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Child Study Reprints: Rudimentary Society Among Boys and a Study of Children's Rights

by John Jr. Johnson - 1901

The control of children depends partly on a concrete practical comprehension of their make-up, their reaction to different sorts of incentives and deterrents, their appreciation of laws, rules, advice, and so forth. The study of children may provide data which may increase a teacher's general information about this side of child life and so assist to the concrete, practical comprehension or tact ultimately necessary in dealing with matters of discipline and moral education.


The control of children depends partly on a concrete practical comprehension of their make-up, their reaction to different sorts of incentives and deterrents, their appreciation of laws, rules, advice, and so forth. The study of children may provide data which may increase a teacher's general information about this side of child life and so assist to the concrete, practical comprehension or tact ultimately necessary in dealing with matters of discipline and moral education. A number of studies have attempted to do this with greater or less success. One of the most interesting of their conclusions concerns the existence in young children of an overwhelming tendency to regard the letter rather than the spirit of laws, to look on justice not as equity, but as a fate overtaking certain definite transgressions; to regard punishments not as remedial or preventive agencies, but as natural results of certain acts, regardless of intentions. This attitude comes out clearly in the following characteristic account of boy justice, taken from Mr. John Johnson, Jr.'s excellent study, Rudimentary Society Among Boys.i Mr. Johnson studied the social habits of the boys living together in an institution possessed of eight hundred acres of land and quite isolated from outside influences. The study, as a whole, is well worth reading.

Disputes arising from their peculiar customs of ownership are settled by boys assembled at the place where the controversy is carried on. Most commonly this is in the play-room, where they can be free from observation. When Black and Landreth found the nest of a dove in the pines, seeing no mark of prior owners upon the tree, they took the eggs and brought them to the house. As they sat in the play-room, with needles and straws, preparing the eggs for their cabinet, Delphey overheard their talk, and questioned them about the spot where the nest was discovered. He soon convinced himself that the nest was one that he had found but a few days before, and on which he had placed the mark of himself and his partners. When he was satisfied on that point, he at once laid claim to the eggs. Landreth and Black angrily refused to give them up, and they were soon hot in dispute. Under the law made for such cases, the question of ownership is a nice one. It is granted on both sides that if Delphey, the first finder, is to retain a good title, his label must either remain upon the trunk of the tree, or else lie in sight upon the ground beneath, where it has fallen by accident. If neither alternative is complied with, any subsequent finder may either take the nest or mark the tree with his own label.

By this time a knot of a dozen boys, who had been idling about, had formed around Delphey, listening intently. In a few moments he called Duvall, his partner, for confirmation, and with the

utmost particularity related the circumstances in which he had found the nest. Delphey told of the route they took over the stream, through the swamp, and up the hill, and mentioned the boys they met on the way, whom he compelled to corroborate his assertions. By the time Duvall takes up the account, the ring surrounding them has become larger; perhaps twenty boys have gathered, and they listen with strained attention. He proceeds to describe the tree in which the nest was placed, and dwells with convincing minuteness upon its exact situation, upon the color of the bark, the broken limb, the knot half-way up the trunk, and the nailing of the label upon it. To all of his statements it may be that his adversaries, Landreth and Black, assent, only interjecting at intervals the words: "But there wasn't any mark on the tree when we were there." The declarations of either party are addressed as much to the throng around as to their opponents, and it is evident, in the heightened color of the bystanders, in their sparkling eyes, and in their tense muscles, that to them the question is of absorbing interest. Now that the argument of the plaintiffs has been heard in full, there can be no doubt that they marked the nest as they declare; and yet there is nothing to indicate that the defendants have any intention of restoring the property.

