The Home and the Special Child, 1908

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In discussing the problem of the special child it is, of course, necessary to consider it from the point of view of the child who is somewhat mentally deficient, and of the child who is what we now call incorrigible or delinquent.

Mr. Barnes is doubtless right when he says that it is difficult for a parent to make a clear judgement in regard to his own child, especially in respect to the child's mental or moral capacities. But, if parental affection clouds the power of diagnosis, at the same time, after the diagnosis has been made by the trained mind, parental affection enormously increases the power of devotion which is necessary to carry out the regimen which the trained mind has laid down. To convince the parent that by following a certain line of action his child will be enormously benefited is simply to turn affection into a scientifically prepared channel.

When deficient children are discovered in their homes, are taken care of by trained teachers, after they have been diagnosed by child-study departments, and when all the apparatus of public education is turned on, the parent is convinced that his child is not an exception. When the parent is besought to aid in this process of special education, then his first loses his peculiar sensitiveness in regard to hs child. The reaction of this change of attitude upon the entire family is something astounding. I think it was Father Huntington who once said that the essence of immorality is to make an exception of one's self, and certainly the essence of self-pity is the conviction [page 2] that one is so isolated. Comradeship dispels self-pity as the sun dries up dampness. You think you have a child unlike other children; you are anxious that you neighbor shall not find it out; it makes you secretive; it makes you singularly sensitive; it places you and the normal children in the family in a curious relation to the rest of the community; but if you find out that there are many other such children in your city and in other cities [throughout] the United States, and that a whole concourse of people are studying to help these children, considering them not at all queer and outrageous, but simply a type of child which occurs from time to time and which can be enormously helped, you come out of that peculiarly sensitive attitude and the whole family is lifted with you into a surprising degree of hopefulness and normality. I could illustrate this with many tales. I remember one case where a family consisted of a widow, two self-supporting children, and three younger children, the eldest of whom was feeble-minded. The entire family had lived a perfectly abnormal life. In the first place, they always rented a rear tenement, because it was thus made easier to conceal the boy from public view. The four other children were never permitted, under any circumstances, to bring companions to the house. The boy was treated with tenderness and care, but with the utmost secrecy. The mother's attitude was gradually changed after days of patient talk and many visits on the part, first, of a trained nurse, and later of a person who was especially interested in the care of backward children. The day finally came when the boy was put in the omnibus for crippled children -- for it was one of those cases where mental abnormality is combined with deformity -- and taken to the public school openly and boldly, with the omnibus standing in the street, and the child carried out in the arms of a policeman. From that day there was a world-wide difference in the status of the family to the entire neighborhood. Of course such a change could not be brought about until the mother was freed from her sense of isolation, until she discovered that there were many other people who had children of that sort who were not thereby disgraced, that the community recognized such children and provided for them, demanding her [cooperation].

That, it may be, is the most valuable result which the recognition of the duty of the state to these children is bringing about. But not even second to this is the opportunity of unlocking their affection, this peculiar care and solicitude which parents have for the abnormal child, whether he is abnormal [through] his deficiencies or [through] his moral development; thus pouring into public education almost a new force. [Fröbel] used to believe that if he could unlock the love for little children which is manifested by their mothers, if he could pour into the educational system the gaiety of the mother, her delight in her child, her spontaneous desire to play with it, it would bring into education a new and transforming element. At the same time, of course, his kindergarten systematized its manifestations, as the educator of the deficient child would have to train and use scientifically this mysterious tender affection. [page 3]

There is just one thing more which I would like to emphasize which is being worked out in Chicago. We have child-study department where any child whom a teacher is confused about and worried about and considers backward may be sent and examined -- perhaps to be excluded from the system, but more likely to be put into a special room. We have a school for crippled children -- very much such an one as Mr. Barnes has described, and some of us believe that from these points of special education Chicago may secure the best suggestions for educational advance. To illustrate from another great educator -- Pestalozzi. He made his discoveries because he had a little handful of orphan children whom he was obliged to care for in a primitive way -- to wash and dress and feed. He was obliged to appeal to the children for help; to follow their lead. Of course he was put into the very best possible attitude for making educational discoveries. Perhaps in time  educators who are assisted by the devoted parents may come to recognize these children as possible contributors toward the solution of the public-school problems. Educators may face them simply and fairly in a change of attitude to which the parents have brought them.

