Will Training (Child Study and Child Training)

The following book chapter is considered to be in the public domain as it was published in the USA prior to 1923.

Chapter 16 from

Child Study and Child Training

by William Byron Forbush, George Albert Coe, Charles Foster Kent

Copyright 1915 Charles Scribner’s Sons

Available for download from Google Books


The will used to be thought of as a separate faculty of a man, that must give its fiat, like the president’s signature to a bill, before any act became possible. But it was long ago noticed that so simple an act as winking did not fall within this definition. We now use the term “will” only in connection with action that is prompted by clearly thought-out motives.

Several facts are implied by this way of looking at the matter. In the first place, if we are going to think out our motives, evidently we must possess a certain stock of motives, among which to choose. These past motives that we have used before under similar circumstances are our memories. But they are more than things recalled; they are things recalled with favor. They are memories of past desires that became habits. We recall our desires more easily than our repulsions.

So this is the way we will: Out of our stock of past choices the mind finds alternatives for present choice; it chooses among these and as soon as it chooses, acts accordingly. Those choices that have been most often favored appear most attractively, to be chosen again. Yet they are not inevitably chosen. The man can still deliberate, he can assort them according to their value. If he will do this, if he will think long enough and impartially enough to discover the right name for each, he will choose the best and will act for the best.

William James illustrated this fact by the man who has been a drunkard. He goes by a saloon, and as he passes memories rush to his attention, predominantly the memories of past desire. But he is not necessarily doomed. He finds himself naming and classifying these impulses. If he thinks of this as an opportunity to test a new brand of whiskey, or to be sociable with his friends, or to stimulate his good resolves by a parting glass, he is lost, but if he sees clearly that a drink involves being a drunkard, then he is on the road to salvation. Every accumulated memory of a victory moves his feet nearer to permanent safety.

Let us for clearness of thought set down the three most important words in the study of will : Habits, Deliberation, Action. *


We spoke above of the way evil habits bind the will, so that it is difficult to get free after many foolish choices have been made. On the contrary, how hopeful is the situation in the life of the child who, before the time of strong determining has come, has been moulded into so many right and pleasant habits that they form a goodly company of memories, that are motives, from which he may choose.

Our task with children is to multiply their presuppositions, those experiences of doing things in the right way which will ever after clamor in the field of attention as regular choices. We know what some of these are: the control of the ordinary muscular movements, to stand, walk and govern the body gracefully, to manage and modulate the voice, to marshal one’s thoughts readily. All those imply a life of great physical freedom in early youth, accompanied by thorough muscular training.

Evidently habit must go even further. It must involve the control of the feelings. The young child is abandoned to his feelings, of every sort. They are a mob who conquer him at every turn. If, as we have said, the will is a choice among past desires, then out of that mob rulers should have been appointed and others to serve. Anger, jealousy, curiosity in childhood are impulsive, irrational and quite unrestrained. But they cannot always remain so. To will implies not only the alliance with noble desires, but the inhibiting of ignoble ones. And the best result has come when the alliance overshadows the inhibition. We may, James tells us, repress or substitute. In teaching school you may draw the attention of your pupils from an attractive occurrence outside by bellowing at them, and they will attend; this is inhibition. Or you can put upon the blackboard such an attractive sketch that they will forget what is outside; that is substitution. Since out of the heart are the issues of life, thus to depend upon the expulsive power of a new affection is a very fine art in child training.

There is the greatest room for the training of the sentiments. We must not merely habituate our children to right doing, but the doing of right must at all times be associated so far as possible with pleasure, with love, with joyous service if we are, as Bushnell so beautifully said, “surely to implant the angel in the man.”


We have implied that to deliberate among possible choices is to classify them. Classifying gives an opportunity for a measurement of values. We see, therefore, the need of developing moral thoughtfulness. The moral judgment that results from moral thoughtfulness and trained feelings we call Conscience. We used to think it a separate faculty. We called it “the voice of God in the soul of man.” If we conceived the will as a monarch on his throne, then conscience was the good angel who bent over his shoulder and whispered counsel in his ear. But even the theologian -acknowledges that while conscience at its best is the Inner Light, yet practically a man’s conscience at any given time is simply the expression of the best that is known to him. And while such knowledge is partly his own responsibility, it is evidently partly the responsibility of those who were his teachers. He was not born in possession of the Ten Commandments.

Real moral thoughtfulness implies that we give the child time and room to do his thinking. We must not be sudden, nor jerky, nor hieratical. Wherever possible we should offer him an alternative, so that he may become familiar with the possibility of choice. We should urge him to go apart when he is agitated or about to collide with us or another, and command his feelings and seek the better reason. When he is not likely to do himself or anybody else much damage, he should be allowed the precious experience of learning from his mistakes. Unless he may he never really has free will. It takes time to grow a conscience.


