other little children
Shall bring my boats ashore.

We must train ourselves to find our main satisfaction in having launched these sturdy barks on the ocean of conduct.

Beside a sporadic success in teaching the amenities of social intercourse, we can sometimes inculcate a respect for the dominant racial ideals. Honesty and truthfulness are not necessarily innate moral convictions, implanted in the germ-plasm, for to some races they are anathema. Instead, they are race habits which can be taught as are the A B C’s. We are responsible for handing on to the next generation these habits, with other social attitudes of primary importance to the functioning of a gregarious species in a modern world; and we can measure our success as social agents by the degree of absorption we can demonstrate. For their abilities our children are beholden to the thousands of ancestors we have in common with them. But their moral attitudes we shall have to answer for in person at the Day of Judgment. However black the scroll, we shall have to say, ‘I did it.'

But it is not alone in the establishment of habits that we play a part; we are apparently the deciding factor in determining our children’s sense of values. We do not teach directly our conception of what is of greatest worth in life. There is no subject less susceptible to such treatment. Exhortation falls upon deaf ears. Admonition carries no conviction. But somewhere and somehow, through a shared life, they absorb our deepest faiths. Out of all the tumult, the conflict, the friction, the discipline of family life, the children take the best we have to give for the upbuilding of their own lives.

It is upon us the strain is greatest; for though they are unconscious of receiving, we are conscious of giving. We have not the relief that came to the principal of the boarding-school who said that if she had to be an example for nine months of the twelve, she would be a warning for the other three. We are compelled to practise all the virtues we can muster the year around.

Our generation early recognized the extension of the home into the community, and followed the lead that insight gave us quite simply, unconscious of the momentous effects, upon our lives and those of our children, of so changed an attitude. The consequences of this new orientation have affected our children’s relation to the world in unexpected ways. Their look is no more inward than ours. Their contacts are ours in miniature. The old personal isolation is hardly possible to-day, even to the most selfish individual of the older generation, and not possible at all to the members of the younger generation. Our children foresee the new emergencies as the wild creature feels the threat of the coming storm in the pressure of the hurrying wind, and as instinctively they prepare their defenses.

One more thing we parents can be held accountable for — the social attitudes of the youth of this country. If our spirit is undemocratic, if we cherish the illusion that we are the chosen people, the secret is not hidden from our children. If there develops in this country an inflexible class-grouping; if class-jealousies and antagonisms become intensified, we shall have the parents to thank for it. Social attitudes are so elusive, so beyond the scope of definition, that they can be absorbed only through human contacts. The persistence of the democratic spirit, of belief in the worth of the individual irrespective of his antecedents, his financial status, or his social affiliations, lies in the hands of the parents of to-day, as it lay in the hands of the parents of yesterday. As we fathers and mothers judge the rich and the poor, the brilliant and the dull, the black and the white, the native and the foreign-born, so will the next generation judge.


What part does education, as obtained from our educational institutions, play in the development of our children?

Criticism of our schools is so popular that the stigma of inferiority seems to rest upon the entire system. Some of the censure is undoubtedly an expression of the high ideals the critics hold for education in a democracy; but a good deal of it is simply a manifestation of our national habit of abusing our public institutions. As a matter of fact, where there is any kind of serious educational effort in this country, the children of the next generation are receiving a superior education. It is not so good as that we hope our grandchildren will receive, but it is much better than that which was meted out to us. Indeed, it is in most cases so much better than we citizens, in our indifference, deserve, that we can only congratulate ourselves upon the unceasing labors and high standards of the pedagogic profession, of which we are the caviling beneficiaries.

The outstanding characteristic of the new education is its emphasis upon training for self-expression. It is an education of release. We are apt to be impressed by its unpleasant manifestations, which stand out prominently, and distract our attention from the much more striking gains in power and effectiveness. We can so easily see the whole method as devised to exaggerate a natural self-assertion, when in reality it is a potent agent for the reduction of the fears and phobias which have tortured mankind, and a strong stimulus to the development of a new self-reliance and a richer personal consciousness.

The word ‘release’ is to many minds the signal for the attack to begin. Suppressions, subordination, are the watchwords of such critics of human nature. But, unless we woefully misread humanity, the impulses that guide our conduct are reasonably decent. Taking us as a whole, we are right-minded, fairly unselfish, and properly tolerant of each other. Otherwise we should not waste effort embodying moral standards in the form of law, nor attempt the enforcement of our statutes.

Our fundamental need, in order to develop a full and rich civilization, is the free play of those energies of men which constitute the raw material of which any civilization is made. These energies are the powers our educators are striving to release. The liberation of a force which is to function does not mean that the lid is off. Every expression implies a repression somewhere else. One muscle can be effective only if another opposing muscle gives way. Similarly, in the activity of any aspect of personality, controls and inhibitions of other aspects are inevitable.

But the emphasis of this new education, which is predicated upon a faith in human nature, is not that self-control is unimportant, but that self-expression is essential. Which categories of conduct shall be subject to self-control, and which to self-repression, is decided by the ethical ideals of the nation; but the need of our democracy to-day is for fewer repressed critics and for more potential contributors.

