Saskatchewan’s Samuel Laycock converted Canada’s Home and School movement from a weekly coffee circle into a sizzling forum of argument and action for—and sometimes against—his revolutionary methods of turning children into tomorrow’s responsible citizens

ALAN PHILLIPS January 15 1954


Saskatchewan’s Samuel Laycock converted Canada’s Home and School movement from a weekly coffee circle into a sizzling forum of argument and action for—and sometimes against—his revolutionary methods of turning children into tomorrow’s responsible citizens

ALAN PHILLIPS January 15 1954

OVER THE LAST ten years a Saskatoon psychology professor named Samuel Laycock, a plump, buoyant, benevolently smiling man in gold-rimmed spectacles, has pushed to the top of psychology’s most dangerous field: telling mothers how to bring up their children. His achievement stands alone, monumental but disconcerting for Dr. Laycock is a bachelor.

Once, after a speech to a Home and School Association in Moosomin, Sask., he called for questions. A woman in the audience stood up and asked. “Has Dr. Laycock any children?”

“No,” said Laycock. “Have you?”

“Yes four.”

“And how many children did your doctor have?” asked Laycock.

“None, as it happens. He was a bachelor.”

“Madam,” said Laycock, “I’m surprised at you. I would have thought you’d have shopped around till you found a doctor with children of his own.”

Laycock is dedicated to the job of helping children grow up into good citizens. Last spring, at sixty-two, he retired as Dean of Education at the University of Saskatchewan to devote his full time to persuading parents and teachers to think about their charges. “Children are human,” he says. “Every one is different. Every time a teacher understands why a child made a particular mistake she’s entitled to a good mark. Every time she can’t understand she should go into professional sackcloth and ashes.” Parents have the same obligation, he thinks, but first, parenthood must be elevated into a profession.

In his formidable mission Laycock has a powerful ally—The Canadian Home and School and Parent Teacher Federation, which has doubled its membership in the last six years and now embraces two hundred thousand parents and teachers in three thousand local associations across the country. The federation claims that the home and the school must complement each other in training and educating the child. It promotes understanding between parents and teachers and gets them to work together toward the same objectives.

From 1945 to 1947 Laycock, as the high-voltage national president of the Home and School Federation, fought the apathy of parents on one side and the opposition of teachers on the other, and laid the groundwork for the movement’s rapid expansion. He was well qualified to do this. In his twenty-six years at the University of Saskatchewan he taught thirteen hundred student teachers. At the same time, as a psychologist, he treated hundreds of mentally defective children in Saskatoon, interviewed thousands of students, and wrote scientific papers which won him an international reputation. His Laycock Mental Ability Test is widely used to measure the intelligence of pupils in grades four to ten. With a born teacher’s zeal he began in the Thirties to broadcast and publish clear-cut conclusions about why some children become delinquents while others grow up to be good citizens. He decided that the responsibility for the delinquents, in most cases, lay somewhere between the school and the home and could be overcome if the two great influences on character formation operated as a partnership. This led him into the Home and School Federation.

As a one-time country schoolteacher Laycock knew many teachers thought parents were interfering amateurs and that. Home and School would add to their extra-curricular chores. As a psychologist he knew many parents resented the teacher’s authority over their children; for others, the teacher scarcely existed till something went wrong till a child came home and burst into tears over something that happened in class. He had to show each group how Home and School would benefit them.

He took to the air, wrote articles and pamphlets he'd presented his views on public platforms from coast to coast. His whirlwind speaking tours drew big crowds. In one sortie through Nova Scotia he spoke to seventy associations in two weeks and met almost every public-school inspector in the province. Tape recordings of some of his speeches are still being used there.

To teachers he said: “Home seeps into the school at every point. Lots of retarded readers are emotional problems. The child who is upset at home has several strikes against him in learning to read. Suppose the father says, ‘What good is poetry?’ or ‘Art will never get you anywhere.’ Suppose the mother says, ‘Mary’s just like me—no good in arithmetic.’ They come to school with a built-in disability.

“Develop skill in co-operating with parents,” he told them. “It’s not worth a hoot if you start off by saying, ‘Tell your mother to come and see me.’ Take the attitude, ‘We’re both fond of the child so let’s see what we can do to help it.’ Guard against any tendency to blame the parents for mistakes you think they have made. The mother is often acutely aware of her child’s shortcomings. Don’t make her feel any more guilty. Be sympathetic. Tell her the good things about her child first. Then find out how she handles the faults. Tell her how you handle them. Remember, what the parents think is important even if they’re wrong. Co-operation will pay gilt-edge dividends.”

