CHAPTER III SOME PARENTAL RESPONSIBILITIES UNMET-Woodmam
I have sometimes thought that a glimpse of the want of deep and genuine concern touching the education of children is to be gotten in the rise of summer camps in great numbers during recent years. I do not deny the place or value of a camp for children and youth. I have come into first-hand contact with some admirable camps for boys and girls and, as I looked at some visiting parents, could not avoid the regret that the separation between parent and child was to be of a brief summer's duration. Two months in the year of absence from the home can hardly suffice to neutralize the effect of ten months of parental presence and contact. I quite understand that the ideal arrangement in some homes would be to send the child to camp during the summer months and to send the parents out of the home, anywhere, during the rest of the year, an arrangement that is not quite feasible in all cases.
My query is—granted the value of the camp, how many parents have thought the problem through for themselves, a query suggested not by the inferior character of some camps, but by the celerity with which the camp-craze has swept over the country. In many camps children are sure to profit irrespective of the character of the home whence they are sent, but surely there are some camps a stay in which can but little benefit children. Now why do camps so speedily multiply, and why are children being sent to them in droves? The real reason is other than the oft-cited difficulty of placing children decently in other than summer hotels.
The instant vogue of summer camps met a parental need, the need of doing something with and for children with whom, released from school, parents did not know how to live, finding in the camp an easy way out of a harassing difficulty. Why do parents so live that in order to have a simple, wholesome life for their children, it is necessary to send them off to the woods in so-called camps the charm of which lies in their maximum difference from hotels and in their parentlessness? The unreasoned haste with which children flocked in multitudes to the camps is a testimony to the failure of parents to live in normal, intimate contact with their children, and a prophecy, I have no doubt, of the conflict certain to develop out of the stimulated difference in tastes between child and parents.
I, too, believe that children, especially city-reared children with all their sophistications and urbanities, should be brought nearer to the simplicities of nature during the vacation period. But why not by the side and in the company when possible of parents? The truth is that, apart from the merits and even excellence of some camps, parents are so little accustomed to living with their children that when the summer months force the child into constant contact with parents, the latter grow embarrassed by the necessity for such contact, and the camp is chosen as a convenient way out of a serious domestic problem. My complaint is not against camps but against the multiplication of them necessitated by the helplessness of parents who face the need of sharing the life of their children. And some of these parents are the very ones who will later wonder that "our children have grown away from us."
I am often consulted by parents who express their grief at that strange bent in their children, which moves a son or daughter to seek out low types of amusement and the companionship bound up therewith. I quiz the complaining parents and learn that no attempt was ever made parentally to cultivate cleaner tastes, that the child was incessantly exposed to all the vulgarities and indecencies of the virtually uncensored motion picture theatre. Recreation is become a really serious problem in our time, immeasurably more important than it was in the youth of the now middle-aged, such as the writer, when a Punch and Judy show and a most mild and quite immobile picture or stereopticon were considered the outstanding entertainments of the year.
How many parents take their children's amusement seriously, as they take their own, and are concerned that these shall be, as they can be made, free from all that is vulgar and unclean? If the well-to-do, who might have other recreations, are given to the motion picture, is it to be wondered at that in the poorer quarters of New York, if a child be too small to be tortured by being kept at the side of its parents throughout a motion picture performance, it may be checked in its go-cart as one would check an umbrella. There is an electric indicator on the side of the screen which flashes the check-number to inform parents when their child is in real or fancied distress.
A writer in the Outlook, May 19, 1915, deals with the vulgarizing of American children and particularly the vulgarizing and corrupting power of the movies. He commented editorially, as I have done elsewhere, on the extraordinary absence of parental care for the minds of children in curious contradiction to the supersedulous care of the body: "Many influences are at work to vulgarize American children, and little is done by many parents to protect the mental health of their children. Neither time nor money is spared to preserve them in vigor and strength, to protect them from contamination. Meanwhile, those minds are the prey of a great many influences, which, if not actually evil, are vulgarizing. What is going on is not so much the corruption of young people in America as their vulgarization." Parents are not less vulgarized, but the awakening and shock come when children are grown and are found to show the effects of what was innocent amusement, of what proves to have been deeply corrupting and degrading to the spirit.
