Care of Children


By A. A. BERLE, JR., Assistant Secretary of State

Delivered before the Eighth Pan American Child Congress, at the White House, May 6, 1942

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VIII, 508-509.

IT is always a high privilege to welcome the distinguished group of representatives of the American family of nations. The privilege is all the greater when the subject of the conference is that of the care of children. In the presence of so many people who have given their lives to this most important of social studies, I speak with the greatest diffidence. As a layman in the field, I can only make a few very simple observations.

The entire subject of the care and assistance which government and private organizations can give to children has been pioneered by a few brave and noble souls who long ago realized that the principal work of the mature generation is to clear the path for stronger and more successful generations to come after. One of my earliest memories is of the discussion held on this subject by Jane Addams, at Hull House in Chicago,—that great training school from which came a succession of brilliant women whose names are known throughout the continent. Later, I had the happy privilege of breakfasting often with Florence Kelly, whose kindly mind of cold steel planned the early American laws which restrained the evils of child labor. Nor can one forget the gracious presence at those frequent breakfasts of Grace Abbott, whom Miss Lenroot worthily succeeds.

We have passed, in the United States, through two phases of development in our dealing with the problems of child study. I think we are about to emerge from a third phase. Perhaps you will permit me, even as an outsider, to speak of these three phases.

A generation ago the approach towards children was always sentimental. Such institutions as we had to deal with the problem were largely based on pity: for children who were being badly dealt with by life: institutions for the care of orphans, societies for the prevention of cruelty to children; arrangements to give occasional pleasure to the children of the poor. These were splendid and worthy; they reflected every credit on the many kindly souls who established them and maintained constant interest in their work.

But, as time wore on, we came to realize that pity was not enough. We learned that it was insufficient to attempt to right wrong after the harm was done. We began to think in terms of social science, and of community organization.

We learned to consider that it was a social crime to separate a mother from her children merely because of poverty; and systems of mothers' pensions were worked out. We learned that it was futile to provide medical charity for babies unless assistance for prenatal care was worked out; that while children's hospitals were necessary, it was even more necessary to set up standards and methods under which children should be adequately nourished and adequatelytaken care of—so that children's diseases should be prevented. We found out that while it was a great thing to provide vacations and playgrounds for city children, it was even more important to see to it that children were not driven by thousands into factories or other forms of labor which injured their health and crippled their spirits.

We even learned that while it was a generous impulse to provide orphanages for children without parents, it was far more intelligent to place children in homes capable of rearing them under normal circumstances. We discovered that all our work to correct juvenile delinquency must be secondary to programs of creating conditions in which the child should not be steered towards a life of degradation and ultimate crime.

The list could be extended indefinitely, but the point is sufficiently plain. God forbid that the swift and gracious human reaction which makes all civilized people kindly towards children should ever die out. But with it must go cooler, more analytical treatment of the basic problem—an organized, disciplined attack upon those conditions, social, intellectual and moral, which lie at the roots of the misfortune of children.

So began the scientific phase of children's work. It has been a long and fruitful period,—and is far from being ended. Through it have come major advances: in the field of medicine and medical care for mothers, and infants, and children, and adolescents. As a result of it, there have come the beginnings of an organized body of knowledge in the fields of psychiatry and child psychology. In jurisprudence and law we are gradually learning to adapt the old procedure of the police and criminal courts to the newer technique of studying children as individuals, and of endeavoring to correct delinquency exactly as a doctor tries to correct a physical ailment. Our schools have become centers in which not merely the minds of children are taught, but in which their bodies could be strengthened, their nutrition guided, and their awareness of the community could be increased. Our industry is at length learning, and our laws are beginning to assure, that children shall not become industrial cannon-fodder.

Throughout the American continent you will find in varying degree codes of laws and professional practices more advanced than any in the world.

A third phase has begun to suggest itself. This is the idea that youth, as such, should be set apart from the body of society, and should be separately dealt with by all agencies of private and public organization.

I am not clear that I agree with this new suggestion. Bluntly, and speaking merely as an individual, I am inclined to question the value of what are called "youth movements". I doubt if children and young people have aseparate interest, apart from society as a whole. The results of the last twenty years of work seem to me to show beyond doubt that you cannot take care of the interests of children unless you also consider and deal with the conditions of homes—that is to say, of parents. While there are endless things which can be and should be done for young people, the object must be not to separate young people from the community, but to bring them rapidly into it. The lessons we have learned would seem to indicate that there can be no fragmentation of society; that personality is indivisible. If this be so, it follows that our endeavor to raise the standards of childhood must be an integral part of our entire program for raising the standards of living and the standards of the entire community. The more we work at the problem of children, the more we find that they are at the heart of society as a whole.

Precisely here, I think, the attitude of the Americas branches off from many of the attitudes which have recently been coming to us from Europe. It must be remembered that youth movements began as adjuncts to militarism: they were frankly intended to raise youth which would enter the continental armies. This origin of the attempt to set youth apart from the life of a nation as a whole goes back even to the close of the Napoleonic wars. Later it was made use of by certain of the European revolutionary movements. Particularly, and more viciously, it was used by the Nazi movement, which began by endeavoring to seize control of all of the youth movements in its area; promised a glorification of youth, and has just completed its singularly evil work by decreeing that all children from ten years old up should be condemned to forced labor. Still worse, thesechildren—including, today, every German child—are seized and put to forced labor, not primarily for the work they can do, but so that they can be held hostages for the behavior of their parents, lt is not the first time that a movement of this kind has been perverted into an instrument of hideous oppression.

But this perversion does point a moral. It evidences the weakness of a society in which any age group is set apart, and encouraged to assert interests adverse to the nation as a whole. In social science, as well as in the human heart, and in the Christian religion, we are all of us members of one body; and none of us lives to himself or dies to himself. As the sentimental regard for a lonely child brought the orphanage, and as the scientist re-created from the old orphanage the normal home, so we, in entering the third phase, see the problem of children as a part of the problem of advancing civilization as a whole.

You will pardon this brief review of the social history of a great movement. I like to think that for us, members of the American family of nations, there is a symbolism which we can take to heart. In our international life we have learned that sentimental affection between nations is great, but that it must be supplemented by the careful, realistic and scientific consideration and solution of problems. And we have learned that no nation, and no group of nations, can set itself apart from the great body of world affairs. In international life as in individual life,, no one lives to himself and no one dies to himself.

Therefore, a meeting of this kind, in the shadow of the greatest war in history, is a happy portent for the future. Like the rainbow in the tempest clouds, it offers the sovereign gift of hope.