To parents he said: “When your child starts to school you have to move over and make room for a partner in your child’s development. The old-fashioned report card isn’t enough. It doesn’t tell you whether Tommy is doing his best or just what is holding up his development. You and the teacher should search together to understand the origin of Tommy’s problems. Perhaps his smart-aleckness is a bid for recognition, or his aggressiveness a compensation for feeling insecure with his teacher or with you or with his classmates. His defiance of authority may be due to too much pressure being put on him at home or at school.

“Invite Tommy’s teacher to tea or supper. If you're annoyed at her, wait until you cool off. Don’t forget, the teacher has feelings too. If you put her on the spot and attack her she’s almost certain to be resentful. Start off by saying something nice—and sincere. Tell her your difficulties. Ask her what she’s concerned about. Don’t be a bore. Don’t expect her to give you any pat prescription which will solve all Tommy’s troubles. It’s a joint searching.”

In a pamphlet called The Biggest Firm in the World: Home, School & Co., Laycock wrote, “Here are four partners.... four sets of teachers: 1. the child’s home teachers, his parents; 2. his playmate teachers; 3. his community teachers (church, community leaders, social workers); 4. his schoolteachers. What would you think of a business firm where each partner would have nothing to do with the other? They’d go bankrupt. Is raising citizens less important than making money?”

Soon, people were calling the crusading bachelor “the ambassador between the home and the school.” When his term as president was finished he retained his influence through the key post, chairman of the school education committee. His pamphlets became known as “the Bible of the Home and School,” and are widely quoted today in the U. S. as well as in Canada. At the world-wide movement’s last international conference in East Lansing, Mich., Laycock was selected to make the summing-up address.

Some Home and School officials feel Laycock tries to go too far too fast. They think social activities are sugar coating, that people can only be led to consider the problems gradually. Some are mothers who have grown resistant to the continual flow of implied criticism from a bachelor. One woman sums up this sentiment: “If Dr. Laycock had three or four children of his own underfoot he’d soon get rid of some of his theories.”

At a Home and School meeting in Saskatoon a few years ago six hundred people turned out to hear Laycock speak. Many were mothers with youngsters in their arms, and here and there, as the speech wore on. the children started to cry. Laycock raised his voice; more children were disturbed. As the crying of the children and the shushing of the mothers grew in volume, Laycoek’s voice became more intense and he ended his speech in a magnificent shouting climax.

Mrs. G. H. Headley, provincial Home and School vice-president, rushed up to him. “Dr. Laycock,” she said, “you were wonderful!”

“For goodness’ sake!” said Laycock hoarsely, “tell them to get some babysitters next time.”

“Dr. Laycock,” said Mrs. Headley, “that’s the best thing that ever happened to you. Maybe now you’ll understand how it is with a mother.”

Unabashed, Laycock tolls mothers what, to do about everything from bed-wetting to preparing teen-agers for marriage. He tells them bluntly what’s wrong with Home and School: “They’re not supposed to be moneyraisers—we’ve established now that the whole community is responsible for the school. They’re not a ladies’ aid to the principal. They’re not grievance committees. They’re not community clubs to hear lectures on everything under the sun. Not that coffee after a meeting isn’t a good thing if it’s good coffee. People who won’t get up on their hind legs and express themselves in a meeting will talk about their problems over coffee. Home and School has one purpose and one purpose only: to foster the growth and development of children in home, school and community.”

Laycock is so completely confident of his aims, his methods and his abilities that he sometimes gives an impression of rather smug self-satisfaction. This is heightened by a rather naïve vanity. On returning from a trip to the west coast last year, the first thing he told one friend was, “I’ve been to sixty-two receptions.”

Even friends remark that when Laycock goes to a social gathering where he is not the centre of attention, he grows uneasy and leaves earlier than usual. There is a story (told by his university colleagues) that he once asked the famous London psychologist, Dr. G. E. Spearman, for an analysis.

“You have a necessity,” Spearman told him, “to want the centre of the stage.”

“I realize that,” Laycock is supposed to have replied. “That’s why I became a professor.”

His friends say his vanity is unpretentious, never belittles others, and consequently is seldom irritating. Laycock is completely free of maliciousness. He will criticize an idea but never a person. He wastes little time deploring things. He has a large amount of what Dr. Wendell MacLeod, the University of Saskatchewan’s Dean of Medicine, calls “determined good will.” “He’s a do-gooder,” says MacLeod.

His convictions and talents have made him a leader in the Twentieth Century battle over how children should be taught. The “traditionalists” (many top business and professional men and arts professors) say we should get back to the three Rs and get back fast. They claim the best way to train a student’s memory, judgment and reasoning is by stiff doses of classics and mathematics. The “progressives” (most professional educators) say one learns what one practices. So they want to teach knowledge, skills and attitudes that will best serve the student after he leaves school.

