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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
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Nervous Children and Their Training.

by Geo. H. Savage, M.D., F.R.C.P.
Volume 10, 1899, pg. 341


Part II.

From the consideration of rages we must pass to that of exaggerated-self feeling. In fact some of you doubtless have already thought that I was wandering far away from what you look upon as the essence of nervousness. We all have to pass from a state of consciousness in the performance of our action into one of unconsciousness. The state of self-feeling is long a ruler before self-knowledge is attained.

Morbid self-consciousness may show itself in various ways, such as Nervousness, Sensitiveness and over-Conscientiousness.

It is necessary first to refer to some of the dangers due to this excess of feeling. The morbidly sensitive child suffers tortures if it believes itself to be out-classed in any way. Many a child grows into unhealthy nervousness because its school-mates despise it or look down upon its parents or friends. Similarly the child suffers if there is any conspicuous defect in either its senses, appearance or intelligence. The backward child is often made more stupid by this nervousness. A peculiarity in look, a squint or a club-foot may be torture to the sensitive child; we know the misery a Byron may suffer and can imagine the unnecessary pain produced by careless remarks.

Stammering or defect in speech is very common among nervous children, and here again the very fact and the consciousness of its existence intensify the defect. I am in the habit of saying that nervousness, instability and weakness are all represented on the muscular side by tremulousness; thus stammering, hesitation and doubt are all allied. Nervous tricks of the facial muscles are also common, in fact the face and the muscles of expression being the highest exponents of the developed nervous system, are certain to show any defect. Both in development and in decay we get alteration in speech and in expression.

Stammering, muscular tricks and the like can nearly all, if not all, be cured by early and methodical treatment, the secret of which is teaching the child to do things slowly and perfectly, to be sure there is a definite and complete finishing of one act before the next is begun. The growth of morbid self-consciousness can be studied in stammering and tricks of expression, but nothing gives a better opportunity for following the growth of this state than deafness. I have pointed out that healthy-mindedness requires a sufficient supply of external stimulation; in the deaf, one of the paths to knowledge is blocked and the child is made self-centered. In the old days, before deaf and dumb teaching was general, the children who were dumb were frequently called "dummies" because they had not learnt anything from their surroundings, and I remember only 30 years ago, seeing many of these neglected children who were then being collected together for education; many of them were morally as well as intellectually deficient, and nearly all were morbidly sensitive to notice.

Healthy nervous growth is interfered with in the deaf, and even with special education there is still a great danger of their becoming suspicious, thinking that remarks which they do not hear are intended for them; the tendency being when persons are talking together near a third who is deaf, for this latter to wonder, "what they are saying about him."

This is not confined to children, but is a common defect in the deaf. Another danger is the idea that everything they say is right, because they are deaf to all criticism. Deafness in children therefore may tend to a very grave development of morbid sensitiveness, and this will be hard to counteract after the earliest years.

I spoke just now about moral faults resulting from deafness, presently I shall have to speak more fully of moral defects generally. In over-sensitive children shyness not infrequently gives rise to slyness which leads on to cunning, deceit, lying and all the associated evils. The over-sensitive child may exaggerate its own defects and become almost melancholic in its self-depreciation. I think, of the two, conceit is preferable to the morbid self-depreciation. It will be convenient here to consider some of the relationships which exist between nervousness in children and the sense of truth and honesty. Of course among my readers I shall expect to meet with two classes, the one believing that we come into the world full of all the seeds of every sin, while the other is more inclined to think that we come in fairly good but with a potentiality for going wrong. Whatever our beliefs, there is no doubt that a habit of lying may be easily established and I shall endeavour to trace how this may arise.

Most children go through a more or less marked stage of nervousness and many think that, at least, boys go through a stage of romantic untruthfulness. I do not admit that all children are organically given to lying, though I allow it is a common occurrence.

Untruthfulness comes under two very distinct heads, first the romantic, second the malignant or designing. The former is very common and is less harmful, I would almost say, may be harmless.

Most children are given to personifying. They give names and varying characteristics to their dolls, their playfellows and to all sorts of inanimate things. There is, as Sully says, a true "Dollatry."

This is in itself a thing to be encouraged rather than repressed, but some children carry this too far into their lives. They are allowed to talk of the doings of their Dollworld till they cease to recognise the difference between the "make-believe" and the real.

Such children go on telling very improbable tales till they end by being constantly in trouble because of the social complications they cause. I saw a little girl the other day who caused trouble by talking of a grand treat her mother was going to give to all her school-fellows, and at other times she tells most stirring tales of danger and heroism, the figments of her imagination.

It is again interesting to notice that similar garrulity is a mark of decay, and the old man and the child may rival one another in their "yarns." Some parents are terribly alarmed when they discover these examples of untruth, and I allow that it is alarming if taken too seriously, but fortunately as a rule early correction soon cures the fault. The question is as to what is the proper treatment. I have known severe corporal punishment applied and with a satisfactory result, as far as the fault was concerned, but I doubt whether it was good for the child's welfare.

Here, again, I believe in judicious neglect or the assumption of a superior air, and if the child is made to feel foolish much is gained; for instance, the parent may say, "if you say such things people will believe you." Consistence is the great thing.

