Home  »  Some Thoughts Concerning Education  »  Some Thoughts Concerning Education

John Locke (1632–1704). Some Thoughts Concerning Education.
The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.

Some Thoughts Concerning Education

Sections 121–130

§ 121. 4. Perhaps it may not sometimes be amiss to excite their curiosity by bringing strange and new things in their way, on purpose to engage their enquiry, and give them occasion to inform themselves about them and if by chance their curiosity leads them to ask what they should not know, it is a great deal better to tell them plainly, that it is a thing that belongs not to them to know, than to pop them off with a falsehood of a frivolous answer.

§ 122. Pertness, that appears sometimes so early, proceeds from a principle that seldom accompanies a strong constitution of body, or ripens into a strong judgment of mind. If it were desirable to have a child a more brisk talker, I believe there might be ways found to make him so: But I suppose a wise father had rather that his son should be able and useful, when a man, than pretty company, and a diversion to others, whilst a child: though if that too were to be consider’d, I think I may say, there is not so much pleasure to have a child prattle agreeably, as to reason well. Encourage therefore his inquisitiveness all you can, by satisfying his demands, and informing his judgment, as far as it is capable. When his reasons are any way tolerable, let him find the credit and commendation of it: and when they are quite out of the way, let him, without being laugh’d at for his mistake be gently put into the right; and if he shew a forwardness to be reasoning about things that come in his way, take care, as much as you can, that no body check this inclination in him, or mislead it by captious or fallacious ways of talking with him. For when all is done, this, as the highest and most important faculty of our minds, deserves the greatest care and attention in cultivating it: the right improvement, and exercise of our reason being the highest perfection that a man can attain to in this life.

§ 123. Contrary to this busy inquisitive temper, there is sometimes observable in children, a listless carelessness, a want of regard to any thing, and a sort of trifling even at their business. This sauntring humour I look on as one of the worst qualities can appear in a child, as well as one of the hardest to be cured, where it is natural. But it being liable to be mistaken in some cases, care must be taken to make a right judgment concerning than trifling at their books or business, which may sometimes be complained of in a child. Upon the first suspicion a father has, that his son is of a sauntring temper, he must carefully observe him, whether he be listless and indifferent in all in his actions, or whether in some things alone he be slow and sluggish, but in others vigorous and eager. For tho’ we find that he does loiter at his book, and let a good deal of the time he spends in his chamber or study, run idly away; he must not presently conclude, that this is from a sauntring humour in his temper. It may be childishness, and a preferring something to his study, which his thoughts run on; and he dislikes his book, as is natural, because it is forced upon him as a task. To know this perfectly, you must watch him at play, when he is out of his place and time of study, following his own inclination; and see there whether he be stirring and active; whether he designs any thing, and with labour and eagerness pursues it, till he has accomplished what he aimed at, or whether he lazily and listlessly dreams away his time. If this sloth be only when he is about his book, I think it may be easily cured. If it be in his temper, it will require a little more pains and attention to remedy it.

§ 124. If you are satisfied by his earnestness at play, or any thing else he sets his mind on, in the intervals between his hours of business, that he is not of himself inclined to laziness, but that only want of relish of his book makes him negligent and sluggish in his application to it; the first step is to try by talking to him kindly of the folly and inconvenience of it, whereby he loses a good part of his time, which he might have for his diversion: but be sure to talk calmly and kindly, and not much at first, but only these plain reasons in short. If this prevails, you have gain’d the point in the most desirable way, which is that of reason and kindness. If this softer application prevails not, try to shame him out of it, by laughing at him for it, asking every day, when he comes to table, if there be no strangers there, how long he was that day about his business: And if he has not done it in the time he might be well supposed to have dispatched it, expose and turn him into ridicule for it; but mix no chiding, only put on a pretty cold brow towards him, and keep it till he reform; and let his mother, tutor, and all about him do so too. If this work not the effect you desire, then tell him he shall be no longer troubled with a tutor to take care of his education, you will not be at the charge to have him spend his time idly with him; but since he prefers this or that [whatever play he delights in] to his book, that only he shall do; and so in earnest set him to work on his beloved play, and keep him steadily, and in earnest, to it morning and afternoon, till he be fully surfeited, and would, at any rate, change it for some hours at his book again. But when you thus set him his task of play, you must be sure to look after him your self, or set somebody else to do it, that may constantly see him employed in it, and that he be not permitted to be idle at that too. I say, your self look after him; for it is worth a father’s while, whatever business he has, to bestow two or three days upon his son, to cure so great a mischief as his sauntring at his business.