Personality Distinction

Laycock is a right-wing progressive. He points to experimental evidence which shows that memorizing poetry can be a downright hindrance in remembering stock quotations, that reasoning developed by parsing a sentence is of little help in reasoning out a family problem. He insists on a mastery of subject matter but he doesn’t think a teacher can “pour education over a child like syrup over a pancake. Growth isn’t just intellectual it’s physical, emotional and social,” lie says. “The business of the school is to develop boys and girls who can live together happily and effectively. Subject matter is a means to this end, not an end in itself.”

In 1944 the National Committee for Mental Hygiene asked him to survey the effect of a teacher’s personality on the pupils. Laycock visited one hundred and fifty-seven classrooms. One morning he went into a grade ten class where a teacher was giving social studies. The response was excellent and he thought this was the best class he had ever come across.

That afternoon he dropped into a mathematics class. It was pandemonium; students were talking, laughing, throwing things. It took him some moments to realize that this was the same class he had seen so perfectly behaved that morning. Only the teacher was different.

“It’s unbelievable,” he says, “how the atmosphere of a classroom is affected by the teacher’s personality. A tense teacher has a tense class. A dithery teacher, a dithery class. A bossy teacher has either a resentful or a meek class. The whole child comes to school we can’t isolate his brain—and nothing will thwart his growth more surely than an insecure, self-centred, frustrated, or unsympathetic teacher.

“Many teachers,” he states flatly, “talk eloquently about ‘democracy’ and deny it in almost every act and attitude. They don’t like children, they merely endure them. They think dull pupils aren’t worth their efforts, while the bright ones will ‘get by’ anyway. They look on children of different races and creeds as ‘foreign’ and ‘queer.’ They think of discipline as keeping pin-point quiet, and when they leave the room bedlam breaks loose. There’s no training in self-control, they rule by force and fear. They don’t ask why a child misbehaves, they take it as a personal affront to themselves. They use sarcasm, ridicule and strapping freely, believing that to humiliate a pupil and lower his self-esteem is the best way to deal with him. They dominate; their class turns in a good examination paper but they’ve done all the work, the talking and thinking. They berate isolationism in class, but avoid parents or civic responsibility like the plague. The result is to produce citizens fit for a fascist, not a democratic state.”

Laycock was an early missionary for a healthy mental attitude not only for teachers but for all people who exercise influence over others. He helped set up mental-health clinics in Saskatoon and Regina, where social workers can bring in people with personality problems for psychiatric care. He gave courses to student nurses on mental attitudes which help the patient get better. He lectured student lawyers on the psychology of divorce and the rights of children. He set up summer-school seminars where theological students learned how to counsel the bereaved, older people, parents with handicapped children. When he retired from the University of Saskatchewan last spring so many organizations paid him tribute that Laycock says, “I no longer have any curiosity about my funeral.”

The well-known Toronto child psychologist, Dr. C. M. Hincks calls Laycock a hypermanic, by which he means “a going concern, only more so.” On a typical day as a professor, Laycock would arrive at his book-lined office around 9.15, wearing a sober suit with a flashy tie, his white hair neatly brushed, his eyes bright and his manner brisk. Immediately the mail came in he would start to dictate (Dear Mrs. LaFlamme: With regard to your youngster's left handedness. My advice is to let him follow his natural bent.), sitting straight up in a hard chair, thumbs in his vest pockets, pausing only when one of his full-time staff of five would pop in with a problem. He would clear his desk in time to deliver a lecture, lunch alone in his office (“to save time”), chair a meeting or two, then break away to get downtown for a broadcast. In the evening, still brisk, he might drive across town to make a speech, or write in his room in the King George Hotel.

Laycock used to take his crowded schedule at breakneck speed, obsessed with saving time. One of his colleagues wrote a memo once that began: “Beware of the Black Streak”—poking fun at the way he drove his car. Today his tactics are aimed at conserving energy. He plans incredibly far in advance. His Christmas cards—he sends out about four hundred—are ready to mail in October. He used to set up his schedule for spring examinations in November. Last April he planned his activities day by day for six months after retirement. “I must, have plans,” he says, “I never drift.”

A recent trip to Europe illustrates Laycock’s “no drift” policy. First, he wrote away for an armful of literature. From this he decided what he wanted to see. One of his destinations was Prague. On arrival he hired a guide and told him where to go. Then before he left Prague he bought postcards of everything he had seen. On the train to Vienna he studied the postcards with the guidebook on his knees. Two days later he went over them again.