But it is not enough for parents to censor the theatres frequented by their children and when they can to debar them from attendance at disgustingly "sexy" plays. It is their business as far as they can to cultivate in their children the love of the best in letters and in the arts. It is not enough to call a halt to the pleasure-madness of our children; it is needful that their recreations be guided into wholesome and creative channels. Happily books and pictures and, though less so, music, are accessible to all, and it remains true that we needs must love the highest when we see or hear it. Intellectual companionship is a primal necessity in the home contacts. Partially because of the craze for visible and audible entertainment, we have lost the habit of reading. Why trouble to plough for ten or twelve hours through a volume when one may look upon its contents picturized within the duration of an evening's performance at the theatre and in addition the "evil of solitariness" be avoided?
There is a real advantage in the old-time habit of reading aloud in the home. It is one conducive to community of interest and a heightened tone of home-contacts. It is far better to make dinner or library conversation revolve around worth-while books than worthless persons. It may not be easy for some parents to acquire or achieve this home habit of reading aloud but it is of the highest importance that children be enabled to respect their parents as thinking and cultivated persons if these they can become. One cannot help regretting that reading aloud is becoming a lost art. One hardly knows how badly reading aloud can be done and how wretchedly it is for the most part taught until one asks one's children to read aloud.
The choice and the art of reading can best be stimulated and guided within the intimacy of the home. It may, as I have said, be difficult for parents, especially fathers, to accustom themselves to the practice of reading aloud. It may seem sternly and cruelly taskful to read to and with one's children when it is so much pleasanter to exercise one's mind at bridge whist with contemporaries or to yield to the pleasurable anodyne of the "movies." And yet I do not know of a truer service that parents can render children than to foster a taste for worth-while books, for the best that has been said and sung, if one may so paraphrase, so that these may know and love the great things in prose and poetry alike. It is never too late to begin the habit of reading any more than adults ever find it too late to learn to dance or to play bridge.
Alice Freeman Palmer has put it "You will want your daughter to feel that you were a student, too, when she becomes one, and that the learning is never done as long as we are in God's wonderful world." What a difference it will make when all mothers have such relations with their children beside the life of love. When I say that it is for you to live with your children, I do not mean that you are to go to the theatre with them daily or thrice weekly, for that is merely sharing pastimes with them. I say live with them, not merely join them in their amusements. Not only is reading good and needful but the right kind of reading. I sometimes wonder as I look upon cultivated persons handing their adolescent children sheaves of magazines, cheap, vulgar, nasty. We cannot expect that our children can for years feed upon the trivial and ephemeral and then give themselves to things big and worth-while.
In one of his stimulating volumes, Frederic Harrison suggests that men who are most observant as to the friends they make or the conversation they share are carelessness itself as to the books to which they entrust themselves and the printed language with which they saturate their minds. Are not parents often carelessness itself with respect to the books to which even very young children are suffered to entrust themselves? A book's not a book! Some books are vacant, some are deadening, some are pestilential. Wisely to help children to the right choice of books, remembering that reading is to be of widest range and that in reading there are innumerable aptitudes, is to render one of the most important of services to a child.
The editor of a woman's magazine recently pointed out that in one year nine thousand eight hundred and forty-six girls wrote to her about beauty problems, and seventeen hundred and seventy-six asked advice with respect to other problems, "the throbbing, vital questions that beset the social and business life of the modern girl." Out of what kind of homes have come these young women, whose quest is of complexion-wafers? The figures of the magazine editor are above all things a testimonium paupertatis, intellectual and spiritual, to multitudes of American homes. What kind of mothers will these young women make? Do they dream of rearing fine sons and noble daughters, or will they be satisfied to become child-bearers at best rather than builders of men and women? But there is something more, and it is more closely related to our particular problem. It is from the empty, poor, however rich, homes that bitter protest and heartbreaking revolt will emerge. For some children are bound in the end to despise the cramping intellectual and moral poverty of their childhood homes,—whence conflict takes its rise.