Seeing the angry looks and threatening gestures of all the group, one who does not know the school may judge that blows will follow next, and that a general conflict is about to ensue between the partisans of the claimants. Nothing could be farther from the truth. What has occurred is but the ordinary proceeding of a very primitive court of justice. Delphey knows that Black's arms are strong, his fists hard, and his blows rapid. Landreth has no desire to risk the destruction of his treasure in a struggle where, even if he retains it, he is sure to do so at the cost of bruises and blood. As he rises angrily from his seat and pushes through the crowd, he is not seeking space in which to fight, but a witness to establish his title. This body of spectators, who seem intent upon hearing the whole matter and sifting it to the bottom, is if the name will serve the folk-moot, the assembly of the people, met to see justice done according to law. Each boy standing in the ring around the orators knows that to-morrow he may be there to maintain his rights before a similar body, in which the plaintiff and the defendant of to-day will alike have a voice to decide upon his claims. He has a feeling that a decision contrary to established custom, however it may accord with his momentary sympathies, will be treated as a precedent to overthrow his most cherished interests and to prevent the operation of rules upon which he had confidently counted in every venture in which he is engaged. Every boy there is determined upon the entire preservation of the system of law upon which he has based all his hopes of filling his egg-cabinet.

We have turned aside a moment from following the actions of the litigants. The clamor of voices rose louder as Landreth moved off, but it subsided somewhat as he reappeared, accompanied by Miller, on whose testimony he relied. The newcomer rapidly explained to those around that he, too, had seen the nest on the day Landreth took it; he had examined the tree, and Delphey's mark was not upon it; he had searched the ground beneath, and could not find the label there; he would himself have carried off the find but for the fact that he saw only a single egg, and thought it better to put his own claim-mark upon the trunk and wait till more eggs were laid, when he had intended to return and get them. It had happened, however, that during his previous search for nests he had, in marking other discoveries, used up all the labels that he had brought with him, and he had, therefore, been unable to appropriate the tree at the time. It was after he had gone away, and before he could return with a label, that Landreth had found the nest and possessed himself of its contents, which had, meanwhile, been increased to two eggs by the industrious bird.

This evidence ended the trial. Loud cries arose from all parts of the throng. "It's Doggie's nest. It wasn't marked when he found it," said one member of the tumultuous court. "Your mark was blown away, Rufie," exclaimed another; "it's Doggie's nest." No opposition of importance was made, and, the decision being rendered, Delphey and his partner saw their case was lost, and slowly walked away. Landreth and Black, who retained the eggs, returned to their work of blowing them with straws. The making of the claim, the trial, and the decision, occupied less than half an hour. If not sure, this justice is at least swift.

A word may here be given to the ethical questions brought up by this decision. It was admitted by all parties that the two boys had found the nest before Landreth and Black had seen it. Landreth's claims, in the view of equity, would have to yield to Delphey's, who not only found the nest, but marked it, and who, in so far as prior discovery gives any rights, clearly had them all. Landreth's title rested upon a purely technical ground. Yet, with a characteristic analogy to primitive habits of thought, it was considered that the perfect title was obtained by a literal fulfilment of the words of the law, by an exact compliance with its minutest provisions. The law provided that no one should take a nest when the mark was on the trunk beneath or in sight upon the ground. As it had been proved by Miller's testimony that Landreth could not have seen Delphey's label, Delphey's rights vanished.

There can be little doubt that the negligent driving of a tack was all that made Landreth the better owner than Delphey, and that Landreth was perfectly aware of this fact. When the suitors and judges were questioned as to why such a decision was given, the only reply to be obtained was, "That's the rule." Like Shylock, Landreth might have said: "I stand here for law," and his determination was to maintain to the full every legal privilege. The idea that the law might give advantages the use of which morality could not sanction, is so late a development in the legal history of mankind that we must not regard the absence of such a conception among these boys as an indication of an abnormally low state of moral culture. To look for exalted views of right and wrong among them would be to expect them to reverse the usual processes of mental progress.

John Johnson, Jr., Rudimentary Society Among Boys, pp. 36-40.


i Johns Hopkins Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 2 Number 3, 1901, p. 255-258
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 9721, Date Accessed: 1/26/2022 11:38:52 AM

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