Children may not seem to appreciate the need of truth in their own actions, but they are very keen to scent out falseness in others, and I believe in influencing all children and the nervous most of all by consistent straightfowardness.

The cowardly designing or malignant lie is quite another matter; this more often occurs in the weakly nervous shy child who by nature is shrinking and fearful. Over-sensitiveness gives rise to many cowardly lies and must be checked promptly by some form of punishment. There are other more malignant lies which are told with the definite object of throwing blame on others. This is more often associated with other faults, such as dishonesty. Undoubtedly there are some children who have no definite appreciation of truth, they are like the colour-blind who do not appreciate certain colours. These children lie romantically and malignantly and in some cases are perfect geniuses of invention. The last class as a rule are very hard to deal with; they are, as I said, like the colour-blind, the fault is in their organism and is ineradicable. In punishing the child-liar or the thief I believe in ceremony. The judge without his wig and gown and not surrounded by officials is not so potent a person as he is with all these additions, and I think the child when punished should be made to feel the gravity of the case by the solemnity of the proceeding.

Some of you may resent my introducing the subject of honesty into a paper concerning the nervousness of children, yet I should not complete my task if I left the subject untouched. Pilfering may be looked upon as the survival of a primitive habit. The savage had to take what he wanted or starve and in some children who have not fully developed there is a tendency to pilfer. In some instances the organic desire to get something to eat leads to this, in other cases the desire is for something attractive to look at.

There is no doubt that the unstable child may be unable to resist a desire to have a thing, the weakness of the will or the strength of the desire being the causes of the fault. As might be expected the boy more often steals something to eat, the girl to make an appearance. Just as there are organic liars there are organic thieves who like monkeys or magpies steal without rhyme or reason, and without any real attempt to conceal their acts.

Just as there are romantic liars so there are sentimental thieves, and again these are more common among girls; they steal very carefully and conceal their fault, but they are very liberal in the uses they make of their gains.

These are sometimes young "ladies bountiful," who even forge their mothers' names to get blankets to give to the poor. They give small feasts and are pleased with the temporary distinction they gain. It is difficult to know who best to treat untruthful children, but it is much harder to know what to do with the pilferers, for as a rule their fault gets known by their fellows and it is bad enough to be known to be a liar, but to be reckoned a thief is ruinous for the child's future. I have had several instances of public school boys who have been exceptionally good conscientious fellows and who were looked upon as "souls of honour," yet who were found to have been stealing; in one case at least the fault lay in the over-strain of work with under-feeding. The question was as to whether it were better for the boy to go back to school, suffer and struggle to regain his good name, or to transfer him to another school. I think that boy a hero who selected the former, and I should feel inclined to advise this plan generally, for if the other plan is followed it is certain the stain will remain and the nervous boy will almost certainly grow into a very self-conscious man, fearing at any moment that he may meet an old school-fellow who may remember the past. Each case must be judged on its merits, the determination being made as a rule by the boy himself.

Another type of nervous reversion is met with in boys who run away from school. I am frequently consulted under conditions such as the following. A bright but rather nervous and shy boy, who is popular and apparently happy, on a Sunday morning when on the road to chapel manages to escape, he makes the best of his time and manages to get many miles away. He probably has a definite goal, and once there he lies to cover his absence from school. Such a boy may however almost at once see his folly and telegraph that he is coming back. Yet when again over-wrought he will repeat his escapade. Such boys have told me the mere desire to escape overcame all dread of punishment. In these cases I think some punishment is required, but it should not be too open or too severe. A change of school is generally also good.

I now turn to a much more common and a thoroughly well recognised phase of nervousness. Already I have spoken pretty fully of the shy boy or girl, and now I have to describe the shy, solitary, studious boy. I have seen far fewer examples of these among girls. Such boys are often of great intellectual promise; I might say Shelley seems to have been such an one. They are often very delicate and refined; they hate the outdoor games and prefer their Latin grammar to their cricket bat. They are looked upon as "Smugs." Such are not fit for the ordinary public school life and less fit to be left to home teaching.

These boys suffer much at schools and as a result they not infrequently become very unhealthy-minded, self-wrapped or misanthropic. There are two groups of thesethe one benefits greatly by his reading, the other gains next to nothing. Reading becomes a mere habit; I have known such boys only happy apparently when reading and yet who could not tell you anything about the book in their hands. The nervous but intelligent boy is often diffident and does not get credit for his knowledge. I believe the best thing for such boys is not a large public school, but a small school with strict methodical discipline. It is well to restrict the amount of reading and to insist on a prècis of one book being provided before another is read. I have found that these boys though not good at games often take to gymnastics, and so it may be possible to make them less solitary and more widely-interested youths.

The book-loving boy is often terribly conscious of his unlikeness to his fellows, and as a result he begins to doubt his ability to do anything properly because he is unlike the majority.

This frame of mind leads to doubt and uncertainty, which is one of the dangers in all nervous children.

