Children Are The Same Everywhere

 

From a rich background of intimate living and working with children on four

continents Hans Maeder describes the likeness he has found in children.

 

"What are the children of Denmark like?" was a question that interested me before I started on my first trip to that country in 1926. To be quite honest, I did not feel at ease when I first came in contact with Danish children, but as soon as we had played a game of soccer and had sat around a fire for "solvend" (midsummer) and had shared our camp and other songs, I felt very much at home. From then on I was eager to see for myself if children with different skins and looks and languages arc really different or if they are alike.

My travels began when I went to Denmark to teach in a school for problem boys. During my summer vacations I went on study trips to England, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland. On my return from such trips the boys would flock around me with questions. "What do the boys of Switzerland do in their free afternoon?" "Are the children in England punished when they do not behave?" "Are soccer and handball as much liked in Norway as here?" "Tell us a little about your life as a boy in Germany."

These and similar questions came repeatedly and more than once one of the boys would say after my reply, "Then actually there is little difference between them and us here in Denmark." Some of the older boys who had read their history and geography attentively might contradict and say that surely children of different color and language or those with slanting eyes would act entirely different from Danish youngsters. This comment I could answer with "Maybe," but somehow the question stirred something inside me, too. As soon as the opportunity to travel presented itself&emdash;an opportunity not entirely my own choice&emdash;I made up my mind to study the children in the various countries I visited.

Children of the Plantation in East Africa

On a farm in Kenya Colony, East Africa, where I was employed for three months as an "eleve" who wanted to study the plantationing of coffee, I soon had a small group of native children gathered around me. They were a pitifully poor people. The fathers and mothers worked on the plantations for as little as two cents a day. The children were left much to themselves except during the coffee-picking season when they helped in the chambas. Several of the little boys it was impossible to get the girls&emdash;came in the afternoons to visit me at my hut, I began to give them simple lessons in writing, though this was difficult for I did not understand the Swahili language very well myself. We had a lot of fun together and during the lessons we laughed and talked like old friends.

But especially interesting was the period after our lessons. I gave the boys some marbles which I had brought with me from Nairobi. I wondered what they would do with them. At first they tried to eat them, but quickly discovered that they could not. Then they began to roll the marbles on the ground. On the second or third day, to my amazement, they cleared a flat piece of ground, made a small hollow in it and played the typical marble game which children play everywhere. I had given them no advice at all but had let them find for themselves the most suitable game with marbles.

One day I watched the boys play hide-and-go-seek around our storehouse. Whether they had learned this game from a white child I was unable to find out.

Apondi, an intelligent boy of about eleven, asked me questions which I did not understand at first, but soon I realized that he wanted me to tell him something about the children "over the mountains," which to him wee the country I came from. He wanted to know if they had to work and if they were learning to read and write. When I told him, in my poor Swahili, that the children in Europe had to go to school every day but did not have to work he smiled at me and probably did not believe me.

Another of our boys, Wataia, held my special interest. One morning he arrived leading a team of sixteen oxen hitched to a plough. There were deep furrows on his forehead and he seemed very much disturbed, I noticed also that he had badly bitten finger nails, which surprised me very much. I have always observed children's nails and they never fail to tell something, but I did not expect to find nail biting in African children.

Soon I noticed that Wataia's father, Kamanche, treated the boy meanly. He made him work hard the whole day and gave him none of his well-earned money. The father wore fine pants and flashy shirts, while Wataia was clothed in rage. Kamanche also beat his wife, a practice absolutely unheard of among the Kitosh tribe to which Kamanche belonged. Apparently the father's treatment of him and his mother was the reason why Wataia looked unhappy and seemed to be afraid of adults in general. Wataia reminded me of the slum-shocked boys with whom I had worked in Germany, Denmark and other countries.

Chinese Children at Work and Play

On my way from Africa to the Philippines I passed through Singapore and Hong Kong. In Singapore I watched the Chinese boys and girls on a large playground in the center of the city. They usually played baseball or soccer. One day I saw a boy bat a foul ball which he insisted was a strike. A hot argument arose. Everyone had to yell something&emdash;and how vividly I was reminded of my own boyhood when we played and argued in just the same way on the playground.

Sometimes when I had my shoes shined by a little Chinese boy I asked him questions about his school and his playmates. He did not tell me much, but after a few days as we became more friendly he asked me about other parts of the world. "No shoe-shine boy in Europe?" he questioned in his pidgin English. I explained that in Europe there were laws which forbade adults to employ any child for work, and that the children went to school instead. However, he smiled when I told him about an Arabian shoe-shine boy in Port Said who had used the same movements as he shined shoes and gave that special smack with his rag at the end of the shine.