§ 125. This is what I propose, if it be idleness, not from his general temper, but a peculiar or acquir’d aversion to learning, which you must be careful to examine and distinguish. But though you have your eyes upon him, to watch what he does with the time which he has at his own disposal, yet you must not let him perceive that you or any body else do so; for that may hinder him from following his own inclination, which he being full of, and not daring, for fear of you, to prosecute what his head and heart are set upon, he may neglect all other things, which then he relishes not, and so may seem to be idle and listless, when in truth it is nothing but being intent on that, which the fear of your eye or knowledge keeps him from executing. To be clear in this point, the observation must be made when you are out of the way, and he not so much as under the restraint of a suspicion that any body has an eye upon him. In those seasons of perfect freedom, let some body you can trust mark how he spends his time, whether he unactively loiters it away, when without any check he is left to his own inclination. Thus, by his employing of such times of liberty, you will easily discern, whether it be listlessness in his temper, or aversion to his book, that makes him saunter away his time of study.

§ 126. If some defect in his constitution has cast a damp on his mind, and he be naturally listless and dreaming, this unpromising disposition is none of the easiest to be dealt with, because, generally carrying with it an unconcernedness for the future, it wants the two great springs of action, foresight and desire; which how to plant and increase, where nature has given a cold and contrary temper, will be the question. As soon as you are satisfied that this is the case, you must carefully enquire whether there be nothing he delights in; Inform your self what it is he is most pleased with; and if you can find any particular tendency his mind hath, increase it all you can, and make use of that to set him on work, and to excite his industry. If he loves praise, or play, or fine clothes, &c. or, on the other side, dreads pain, disgrace, or your displeasure, &c., whatever it be that he loves most, except it be sloth (for that will never set him on work) let that be made use of to quicken him, and make him bestir himself. For in this listless temper, you are not to fear an excess of appetite (as in all other cases) by cherishing it. ’Tis that which you want, and therefore must labour to raise and increase; for where there is no desire, there will be no industry.

§ 127. If you have not hold enough upon him this way, to stir up vigour and activity in him, you must employ him in some constant bodily labour, whereby he may get an habit of doing something. The keeping him hard to some study were the better way to get him an habit of exercising and applying his mind. But because this is an invisible attention, and no body can tell when he is or is not idle at it, you must find bodily employments for him, which he must be constantly busied in, and kept to; and if they have some little hardship and shame in them, it may not be the worse, that they may the sooner weary him, and make him desire to return to his book. But be sure, when you exchange his book for his other labour, set him such a task, to be done in such a time as may allow him no opportunity to be idle. Only after you have by this way brought him to be attentive and industrious at his book, you may, upon his dispatching his study within the time set him, give him as a reward some respite from his other labour; which you may diminish as you find him grow more and more steady in his application, and at last wholly take off when his sauntring at his book is cured.

§ 128. We formerly observed, that variety and freedom was that that delighted children, and recommended their plays to them; and that therefore their book or any thing we would have them learn, should not be enjoined them as business. This their parents, tutors, and teachers are apt to forget; and their impatience to have them busied in what is fit for them to do, suffers them not to deceive them into it: but by the repeated injunctions they meet with, children quickly distinguish between what is required of them, and what not. When this mistake has once made his book uneasy to him, the cure is to be applied at the other end. And since it will be then too late to endeavour to make it a play to him, you must take the contrary course: observe what play he is most delighted with; enjoin that, and make him play so many hours every day, not as a punishment for playing, but as if it were the business required of him. This, if I mistake not, will in a few days make him so weary of his most beloved sport, that he will prefer his book, or any thing to it, especially if it may redeem him from any part of the task of play is set him, and he may be suffered to employ some part of the time destined to his task of play in his book, or such other exercise as is really useful to him. This I at least think a better cure than that forbidding, (which usually increases the desire) or any other punishment should be made use of to remedy it: for when you have once glutted his appetite (which may safely be done in all things but eating and drinking) and made him surfeit of what you would have him avoid, you have put into him a principle of aversion, and you need not so much fear afterwards his longing for the same thing again.