We can now see a little more clearly in what a strong will consists. A noisy lad with uncontrolled impulses does not possess a strong will. .A child who resists commands to the degree that he does not respond when punished is not necessarily strong in will ; since all he does is to resist, his will is purely negative and fruitless. It is evidently a mistake to restrict our idea of will power to the man who can resist great temptation; the man who, because of hereditary tendencies to temperance and early training in abstinence, can pass a saloon without any desire to go inside, is a better example of a well-trained will, which disposed of that enemy before it raised its head Let us laud struggle, and praise the man who masters himself in the face of temptation, but let us covet rather to discipline children who, as Whitman said, ” lift that level and pass beyond.”


Two special abnormal types appear frequently among children.

One is the child of explosive will. He acts on instinct or instant impulse and gives little or no time to deliberation. Inhibition is practically unknown to such a child. He answers vigorously to the first call that seizes his attention, and since he seldom foresees it is hard to prophesy what he will do next. Evidently such a child must frequently be checked when he is about to embark upon a new activity, and given a chance to analyze and perhaps explain aloud its reasonableness or unreasonableness. He must be shown both that he loses much that is worth while because he does not give it time to gain his attention and that he can gain much more that is good out of that which he chooses if he will take time to go about it in the best way. It may be necessary sometimes to penalize such a child by obliging him to carry each separate choice to completion before springing to another, and to satisfy him of the benefit of deliberation and perseverance by giving him the privilege of earning the greater reward which comes from such perseverance. The treatment required may be summed up in this word of caution: “My son, you must take plenty of time to decide, and you must stick to your decisions when made.” This of course does not apply to decisions to do wrong. The peril of such a will is that it is easily influenced in wrong directions. Our work here is, as G. H. Dix says,” to train the possessor of an explosive will to prudence.”

The other type is the obstructed will. Its “function is smothered in surmise,” as Shakespeare said. Of this type the most trying is the obstinate child. Such a child is not so active as he is “set.” The idea of opposition enters his mind and he insists on carrying it to the end. This kind of child is best treated not by counter-opposition. What he usually needs is not to be conquered but to be helped. Often he would like to be willing. But he thinks he has been injured; he believes he has been slighted; or he simply feels out of sorts. His gloom should be met with inconquerable cheeriness, and with pleasant humor. The sulkiness can usually be ignored. A word of approval may put him on good terms with himself as well as with ourself. Sometimes a new line of thought or course of action will carry him along with you. The suggestion of helpfulness to yourself may at once remove his suspiciousness and enable him to express the friendliness which he feels at heart. A good deal of love will conquer a good deal of stubbornness.


The child seems to pass through three stages in his will development.

First, is the stage of command. The mother, in her process of training the child in good and safe habits, must give many explicit directions. She shows him how and patiently helps him to form ideas of useful actions and to carry them out. But she must also, for his protection, restrain him from many harmful practices and she must do this by negative commands. In many ways, then, this is the repressive stage of will.

Second, is the stage of co-operation. Just as soon as possible (much sooner than many parents realize) comes the time when the child can work under direction and control, in co-operation with his mother. There are now fewer commands, and more frequent invitations and suggestions. “Let us do” is an admirable phrase to use very often. During this time more freedom may be allowed the child, and the parent is more anxious to find the right spirit than to expect perfection of execution.

Then we come to the stage of self-discipline. Control now passes from without within. The youth says, as Jesus said in the temple, “I must.” Commands and invitations are now superseded by inner promptings.” It is the highest stage of voluntary action, because in it is expressed the whole personality, self-directed, self-controlled, self -disciplined.”


It requires great wisdom to recognize and help the child through these stages. We are so sure of our own adult wisdom and so fearful of the mistakes that the child may make in his ignorance and his wilfulness, that we forget that our wills are only sponsors and proxies for his, until his is established in power. Or, we may make the contrary mistake, and spoil a child by letting him free before he is wise or worthy to be free, and so let him become a man of mere impulse and wilfulness. Each stage must be experienced and passed through. The right attitude for the parent is to work as a patient craftsman with the child through each period, while at the same time anticipating the next with prophetic and providing mind.


Will training embodies these factors:

  1. Furnishing the child with an abundance of good ideas.
  2. Building these into a stock of good habits.
  3. Training him to select thoughtfully from his past ideas and habits in making his present choices.
  4. Associating his right choices so far as is possible with pleasant consequences, by connecting them with his interests, so that they may become the favored choices whenever he makes a new decision.
  5. Insisting that the precipitate child shall take time to deliberate and shall not vacillate after he has chosen.
  6. Helping the obstinate child through affectionate cheerfulness, sidetracking some of his difficulties by diversion and aiding him to conquer others by co-operation.
  7. Working first through command, then through suggestion and finally through encouragement, as the child in turn responds to these incentives.
  8. Giving the youth room to make choices and to live his own life.


Simple statements about will-training are rare. Chapter IX of Dix’s “Child Study with Special Reference to the Teaching of Religion” is such a statement. There is a very good one in Chapter IX of Holmes’ “Principles of Character Making.” The psychology of the will is treated at length in Chapter XXVI of James’ “Psychology” and much more briefly in his “Talks to Teachers.” Mumford’s “The Dawn of Character” has two helpful chapters, the seventh on the development of the will, and the eighth on will-training.

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