The educator’s methods are various. He strives, through a varied curriculum, to reach children of diverse interests and capacities, and to make their abilities available by appropriate training and discipline. The old idea of education, as some task the child must perform for the edification of the teacher, is as extinct as the dodo. Instead, the child’s effort is for the benefit of the other children in the room, or for some other class in the school, or just for the pure joy of acquisition and expression. The emphasis is less on the personal possession of wisdom and more on the social responsibility for the good gift of education.

Some of the schools for the Negro in the south have achieved a remarkable socializing of the recognized purposes of education. The students are taught to regard their educational opportunity, not as given to them in reward for general personal excellence, but as a trust placed in their hands, to be used in the service of the less fortunate of their race. Such an interpretation lays a special compulsion upon the educated, not to possess, but to share.

Our generation was born in an era of intellectual interrogation. We were not only encouraged to think, but allowed to question the sources of our convictions. Our chief attack was upon the bases of religious dogma. This caused consternation in sectarian circles, but, in a land of religious heterogencousness, did not disconcert the country as a whole.

Our children have profited by the lifted ban, of which we were the original beneficiaries, to carry the attitude of skepticism further, and hold in question the economic and social principles on which our present society is based. It has shocked us very much. We had thought those beliefs outside the realm of controversy; but these audacious young things do not fear to question anything. They are cynical about the divine sanction of capitalism; they flaunt and defy the conventions; they will recognize none of our old shibboleths.

But is it intelligent for us to bemoan the tendencies of the time? Should we not rather rejoice and be thankful that they are not as we were? How otherwise can they better the tasks we have been attempting? Their fresh reaction to age-old problems is the best hope of to-day. The absurdities and exaggerations are but surface rufflings. Beneath, the main current is running swift and strong.

What if they do question the capitalistic organization of society? If it has not enough validity to hold their adherence, it must go. The failures of the system are possibly as monumental as its successes. If youth has a vision of some other form of society that promises better, it behooves us to deal gently with him, and let. him have his chance to try out new combinations of the old elements in the hope of a happier world.

What if they denounce the institution of marriage? Surely we hold no brief for that institution if a better can be substituted. Marriage is a human device to make the perpetuation of the species work, so far as possible, to the best for all concerned. But the most ardent enthusiast cannot claim that the method is without defect, or has been an unqualified success. All that can be said for it is that it has worked better than anything that has as yet been tried. If these confident young people feel that they have an improvement to offer, we must withhold judgment until we see the outcome. We may marvel that they have sufficient conviction to sail the uncharted seas where so many have suffered shipwreck before them, but we must let them embark upon the great adventure with our deep-felt advice as their heaviest ballast.

The truth is, the young generation is not satisfied that ‘whatever is, is right.’ Were we, in our day? Should we wish them to be? We are troubled because we do not want them to throw the baby out with the bath-water, but we can put a good deal of trust in their intelligence, and their sense of relative values, which we have no reason to assume are any less keen than were ours. To us the years have brought the ‘philosophic mind.’ To them the years have given the driving force of zest and optimism. Their restlessness and dissatisfaction, their criticism of us and our ways, their impatience of things as they are, typify the generous impulses of the young evangelist, who does indeed sometimes ruthlessly trample upon the sensibilities of those he is sent out to save.


But the young people of to-day are reacting very differently from the way we reacted in our youth. How can it be? We have produced the environment in which they are growing up; we are guiding the destinies of to-day. How can we explain their taking attitudes so contrary to our expectation, and showing such antagonism to the world as we have arranged it for them? The truth of the matter is that, though we have helped to make the world as it is, it is a new world to them and to us alike, and a very different world from that of our own youth.

The alterations in the physical environment alone are nothing short of revolutionary. Our generation went buggy-riding, which was a mild and harmless sport. If the horse ran away, or refused to advance, we were not far from home and could walk back. There were no particularly interesting places for us to go to within the modest radius possible to us, so we took a swing round by the poor-farm, or a comfortable jog through the city park. Our children have their own automobiles or borrow their fathers’. If the gasoline gives out, or the commutator ceases to function, they are seventy miles from home with, possibly, a dubious road-house as their only refuge.

If a young man wished to take us to the theatre, he came to the house a week before, to see if we could go with him. He sat down with the family to talk it over. If he was not able to come in person, he wrote a note, which was duly submitted to the family’s consideration before it was answered. A week’s warning seemed none too long to assure the excellence of the scats, and to add the joy of anticipation to the happy event. We usually went without chaperons, but the whole plan was arranged in advance, and every safeguard of deliberation thrown round the great occasion.

To-day, in preparation for going to a ‘show,’ our young people are called up on the telephone ten minutes before the time of starting. An instant reply is necessary, and mother may be some distance from the telephone, so that the decision must be made without her. A chaperon can seldom be procured so speedily, the automobile holds only two comfortably anyway, so the course seems predetermined.

The situation is not different in kind but in degree. Every activity is accelerated; resolve outstrips the wind. New conventions will have to be established; new shibboleths, devised to meet the new emergencies, must receive social sanction. Doubtless, when they are generally accepted, this meteoric old world will have run into new complications, and the work will have to be done over again for our grandchildren.