The nervous child as a rule is rather above the average in ability, and I must here refer to certain points in the development of the mental capacities. In some there is a premonition of brilliant powers, occurring in flashes which point to ability in special lines. Precocity is an attractive but dangerous gift, it may lead to an early exhaustion of nervous energy. The old proverb is "a man at five, a fool at fifteen," the bud of promise never having power fully to expand. There is danger in precocity and as a rule the truly precocious child does not grow into a genius, yet we have to recognise that precocity may be but the early evidence of splendid powers; it may be the premature and exhausting display which leaves exhaustion, or it may merely be the premature development which is arrested and in the end only presents normal development. Precocity is a natural development and cannot be stopped any more than the too rapid growth of the body. The best that can be done in both cases is to supply the need and support the growth, and not to take advantage of it.

Precocity is more frequently seen along some lines than along others. Poets, musicians, artists and calculators are born and not made, and these powers may appear ready to hand at very early age. Though the highest is the most slowly developed as a rule, yet we meet with mental sports or prodigies.

Some of these, particularly musical prodigies may start brilliantly at a very early age and yet may go on till the end of life, ahead of the rest of their fellows.

The treatment of precocious children is a difficult question. I believe it is general for parents to be rather proud, though they deny it, of having precocious children. My advice is to consider the child and not to think that you possess a treasure that is to be a world's wonder. If the child is a genius nothing will suppress it, it will be all the better for a certain amount of opposition; whereas the chances in favour of its only being forward and therefore of its being checked will be for its welfare and your comfort. Granted that a child has a distinct gift, how should you treat it to avoid the penalty of developing nervousness. I believe it is better to let the child have the ordinary education, for in all things too early specialisation injures the full growth of the mind. World's work needs world knowledge, and the cramped specialist may be a prodigy but will hardly be a blessing. Art, music, or calculating are the special gifts which seem to show themselves most commonly in the specially developed child, and with all these there is great risk of the development of nervous weakness unless the mind can be broadened by general culture. I believe in seeking the child's happiness rather than sacrificing it to an idea. The growth of "the special" is almost certainly made at the expense of some other faculty and it is well to recognise that the growth of the more abstract powers is made at the cost of the more human ones, so that geniuses are not infrequently wanting in true sympathy. They may weep over the sorrows of the world but neglect their own children. Artistic children should certainly be made to take as much interest as possible in the outer world, for nature should be their mistress and sympathy their nurse.

One special aptitude or gift common with some of the restless nervous children is a marvellous memory for details. Such children may have for years a power of learning words and dates which is as surprising as it is disappointing, for the child with such a memory rarely has ability to make use of the stores collected. It is thus that some of the Mezzofantis with many languages can hardly make any but a parrot-like use of their acquirements. One friend of mine used to say, "The man with the most tongues seemed to have the least to say in them," and it has been said the perfection of the Greek language depended on the Greeks knowing no other. "Knowing is the art of forgetting," this is one of my favourite aphorisms, and it is true that the person who does not forget the trivial things has a loaded, not a useful memory. In training the nervous child, as a rule, one has to deal with a mind which rapidly takes up but also rapidly drops. It is just as well to remember that our memories are like our height, nearly fixed quantities, and though we may train our memories in the way of arranging, we do not increase their retentive power much by practice. Children who learn too rapidly by reading their lessons should be trained to some extent to learn by hearing them read aloud, so that they should have two series of sensory impressions instead of one.

Memories vary in degree and in quality, and the power of attention which is so often deficient in nervous children has to be cultivated by exact observation and recording of things seen and heard. As a contrast to precocity we have to note stupidity of a nervous kind. Some children only appear stupid because they are not understood and are not properly treated; but there are some who might be almost called precociously stupid, they are slow in reaction to question, slow in learning and slow in adapting themselves to their surroundings. Such children pass for being clumsy and awkward and in many cases are looked upon as the ugly duckling, yet they too may be swans in disguise. Some of these dull children are only late in developing, they require the utmost delicacy in handling and it is only by special education to begin with that they will have a fair chance. As a rule they need physical development before their minds are trained at all, freedom of life and limb is the rule for such.

We here are considering the nervous children as they are met with among the educated classes, but there is a large class who till recently have been neglected or rather who have been forced to undergo the teaching usual for the masses of ordinary school children, such now are treated by special teachers in special schools. In the same way we have to recognise that there are some children not fit for the ordinary school life; children who from their nervous constitution are unfitted to join the others in class work and who not only will not get good but will be the ready recipients of every evil influence bred of indolence and inattention.

Is punishment or reward to be looked upon as the chief stimulus to industry and to goodness? I am inclined to think modified punishment is almost necessary, but the nature of the punishment must vary. Reward is of course the thing Ruskin would have looked to, but feeding on sugar is not altogether healthy.

The associates of our children, whether they be nurses or school-fellows, have the chief part in forming the child-mind. The most characteristic quality of the forming mind is its inclination to rest on and follow others. The carelessness or vice of nurses may leave indelible scars, so it is well to be sure of your nurses. Now I have gone over the whole subject which I had placed before me, with what success you alone can tell, and I wish to make it clear that nervousness is a common attribute in the children of all classes; that it is most marked in the higher classes; that it may be and generally is but a passing quality which with the proper handling may be turned to the best uses.