Although I had no real opportunity to contact Chinese children in their own country, I was fortunate enough to meet some of them in Manila where I worked as circulation director for the Fookien Times, a Chinese daily newspaper. In my department there were many twelve-to sixteen-year-old boys. At first they considered me as the "boss" and tried me out in various ways.

The boys came early every morning n with their bicycles to distribute the papers. We assembled in a large room and my interpreter gave out the assignments and made the roll call. One boy had been missing from these early morning meetings for several days and some of the other boys tried to cover up for him by answering when his name was called. At first I did not catch on, but then I noticed that at certain moments a silence came and always a different boy would call "here." The next morning when this boy's name was called I quickly called "here" before anyone else could answer. All eyes turned to me for a moment and when I smiled the boys burst out laughing. They thought it really funny that I had caught their trick. >From that day on the missing boy reported and a fine basis for mutual understanding between all the boys and me was established. Swimming together at the beach on Sundays helped to remove all barriers.

In War or In Peace

Unfortunately, I had only casual contact with the Filipino children. How ever, on my trips to Atimonan (about one hundred miles from Manila) I met regularly a small group of youngsters, boys and girls about twelve years of age. They took me into the mountains for lizard hunting and to the seashore for snake catching. On these trips we had little opportunity to talk but I had much opportunity to w etch the children in their skills. They were really children of nature who knew ~A-hat to do in different situations. The first time we went out I laughed when they all took off their shoes shortly after leaving the little town of Atimonan. But soon I learned why&emdash;it was easier for them to walk and climb without shoes.

Often I sat with this group in the evenings in front of the old Catholic church. The children talked about their dreams and hopes for the future and they often asked me about children in other countries. I told them about the games children in other parts of the world were playing and great was their surprise when I explained that almost all games were alike with very few variations all over the world.

In Honolulu I worked at the Y.M.C.A. with groups of younger boys. I felt at home at once. Even though the boys were of quite different groups&emdash;Hawaiians, Japanese, Chinese, Filipinos, Portuguese and Americans&emdash;they made friends with each other as boys do everywhere.

(On the morning of the attack on Pearl Harbor, I had a difficult time to convince some of the children in our street that they should go home. They were crowding together in spite of the continuous rain of anti-aircraft shell splinters and watching the hostile planes swoop down on the naval base to release their bombs. In just the same way I had seen Chinese children watch the bombing of Canton in the autumn of 1938 and I was reminded of a story by Antoine Moller, a Belgian newspaperman, who wrote about the children of besieged Madrid in 1937. Moller described how the youngsters crowded the house entrances, ran into the street as soon as a bomb had exploded nearby, raced to get the glowing hot pieces of bomb splinters, and then ran toward safety before the next bomb dropped.

Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York

Shortly after my arrival in New York I became director of a boys' division at the Y.M.C.A. in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Here I had ample time and opportunity to watch the actions of boys especially, but also of some girls. I found again the same ideas and games, the same dreams and hopes for the future, and the same sense of insecurity and slum-shockedness that I had found everywhere else.

In my groups were boys of Jewish, Catholic and Protestant faiths from twenty-three different nationalities. In the beginning I missed a certain frankness and openness that one always expects from children but I soon found that this was a natural precaution against a person like myself who speaks with a strong foreign accent. This precaution vanished after a few weeks and from then on there seemed to be no differences between us. It was possible for me to speak and to act, especially with the younger and pre-adolescent groups, in the same way that I had in all the other parts of the globe. When I recently left my position and introduced to the boys my successor&emdash;a Sine American boy of Japanese ancestry&emdash;they showed again a little of this typical child's precaution toward a stranger. However, after only one week they made friends with him as intimately as they had with me a year earlier.

We often hear the opinion that children are different in the various parts of the globe. Through my personal contact with them on four continents I have learned that they are much the same everywhere so long as no adult is interfering in their world. I could cite scores of instances from Germany and Denmark, from the Philippines and Africa, from China and the United States, where children in given or similar situations acted almost exactly in the same way. Rough and inconsiderate treatment by adults brings forth stubbornness and unfriendliness on the part of all children on all continents. Wataia's reaction to his father's cruelty is a universal one. When Apondi in Africa, Monico in Atimonan, Borge in Denmark, John in Brooklyn or the children in Singapore and China get into an argument over a foul ball even their facial expressions are almost the same. When the children in Honolulu wanted to hear about the children in other parts of the globe they showed the same interest the boys in Denmark had shown.

It is these likenesses that can form the foundation for world unity and peace.

Reprinted from the January, 1945, issue of CHILDHOOD EDUCATION.