Children of the Poor – November 1919

A teacher in a slum school told me that the children of the very poor are awkward at doing things for themselves. One would think that, as they had no one to wait upon them, they would from earliest infancy learn to dress and undress, to get their own food, to wash dishes, and in other ways make themselves helpful in the elementary business of a household.

But this is not so. The teacher told me that when a slum child was undressed for the bath prescribed by the authorities, he could seldom put on his clothes again without bungling. One quite biggish boy could not lace his boots. And all alike seemed to consider fastenings superfluous.

A worker at a city creche — where the young children of working mothers are kept while they are out at their day’s work — told me of the case of a charwoman whose little boy of three or four years old was left in their charge every day for a number of weeks.

He could do nothing in the way of self help, but quickly learned to use a spoon, to wash his hands, take off his shoes and put them on again and perform those little acts that the respectable mother, who is able to devote her whole time to her own house, endeavours to teach her children.

The funny point of the story is that the mother began to make a complaint of her child being so spoilt that she could not manage him at all. He would persist in trying to put on his own clothes! And she hadn’t time in the mornings to wait on his clumsy fingering.

That is such a true picture of childhood. It is much easier to wash a child’s face, ears and neck, than to stand by and instruct him how to do it. The little ones would never get off to school in time if they were left to comb their hair, lace their boots, and find their little caps and vests and satchels which are perpetually in limberlost. It is only the leisured, or partially leisured mother or nurse who has time and patience to wait upon and guide the prentice fingers and wandering mind of the child.

My experience of slum life is not great, but I know a little of it, and I have been amazed to find in the middle of the morning, several children still in their night attire, running about the kitchen or playing in bed out of the way. They had not been taught to dress themselves and the mother hadn’t time. In the lowest strata, there is no dressing and undressing. The children wake and sleep in their day clothes.

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