“The curve of forgetting is very steep at first,” he says. “You forget most in the first forty-eight hours. I knew I wouldn’t be able to go to Prague again, but now I’ve got it for good. I can bring back Prague in my mind’s eye any time. The average tourist comes back and says, ‘Were we in Prague?’ ”

It’s All in the Training

Laycock’s memory is legendary on Saskatchewan’s campus. One of the rituals of the university’s annual alumni dinner, where ex-students reunite, is to have Laycock make the introductions. One by one, he will introduce men and women he has not seen for years, never faltering, usually adding some personal remark. A good memory, he says, is simply a matter of training. As the term opened his students were required to turn in a photograph, which Laycock would study until name and face were indelibly associated.

Before the war he shared a five-room apartment with his mother. When his mother died he moved into the King George Hotel in Saskatoon with his books and his semi-classical records. He entertains by giving dinner parties in the hotel. When asked why he has never married he passes it off with: “Nobody will have me.”

In recent years his dwindling energy has forced him to drop golf, fishing and hunting. But he still enjoys driving on long cross-country trips, bringing back color photographs and reams of statistical information, such as the number of miles and acres of parkland he drove through. A year afterward he will still be writing letters on hotel stationery collected during the trip.

Unlike many psychologists, he is religious. Recently, although he’s an ordained Methodist minister, he switched to the Anglican Church. He says he likes the ritual, but friends suspect he is more at home in a church that doesn’t lay too much emphasis on original sin. As a social scientist, Laycock doesn’t think there is any such thing as a bad child, only a lucky or unlucky one.

Laycock was one of the lucky ones. His parents, of Scottish, English and Irish descent, had little education but they were intelligent, hard-working, and moderately well-off. They brought him up on a two-hundred-acre farm near Marmora, Ont., the youngest of four boys and a girl.

He was a precocious child. At nine, he had read the family atlas, a history of the world, and all the works of William Shakespeare. His father would pay him a quarter to recite a poem from memory in a given length of time. Both parents praised him extravagantly and his relatives thought him a holy terror. A visiting aunt once said frankly, “My, that’s an awful child. None of mine were ever like that.”

At school he was always the youngest in his class, the frequent butt of the older and bigger boys. He determined to show them. At sixteen, he was teaching and studying Greek in his spare time, with his eye on the ministry. At twenty-one, with the University of Toronto behind him, he was teaching probationers, all older than himself, at Alberta Methodist College in Edmonton.

In 1916 he came back east to enlist as an army signalman. His first action, at Passchendaele, had no effect on him. “I had over-steeled myself,” he says. He served near Cologne in the Army of Occupation, writing twelve hundred letters home in a year. A base post-office man once remarked, “Laycock gets more mail than anyone in the army.”

The war showed him human nature at its best and its worst. His interest was turned away from the classics. Back at the University of Alberta he switched to the brand-new field of psychology. In 1925 he went to London to study under the brilliant Dr. C. E. Spearman. Two years later he came back to Canada to teach the psychology of education at the University of Saskatchewan. He became one of the leading lights of the Canadian Mental Health Association, an associate editor of two U. S. professional magazines, advisory editor of Parents’ Magazine and a frequent speaker at meetings of the International Council for Exceptional Children.

Today one of his scientific colleagues says, “I wish he’d stop writing so much. He’s repeating himself. He’s capable of bigger things.” By bigger things he means more research. But knowledge was never an aim in itself with Laycock. He was always far more interested in passing knowledge on. “Primarily,” he says, “I’m a teacher. And, by heck, one of the things I’ve learned is that just because you say a thing once, it doesn’t mean you’ve put it across. What do your advertisers do? Say just once that their soap flakes are good? They do not. You have to keep hammering away.”

He Picked Saskatchewan

He is sometimes accused of being folksy. “Perhaps I am,” he says. “I’m willing to take the rap for putting things simply. The main thing is not, Are you popular? but, Are you sound? And I’m jolly careful to present what I think is the best knowledge there is. Take comics, for example. I think I winnowed about all that’s known on the effect of comics.Then I came to what I thought was a reasonable attitude. Then I tried to put it in human terms.”

Laycock has built up a faith in himself that is often mistaken for self-satisfaction. He says, “A lot of ministers are embarrassed by the quotation ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.’ They think it contradicts humility. But if you haven’t a reasonable amount of self-esteem you can’t love your neighbor. If you’re shaky and tottering around inside, you can’t spare any love from yourself.”

He has faced his personal problems squarely and with courage. He suffers from gall bladder trouble and arthritis of the spine. Characteristically, he has surveyed all the nursing homes in Canada and decided that Saskatchewan will give him the best care in the days when he can no longer look after himself.

In the meantime, he hasn’t decided yet where he will live, but he does know he doesn’t intend to take life easy. He still has a lot to tell mothers about bringing up children. As for being a bachelor—“Well, there’s an old saying,” he says. “You don’t have to be a hen to know if an egg is bad or not.”