Having two boys myself and the problem of toys always being spread all over creation I could really appreciate this article. It’s dated November 1887 –
It is the first rainy days of autumn that bring the children — happily occupied out of doors during the summer — into the house, with their hands full of clay to be baked, their pockets full of shells, pebbles, and sand, their muddy shoes, loud voices, and boisterous, upsetting ways. They troop into the sitting-room, where their mother has established herself to sew quietly, and in five minutes chaos has come; — the floor is littered with trash, and there is not a chair free to sit upon. And mamma realizes that this is only the beginning of a long siege of her patience and good-humor. Every day will bring the same experience, and yet she cannot make her children feel that their home is a prison ; that they must move in a certain line and burden every moment’s enjoyment with a sense of care. If her own comfort alone was concerned, submission of that would be certain, but other grown members of the family are less complacent. The father is apt to come in and kick a pile of blocks out of his way with an exclamation of disgust, and sisters and aunts look unhappy over ” the horrid litter.”
There is one blessed gift which Nature probably bestowed upon women with a direct reference to their management of children, — ingenuity. Few of us use it sufficiently or know how readily it responds to demands. If we did, the difficulties of domestic government would be greatly reduced. In the midst of my perplexity over the litter and confusion in my household I stepped into a neighbor’s the other day and learned something which I want to confide to distressed mothers.
My friend was sitting serenely in her special corner of her bright dining-room, embroidering, while her two boys were playing about. Yet everything looked peaceful and orderly. ” How is it? ” I asked expressively.
She answered by a merry look which deferred explanation, and not long after her boys disappeared in the kitchen where .a slow fire burned in the range, to bake some little pans of clay which they had prepared on a broad, smooth board. Then she said :
“My dear, I was bothered to death, as every mother is, by the dreary disorder, until I recollected that these little beings who come into our homes to be at once our delight and torment have absolutely no idea of processes, do not know how anything is to be created, and need to be instructed what the nature of a plan is and aided to carry out any one that is suggested. The command ‘ Keep your toys in place ‘ seems unjust when having but one receptacle for their miscellaneous collection they are obliged to turn out everything in order to find a single article. Realizing this I thought of a way to insure their pleasure with the minimum of discomfort to others. They love to be where I am, and they love the light, warmth, and cheerfulness of the sitting-room. So I set aside one spot, the sunny space beneath that west window. Then I got a strong box, two feet wide, three long, and one and a half deep, put a lid on it with two hinges, and covered the sides and ends with turkey-red calico, stretched plainly around and tacked at intervals. On the lid I laid straw and over that put a layer of the calico drawn tightly and tacked, finishing off by a flounce all around the edges.
“So far this was a very ordinary thing, but now came my contrivance. I recollected how we women like to have snug corners appropriated to our possessions, drawers with divisions and workstands with compartments, and what aids to keeping order such arrangements are. Children take delight in such minute receptacles and quickly show a sense of method when they are allowed the convenience of a division drawer or basket. Resolving to afford my children every possible facility, I had a deep tray made for the box, extending half way down and resting on side slats, very simply. Then I myself divided both the tray and the bottom of the box into compartments with crossed slats of wood, making in all twenty-four receptacles. Then I wrote on each compartment in ink the name of the article belonging there. In the tray is kept everything light, while iron and wooden toys lie on the bottom. They can easily lift out the tray themselves and set it on the floor, replacing it when they have taken out what they want. The box is on castors, but there is another contrivance which is not revealed until you lift up the hanging flounce. See, at each end of the box is a screw which pulls out this little shelf, only a plain pine board a foot and a half square, covered with oiled cloth. The shelf at this end belongs to the older boy, and the other one to the younger. Here they play checkers, tea-party, write, paint, and model in clay. A slight rubbing with a wet cloth cleanses it and it is pushed back out of the way when not in use.”
“And those two little red chairs sitting at either end of the box are just the right height for them to use with their shelf-table,” I commented admiringly.
“But did you not have a great deal of trouble in teaching them the proper use of their things?”
“Not nearly so much as you might suppose. In that waste basket which always stands in the corner they must put all their trash and empty it every day, themselves. Children can be taught order if one helps instead of scolding. Whenever I find a stray toy lying about, I call it a vagrant and put it under arrest for some period ; sometimes I impose a fine before it is restored. The children, appreciating justice, take this in good part, and are usually anxious to maintain order. I think there is a great deal in making them feel that they are members of a community and have obligations to discharge.”
“Some are lawless,” I sighed, “and own no obligations. And then, do you not find that having all their possessions mixed in this manner makes them quarrelsome? I should think that they would be forever encroaching upon one another’s rights and wanting the same thing at the same time ? ”
“I own that was a difficulty at first.” Nothing, said my friend thoughtfully, “is more puzzling than to train the aggressive tendencies of children into ways of forbearance and generosity. And they cannot all be placed upon the same level and made to yield their possessions at every demand, for some little ones have naturally a strong sense of property, understanding that certain things belong to them and others do not ; while there are some who lay hold of everything and want to fight for possession. The piratical instinct is very strong in some children and has to be restrained. I used to allow each child its own things and permit exclusion, but I soon found that the plan did not answer and thought of a better way.
Some trifles must, of course, be personal, but in that case I always duplicate, so that each child has its own. But expensive toys I always make them understand belong to both equally, and to prevent the disputes sure to arise from both trying to get the same thing at the same time I adopted a lending system. Now perhaps you will think that all this is too much “red tape,” but any trouble is preferable to a wear and tear of nerves and temper, and I assure you that in dealing with children it is far better to make them feel that they are living under certain laws than to interfere personally upon every slight occasion. I made a great many little tickets, merely pieces of card-board, and wrote on them the names of my two boys, giving each one the cards bearing his name, and whenever a toy belonging to both is taken from its place a ticket is deposited in its room and this insures the borrower inviolable possession for a reasonable time.
Indeed, I have very little trouble in managing in this way. My children are by no means angels, but they have fewer quarrels and are more tractable than if I left them mostly to their own ways and then brought them to book for every slight misdemeanor. The secret is to govern quietly, and without much perceptible interference.
“But all this is easy to you who have had so much experience. I should never accomplish such a system,” I said despondently.
My friend smiled. ” My dear,” she returned cheerfully, “select one of the sunny corners of your sitting-room, arrange for your children a box like mine and a pair of little chairs ; call it their castle, and impress upon them the responsibilities attaching to their state, and mark me — you will cease to lament their incursion into your neat room.”
Perhaps some of the readers of Good Housekeeping will think, as I did, that this was good advice. Children must have a pleasant place of their own before we can with justice, expect them to keep out of our way.