This reaction of the schools for special children upon the home may bring back the school some of that early devotion to them which we are in danger of losing. I might illustrate from a family whom I knew very well, who had a mentally deficient child. The family became quite prosperous and moved away from our neighborhood into a suburb, which was a step up for them both in the economic and social scale. They stayed in their suburb only two months, however, because the little girl was too far away from a school containing a room for special children. They moved back again so that she might be within the old district, and when the teacher of this special room was put into another district, they moved again into another crowded neighborhood, renting their little house in the suburbs, sacrificing their only pleasure and the advancement of the normal children because they cared so much that the one "special child" should be in contact with the particular person who would teach the mother how to treat her day after day. The mother felt the need of the [cooperation], of the renewal of her courage. She wanted the sense of companionship which her connection with this particular teacher gave her, and which no one in the suburb with its tidy streets and its "swell people," as she called them, was able to afford to her. In this combination of pedagogical training and parental devotion, it would of course be necessary to keep a standard of achievement; because the child has gone beyond that which you thought he might reasonably attain, it is not going to help him when he is thrown out into the world where he will be subject to the normal standard, if you have assumed that everything is lovely, when it is indeed only partially lovely. Not to distinguish between optimism and confusion of standard often leads to disaster, and never more surely so than when we over-estimate the capacity of these special children. It is much better to teach such a child to do one thing well and then to place him hors de combat as to the rest of life. [page 4]

I have seen an Italian family change their entire attitude toward a crippled child who was taught to carve wood with his one hand so well that he earned a very fair wage in a furniture factory; but they did not ask him to wash windows [although] that was the occupation of the father. And [although] it may take half of the seventy years of which Mr. Barnes spoke to recognize the capacity of the defective child, that recognition must, in the end, react upon the home most marvelously. To bring the home and the school into closer connection [through] these special children affords a glorious educational opportunity, and the results may react upon the schools in a way we can, as yet, scarcely estimate.

I could illustrate the same psychological process -- the reaction on the home by the delinquent boy -- in other ways. Take the boy who is arrested and brought into the Juvenile Court in Chicago. Such a child is examined very carefully by a physician -- all of the things which Dr. Barnes has been advocating for the ordinary school children are being showered upon incorrigible children while they are waiting for trial. During the period of detention every child is subject to the medical treatment which he specially needs; he is put into a school and given a chance to do all of this advance handwork which has been so much emphasized in this meeting. The results are simply amazing. Sometimes one actually fails to recognize a boy after he has been in this school a short time, such is the result of good food, of baths and all the rest of the things which Mr. Brockway years ago proved efficacious. After he had been subjected to this treatment for a month or six weeks his own parents subtly change in their attitude to him. The mother recognizes that which she always knew was there, [although] she had no power to bring it out; and the father, who was said not to be fond of him, suddenly swells with a new sense of pride. The onlooker wonders why this hasn't been done before the child was arrested, before he had to be brought to this preliminary disgrace. Here again I think it is the open acknowledgement which frees the situation, the moral effect when the community is not hostile, nor suspicious, nor watching to see how bad your boy is and to whisper that opinion to the next door neighbor. The [cooperating] community versus the hostile community enables the parents to lift up their heads and march along once more. I could easily illustrate this, but I am sure illustrations occur to many of you and I am not going to take your time for them, but with your permission I will very hastily resume the three points which I tried to make: First, the changed attitude of the family when the mother understands that her child is one of many similar children, that she is not having a burden unlike any one else which she has been specially selected by an unfair Providence to bear, but that a large group of people are considering the best methods of dealing with children such as hers, and that she may be of great help to them as well as to her child. Second, the advance that may be made in education when we are forced to the special education, and the many suggestions that will result. Third, the care which may be given to them, at the same time keeping parallel the old tenderness and old standard of educational achievement and educational advancement. These, [page 5] I should say, were three things which we might well bear in mind in relation to the training of the special child and the home.