One element persists, a consciousness in each generation that there are standards of some kind, dedication to which remains the test of moral worth. A pretty little flapper admitted that the girls in her college smoked. ‘ But,’ she said, triumphantly, ‘practically not a single girl inhales.’ The whole issue is there in a nutshell. Our generation would have gone to the stake rather than have danced cheek to cheek, or cut off our skirts at the knee. This generation would suffer any contumely rather than permit themselves to breathe in tobacco fumes emanating from their own cigarettes.

When we were young, the world was a small, manageable place. It was composed of the United States, with a few unimportant outlying areas. Europe we knew about in some detail; Asia and Africa dimly; South America and Australia were practically nonexistent; and, so far as we could judge, the Philippines were evolved out of the void by the Spanish-American War. How is it to-day?

A childhood that denied itself bread and sugar to save the Belgians, that adopted French brothers and sisters, that saved its pennies for the sufferers in the Near East, that bought canned milk for Russian babies, will develop an adult life conscious of world-responsibilities.

Roosevelt said, not so many years ago, that he was always astonished, in traveling round the United States, to find how few Americans thought nationally. And he added that he could count on the fingers of one hand the citizens of our country whom he had come in contact with, who thought internationally.

That certainly could not be said today. Numerous as may be the politicians who are still thinking in the old terms and taking the parochial view of every question, the terrific tearing-up of old landmarks has enlarged the vision of most of us and opened our eyes to whole new worlds of thought and experience. The starting of an American journal, wholly concerned with foreign affairs, shows how far we have traveled since the shot was fired at Serajevo.

In pruning off the old conventions, our children are discarding the timeconsuming products of a simpler society. They are recognizing the seriousness of their problem. It is like the athlete who strips off his cumbrous clothing before engaging in his supreme effort. Since there is but one life to each of us, many old interests, perhaps ideals, will have to go, to make way for the new. The restlessness and uncertainty, the drifting and defiance, of the young people are part of the process of finding themselves, individually and collectively. We cannot be much help to them, for we are as bewildered as they. We assert our old prerogative of domineering, but feebly, and without conviction.

When we contrast an old, self-contained country community of the early days of the Republic with a modern community, we marvel that human nature has been able to make the rapid adjustments. A New Hampshire centenarian, who deplores the conduct of his grandchildren, looks back wistfully to his youth in the little village: the quiet round of duties and pleasures; the long days behind the plough or with the hoe; the evening chores in the dimly lighted barn; the kerosene lamp on the kitchen table; the fragrance of the beans as the pot was drawn from the oven; the church sociable; the monthly service by the itinerant preacher; the barn-raising bee; the long night for sleep. He recalls one of the great excitements of his life, when, on a trip to Boston, he saw his first Irishman. He cannot reconcile himself to the fact that his grandchildren are sated with such excitements and seek sharper stimuli. He cannot realize that they are living in a world disrupted by new forces in dynamic eruption. He is not conscious, as they are, of industrial injustice, of class-antagonisms, of racial hatreds freshly inflamed, of a new emergence of religious bigotries. He would muster the platitudes of an earlier civilization to separate right from wrong; but his grandchildren have only intellectual uncertainty with which to counter the forces of destruction.

How can we expect coherence in the minds and conduct of our children? The marvel is that they are as steady as they are. They dream of bringing order out of the chaos; they carry on; they resist our pessimism, and feel that if we will but give them a free hand all will be well.

We can only be grateful to youth for its resilience, and bear with its less lovely characteristics.

One certainty we can hold in our secret hearts. However our children may disdain the fruits of experience that we offer to their service, life will beat them into shape, as it did us. They will be no more able than were we to escape the elementary realities of human existence. There are the same old biological bases for their lives that there were for ours. Their affectional needs will not differ either in kind or degree from ours. Love and grief, success and tragic disappointment will teach them as they have taught us. Economic pressures will steady them as they have every generation since Adam. No theory of the state, no juggling with the organization of society, no reinterpretation of economic law, can avail them to escape the need that man shall earn his bread by the sweat of his brow. Life is a long warfare between the wits of man and the partially controllable but permanently unalterable forces of nature. Each conquest in the subjugation of nature makes new demands upon man, that he turn his victory to the service of society, and not allow it to work destruction to humanity.

Our young people have a great and exacting task before them. Are we helping them as we should, with sympathy and an effort to understand? Are we sufficiently protecting them from the blight of our misgivings and letting the freshness of their young optimism blow through the dark corridors of our adult life?

Above all are we thankful enough to them for the blessing of their strength and courage at our side?

Hold, ye faint-hearted! Ye are not alone!
Into your worn-out ranks of weary men
Come mighty reinforcements, even now!
Look where the dawn is kindling in the east,
Brave with the glory of the better day, —
A countless host, an endless host, all fresh,
With unstained banners and unsullied shields,
With shining swords that point to victory,
And great young hearts that know not how to fear, —
The Children come to save the weary world!