§ 129. This I think is sufficiently evident, that children generally hate to be idle. All the care then is, that their busy humour should be constantly employ’d in something of use to them; which, if you will attain, you must make what you would have them do a recreation to them, and not a business. The way to do this, so that they may not perceive you have any hand in it, is this proposed here; viz. To make them weary of that which you would not have them do, by enjoining and making them under some pretence or other do it, till they are surfeited. For example: Does your son play at top and scourge too much? Enjoin him to play so many hours every day, and look that he do it; and you shall see he will quickly be sick of it, and willing to leave it. By this means making the recreations you dislike a business to him, he will of himself with delight betake himself to those things you would have him do, especially if they be proposed as rewards for having performed his task in that play which is commanded him. For if he be ordered every day to whip his top so long as to make him sufficiently weary, do you not think he will apply himself with eagerness to his book, and wish for it, if you promise it him as a reward of having whipped his top lustily, quite out all the time that is set him? Children, in the things they do, if they comport with their age, find little difference so they may be doing: the esteem they have for one thing above another they borrow from others; so that what those about them make to be a reward to them, will really be so. By this art it is in their governor’s choice, whether scotchhoppers shall reward their dancing, or dancing their scotchhoppers; whether peg-top, or reading; playing at trap, or studying the globes, shall be more acceptable and pleasing to them; all that they desire being to be busy, and busy, as they imagine, in things of their own choice, and which they receive as favours from their parents or others for whom they have respect and with whom they would be in credit. A set of children thus ordered and kept from the ill example of others, would all of them, I suppose, with as much earnestness and delight, learn to read, write, and what else one would have them, as others do their ordinary plays: and the eldest being thus entered, and this made the fashion of the place, it would be as impossible to hinder them from learning the one, as it is ordinarily to keep them from the other.

§ 130. Play-things, I think, children should have, and of divers sorts; but still to be in the custody of their tutors or some body else, whereof the child should have in his power but one at once, and should not be suffered to have another but when he restored that. This teaches them betimes to be careful of not losing or spoiling the things they have; whereas plenty and variety in their own keeping, makes them wanton and careless, and teaches them from the beginning to be squanderers and wasters. These, I confess, are little things, and such as will seem beneath the care of a governor; but nothing that may form children’s minds is to be overlooked and neglected, and whatsoever introduces habits, and settles customs in them, deserves the care and attention of their governors, and is not a small thing in its consequences.

One thing more about children’s play-things may be worth their parents’ care. Though it be agreed they should have of several sorts, yet, I think, they should have none bought for them. This will hinder that great variety they are often overcharged with, which serves only to teach the mind to wander after change and superfluity, to be unquiet, and perpetually stretching itself after something more still, though it knows not what, and never to be satisfied with what it hath. The court that is made to people of condition in such kind of presents to their children, does the little ones great harm. By it they are taught pride, vanity and covetousness, almost before they can speak: and I have known a young child so distracted with the number and variety of his play-games, that he tired his maid every day to look them over; and was so accustomed to abundance, that he never thought he had enough, but was always asking, What more? What more? What new thing shall I have? A good introduction to moderate desires, and the ready way to make a contented happy man!

“How then shall they have the play-games you allow them, if none must be bought for them?” I answer, they should make them themselves, or at least endeavour it, and set themselves about it; till then they should have none, and till then they will want none of any great artifice. A smooth pebble, a piece of paper, the mother’s bunch of keys, or any thing they cannot hurt themselves with, serves as much to divert little children as those more chargeable and curious toys from the shops, which are presently put out of order and broken. Children are never dull, or out of humour, for want of such playthings, unless they have been used to them; when they are little, whatever occurs serves the turn; and as they grow bigger, if they are not stored by the expensive folly of others, they will make them themselves. Indeed, when they once begin to set themselves to work about any of their inventions, they should be taught and assisted; but should have nothing whilst they lazily sit still, expecting to be furnish’d from other hands, without employing their own. And if you help them where they are at a stand, it will more endear you to them than any chargeable toys you shall buy for them. Play-things which are above their skill to make, as tops, gigs, battledores, and the like, which are to be used with labour, should indeed be procured them. These ’tis convenient they should have, not for variety but exercise; but these too should be given them as bare as might be. If they had a top, the scourge-stick and leather-strap should be left to their own making and fitting. If they sit gaping to have such things drop into their mouths, they should go without them. This will accustom them to seek for what they want, in themselves and in their own endeavours; whereby they will be taught moderation in their desires, application, industry, thought, contrivance, and good husbandry; qualities that will be useful to them when they are men, and therefore cannot be learned too soon, nor fixed too deep. All the plays and diversions of children should be directed towards good and useful habits, or else they will introduce ill ones. Whatever they do, leaves some impression on that tender age, and from thence they receive a tendency to good or evil: and whatever hath such an influence, ought not to be neglected.